• santinodefranco

Performance Training: A Guide To Competing At Your Best

Here I hold both of Henry Cejudo's UFC belts after his victory over Marlon Moraes.
Winning takes more than being good--you need to perform when it counts.

Optimal performance takes much more than just training hard, day in and day out, expecting to experience peak performance on fight night. Peak performance is multi-faceted and consists of physical, mental training, diet, and the often forgotten--recovery. In sport-specific training, athletes also need to consider different types of training (weightlifting, plyometric movements, cardio training etc.) in relation to their sports training (catching footballs, hitting baseballs, working jabs and left hooks) but how do they maximize their training? How do they know if they’re training “smarter” and not just “harder”? At what point does a fighter say to himself/herself, “I’ve done everything I can to ensure I perform my best during my fight?

So often, I see fighters train from when the gym opens to the time it closes—running before practice, lifting weights after practice, shadow-boxing every second they aren’t wrestling as hard as they can—only to show up on fight night and underperform. Some blame their diet and rehydration, others blame their cardio or being sick the week of the event, while even others blame me or other coaches. They’re probably all correct in some aspect. But, chances are, if one of those issues is to blame for their loss, they are all to blame, and maybe other reasons too. But the biggest reason people underperform on fight night is that their complete understanding of fighting—of peak performance—is wrong. They are uneducated on the subject. They don’t know that training more isn’t always the answer, and it’s sometimes the reason they’re tired. The reason why they get sick. The reason why their nerves are bouncing like molecules in a microwave. And this is why I’m writing this series of articles—it’s time you got educated. Whether you’re an athlete hoping to break through to the next level, a parent hoping to get your child a scholarship, or a coach wanting to ensure your fighters or athletes are performing at their best. I want to give some sort of base understanding of how proper training can effectively impact competition performance from a coach’s point of view.

Now, I’m predominantly writing about fighting in this series of articles, but 98.6% (this is a completely random, made-up number, BTY) of the information I’m giving you is transferrable to pretty much any sport.

I’m first going to cover physical training for fighters, then I’ll move on to nutrition, rest and recovery (probably the most overlooked aspect of training in any sport), mental training, and then finally the weight cut—which is where many of you in non-weight-cutting sports will hit the early eject button, as there’s no reason to even read about cutting weight if you don’t have to do it. It’s miserable, and a horrible aspect of any sport.

Now, let’s get to this! But before we move on, I’m assuming the athlete/fighters/coaches (giving information to) has a decent baseline of knowledge in his/her chosen sport. Maybe he is a high school wrestler or an amateur MMA fighter or even a professional fighter about to fight for a big title. My point is: this isn’t necessarily written for someone “wanting to get into the sport.” This isn’t day one information. This is competition-specific training. You don’t have to be a pro athlete, but I’m assuming there’s somewhat of a baseline of training, and this series of articles is targeted toward those preparing for competition.

Optimal Physical Performance (via Athletic Training):

Physical performance is the most obvious aspect of sports training—it’s what we envision when we think of athletics. This is the most obvious training aspects to work as an athlete. This is catching and throwing balls. Kicking goals. Punching things. Back flips and triple sow-cows. But what does this actually mean? From the outside looking in, this is where the arm-chair quarterback says a team should run a route up the line or a screen pass. It’s seeing the perfect dismount off of a balance beam or watching Floyd Mayweather slip a punch by a millimeter and then land his own right hand faster than his opponent can fathom, only to end up perpendicular to his opponent after the dust settles, leaving the opponent guessing which way Floyd went like the Coyote looking for the Road Runner in a cartoon. The reality, though, (what the seasoned athlete and trainer know) is each technique is the compounding of layers built up over years and sharpened during a season/camp. Training takes years, but how should an athlete train?

I like to break down Physical Athletic Training (PAC) into two groups: 1. Sport Specific, Technical Training and, 2. Strength and Conditioning.

Sport Specific Training:

Sport specific training would seem to be the most straight-forward of all aspects of a sport. Show up to practice, get a warm up, drill some jabs and crosses, maybe spar some, and go home. Easy, right? Absolutely not. All those things I just mentioned are important to fighting, and each sport has its own details pertinent to success, but there’s a lot more to training than just reps. “So, what’s the magic recipe for getting good at a sport?” you’re probably asking. Or, more likely, “Get on with it!”

