Co-authored with UFC Veteran Din Thomas
Ranked just below football in some sports popularity polls, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) continues to gain worldwide admiration as it progressively spreads across Europe. As the sport moves from infancy to the “terrible 2’s,” I have observed many aspects evolve. From strength and conditioning to marketing and managing, I’ve witnessed MMA professionals continue to advance their approach to the game. Though some advancements are deliberate, others are the result of trial and error. One area that has progressed, mostly through trial and error, is the fight camp. While many traditional team sports have had a century to refine and master their approach, many MMA fight camps continue to perfect their approach.
Solving the Fight Camp Riddle with Din Thomas
Return on Investment
Fortunately, there are many approaches used by other fields that can be applied directly to various aspects of MMA. For example, if MMA fight camps were considered from a business perspective, important takeaways become evident. In business, one of the ultimate measures of accountability and success is return on investment (ROI). The concept of measuring success in relation to investment has been used by organizations for centuries. In MMA, the return on investment is victory. Fortune 500 companies do not simply work “hard” or “more” and hope for the best. After assessing their needs, they strategically plan and align actions across the company to gain synergy toward a common goal. This business model can be easily applied by coaches and fighters to improve MMA fight camps.
Fortunately, there are many approaches used by other fields that can be applied directly to various aspects of MMA.
It has been my experience that the most effective fight camps have qualified coaches who assess their fighter and review video to create a game or “fight” plan. Like strategic planning in business, the aim is to give the fighter a competitive advantage over rivals. Strategy can be broken down into a couple of small elements that include assessment and action:
- Determining threats an opponent might pose
- Hypothesizing opportunities the fighter might capitalize on
- Understanding the fighter’s current strengths and weaknesses
- Clearly defining and agreeing on what a fighter should focus on
- Developing a fight plan based on this information
- Taking deliberate steps towards developing the fighter’s targeted performance to ensure fulfillment of the game plan
Fortunately, business offers a simple yet powerful assessment tool that can be easily applied as during the beginning stages of a fight camp. This tool, known as a SWOT Analysis, can be used to guide coaches and fighters with determining the following:
- Strengths – capabilities that enable a fighter to perform well or specifically carry out a strategy
- Weaknesses – characteristics that prohibit a fighter from performing to their potential and should be addressed
- Opportunities – patterns or weakness in an opponent’s approach that can be capitalized upon
- Threats – strengths of an opponent’s game that the fighter and coach need to anticipate
By using this simple SWOT Analysis, fight plans can be strategically developed as a means of gaining a competitive edge. And, of course, planning isn’t enough. Quality coaches must be present to assist with improving performance to ensure the fighter is able to execute the plan. But even in a gym filled with quality coaches who are able to develop solid fight plans, many fight camps stilly may not be achieving the highest ROI. The reason: lack of strategic alignment.
In the most effective organizations, “there is congruence between purpose, strategy, processes, structure, culture and people” (Harrington & Voehl, 2012). This is also true of the most effective fight camps. A shared approach is a formula for bringing out the best in fighters. However, conflicting purposes and strategies can be detrimental to fighters and the gym. When coaches align their approach towards a shared strategy, the fighter’s performance can be drastically accelerated.
Let’s look at a simple example. If the fighter were fighting an opponent who it was determined possessed stronger BJJ with a preference towards triangles, a strategic alignment might look like this:
- The striking coach might focus on throwing strikes that decrease the likelihood of a takedown (e.g. increasing the use of longer, straighter punches; less kicks, etc).
- The wrestling coach might focus on aspects like stuffing takedowns, escaping during scrambles.
- The BJJ coach might focus on defending triangles and escapes.
- The S&C coach might focus on isometric drills to build grappling endurance.
There are many ways a fight camp can be conceptualized. While developing off existing models might be a smart approach, building off the experience of veterans can prove invaluable. There are many aspects of combat sports that I’ve learned through almost a quarter century in the game. Much of this couldn’t be learned from books or videos. It is experiential learning, and I am fortunate to not only have experience, but be surrounded by others whose experiences are even deeper in many areas.
