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Performance Training: All the winners cheat

This is part two of the "athletic training" portion of how to ensure optimal performance on competition day, whether it is for a fight or any other sport. If you haven't read part one yet, titled Performance Training: A Guide To Competing at Your best, I'd suggest doing so now; however, if you want to skip it all and just read this article, I won't call you names over it.

Now, I do want to apologize for the "click bait" style title as it is somewhat (very!) misleading. And, no, all winners aren't actually cheating, but they may as well be--because they are able to tell the future (as you'll read more about below), which may as well be cheating.

In the previous article, I talked about understanding your game-plan and your skillset as well as mastering certain arts. If the last article was the "what" to do part of training, this article is the "how" to train part. I always dislike articles that tell me what to do, but then are vague about how to actually go about the process of achieving their infinite wisdom on a subject--and that is why I find self-help books pointless, too, but that's another story completely, but I digress.

In this article I begin by explaining the process of learning and how we go about the process of mastery by referencing Bloom's Taxonomy of learning--the gold standard in pedagogy. After that I explain how you actually go about achieving that "next" level of understanding, which, in my process, is learning how to predict patterns of training partners and opponents.

I cannot stress enough, though, how important it is to restructure your thought process of how training (and learning anything) should occur. We, typically, learn any new athletic endeavor by drilling-going live-drilling-going live-drilling-going live...repeat ad nauseam. You need to be training smarter and with a purpose. Otherwise, you're wasting precious time, which you can't get back.

Performance training: Athletic Training Part 2:

Every Great Journey Begins With Just One Step:

In the words of UFC President, Dana White, “So you wanna be a @#$%ing fighter?” Every person with aspirations of achieving anything had to begin their journey at a starting point, at a “first step,” but where do you start, and how do you become a master, though? To fully understand what mastery is, first, you need to understand the process of learning. Bloom’s Taxonomy breaks down the pedagogy of learning into a pyramid from the most basic understanding of a subject to, what Bloom considers the highest form (I believe there’s one more step in the learning process) of understanding. Take a look at the pyramid below:

For the sake of the above model, I want to explain each level in terms of how it might relate to a component of MMA; however, I am going to use only boxing/kick boxing examples as to maintain consistency. Jumping from striking to grappling and back would only complicate things. Also, just because someone has a higher level of understanding, it doesn’t mean he stays there forever and always. We are constantly going back and forth from the different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy in order to learn new things.

Below is the breakdown of Bloom's Taxonomy and how I relate it to athletic training:

Remember: This is the most basic level of understanding. This would be equivalent to walking in to a boxing gym and taking a few classes—a coach would tell you not to cross your feet, teach you about the stance, explain how to throw basic punches, and show you basic defenses. You will have to constantly remind yourself of the details, and although you “know” what to do, you don’t really understand “why” you’re doing these things or how to implement them.

In standard education, the “remember” section would be reading a text out loud or memorizing a chart. It doesn’t mean you understand any of it, but you can state it, and start the memorization process.

Understand: Now you understand your basic punch combinations and defenses and why you don’t cross your feet while stepping to your left or right. You understand how to slip a punch and why you want your weight on this foot or that foot depending on what punch you’re throwing. This level doesn’t mean you can actually beat anyone up in sparring, but you’re able to begin sparring and you can start to have fun—even if you’re the one taking the beating, as opposed to giving one.

In standard education, this would mean you’re not only reading the text, but you’re able to explain it as well. You’re not just memorizing equations, but you’re walking through them step-by-step.

Apply: This is the big “learning” phase in a sport. Most athletes will spend a lot of time in this phase, as this is where you’re going to get a lot of minutes in the ring, or on a field, learning your craft. Now, you’re sparring and getting rounds in again and again. Little by little you begin to hone your skills. This is a long phase and encompasses everything from “just getting good enough to spar” to “he’s getting really good.” Your jab goes from loose and wide to straight and crisp. Your balance is better. Eventually, you begin to become one of the better fighters in your skill level (controlled for size, weight, time in sport).

In standard education, you’re now able to compute those same math questions without the help of a step-by-step guide. At first, you get more wrong than right but, eventually, you begin to get more and more correct, and you are able to complete them in a more timely manner.

