The True Science Behind the “Sweet Science” in MMA

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.

In the 1950’s, A.J. Libeling captured the public’s attention and popularized boxing as “The Sweet Science” through his series of writings that culminated into what Sports Illustrated once called the “best American sports book of all time.” While an entertaining and highly descriptive piece that seems to capture the essence of the sport within the cultural nuances of the 50’s, the book isn’t actually about science at all. And that’s ok. If it was, few people would have likely read the book, and the sport would have never been paired with science, which is something fundamental to everything a fighter and coach does. More specifically, the science of human behavior.

There are many ways to prepare for a fight. Great coaches intuitively know how to train fighters from years of experience. However, there may be others that go about training haphazardly and still get great results. But without knowing what was most effective part of their coaching. This is where behavioral science steps in.

Any discipline or training regimen that incorporates tried and true behavioral principles has a strong advantage over any opponent. Utilizing the properties of reinforcement (why certain behaviors occur more often) can lead to increases in strike accuracy, proper form, and reduce the effort put forth in a match. Sometimes reinforcement can be simple things like gestural feedback (e.g. a thumbs up after a fighter performs a specific skills), behavior specific feedback (e.g. “you did a nice job pivoting your back foot when you threw your cross”), or simply helping the fighter see the benefits of a certain skill (e.g. “did you notice you were hit less when you used your jab more”). Once fighters begin recognizing the benefits of using a certain skill, they will continue to use it, even in the absence of coaching. We call this type of reinforcement naturally occurring reinforcement.

At the same time, punishment (why certain behaviors go away), may be occurring intentionally or unintentionally. A good illustration of punishment might be when coaches can get fighters to stop using certain combos in later rounds of a fight, rolling the wrong way, or even showing up late to practice. This isn’t “mean” as punishment is usually thought of. In this example, it is helpful as it likely positively impacted the fighter’s performance. In addition, punishment occurs when fighters attempt to perform certain skills and stop trying them because they are unable to recognize the skill is working or perhaps they are getting hit more. In this example, punishment isn’t being used deliberately and likely negatively impacting a fighter’s performance. By the way, getting hit more is almost certain to punish an emerging skill. Fighters will quickly return to old habits if this happens. Understanding the interplay between reinforcement and punishment will allow any trainer, fighter, or coach to “see” training in a new light. Viewing gains through the behavioral lens allows a fighter or coach to see what works, what doesn’t, and how to quickly change it.

Vince Lombardi was once quoted as saying, “Practice doesn’t make perfect…perfect practice makes perfect.” But how does one make practice perfect? Fortunately, the science of human behavior has the answer, and it’s called shaping. Most great coaches intuitively know how to progressively build skill sets that will generalize into a real fight. These coaches understand that teaching involves a process of telling, modeling, observing, and providing continuous feedback to strengthen skill sets based on the available data (click here to see our article on Data in MMA). This process of reinforcing incremental steps towards a targeted skill is shaping. Much like a sculptor deliberately shapes small sections of clay into a masterpiece, the effective coach breaks skill-sets down into small “chunks” and shapes a fighter’s skills through a series of deliberate practice regiments. In the behavioral sciences, breaking a complex skill into a series of “digestible chunks” based on the fighter’s current ability is what we call a task analysis. As the fighter becomes proficient, these series of “chunks” are linked together to form the entire skill, or what behavioral scientists call chaining.

Understanding concepts of shaping and chaining is important for both fighters and coaches as fighters move through certain “phases” of learning. As fighters move through these “phases,” the amount of prompts (think different types of reminders to get the fighter moving in the right direction) delivered by the coach should be systematically reduced so the fighter can perform certain skills independently. This makes sense as the coach isn’t going to be in the cage or ring with the fighter at the time of the actual fight! This systematic reduction of prompts is what is known as fading in the behavioral sciences. Below is a guide to help fighters move through different phases of learning in a way that helps them generalize skills to an actual fight. Fighters will move through these phases at different rates based on their overall experience and ability to learn.

  1. Phase 1 – New skill-sets: Under conditions where fighters are learning a new skill set, coaches should create structures (like non-contact drills) that allow for safe and deliberate practice. Incidentally, deliberate practice is simply a highly structured activity that allows for repetition of specific skills with the ultimate goal of improving performance. During these training sessions, coaches should strive to provide high levels of feedback directly related to specific skills.
  2. Phase 2 – Emerging skill-sets: Under conditions where fighters are gaining proficiency in targeted skills, coaches should begin allowing fighters to participate in low impact and controlled sparring drills to allow for deliberate practice. A term we call “prescriptive sparring.” For example, a coach might have two fighters spar lightly and allow one fighter to lead with the jab while the other fighter works on parrying and countering with their own jab. This process allows for high repetition, allows the coach to observe, and provide specific feedback under conditions that are progressively resemble an actual fight. As the fighter builds proficiency, the coach can allow the fighters to increase the intensity of sparring while fading the amount of prompting and feedback based on the fighter’s success (i.e. data).
  3. Phase 3 – Proficiency with skill-sets: When fighters have become proficient during prescriptive sparring drills, coaches can allow the fighters to systematically add additional punches to the combos. The goal here being to finally help the fighter implement the skill independently during live sparring. During this phase, coaches should continue too observe and provide feedback, with the objective of fading prompts until the fighter can implement the skill independently and fluently.

Methodically going through various skill-sets (BJJ, wrestling, boxing) will allow the coach and fighter to determine how far along each skills is. We have all seen fighters that are excellent at their jab, but struggle with countering. As each fighter develops proficiency in multiple skill-sets, fighters will really begin to shine. Not because of some magic coaching trick or guess, but because the skills have been stripped down, and practical approaches of the behavioral science have been applied (i.e. what’s listed above). The most advanced training can occur when data is used to assess progress and plan for new skill development.

There were many pieces of the science mentioned above (reinforcement, punishment, generalization, prompting, fading, shaping, data) that are at the core of every athletic achievement, no matter the sport. Though good coaches know how to apply these concepts intuitively, systematically incorporating the science behind the “Sweet Science” into daily regiments will accelerate any fighter’s performance in ways never imagined!


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