10 Life Lessons from Georges St Pierre on Building Confidence and Overcoming Adversity to Become the Best You Can Be

If you’re not familiar with who Georges St Pierre aka GSP is, he is arguably the ‘GOAT’, that is, the greatest of all time mixed martial artist. He is a former welterweight and middleweight UFC champion, and still holds the record for most consecutive wins in the UFC, tied at 20, and boasts a professional record of 26 wins with just 2 losses, both losses coming in championship fights relatively early in his career against Matt Hughes and Matt Serra, and both losses avenged relatively quickly as GSP, reflected, learned and applied the lessons to overcome his adversaries the second time around.

GSP grew up in Montreal and studied and trained in Kyokushin Karate as a child. In early adulthood, whilst trying to make ends meet so he could invest in his training and his career, Georges spent time bouncing at nightclubs, worked as a garbage cleaner, slept on the floor of a dilapidated apartment and caught freezing cold trains to the Bronx in NYC to train with the best.

I was lucky enough to catch Georges speak in front of a packed house at Melbourne’s Convention Centre as part of his An Evening With GSP Australian speaking tour and I’ve summarised some of my key learnings in this blog post. I also got to ask Georges a question on persistence and you can hear his 10 minute long reply in episode #264 of the Future Squared podcast on Apple and Google Podcasts (or like, just watch it below).

With that, here’s 10 lessons from Georges St Pierre on building confidence, overcoming adversity and becoming the best version of yourself.

  1. Confidence is a State of Mind

GSP says that confidence is not something you’re born with. “It is a state of mind and it’s up to you. It’s like a muscle, the more you use it the stronger it gets”.

Roman philosopher king Marcus Aurelius echoed these sentiments by noting in his journals that “if you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgement of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now. Remove the thought, ‘I am hurt’ and the hurt itself is removed.”

On confidence being like a muscle, the more often you put yourself into uncomfortable and challenging environments, the easier they will become over time — whether they be getting up early, public speaking, jumping into a cold shower, stand up comedy, Crossfit workouts or stepping inside the UFC octagon. Confidence, like habit, is something you need to work at, day after day, in order for it to become your default setting.

2. Confidence + Skill = Success

You’ve probably heard the old maxim that performance in the athletic arena is 90% mental and 10% physical. GSP echoes these sentiments and quotes his New Zealand-born BJJ trainer, John Danaher, in saying that “to be successful in the fight game, you need confidence plus skill”.

He says that ‘confidence without skill is like seeing your goals way up high but not having a ladder to reach them’ whilst ‘skill without confidence is like having lots of money in the bank but not being able to spend it’.

Ensure that you not only have the skills to pay the bills, as the Beastie Boys said, but you have the confidence to get the most out of your skills.

3. Use Positive Affirmations

James-Lange Theory of Emotion

GSP is a fan of the James-Lange Theory of Emotion, coined by psychologist William James and physiologist Carl Lange, which proposes that emotions occur as a result of physiological reactions to events. William James explained, “my thesis, on the contrary, is that the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion.”

GSP believes that the mind can dictate how the body performs, and tells the story of staring into a mirror before a fight (in this case against Michael Bisping for the world middleweight championship) and telling himself positive affirmations such as “I am better than him”, “I am the best fighter in the world”, “I have better training partners”, “I had a better training camp”, “I am going to crush him” and words to that effect to hype himself up.

GSP says that “I am not cocky with the public but I am cocky in private”. Perhaps we could all do with a little more private cockiness to overcome self limiting beliefs.

On the flipside:

The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, proposed in the 1920s by Walter Cannon and Philip Bard, directly challenges the James-Lange theory. Cannon and Bard’s theory instead suggests that our physiological reactions, such as crying and trembling, are caused by our emotions. Whilst the James-Lange theory has come under considerably scrutiny by neuroscientists and psychologists alike, GSP’s says that his belief in the mind-body connection, as proposed by James and Lange, has been fundamental in helping him to achieve his goals.

4. Create New Challenges to Maintain Energy and Enthusiasm

The Psychology of Flow

Oftentimes when we first embark upon something, be it a new romantic relationship, or a new business, our dopamine receptors are super-active. However, over time, they get blunted and require a higher frequency or intensity of exposure to ‘X’; X being an activity, venture, drug, person, achievement — whatever ails you — to keep us moving forward.

After having defended his welterweight championship belt nine times in a row, many might think that GSP’s desire to continue and perform at the top level may begin to subside. And while he did take some time away from the sport, he returned after a four year hiatus, moved up a division and beat Michael Bisping for the middleweight championship in late 2017.

To stay focused and maintain the energy and enthusiasm required to stay at the top of your game, GSP says, focus on fresh challenges. Each fighter that he faces is different and requires him to prepare differently, to add different tools to his belt so that he can overcome his adversary.

Interestingly, this aligns with the research on the cognitive state of ‘flow’ or ‘in the zone’, performed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Being ‘in the zone’ occurs when your skill level and the challenge at hand are equal. If the challenge becomes too easy, then your energy and enthusiasm for it will subside. As such, we should always seek out fresh challenges and continue to learn each day if we are to maintain focus not just for the next few months, but well into the future.

