Conor McGregor and Maria Sharapova are top athletes in their fields, mixed martial arts (MMA) and tennis, respectively. Both have been involved in major sporting events in the last few days, with McGregor taking part in the biggest fight in history (boxing) vs Floyd Mayweather just under a week ago, and Sharapova currently taking part in the US Open, the last ‘Grand Slam’ tournament of the season.
They are aged only a year apart (McGregor, 29 and Sharapova, 30), and this articles explores exactly what I’ve noticed they share. I’ll talk about each super-athlete in turn.
Saturday August 20th, 2016 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Having shot to worldwide fame after winning the UFC featherweight title against Brazilian opponent Jose Aldo in just 13 seconds, Conor McGregor found himself facing a dangerous opponent by the name of Nate Diaz. McGregor came out of the blocks fast, as is typical, striking his opponent several times in the first round or so. However, Nate Diaz took McGregor to the floor, using his lethal jiu-jitsu skills to overpower McGregor, winning by submission.
Conor McGregor had lost, and aside from perhaps the most level-headed fans, the MMA world was shocked. How was he going to react?
In the post-match press conference, he was asked how he was feeling at that moment. Here’s how he responded — watch his interview.
There was no bravado or beating around the bush, but instead the Irishman said that it was “a bitter pill to swallow”, and followed it up with a frank assessment of his performance and what had gone wrong (a mismanagement of energy), and then praising his opponent.
It was bold, it was brave, and perhaps unexpected — especially given McGregor’s typical pre-fight antics and accompanying swagger. With great champions at the top of their game who suffer a setback, too often we see them visibly disappointed, but holding back their thoughts and emotions in public / in front of the cameras.
Whilst Roger Federer, straight after losing another major final to Rafa Nadal in Australia in 2009, forced back his tears and whimpered “God, it’s killing me”, this was in the raw heat of the moment, straight after the match. McGregor had had some time to reflect and consider before the press conference, and still decided to come out with full honesty about his feelings and thoughts.
Just 6 days ago, Conor McGregor took part in the biggest event in combat sports history. The hype was huge and Pay-Per-View records were smashed. McGregor, though 11 years younger, was fighting in his professiomal boxing debut versus a 21-year-professionally-experienced boxer Floyd Mayweather, and one of the greatest ever. Remarkably, he came out oozing his typical swagged and confidence, showcasing some respectable boxing in the first few rounds before, similar to both of his bouts vs Nate Diaz in the UFC Octagon, flagging in terms of his energy, and he was eventually overpowered by the 40-year old Mayweather’s superior boxing ability.
In his in-the-ring interview in the ring straight after his defeat, McGregor said “…fair play to him…he adjusted…he put his hands up going forward…he’s composed. He’s not that fast, he’s not that powerful, but boy he’s composed in there. So he was making me throw and he was patient with his shots. I’ve got to give him nothing but respect. Fair play to him. (A) great career he’s had.”
In the post-fight press conference he expanded: “(on Floyd) Three game changes in the fight…that’s what a true champion does. Much respect.”
And then on his own performance: “…in the spars…when I’d do the 12 rounds, there were always those middle rounds, where I was like — I’d get to say 6 and then I’d be like, I couldn’t see the finish line, like ‘f*ck, I’ve got so many more rounds left’…but then when I got through them and got to like round 10…certainly 11 and 12…I’d get that second wind. That’s why I would’ve loved if it I could’ve just got got to the end of that tenth round… and that’s it, we live and we learn.”