A Solid Game Plan is Key:

The first part of training needs to be an understanding of needs, a game plan of sorts—an outline. If we don’t have a set of goals and a game plan to reach those goals, we are doing ourselves a great disservice. As MMA fighters, we need to seek out specialists for each technical aspect of our sport. There’s the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu specialist. The Boxing coach. The Muay Thai Coach. The wrestling coach. Karate. Judo. And so many more—for hockey, specialists may be for skating, shooting pucks, passing, defense etc. Now, each specialist may be able to teach multiple individual components of the sport, but each is best learned separately, and then integrated with an MMA coach, who puts all of the individual components together. Just like an NFL team has a wide receiver coach, a quarterback coach, and an offensive line coach to hone each individual aspect of a position—then there’s the offensive coordinator who’s putting all of the individual components together in an offensive playbook. Add in the defense to the equation, and a head coach, and you have yourself a complete team!

As a coach, one of the biggest issues I see in my fighters is an identity crisis—fighters don’t know who they are as fighters. They don’t really know what their strengths and weaknesses are. Heck, some don’t even know if they’re specialists or generalists! I know too many fighters who say their style is “MMA” they think they’re well rounded, when in reality they have ten out of eleven victories by submission. Really? You’re a jack of all trades who only submits opponents? No. You’re a submission specialist. Know that! I have one fighter who wants to stand on the outside and point fight people, but he’s short for the weight class and a phenomenal wrestler/boxer. This has gotten him in trouble early in fights, but, fortunately, he’s a good listener and adapts well in the corner. But there’s a bigger issue—and the example I just gave is much less common and less problematic than the larger problem. There definitely are a lot of fighters out there who wouldn’t be able to tell you their fighting “style,” but there are more who don’t know what individual moves they’re actually good at—or, maybe worse, where their deficiencies are.

I apply a rear naked choke during a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class.
Know what you're good at!

Being aware of your skill set:

Athletes need to be self-aware. If you watch Dan Henderson, you know how he’s trying to win—a big overhand right. Damien Maia wants to drag you down and submit you. Conor McGregor is looking for his left hand to find his opponents jaw or temple. Too often, fighters just “go out there and see what happens,” which is always a bad strategy. Could you imagine the New England Patriots calling random plays to “just see how it goes”? Just let the opponent’s offense do whatever and see how the Patriot’s defense handles it? It sounds moronic, right? Well, that’s how so many MMA fighters go into a fight—with the attitude of “see what happens.” Now, I’m not huge on etching out such a detailed game plan that it’s restrictive. I’ve seen the bad side of that, too. Fighters get so consumed with a game plan, and if it doesn’t work out, they don’t have the mental agility to switch up mid fight. But fighters need to have a general understanding of some certain “micro” techniques and sequences that an opponent is likely to throw at her during a fight. Micro techniques are what I call certain combinations or level changes or submission set ups—details of how a fighter moves during a fight. Those techniques need to be drilled so often that the fighter has seen them to the point that they are recognizable and are comfortable with a counter. Also, in addition to certain techniques, a fighter should understand a macro game plan as well—a macro game plan would be something like wanting to get the takedown, wanting to keep distance/close distance etc. The “big” picture of a game-plan.

Understanding strengths and weaknesses prior to training is imperative, as it allows an athlete to focus their efforts on specific areas of need (strength or weakness), as opposed to performing general maintenance training—and, although general training is great for the off-season, or out of camp for learning, during the season/camp, athletes should be very focused on specific skills, as opposed to “just getting better” everywhere.

Always be working toward becoming a Master!

Become the Master of Samurai, not the Renaissance Man:

Once a game plan is set, it’s time to start fine-tuning skills. The time for learning new techniques is behind you in the “off season” and the time to hone in on the techniques you have, or the techniques you and your team have discussed for this specific fight, need to be the focus of training. When we learn, it takes a tremendous amount of time and brain power to become proficient in a skill set—and we certainly don’t want to start using techniques prematurely. To sharpen our “old” skills, though, is a LOT easier than learning new ones! Ever hear the phrase, “It’s like riding a bike”? Of course, you have, and there’s a reason for it—once you know something, it’s a lot easier to pick it back up than it would be to learn it entirely from scratch. We’ve all had a long hiatus—whether from riding an actual bike, or from any other activity—that we forgot about for some time. Eventually, we came back to it thinking, “Do I remember how to do this?” Only to pick right back up from where we left off. Yes, there will be some dust to brush off, but our body-mind connection (muscle memory) to that activity remains intact. And, as Bruce Lee is quoted, “Do not fear the man who practices 10,000 kicks once, but the man who practices one kick 10,000 times.” Masters scare people, not jack of all trades.

Don’t worry, I’m not done with this section. I hate when people write/talk about what you need to do to achieve goals, but don’t give you specific examples and an actual pathway to obtaining those goals. In the next segment I’ll talk about how to actually get better at your techniques and how to systematically perfect your skills.

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