Analyze: You’ve gotten past the point of basic understanding and now you’re going to start to add your own spin on things. Up until this point, you’ve probably heavily relied on your instructors to teach you your techniques, but now you’re seeing techniques while watching fights, or other training videos, and you’re adding those techniques in to your arsenal. You’re now blending your boxing with your kicks, your wrestling with your strikes. You’re able to distinguish between a traditional Thai style kickboxer and a Dutch style kickboxer—and you’re taking pieces of each and adding them into your own arsenal. Also, this is when you start to make moves “your own.” You change up details just a bit from how you were taught to better suit your own game. You begin to do things “differently”—not in a bad way or a way that is far from your own technical level, but you make that technical level specific to you.

In standard education, this would be when you’re able to compare and contrast an essay. You’re already good enough to analyze the essay on an individual basis, but now you’re able to take another topic and find similarities in an otherwise dissimilar topic/situation and also find differences between two seemingly similar topics/situations.

Evaluate: Now you’re confident. You’ve been training a long time, and you not only know what you know, but you now understand what others know and if the techniques are right or wrong for a given situation. You have your own voice. You have your own style now. Someone shows you a technique and you can say, “No, I don’t like that.” or “I do that this way” or even “I do like that technique and here’s why or how I’d use it” (which might be different than how you were showed to use it). While sparring, people know what you are going to do, but you’re still able to implement your game plan regardless. You trust your coach, but he also trusts you and your judgement to make calls on the fly.

In traditional education, you are now able to critique an argument. You are knowledgeable enough to say “No, I don’t agree with that statement/point of view and here’s why.” Not on do you argue against a certain point of view, but you have logic and facts that can back it up. Your arguments are compelling.

Create: This is Bloom’s final, and highest, form of pedagogy—the ability to create something new. As a fighter, you may be at the highest level where you’re creating new movements, new combinations. This is where Anthony Pettis found his jump-off-the-cage kicks to opponents. This is where Imanari found out you could roll into a leg lock from a standing position. You’ve created something new—whether it’s a single move or an entire system. People begin to copy your moves and make their own spin on them (this person is using part of the “analyze” phase). When you reach this level of competency, you might not even be fighting anymore. You may not even reach this level until well into your coaching years.

In traditional education, this is where scholarly research comes in. This is where new information comes from. New inventions. New medicines. This is even above a traditional high school teacher’s level of understanding, and goes into the PhD level of understanding.

So, now you know Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning and how I relate his pyramid to learning a sport, namely MMA related combat sports, but there’s one more level of understanding that I think is the most important in any sport and that is the ability to predict. The ability to predict what your opponent is going to do next is what separates great athletes from the elite. The interesting part about prediction, though, is that it doesn’t necessarily have to come after “Create” in Bloom’s taxonomy. It will surely not arrive prior to the “Apply” stage, but it may very well begin to develop during that stage, though; however, the ability to predict may begin at any stage.

Predict: From the outside, great athletes seem to be super human—they look faster than everybody else, or stronger, or never miss a free-throw due to their homing device. In reality, though, speed and strength and homing devices are not what separate good athletes from average athletes or great athletes from the good ones. The elite athletes do possess a super power, though. But they share more in common with Nostradamus than the physical specimen likely standing next to him in the training room.

What separates the elite athletes from the rest is their ability to tell the future...well, that’s a little hyperbolic, but they can do a damn good job of predicting it—and they do so based on pattern recognition, not psychic powers.

Being good at a sport, especially if you want to become great, requires the ability to quickly recognizing patterns. Whether we realize it or not, pattern recognition is how we learn everything—from our ABC’s to a multiplication table, to where a ball will be thrown after it leaves the pitcher’s hand.

As athletes, we need to recognize patterns. I like to break them down in two categories: micro and macro. In fighting, a macro pattern would be a punch combo someone throws a lot, let’s say a jab-cross-hook. These are big movements(as macro would imply), and in football, it would be a route a receiver runs. The micro patterns are smaller, say shifts in weight before a punch is thrown, or distance recognition or tensing up before a receiver jukes left or right. The micro patterns, and our ability to recognize them, are what separate athletes at different levels. The elites could compete with a good athlete and, seemingly, “know” what that good athlete is going to do before he actually does. The elite doesnt actually know, but can predict so well that he is able to react (offensively or defensively) earlier than someone would at a lower skill level.

By increasing pattern recognition, we improve our “timing” which isnt actually temporal, but the ability to see things before others.

