Data in MMA: Gaining the Advantage over the Opposition

Editor’s Note: Written in collaboration between Nick Green, BCBA, Ph.D. Student and Dr. Paulie “Gloves” Gavoni, a professional mma and boxing coach who works with American Top Team, amongst others.

From a scientific perspective, there remains a “missing link” in most fight camps. Data. Cold, hard, data. While the term data may sound “technical” or reserved only for those with master’s degrees, the fact is, it’s everywhere around us and we use it all the time.

That’s right, we all use data! From making decisions on which gas station to go to (gas station A has a longer line which will make me late for my son’s football game) to counting the number of traps it takes to get rid of a rodent problem.

As we begin conceptualizing data, we first must start with a goal in mind. There is no sense in taking take data on something that doesn’t matter right? In any fight camp, you are going to have a number of both short and long-term goals for your fighters. One fighter needs to improve Muay Thai leg kicks before the next match, and another may need to increase his ability to finish a double leg takedown.

People usually frame their goals by saying, “I am going to win my next fight” or “I am going to knock out my opponent.” That’s fine. It’s good to have a long term goal. This gives you direction, like a point on a map. Much like a driver must uses mile markers and road signs to determine progress toward their destination, long term goals must be broken down into short-term goals so the fighter can determine if they are moving in the right direction and make adjustments as needed. If you are a fighter or coach who already has short-term goals, begin lining them up so they are directed towards a long-term goal. If you are trying to drop weight, what is the weight goal, and why? Are you attempting to drop to a lower weight class? Is it your goal to fight a specific fighter or obtain a championship belt?

The idea of taking data may seem like too big of a task at first. After all, we see companies like ESPN produce amazing infographics showing us Steph Curry’s latest shooting heat maps.

These are incredible data, but remember, ESPN has data analysts, IT, graphic artists, and software engineers to help put it all together. We do not expect anybody to do that. That’s not reality, especially in the fight game. However, simple data can be collected and effectively used to make sound decisions for improving fighter performance. To begin your data-based journey, we break it down into three essential steps:

Assess, Plan, and Accelerate Performance

Step 1: ASSESS

First, you must consider what data is important for the fighter? Each fighter and fight is different, so what will be good for one fight, might not be for another. Individualized assessment is key to individual successes. You can go crazy with what to collect data on, but maybe simply start with just the top 3 weaknesses, then begin adding on later. The assessment phase is broken down into these parts:
1. Pick a target – as a coach of fighter, you know your fighter’s weakness the best. These are simple and observable behaviors to focus on and can include, for example: number of strikes, accuracy of strikes, successful take downs.
2. Select a measurement device – the technology available nowadays is endless. What is best way to collect data? Paper and pencil? Wearable devices (Fitbits, Apple Watch)? As a coach or fighter, use whatever makes the most sense and is the easiest to track your target from the step above. Many phone apps are free and very inexpensive. Explore these. From simple counters that can be used to measure areas like strikes, takedowns, or submission attempts, to video programs that allow for detailed measurement on a variety of skills.
3. Record it – some people say “what doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get managed” …well that’s part of the story. You will not know if performance is getting better or worse with writing down that first data point. Continual measurement is key to improved performance (sometimes tracking consistence performance is just as important, and this too requires consistent data collection). In many cases, fighters can have coaches, other fighters, or even spectators record specific aspects of training sessions. It’s been our experience that spectators love to take part in a training session, even if it’s simply to hold a phone to video or to use a clicker to count the number of punches thrown in a round.

Step 2: PLAN

Now that you have collected your data, where are you headed? The journey does not have any meaning unless everyday action leads towards a goal. After measuring fight behaviors in the assessment phases, determine what needs to improve. Fighter and camp goals need to be realistic and attainable. Make your goals:
1. Clear – unclear goals like “Improve boxing” does not tell the fighter what specifically to work on. What part of boxing needs to improve? Does the fighter need throw more jabs, or perhaps improve jab accuracy (i.e. land more jabs).
2. Attainable – set the goal just above the performance you are seeing now. For example, improve strike accuracy from 65% to 75% will be easy to achieve instead of jumping right to 100%. Increase the goals after your fighter meets them consistently. Or perhaps it’s something as simple as “double my jab output from 20 jabs averaged per round to 23.”

Step 3: ACCELERATE PERFORMANCE

Accelerating performance is why everyone trains every day to constantly improve some aspect of their game. This step is broken down into 2 sub-areas.
1. Use Data Intentionally – The difference in our case with fight camps is that we are intentionally choosing or selecting certain aspects of training that would otherwise go unnoticed. Athletes, fighters, and the average Joe’s are making incredible progress each and every day; yet, in some situations, they lack the proper tools to show them their gains. You may already have the data you need in your back pocket (from apps on your phone to tech devices mentioned above in step 1). Select just a few targets such as strikes or takedown percentage when starting out. Focusing on just a few is the best way to accelerate performance. The old saying goes, if everything is important, nothing is important.
2. Follow up on progress – frequently tracking performance provides coaches (or yourself) feedback on progress towards goals. Showing performance data should be a transparent process that allows for collaboration between fighters and coaches on what the next step in the plan is. The goal isn’t to simply collect and admire the data. The goal is to use the data to grow. When progress is being made as planned, then the fighter might continue with the same regiment. Seeing growth in measures can be very powerful to the fighter’s confidence, or self-efficacy (i.e. belief they can accomplish a given task). The more a fighter values and believes he or she can do something, the more likely they are to do it. Measurement allows fighters and coaches to see even the smallest growth, which can have a huge impact on a fighter’s motivation. However, if the fighter is not reaching the intended short-term goals, the fighter and coaches must assess the reason why, and then put a different strategy in place.

Data shouldn’t only be reserved for performance. Data related to dropping weight during camp can be powerful. Typically, fighters start their camp 6-8 weeks prior to their fight, often trying to remember what their weight was when they started the last camp. Unfortunately, as they progress through their camp, the fighters who do not keep data (i.e., a simple daily log of their weight, and perhaps a weekly log of their fat %) increasingly become anxious wondering if they are on track. This snowballs right up to the actual weight cut during the final hours as fighters attempt to lose the remaining weight through a variety of dehydration methods like sweat suits and saunas.

Fighters and coaches should keep data on the final weight cut as well. For those who “water load,” what was their weight when the loading began, and what was it the morning of the weigh in? During the last cut, how long was the fighter in the Jacuzzi, and how much weight was dropped during that time? A coach can use a pencil and paper, or download a free excel app to record these data. Every time a fighter changes a condition (e.g. the time enters/exits the sauna, start/stops running, checks weight, etc.) the data should be logged. This keeps fighters from under or over cutting in future camps as they can assess how their body reacts to different conditions.

This chart shows pre- and post- run weight data:

table 1

You can also compare weight and body fat % leading up to a weigh-in like this:

table 2

This spread sheet shows the raw data related to weight and body fat % graph above. Creating a graph from this raw data is as simple as 2 clicks on a computer!

Week Weight Body Fat %

Screenshot (3)
We briefly reviewed a few of the general steps for improving your fight camp and gaining the advantage over the opposition. If you are not using data, it is not too late. Start today! The great thing about this incredible tool is that the more you take data, the better you get at it. In our next article, we will cover more specific and advanced methods to incorporate data into your fight camp.

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