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The Mental Game and Yair Rodriguez


Only a small percentage of athletes can possibly understand what Yair Rodriguez’ life is like now. Closing in on the biggest fight of his career against UFC Hall of Famer BJ Penn this Sunday, Rodriguez isn’t just one of the top rising stars in the promotion, but he’s Mexico’s best hope for a world championship and a role model to kids and adults hoping to follow in his footsteps.

A loss in Phoenix puts a big dent in all those plans, leaving him with plenty of weight on his shoulders. It’s a lot to deal with at just 24 years old, but Alethia Olmedo-Perlasca believes “Pantera” has everything under control.

“I know he has a lot of things on his plate and, for everyone, the next fight is the most important, but it’s one step at a time, one breath at a time, one day in practice at a time,” she said. “He wants to be a role model for Mexican kids and he is already, and he has this pressure on his back, but even though he knows this and is aware of it, he has to break down this stuff so he can handle it better.”
RELATED: The Pride of Mexico | Rodriguez believes he's a champ in the making | Rodriguez talks legend, BJ Penn

Olmedo-Perlasca isn’t in the gym teaching Rodriguez 1-2s, sweeps, or submission locks. Instead, she’s a coach of a different sort, working with the Parral native on the mental aspects of not just sports, but life.

“He recognizes the importance of the mental work,” she said of Rodriguez, who she has been working with since before his most recent win over Alex Caceres last August. “When I met him, I told him the type of work that I do, and he got really interested about it, so we started discussing that and made a work plan out of it. It’s just an add-on to his work. It’s creating new habits and a more integral approach with his coach, Mike Valle. He also believes that mind and body are totally connected and it’s very important to work not only with the body, but also with the mind to keep it calm, to keep it focused.”

Rodriguez’ work with a life and mental coach does bring up an interesting angle leading up to this fight, since Penn, who is competing in the UFC for the first time since 2014, said of fighting, “This is not a physical game, this is an emotional game,” bypassing a mention of the mental side of the sport.

Yet Olmedo-Perlasca agrees with Penn’s assessment.

“I think he’s absolutely right because the mind is not separated from emotions,” she said. “Emotions are a consequence of our thoughts. You have a thought and that thought brings up an emotion, which is basically a chemical response in our body, and it’s an expression of our thoughts. So emotions create an attitude and that attitude creates an action, and that action creates a result. So it’s an emotional thing too. You have to be well prepared mentally and emotionally in anything in life.”

Through the years though, the fight game adage is that an emotional fighter is one who is out of control and who isn’t focused on the task at hand. Again, Olmedo-Perlasca disagrees.

“You have preparation time and you learn how to do things,” she said. “For example, you throw a jab and everything that is technical, you have to practice. That’s in any sport or anything that we do. But once they’re inside the Octagon, they’re not thinking, ‘Oh, I have to throw the punch this way.’ It’s more instinctive and it’s emotional. Your conscious mind shuts down and you go to the subconscious mind, which is in charge of the fine muscle response, and that’s the part that starts working.”

In short, when the Octagon door shuts and it’s time for Yair Rodriguez to fight BJ Penn, nothing else matters but the fight. And that part, Rodriguez does better than most, a testament not just to natural talent, but hard work and a mindset not shared by many 24-year-olds in or out of the sport.

“He’s a very mature young man,” Olmedo-Perlasca said. “I think he’s a very sensitive and sensible guy as well and he’s in the process of learning how to balance everything. Something that I appreciate a lot about him is that he has a lot of awareness about life. He’s very self-aware about what he’s thinking and what he’s doing and the consequences of that. He is able to make those connections for his own well-being, learning and development. One thing I mentioned to him is that I wish all my clients had this awareness. What he says takes some people ten sessions of therapy to notice. And that’s very valuable, not only as a fighter but for anything he wants to embrace in life.”

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