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Fight Science: Introducing SMART Camp

The first of a multi-part series, this article proposes a simple process for evolving fight camps into "SMART Camps" to accelerate learning and reducing over-training. 

Cain Velasquez Media Workout Photo by Alexis Cuarezma/Getty Images

(Editor's note: This is a guest column from striking coach Dr. Paul "Paulie Gloves" Gavoni and Dr. Alex Edmonds, a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology)

The concept of SMART camp, rooted in the behavioral and psychological sciences, provides simple tools and strategies for assessing, planning, and implementing "fighter-centric" camps to optimize performance specific to each fight.

Fight Planning

Preparing for a fight can be a daunting task. NMA pioneer and UFC veteran Din Thomas recommends each fight be approached as a riddle to be solved. Similarly, we recommend each combination of fighters be considered a puzzle that must be pieced together to help solve the riddle of each fight. Experienced coaches have learned to adapt each fight camp to meet the unique needs of their fighter in preparation for a fight. In contrast, less experienced coaches take a more generalized approach using maxims like “train harder.” While there is no such thing as a perfect camp to build the best fighter, there is such thing as a fighter perfectly prepared to meet a strategic fight plan. While many fighters and coaches see the merits of fight planning, systematically preparing a fighter to meet the requirements of the fight plan eludes many coaches simply because a practical methodology has not been unavailable…until now.

In this and future articles, we demonstrate a simple, logical, systematic approach for turning fight camps into “SMART” camps through the use of tools and processes that allow coaches and fighters to assess and develop camps based on the needs of each fight. The process begins with a global assessment that is then progressively analyzed and streamlined into very specific fighter behaviors determined to be critical to success against a given opponent. The tools we will introduce include:

  1. Fighter Assessment Comparison Tool (FACT)
  2. Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat (SWOT) Analysis
  3. Keys to Success (Goal Setting)
  4. SMART Training Schedule

Training Harder is Overrated

In MMA, one coach may train multiple athletes. Unfortunately, many coaches may not possess the time or resources to examine and assess opponents or even the needs of their own fighters. As a result, “train harder” becomes their mantra and fighters go off on their own and physically train hard often without the guidance of a skilled eye. While training hard is certainly part of the formula for success, it is frequently insufficient for helping most fighters reach their greatest potential. We prefer to say train hard and efficiently. Also, keep in mind that training in camp doesn’t just involve physical training such as rolling, sparring and strength conditioning. Training should involve film study, visualization, and fight planning in the classroom, just to name a few. These aspects train the fighter’s brain, which also consumes calories and helps condition the fighter’s psyche to prepare for all the sensory input he or she will be exposed to leading up to a big fight. For coaches and fighters, we highly recommend learning how to associate getting mentally smarter with getting better that doesn’t just involve sweating and physical training. In upcoming articles, we will dive deeper into this subject. Next, let’s look at how a camp can be transformed into a Smart Camp.

Train Smarter = Performance Acceleration

Applying a systematic approach to developing a fighter based on the needs of each fight camp does not have to be time consuming and can have a huge return on investment (i.e. winning). One approach might be to evolve fight camps to what we call SMART Camp—a fighter-centric and scientifically-based approach to accelerating fighter performance. To facilitate a SMART Camp, the following elements might be considered guiding principles for bringing out the best in fighters:

Even though it is a relatively young sport, in many ways MMA training regiments still have a lot of room for improvement and evolution. The reasons for this may be varied; however, a good portion is likely the result of the piecing together of adopted regiments from other combat sports like boxing and wrestling, which themselves have evolved little in the last century. Fostering a SMART Camp using these identified elements as a guide may be a good approach to accelerating learning and performance while decelerating unnecessary punishment or injury to fighters that result from overtraining.

Fighter Assessment Comparison Tool

In the NFL and other professional sports, game plans and training regiments are often the result of time-consuming and comprehensive evaluation including scouting reports on the opponent. In these assessments, patterns of offense and defense are critically analyzed to determine the most effective approach to the game plan. NFL athletes have their training broken up into thirds—1/3 in classroom (film study), 1/3 on the practice field, and 1/3 strength and conditioning. Off-time involves proper rest and rehab. Like film study in the NFL, the most effective fight plans are often the result of an assessment that involves the fighter and coaches reviewing fight footage to search for golden nuggets, in the form of the opponent’s “tendencies” relative to that of the fighter. These tendencies are then analyzed to determine which might be capitalized on through specific offensive or defensive strategies.