UFC veteran and MMA pioneer Din Thomas is one of those individuals. Din is currently a coach for American Top Team, as well as a professional MMA Scouter. When it comes to experiential learning in MMA, there may not be another person in the world with Din’s depth of knowledge coupled with his ability to eloquently present it. As a coach, it’s not enough to know what to do. The best coaches must also understand how to present their knowledge in a way that gets their fighters to do it. His experiences throughout the world, amongst the most elite fighters and coaches, cannot be bought. He understands the intricacies of developing skills and performance. Here are some of Din’s thoughts on fight camp.
Din Thomas: Solving the Riddle
20 years ago, there were no legitimate MMA fight camps. There were just a few guys from different disciplines of martial arts or combat sports getting together in order to share ideas. These ideas quickly spawned and created new methods of combat which required new training methods and facilities to accommodate the rapid growth. And as time progresses, and MMA continues to evolve as a sport of prize fighting, no longer are most old school training ideologies, and vintage preparation methods relevant. For this reason, professional ‘Fight Camps’ are established to maximize a fighter’s production while minimizing wear and tear, if done properly. I found that the most effective way to execute this is to allow the main objective of a ‘Fight Camp’ to be about “solving the riddle.”
Every fight is a riddle, or series of riddles which need to be solved in order to come out on top. A fighter will present a succession of problems at some level to his or her adversary. 20 years ago the problems that fighters presented to each other were very apparent because they were very one dimensional. If a fighter was a grappler, the concept of solving the riddle was simple – stop the takedown. If the fighter was a striker, the concept of solving the riddle was just as simple – initiate the takedown.
In the realm of MMA today, the riddles aren’t so apparent because fighters are multi-dimensional. It takes a trained eye and precocious mind to recognize the riddles of many fighters in order to exploit them. It also takes humility and discipline in oneself to recognize and admit the riddles that oneself (as a fighter) possesses. Once these riddles are established, the real work in ‘Fight Camp’ can commence. Without this assessment, most training can be frivolous and of wasted effort.
I have seen many fight camps in which fighters had no direction due to negligent planning and limited assessment. This can result in fighters/coaches focusing on the problems instead of solutions. For example, sparring hard rounds without objectives, doing senseless padwork, and my favorite, being thrown to the wolves for the sake of toughening a fighter up (if a fighter needs to be toughened up by being beat up, he or she doesn’t need to be fighting). The idea is to identify the problem and focus on the solution. Sparring sessions should have objectives. Padwork should be a reflection of what you would like to accomplish in sparring or fight based on said objectives. Fighters should never be thrown to the wolves without proper ammunition. Identify the problems and focus on the solutions. That’s how you solve riddles.
20 years ago, there were no legitimate MMA fight camps.
More than Training Hard
Some coaches get lazy or just overwhelmed by circumstances. Especially in MMA, where one coach may have to serve multiple athletes. Some coaches do not have the time or resources to study and assess opponents or even their own fighters. The fall back solution is primarily the same – “Just Train Hard!”. When dealing with naturally gifted individuals, this can work. Naturally gifted individuals can sometimes figure things out on their own and have tremendous success with it. But to develop a reliable approach to improvement during a ‘Fight Camp’, a more systematic method must be employed. A method based on identifying problems and finding multiple solutions and not just solely “training hard”. Just because a fighter is training, it doesn’t mean that fighter is improving, no more than a pizza delivery person is preparing for a NASCAR race just because the delivery person drives incessantly.
Din’s view of fight camp as a “riddle” provides the perfect metaphor for conceptualizing fight camps. Fights are riddles. In fact, we can consider fighters a puzzle. Each fighter has his or her own need that must be pieced together. The most effective coaches seek to bring out the best in their fighters through fight camps deliberately aimed at meeting the needs of each fighter and fight. These needs are both physical and mental. In this article we provided a 10,000 foot view regarding the importance of fight camp along with tips for improving it. Stay tuned for Part II where Din and I dig deeper by taking a look at “Mind Games” as they relate to fight camp.