EFC women’s division top contender, Danella Eliasov analyses her motivation to compete at the highest level

Cape Town, South Africa – Danella Eliasov is both a professional Mixed Martial Artist and qualified practicing psychiatrist. This comes as a surprise to many and as one of the EFC women’s division leaders, whom is often in the spotlight, the question surrounding her being a professional medical practitioner and her motivation to compete in MMA is a question that is frequently posed to her. Eliasov, who practices from Baragwanath Hospital gave a detailed analysis on this subject when responding to a question posed to her by a fan on her Facebook page recently.

Eliasov made history with her professional debut at EFC 37 in February and being part of the first professional women’s MMA bout in EFC. She went on to finish the fight via TKO in the first round against Hungary’s Zita Varju.

Below is the full article written by Eliasov:

“Are you a psychiatrist? Isn’t what you are doing a bad thing? I mean, you studied the human brain and now you are destroying your brain with fighting. Are you not afraid you will damage your brain? If you are smart enough to become a psychiatrist you must surely be concerned about your brain”

The above was recently posted on my Facebook fan page. I think it’s an excellent question that deserves a good answer. Below I will give my personal thoughts and opinions and not medical advice. I am a psychiatrist, which means I qualified as a medical doctor and then went on to specialise in psychiatry.

Psychiatrists study brains and how they work and what happens when they don’t work as they should. I have an unusual hobby: mixed martial arts. I recently had the wonderful opportunity to turn this hobby into something more serious when I debuted as a professional mixed martial artist at EFC in February. MMA has been a passion of mine for a long time and I began training and competing in 2009. I love the sport and gain immense satisfaction from training and competing. Balancing my training with my job as a psychiatrist has been challenging but rewarding.

My participation in MMA is a personal choice. I certainly do not advocate that everyone take it up as a hobby or career. Being a professional athlete is a huge commitment and requires sacrifices that not everyone would choose to make.

Studying the brain has given me an extensive insight into brain injury and its consequences and I have treated many patients with brain injuries over the years. My decision to participate in MMA thus comes from a position of knowledge about the risks involved.

Any contact sport carries a risk of brain injury. These injuries range from severe, acute injuries (eg: brain bleeds and bruising) to more subtle damage that occurs with repetitive, minor brain injuries (eg: mild concussion). As doctors we often need to weigh up risk vs. benefit. For example, the risks of an operation (pain, infection, bleeding) vs. the benefits to the patient should the surgery be successful. I applied the same approach to my decision to participate in MMA.

The risks of severe brain injury in MMA are relatively low. MMA is widely perceived as being unsafe. However, most research shows that higher risk is associated with other, more widely accepted, contact sports such as rugby and boxing. In South Africa, our chances of sustaining brain injury from road accidents are high, yet most of us choose to drive. Thus, I am making an informed choice to expose myself to a relatively small risk in participating in my sport.

Of more concern, in my opinion, are the milder brain injuries which may have a cumulative effect resulting in cognitive and emotional problems later in life. Doctors are still studying the effects of these minor brain insults and more research is needed.

I do believe that these risks can be mitigated by correct training and careful medical supervision for fighters. Training smart for me is crucial. I pay careful attention to overtraining. I limit heavy contact sparring sessions and rest if I notice any worrying symptoms. I make sure to rest after a fight and only resume training when fully recovered. I also do not cut weight or train when I am ill. These are just some of the strategies I use to minimise the risk of brain injury in myself. Concussion testing, full medicals before and after a fight and education of fighters and coaches are some other useful preventative strategies.

So these are the risks. Now for the benefits. first of all, exercise of any sort is good for the body and mind and prevents a variety of diseases. Exercise is good for the brain and research has shown that exercise has cognitive and emotional benefits. Everyone should exercise. But not everyone should choose MMA.

I fell in love with the sport about 6 years ago. I find it mentally challenging as it’s not just about brute strength: a large part consists of outsmarting your opponent, which requires mental flexibility, judgment and planning. MMA provides a space for me to forget the pressures of my job and focus on my own journey. Competing in MMA has given me profound insight into myself. I have learned to overcome fear and self-doubt and cope with intense pressure and anxiety. I have tapped into an inner strength which far exceeded what I felt I was capable of. These benefits have carried over to other aspects of my life too.

In his paper, ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, Maslow (a famous psychologist) speaks of a hierarchy of human needs that drive us on a daily basis. The basic drives/needs (such as food safety and comfort) sometimes need to be compromised to some degree to reach the “higher” drive for self-actualisation (realising one’s full potential). For me personally, MMA forms part of my journey for self-actualisation and self-discovery. Thus I am prepared to face the relatively small risks involved for the greater benefits and enjoyment which I derive from the sport.

At the end of the day, it’s an educated personal choice to participate in the sport that I love. People have the right to their mixed opinions on the sport, and by becoming a professional fighter I know I am exposed to the opinions of many. In conclusion, I choose to persist in what I believe is the right path for me. Dr Seuss sums up my attitude rather well: “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”