The Fighter Assessment Comparison Tool (FACT) is a simple tool that can be used as a general assessment for determining a fighter’s strengths and weaknesses relative to that of his or her opponent. The elements identified are common to MMA, but can be changed to meet the needs of the user by either identifying more generalized elements (e.g. striking, grappling), or even taking a more granular approach (e.g., instead of “kicking,” “leg kicks” might more specifically be assessed).

Strength in Unity

To use the FACT, each identified skill should be scored offensively and defensively using a simple 1-10 (1 = Ineffective; 10 = Highly Effective) scale as a measure of skills. The FACT should not be used to rate the fighter’s ability, potential, or even skills based on one fight. Instead, it should be used to rate observable patterns of the effective application of targeted skills across fights. To be most effective, the FACT should be scored by other fighters (teammates) and coaches as a multi-rater survey and then compared. This methodology is analogous to a statistical approach termed inter-rater reliability as a means of determining the extent of the agreement between raters. Seasoned coaches intuitively assess these elements, so for them it may not be necessary to actually print and score the FACT. This initial step is most useful for promoting rich dialogue amongst coaches and fighters to increase agreement and focused strategy based on the fighter’s skill and tendencies in relation to that of his or her upcoming opponent.

In MMA, this can be a very powerful approach given many teams have coaches who are experts in specific areas and therefore are more likely to notice key details. In these cases, it is probably a good idea for their perspective to carry greater weight if there is disagreement. For example, the Muay Thai coach’s assessment of BJJ might carry less weight than the BJJ coach, and vice-versa.

For the purpose of this article, we asked a small group of fighters, coaches, and MMA writers to complete the FACT based on a hypothetical super fight between Conor McGregor and Tyron Woodley. From this group we randomly sampled one respondent and shared their assessment below to illustrate how one might score the FACT. Remember, the data scored is only one person’s perception and does not represent a scientific measure of these fighters’ ability, nor does it represent the point of this article. The power of the FACT is in the collaborative process, not in the perception of any single person. That is, it can lead coaches and fighters to focused analysis, conversation, goal setting, and strategic fight planning.

In our next and future articles, we will introduce the SWOT Analysis as a simple means of strategically and collaboratively determining Keys to Success as a goal setting process for a given fight. We will then demonstrate how to use these Key to Success to “program” a balanced and strategically aligned SMART training schedule. Finally, we will explain a process of task analysis (i.e. creating small steps) and reverse behavior engineering (i.e. fight planning with the end in mind). These two processes help identify very specific fight behaviors aligned with targeted Keys to Success as well as critical coaching behaviors to guide fighters through deliberate practice of these pinpointed behaviors. Remember, the devil is often in the details. Training harder isn’t necessarily better, and can in some cases can be worse. The goal is to train SMARTer!

An expert in leadership and human performance, Dr. Paul "Paulie Gloves" Gavoni is a highly successful professional striking coach in mixed martial arts. As an athletic leader and former golden gloves heavyweight champion of Florida, Coach Paulie successfully applies the science of human behavior to coach multiple fighters to championship titles at varying levels worldwide. With many successful fighters on his resume, Coach Paulie tailors his approach to fit the needs of specific fighters based on a fighters behavioral, physiological, and psychological characteristics. Coach Paulie is a writer for Last Word on Sports and is a featured coach in the book, Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts.

Alex Edmonds, PhD, BCB, is currently an associate professor of research at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida. He graduated from Florida State University and received his doctoral degree in Educational Psychology with a minor in Statistics and Measurement. Over the years, Dr. Edmonds has applied his knowledge of research design, measurement and assessment in both field and laboratory examinations. He has published extensively in a variety of areas such as research design, psychophysiology and sport psychology. Prior to graduate school, he was a strength and conditioning coach working with professional athletes in football, track, and boxing. He then combined his passion for the sports with the field of psychology making it the emphasis of his graduate work. While in graduate school, he conducted his field work with the track and field team at Florida State and started using biofeedback for research and practice during this time. He has utilized biofeedback extensively with various types of athletes for performance enhancement, as well as stress-regulation techniques. Dr. Edmonds is certified through the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance in general biofeedback.