Finding Meaning Through MMA

When young people cultivate a sense of purpose, they may experience better mental health and more optimal youth development. Purpose is “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self” (Damon et al., 2003, p.121).

Purpose  =   Goal directedness + Commitment + Meaning + Beyond the self

Sport can provide purpose and structure for individuals with trauma.

We did a study to understand the potential for purpose in a sample of male MMA athletes, who experienced developmental trauma. We had two research questions:

  1. Are MMA athletes, a history of trauma, able to develop purpose?
  2. If so, how did these athletes develop a sense of purpose through MMA?

Two of the researchers, Will Massey & Meredith Whitley, interviewed five male MMA athletes. These athletes had different MMA careers: e.g., retired from competition, amateur status, competing in Ultimate Fighting Championship [UFC].

I analyzed the data from these five retrospective in-depth interviews. First, just read the interviews and wrote first impression memos. Then I re-read them again and wrote second impression memos. Third, I  generated codes from the interview guide and coded all five interviews. I did a content analysis of those codes.

Then, I coded a second time, but this time I determined the codes while I was coding (aka in-vivo coding). After that second round of coding, I analyzed the data to answer research question #1 — which was, Did the athletes develop purpose? Then I analyzed the data to answer research question #2 — How did they develop purpose through MMA?

Research Question #1: Did the athletes develop purpose?

Yes, the athletes did acquire the core criteria of purpose.

Purpose CriteriaAthlete 1Athlete 2Athlete 3Athlete 4Athlete 5
Personal meaning
Beyond-the-self focus

Research Question #2: How did they develop purpose through MMA?

1. Survived Trauma & Dissatisfied with the Status Quo The participants described childhood as “survival.” They did not want to be “naïve” or “gullible.” They found themselves lacking resources and social capital. They lamented the lack of pathways to long-term success: “No direction.” They recognized the downward trajectory and wanted to be different.

2. Moved & Inspired to Be a Part of Something Beyond the Self: MMA The participants are introduced to MMA through inspiring individuals. “I want to learn to do that too.” They come to realize, through MMA, that there is a bigger world out there. They feel a sense of belonging to a unit larger than themselves. The MMA team is likened to a “sport family” and “brotherhood.”

3. Meaningful MMA Eventually Trumps Other Activities & Groups MMA means more to these participants than money, gang obligations, etc. Because of this meaning, they were goal-directed and committed. “Dedicated.” MMA was a space where they felt “empowered” to build their skills. Yet, they had rocky, non-linear paths to a meaningful MMA career. “Streets follow you.”

4. Existential Awareness Builds a Pre-Purpose Foundation The participants could be their authentic selves in MMA. They asked existential questions about their lives. “Man, what you been doing with your life?” They realized it was worthwhile to pursue goals. “Life is so short.” The men began to consider the well-being of others (e.g., the next generation of athletes). Lastly, they realized their futures are worth planning for. “I could be something.”

In conclusion: These MMA athletes developed goal-directedness, commitment, meaning, and beyond-the-self focus through MMA, suggesting that sport can be an avenue through which individuals find purpose following trauma.

Certain hurdles need to be cleared before those with trauma can begin to find purpose through sport, such as recognizing one has a future life worth planning for. Without this foundation, purpose cannot be cultivated.

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