UFC Conor McGregor's Mental Game

UFC Conor McGregor’s Mental Game – Win or Learn

UFC Conor McGregor’s mental game is something of a hot topic after his preparation for the rematch  against Nate Diaz at UFC 202, after a devastating loss during their first fight. So how did Conor McGregor mentally prepare for war? Is it a skill he was born with? Or, can grit be cultivated into a habit? The aim of this blog is to present a practical model for dealing with failure and developing mental toughness. Or, as the title of John Kavanagh’s (Conor McGregor’s trainer) book –Win or Learn: MMA, Conor McGregor Win or Learn: MMA, Conor McGregor.

‘The key component is reframing the term ‘loss’ with ‘learning.’


The key component is reframing the term ‘ loss‘ with ‘learning’. The noun loss implies ‘the feeling of grief after losing  something of value’. Whereas, when we view it as a part of the learning cycle it can help process negative automatic thoughts, as well as feelings about the experience.

win-or-learn-never-lose-life logo

John Kavanagh –  Win or Learn

“Conor’s loss was a lesson and it’s one that our next wave of fighters, in particular, will be able to learn from. He’s blazing a trail for the younger fighters coming through. They can study his journey and benefit from every step.”

Conor McGregor’s ability to bounce back from setbacks is from utilising the Experiential Learning Cycle to process an experience. Most recently learning from his loss to Nate Diaz at UFC 196.

Let us take a closer look at the learning cycle. It is broken into three distinct parts:

  • what?
  • So what?
  • Now what?


So what does this all mean? The first part of the cycle,’what?’deals with the experience – what happened? After that,’so what?’explores what are the consequences of that experience? Finally,’now what?’Examines what have you learnt from the experience. And so the cycle continues to the next experience, hopefully, with what you have learnt!

‘Part of Conor McGregor’s mental toughness lies in his ability to move rapidly through experience and consequences, to what he has learned.’


So, let’s apply learning cycle to Conor McGregor’s loss.

  • what happened? Gained 25lbs for his fight against Nate Diaz. The strategy was to knock Nate Diaz out in 2 rounds.


  • So what were the consequences? Conor lost in round 2, due to rear naked choke.


  • What have you learnt?


“I was simply inefficient with my energy.” – I need to become efficient with my energy expenditure.

“I fight a man in the same division I’m champion in, and they normally crumble under those shots.”

“With the bigger man, you must be a bit more efficient with your striking. You must not put everything into your shots.”

I need to be efficient with my striking, changing gears, tempo and pace to ensure I have energy for later rounds.

Watch the start (0:30 – 1:43) of the Post-fight Press Conference and notice how quickly he shifts to what he has learnt from the fight.

John Kavanagh – on learning

“Being stuffed isn’t conducive to maintaining a competitive mindset.”

“Even for his next welterweight fight, Conor’s diet will be strict. We’ve accepted now that it’s an important element of his preparation, so you can expect him to come in on weigh‐in day at around 165lb. No cheesecakes this time! It will be nutrition geared specifically towards performance.”



‘When athletes have a bad experience they can become imprisoned by mentally replaying the experience, consequences, or both. They become trapped and don’t enter the realm of learning.’

Being trapped in an experience or consequences for an extended period of time allows the inner critic to develop meaning and attachment to the loss. Unfortunately, athletes who spend too long in this loop go through 3 Levels of fear.

Level 1 Fearsurface story

Things that happen –  In this case, the experience is a loss of a match.

                                                                               “I can’t handle losing.”

                                    Level 2 Fear – Reflecting sense of self and the ego

States of mind – Failure, helplessness, loss of image etc.

                       “I can’t handle failure – I am a failure!”

                        Level 3 Fear – Simply, I can’t handle it!

‘At the base of every fear, is simply the fear that you can’t handle whatever life throws at you.’

So stress is a response to your perception of what is going on around you, or happening to you, and where demands on us are beyond our perceived coping mechanisms to deal with the experience. Read that last line again. To reiterate the point – once we get trapped in negative cycles of thinking, this affects how we feel; how our body reacts. In essence, this affects what we do!

 The first step to shortening the time between the experience and the learning is to become aware of your inner dialogue before it perpetuates a cycle of negative thoughts, where athletes become ‘stuck’ in the experience or consequences. So does this mean that Conor McGregor is immune from negative thoughts? No!

In the book,  Win or Learn John Kavanagh writes –

 “nobody is more critical of Conor than Conor himself.”

“In the aftermath of the defeat to Nate Diaz, it was difficult to sit back and observe what Conor was going through… What I found tough was that I was familiar enough with Conor by now to know that the loss, the errors that were made, would be eating him up inside, keeping him awake at night and occupying his mind every minute of every hour of every day. But there was substantial consolation in the knowledge that Conor would emerge stronger and wiser.”

Once you are aware of your negative thought loop the next step is to challenge your cognitive distortions by utilising questions to gain an alternative way of seeing things. There are a number of questions you can ask yourself:

  • Is there any evidence for this thought? Is true in every single case?
  • Is there any evidence against the thought?
  • Is there a different way of seeing things that would fit the facts?
  • How would someone else, who wasn’t so emotional, view the situation?
  • What would you say to someone else who was in the same situation?


Questioning negative thoughts is a skill that requires practice – the more you do it, the easier it will get. I suggest writing down your thoughts before, then after asking yourself the questions above. You should find that your view of the situation should be less stressful. Once it is less stressful you can accept your fate like a Buddhist monk! Why is acceptance so powerful? When we cause ourselves pain because of catastrophic thinking, we are actually trying to change our mental image of past events. We can’t change the past. When we accept it, we can move forward and learn! Use one of Conor’s lines, “It is what it is!”

Conor McGregor – “It is what it is!”

Next, briefly examine the consequences with a level head, after reframing your thinking.

Finally, we can move into the territory of learning. This is where we capitalise on our past mistakes and formulate a plan of action to perform at a higher level. This should be stated ‘towards’ the goal, not ‘away’ from. For example:

I don’t want to expend all my energy quickly becomes, I need to conserve my energy wisely for later rounds.

‘Interrupt your thought patterns and short cicuit your loop from experience to learning for maximum impact.’

Win or Lose mindset in a nutshell:

  • Athletes get imprisoned in the experience or consequences of a negative event
  • The 3 levels of fear (inner critic) perpetuate negative thought loops – ending with “I can’t handle this!”
  • Practice the shortest route from experience to learning
  • Identify and interrupt negative thoughts using questions
  • Accept what has happened- “It is what it is!”
  • Briefly, examine the consequences
  • Spend time in what you have learned setting new goals stated in the positive


Hopefully, you can use this tool to reflect upon your experiences and take action in moving forward towards your goals.

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