Just this week, he posted this on his Instagram page, the post reading: “Just coming back around after a whirlwind couple of days. Thank you to all the fans for the support of the fight and the event! Without your support we as fighters are nothing so I thank you all! Thank you to my team of coaches and training partners! I had an amazing team and It truly was an amazing and enjoyable camp, andhonestly I feel with just a little change in certain areas of the prep, we could have built the engine for 12 full rounds under stress, and got the better result on the night. Getting to 12 rounds alone in practice was always the challenge in this camp. We started slowly getting to the 12 and decreasing the stress in the rounds the closer it got to 12. I think for the time we had, 10 weeks in camp, it had to be done this way. If I began with a loaded 12 rounds under much stress I would have only hit a brick wall and lost progress as a result and potentially not made the fight. A little more time and we could have made the 12 cleanly, while under more stress, and made it thru the later rounds in the actual fight. I feel every decision we made at each given time was the correct decision, and I am proud of everyone of my team for what we done in the short time that we done it. 30 minutes was the longest I have fought in a ring or cage or anywhere. Surpassing my previous time of 25 minutes. I am happy for the experience and happy to take all these great lessons with me and implement them into my camp going forward. Another day another lesson! Congrats to Floyd on a well fought match. Very experienced and methodical in his work. I wish him well in retirement. He is a heck of a boxer. His experience, his patience and his endurance won him this fight hands down. I always told him he was not a fighter but a boxer. But sharing the ring with him he is certainly a solid fighter. Strong in the clinch. Great understanding of frames and head position. He has some very strong tools he could bring into an MMA game for sure. Here is a toast of whiskey to everyone involved in this event and everyone who enjoyed it! Thank you to you all! Onto the next one!”
A man so cool, collected and fightening before the fight puts all of that aside after the fight, and opens up with humility about exactly where he went wrong, the lessons he learned and — as ever — congratulating and crediting his opponent.
Read also: Conor McGregor + his (fight week) emotions
Maria Sharapova served a 15-month ban for taking a banned substance, which had originally been legal but was then added to the ‘illegal’ list. Many called for a longer ban, and even a lifetime ban from the sport of tennis altogether. It appeared that this was an excuse for several players to come out and make their opinion heard on, in their view, a ‘light’ ban; previous stories about Sharapova being ‘cold’ and unfriendly re-surfaced, and it would certainly appear that she isn’t the most popular player on the tour. I offered exactly why she/her personality might come across as ‘cold’, in this article published yesterday.
Akin to Conor McGregor, Maria Sharapova has opened up and shown her vulnerability on court this week. ESPN’s D’Arcy Maine eloquently described how “For once, she acknowledged her own feelings, and more importantly, her vulnerability.”
Her opening match at Flushing Meadows was her first Grand Slam match in 19 months. She won her R1 match against World Number 2 Simona Halep, falling to her knees and sobbing. We haven’t seen that sort of emotion in a very long time, if ever, from Maria Sharapova. Just watch this short interview with Sharapova, on court right after her stunning win — here.
In yesterday’s R2 match, going 1 set down to another worthy opponent, World Number 59 Timea Babos, Sharapova fought back to win. This time, no tears but pure joy as she looked in the direction of her team whilst walking to the net after the winning point, before more passionately pumping her arms and exclaiming “Yes!”.
For many years Maria Sharapova has more discreetly gone about her business, quietly slipping away when losing, pleasantly smiling and waving to the crowd when winning, and not giving an awful lot away in her post-match interviews.
Right now, we are seeing a more raw and authentic Maria Sharapova. Clearly competing here in the US Open means something to her, after over a year away from the sport. In this fascinating podcast interview with Tim Ferriss, release only last week, Sharapova describes how she has been surprised at the people coming up to her to offer their support and letting her know that they can’t wait for her to be back.
In that way that certain athletes, and certain individuals outside of sport, overcome setbacks to emerge stronger, Sharapova’s ban may just well be having that effect. It seems to have put a certain fire in her belly, and given her the sort of fuel that I haven’t seen within her for a good while. As well as her renewed focus — she previously seem preoccupied with off-court pursuits — Maria Sharapova has an aura of a woman on a mission.
And Conor McGregor that of a man on a mission. Two super-athletes who, at the moment at least, are being open with themselves and the emotions that they are carrying.
As a mental coach with a particular interest in the psychology of athletes, and successful athletes, my feeling is that an expression of emotions is a very healthy thing indeed, and could lead to some interesting results. (Aside: there are many ways in which emotions can be expressed, not only on court/in the ring, in interviews, etcetera; the most important thing is that there is an outlet for them).
It will be intriguing to see what happens next with Conor McGregor and Maria Sharapova over the coming months and years. I’ll be watching closely.
“I just thought that this was another day, another opportunity, another match, but this was so much more. And I didn’t wanna think about it, and you never really know what you’re gonna feel until you win that match point, and you can’t really control your emotions or what goes through your mind, but you just figure that everything that you go through is so worth it. Just for this moment.”
— Maria Sharapova, on court after her R1 win, and her 1st Grand Slam win in 19 months
Friday 1st September, 2017