In The Sports Gene, by David Epstein, he talks about the importance of prediction with baseball players and batting. The speed a baseball travels is actually too fast for a batter to see the ball, then have that information sent to the brain, and register where the ball is actually traveling to—let alone then swing the bat and hit the ball. Because of that, the batter needs to make the prediction of where the ball is going to go before it ever leaves the pitcher’s hand. The better batters are able to predict where the ball is going to go earlier (during the process of the pitch) and plan accordingly.

The same goes for fighting. When boxing, any decent professional could spar with a beginner fighter and pick him apart without trying. The pro knows what the beginner is going to do even before the beginner does. This is because the pro sees the weight distribution. If the beginner is on his lead foot he’s probably throwing a lead hook. If he’s on his back foot, a straight or overhand is flying toward the pro’s head. Not only can the pro detect shifts in weight, but he also has a better understanding of distance, which allows him to know if the beginner can hit him or not, whereas the beginner is just throwing and hoping he hits something. The pro can see level changes. He can see footwork. He can see balance. And, he can see patterns, combined with the other knowledge, allows him to react so much faster than the beginner. It looks like the pro can read minds. Like he can predict the future. But we all know he can’t. And that’s the same type of pattern recognition that elites use on other elites. When Mayweather or Lomachenko look like their moving a second before their opponents and are able to punch, get out of the way, and be looking at them from behind before the dust settles, this is because they know what their opponents are going to do before they even happen—all based on patterns they’ve seen for decades, which lead them to a predictive pattern during a fight. It’s also why you see fighters like Lomachenko and Mayweather have closer rounds in the beginning of fights, only to pull away and start to pick their opponents apart later in the rounds. They are constantly picking up on patterns at a faster rate than their opponents can keep up, and they are getting smarter during the fight.

But what does any of this mean?

You may say, “Okay, pattern are great, but now what? How do we get better at recognizing them?”

Don’t worry, I promised you at the end of my last article that I would tell you, and I plan on delivering!

Below is a list and (very short) explanation of different ways you or your athletes can gain a better understanding of pattern recognition. Now, this list is not exhaustive, nor will it render the same results for everyone. Some people just have that “eye” or “it factor” that allows them to see things faster. We all know those athletes who are just good at every sport they try. It doesn’t make sense, but they are just good. Then you add in repetitions and good training habits, and you find yourself faced-to-face with someone who will reach the elite status of sports.

Types of sport specific training:

The main ways a fighter, or athlete, has to gain a skill set especially your predictive abilities:

Drill—this is how most people learn (pretty much anything). You see it (visual). You hear an explanation (auditory). You practice it with a partner (modeling). The three ways combined are a great way to learn anything. None of us are only “visual” learners or “auditory” learners. We need all forms of learning to complete the learning process.

Drilling needs to be done in two different ways: Static and fluid. Static drilling is what we envision when we think of drilling—one person drills a move on another with zero resistance. Fluid drilling is where a person drills a move, but the drilling partner moves like a normal person in that situation would move. She lets her partner achieve the move, but she may make it a little difficult to do so. She may move one way or the opposite and offer “real life” situations to the drill to make it a more “realistic” feel.

Go Live—Live training is what every athlete needs to gain experience in live situations. There has to be a balance between drilling, and live training though. Too much of either creates an imbalance. Also, going too hard while trying to learn something new is counterproductive, as you can’t learn when you’re going all out.

Light vs hard training: Light, repetitive training helps people learn better as it allows the athlete to think and analyze—to process information (memorize, recall, and analyze patterns). Light training should be for learning new techniques and hard training is for testing the efficacy of those techniques when it matters. Try to learn math while jogging lightly, now while sprinting. Try to do math while lightly working out vs going as hard as possible. We need to go at a pace where we can think and analyze. Learning anything, whether math or a new move, takes brain power, and we can't use our brains well when we're trying to take someone's head off, or they're trying to take ours off!

