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“I Cud a Been a Contenda” Part 2: Skills from Training to the Fight

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by Paulie “Gloves” Gavoni and Dr. W. Alex Edmonds
In our first article we discussed training regiments and the importance of practice from acoach’s perspective. Moreover, we reviewed the importance of fighters rehearsing and engaging in specific skills using high repetitions with frequent and specific feedback from the coach as a means of strengthening a targeted skill-set. In this article, we will provide fighters and coaches
with strategies for helping the fighter actually use newly learned skills during sparring, and
ultimately in a fight.

While our first article provided processes that illustrated elements of good coaching, good coaches recognize that these elements need to be applied differently given a fighters experience and current skill set. The goal of creating these structures is to provide the fighters a system for successfully performing high repetition and deliberate practice to create automaticity (reacting without thought or simply known as “good habits”) in regards to the targeted skills.

Remember, deliberate practice involves breaking down a specific skill, understating all its components, and accurately practicing each of those components over and over until a certain level of proficiency is achieved. This is only achieved through consistent reinforcement and corrective feedback of targeted skills while practice is progressively made more challenging overtime. Too often well-meaning coaches with a “sink or swim” mentality put a “green” fighter in the ring to spar or even compete without sufficient training and experience. It’s a shame to think
about how many potentially great fighters were literally beaten out of the sport because they were thrown into deep waters before they were even taught how to float.

This “sink or swim” mentality even applies to newly emerging skills being practiced by veteran fighters. Good coaches know that just throwing a fighter into the ring or cage without some level of proficiency will increase the likelihood that the fighter will fall back on old habits as the new skill has not been developed enough to be effective. As a result, it may reduce the fighter’s confidence and motivation to utilize a new or emerging skill set, or even
reduce a fighter’s motivation to follow the coaches instruction as attempting the skill set may be extremely punishing (e.g., a fighter gets hurt or knocked out!).

The coach’s job is to increase the fighter’s proficiency enough in the targeted skill so that he or she is more likely to perform it successfully during sparring and ultimately, during the fight. This increases the likelihood that when the fighter spars, the targeted skill will be met with reinforcement…in other words, the fighter will want to continue using the skill because it worked! Keep in mind, its all about accurate deliberate practice. Practicing something incorrectly will only assist a fighter at becoming fluent at something potentially really bad.

There are different approaches of training that can help to ensure the fighter is engaging in deliberate practice such as differentiated learning. Differentiated learning, or differentiation, is linking what and how someone learns through the demonstration of proficiency, which in turn will determine the fighter’s readiness. Below is a guide for differentiation phases geared specifically toward shaping a fighter’s proficiency for any given skill. Fighters will move through these phases at different rates based on their overall experience and ability to learn.

1. New skill-sets: Under conditions where fighters are learning a new skill set, coaches should create structures that allow for safe deliberate practice. These structures include
drills like bag work, mitts, shadow boxing, or any no-contact drills that allow for high-
repetition deliberate practice. During these training sessions, coaches should strive to
provide high levels of feedback directed related to the specific skills.

2. Emerging skill-sets: Under conditions where fighters are demonstrating emerging skills
in regards to a targeted skill set, coaches should create structures that involve low impact controlled sparring drills to allow for deliberate practice. For example, if a coach was teaching the slip-hook-cross combo, he might have two fighters spar lightly and only
allow one fighter to lead with the cross, and the other to counter with the slip-hook-cross
combo. This will allow the coach to observe and provide feedback under conditions that are closer to the fight condition. As the fighter moves closer to proficiency, the coach
should allow the fighters to increase the intensity of sparring.

3. Proficiency with skill-sets: When fighters have become proficient during controlled
sparring drills, coaches should systematically begin permitting the fighter to add
additional punches to the combo, with the goal being to finally allow the fighter to
implement the skill during live sparring. During this phase, coaches should continue to
observe and provide feedback, with the objective of fading prompts until the fighter can implement the skill independently and fluently.

Remember, differentiation is a way for coaches to build deliberate practice routines for fighters based on a fighter’s current needs, and then progressively fade coaching as fluency increases to allow for generalization of skillsets into competition. By participating in
targeted and systematic training regiments supported by effective coaching, fighters will give themselves the greatest chance of becoming a “Contenda”.

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Paulie Gavoni
A boxer since 1992 and a trainer in MMA since 2002, Paulie "Gloves” Gavoni is sought out by both up-and-coming and elite MMA fighters seeking top-level instruction in striking and the mental game. Paulie works with fighters to systematically improve their body mechanics while tailoring a striking style that fits their needs. These range from a relaxed yet lethal counter-punching style (e.g. Anderson Silva) to a highly aggressive and powerful peek-a-boo style (e.g. Mike Tyson) suited for MMA that he has appropriately titled “Controlled Chaos". A former cognitive behavior therapist and behavior analyst, Paulie uses his background in applied behavior analysis to develop and hone fighters physically and mentally. For more information on Paulie, please visit his website at www.pauliegloves.com.