More like this: 12 Ways to Maintain Energy and Enthusiasm

5. Tell the World about Your Goals

A young GSP

GSP tells the story of sitting on his couch with four close friends, watching the first ever UFC event back in 1993 when he was just 12, and telling them that he would one day be champion. To quote GSP, they promptly began to roll around the floor and laugh, saying that nothing would come of the small, scrawny GSP who was then getting beat up by bullies at school. GSP used proving them wrong as motivation.

Sidenote: They are still friends to this day which aligns with what many successful people say when it comes to surrounding yourself with people who were friends before you made it, in order to keep you grounded and honest.

On the flipside:

In one study conducted by Peter Gollwitzer at NYU, it was found that students whose intentions were known tended to act less on their intentions than those whose intentions were unknown. Read More

6. Don’t Underestimate Your Opponent

Goliath underestimating David

Having won the championship belt, GSP aimed to defend the belt against Matt Serra in 2007. Serra was a highly unfancied opponent who was walking into the championship fight with +850 betting odds (in other words, a hugeunderdog). GSP admitted to not being mentally nor physically prepared the way he should have been for the fight and it wasn’t until he was being summoned to the octagon with a knock on his door and a call to action of “GSP, are you ready?!” that he realised that, in actuality, he wasn’t.

GSP promptly ended up losing that fight to Matt Serra by knockout in the very first round, shocking the martial arts world. To this very day, that fight holds the title for ‘biggest upset of all time’ on mixed martial arts website, Tapology.

Whether you’re trading blows with a martial artist or trying to close a new deal, never under-prepare and never underestimate what’s in front of you. At the same time, one shouldn’t overprepare to the point where your resources aren’t being optimised or you end up falling victim to paralysis by analysis. Find the sweet spot.

7. Silence Your Ego

During his fight with Serra, GSP was knocked to the ground and says that his ego took over. “As soon as I got knocked out, I wanted to jump back up to show him”. This was his fight or flight instincts kicking in. Unfortunately, jumping straight back up whilst he was still dazed from the knockdown meant that his accuracy was off, whilst Matt Serra’s wasn’t, promptly resulting in GSP being knocked out again and vacating the belt, albeit temporarily, to Serra.

The better strategy, GSP says, would have been to lay on the ground, to pull ‘guard’ (a ground grappling position in which one combatant has their back to the ground while attempting to control the other combatant using their legs) and recover from the knockdown. He could then make decisions from a place of reason, not reaction, and give himself a better chance of turning the tables on Serra.

Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky warns of our tendency to make snap judgments when cognitive load is high, with these judgments being grounded in our fight or flight inducing amygdala. Similarly, in the 33 Strategies of War, Robert Greene suggests using this against your adversaries. We are inherently impatient creatures — if you can lure your adversary into prematurely throwing the first punch, then you can execute a swift and thoughtful counterattack.

Think intelligence not impulse.

Read more: BEHAVE book summary | podcast version

8. Don’t Overestimate Your Opponent

GSP refusing to look Hughes in the eye

In 2004, having won his first seven professional fights, GSP faced Matt Hughes for the UFC welterweight championship belt. Hughes at the time, boasted a 36–4 record and GSP was absolutely in awe of him, so much so that during the stare down before the fight GSP did not look Hughes in the eye.

GSP went on to lose the fight by submission in the very first round. Later, having watched the video of the fight and reflected on his performance, he realised that he could have beaten Hughes, if not for his own self-censoring and self-limiting lack of confidence. He didn’t commit himself inside the octagon the way he would have if he had the confidence to do so. By losing to Matt Serra he learned not to underestimate his opponents and by losing to Matt Hughes he learned never to overestimate them.

If you overestimate your adversary or the challenge ahead, then failure can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the flipside, sometimes overestimating your opponent might force you into action — to train harder, to prepare harder — so that come fight day, you are ready.

9. There is No Courage Without Fear

People like to think of fighters as fearless warriors, but the truth according to GSP is, that they are all scared before a fight and if they tell you otherwise they are lying. GSP uses positive affirmations to pump himself up, but says that despite his positive exterior, “it’s all fake”. He says that there is no courage without fear.

The next time you fear something, consider this not a weakness on your part, but a natural human reaction. Feeling fearful is an opportunity to be courageous.

10. Never Fight the Last War

GSP rains left jabs upon Koscheck’s face

GSP never takes the same approach or strategy walking into two different fights. Not only will he become predictable if he does, but he needs to adapt his strategy to his opponent in order to give himself the best chance of success.

For example, when he fought Josh Koscheck, a decorated fighter with strong wrestling pedigree, GSP kept his distance, refusing to allow the fight to go to the floor, and peppered Koscheck with repeated left jabs to his eye, ultimately blinding Koscheck.

Some of the greatest military disasters happened when generals assumed their opponent would ‘fight the last war’; that is, execute the strategy that worked for them in the past.

Listen now: 33 Strategies of War Book Summary