Also, have a purpose to your light training. Don’t have the mindset of just trying to "win" during training. Have a goal. A realistic goal for technical learning is to slip a punch and return a specific counter—maybe you’re trying to work on slipping a right hand and landing a hook to the body? Only focus on that, and you will have a much better rate of success of learning that technique as opposed to trying to perfect that technique while attempting to “win a round.” After you’ve perfected a technique, try to use that technique in hard sparring and see if it is working. If you are "losing" or getting "beat up" while going light, but you are actually learning something, then you're really winning. You are getting better, while your partner wins a round. But then you get to the point where you're good enough at that technique, and you implement it within the rest of your complete game. Now you have an extra tool in your box and your partner is still working with the same skill set. Note, though, that it's important to learn at a lighter pace, and with a good training partner, because you're going to fail at first while attempting anything new--which means you will eat some punches/kicks for your efforts. You don't want to be eating 100% punches by the crazy guy while trying something new.

Going light greatly increases the rate of pattern recognition--It’s why football teams have practice drills to simulate routes vs similar corner backs as the upcoming opponent and why they don’t play live football games every day during practice.

Light training and sequencing/playing them out is imperative to learning—especially at a very high level. Sparring hard is a thing of the past—sequencing moves with a partner who is emulating an opponent again and again is the training of the future (and one of the very best ways to obtain a higher level of pattern recognition. This is the most important aspect of improving predictability training and pattern recognition. Hard sparring has it's place for beginners to learn what they're made of, and how to react under pressure, but you're getting ready to compete. You're already tested or you wouldn't be where you are today.

Visualize—visualization equals reps. There’s only so many hours in a day that you can workout, so you can steal extra minutes and energy by playing out scenarios in your mind to gain valuable experience and see things before they do, which is almost as good for learning as actually drilling/practicing.

I read a study years ago that tested people shooting basketball free-throws with three groups: group one practiced for an hour before the competition; group two did not touch a ball, but visualized shooting free-throws for an hour; and the third group did not practice or visualize the hour prior to the competition. The results were interesting. As we could expect, the group that practiced for an hour had the highest completion percentage but, amazingly, the group who visualized was only a few percentage points behind (I think it was around 65% completion for the practicing group to 62% completion for the visualization group), and not surprising, was that the group that didn’t practice at all scored significantly less.

Try to visualize hitting a bag or sparring and wait for your muscles to twitch and spasm and your adrenaline to race. The mind plays a huge role in gaining new skills, even without leaving your sofa chair. (It also helps to visualize your entire fight night regularly to help with comfort and nerves too, but that’s a different article!)

Coach—teaching others shows you reps (right and wrong). They say, if you ever want to really learn something, teach it, and that holds true with athletics.

Again, you can only perform so many reps of a given activity before your body says “no more.” By coaching others in areas that you want to improve upon, you can see what a jab looks like when it’s performed perfectly again and again. You can also see people’s “tells” (ticks that give away what will occur next) as they load a right cross or pump their jab before throwing it. You can see shifts in weight and balance. You can see how bodies move correctly and effectively and laboriously and clumsily—but you can see hundreds more reps than just jumping in and sparring with training partners.

By coaching, you’ll also gain an understanding of the techniques you may not have had before. You’ll notice you begin to regurgitate the same pointers and rules your coach has told you for years, but it never really connected with you. You’ll have “a-ha” moments as the words of your own coach sink in deeper after seeing the same mistakes you made time and again before you in the person you’re training.

There are other ways to gain predictive skills. There are other ways to learn. These are just some of the ways I train my fighters to do things, and how I've learned so much about the sport of MMA. The key is to be open-minded. The key is to always question your methods and figure out if there's an easier way to do things. And sometimes there isn't an easier, "smarter" way of doing things. Sometimes the best technique is to flail and go all out crazy...sometimes.

There's a million ways to get up a mountain, you just have to find one path. Some path's may be easier for some, while other paths are preferred by others. Some paths are hard as hell to get up, but people keep climbing them again and again. And then there's the people getting airlifted by a helicopter to the top of the mountain (the real cheaters! the steroid users), and they certainly do make it up faster, but none of us recognize their climb.

So now you've got a little more knowledge on how to fight smarter. How to fight an opponent and know what she's going to do before she does. It's time to cheat a little--your opponent doesn't know you already know what she's going to throw next! Now it's time for you to implement some of these ideas and begin a course of action in your own training.

Hopefully, this article helps bring some insight into a better way of training and offers a new perspective on your own MMA training or how you train your own athletes.

In my next article I will talk about the "other half" of athletic training: strength and conditioning, and broach the topic of recovery, and how “smarter, not harder” really has some merit to it.

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