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Fight Science: Building skills from the gym to the fight

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The latest addition to the Fight Science series looks at developing a fighter’s skill-set beyond the gym.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Sao Paulo-Brunson vs Machida Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor’s note: This article is co-authored by Jason Burgos)

In the predecessor to this piece—Fight Science: The Fundamentals —we broke down the significance of instilling fundamentals in a fighter. A fighter lacking mastery of the basics is akin to a politician without principles, bureaucratic know-how, and moral fiber. Sure they can wing it, but it really isn’t good for anybody in the long run. The fundamentals are the foundation every fighter must possess if they are to excel in their craft.

In this addition to the series, we will cover the next progression in the process. With the fundamentals in place, it’s sort of like the coach and fighter has their easel and canvas set up, and the fighter has learned to properly hold a paint brush. Now it is time to start painting puffy clouds and bushy trees (Bob Ross-style), in what is the early stages of the masterpiece that will one day provide a well-stocked armory of techniques. In this case, the puffy clouds and bushy trees are known as component skills.

Component Skills

Where fundamental skills are the building blocks of component skills, component skills are the building blocks of composite skills, which make up complex offensive and defensive combinations. Component skills are a combination of fundamental skills that make up any one skill. Some examples of component skills in striking include, but are not limited to:

  • Straight punches
  • Hooks
  • Uppercuts
  • Catching punches with arms/fists
  • Rolling under a punch
  • Slipping a punch

Good coaches know that it doesn’t make sense to focus on a combination involving the straight right-hook if the fighter is unable to throw either punch correctly. In other words, you have to walk before you run.

Composite Skills

Composite skills are the mix and match of component skills. This is essentially chaining skills together. For example, three-punch combinations might be made up of a jab, hook, and uppercut, which are three component skills of striking. If any fundamental or component skill is lacking, the fighter will begin building bad habits. Remember, practice doesn’t make perfect…perfect practice makes perfect.


Coaches and fighters should know what constitutes mastery of the objective in terms of what the skill actually looks like, and what outcome can be expected if the skills are performed correctly. This should first involve effectively performing the skill under practice conditions, then progressively moving towards performing the skill under sparring, and then fight conditions. It takes years of diligence and practice. Even the standard-bearer of MMA promotion, the UFC, had to go through years of trial and error before they took their MMA marketing skills from component to composite levels.

For example, a fighter’s stance might be broken down into small steps as a fundamental skill. A good rule of thumb here is the newer the skills is to the learner, the more the steps will should be broken down as illustrated below:

Progress towards standards can be measured by checking how many of these small steps are being implemented correctly. The same process should be used for component and composite skills. Good coaches typically do not need to write these steps out to assess. They are able to look at a fighter and quickly use a mental checklist to assess what’s in place or where focus might be needed.

Fighter Repertoire

Determining the fighter’s repertoire simply means figuring how what the fighter actually is bringing to the table in comparison to the established standard. That is, what does the coach have to start with? If improved defense was the objective, and head movement was the skill being focused on, how well is a fighter able to perform head movement in practice or during live sparring? And do they possess the self-efficacy (think confidence in their ability) to actually apply specific skills in a fight.

It’s important to differentiate between these because sometimes it’s not just about the fighter knowing what to do, but more about knowing when to do it. And when it comes to skills development, many times it’s actually about a fighter’s self-efficacy as this drives the fighter’s attempts at applying the skill in an actual fight.

In terms of the “when” or what we call conditional knowledge, it is the difference between Anderson Silva dropping his hands against Demian Maia—in hopes of drawing in an attack—and doing the same against Chris Weidman. Just knowing how to do it is not the end of the process.

Deliberate Coaching

Deliberate coaching is our term for focusing on specific skills that lead towards established objectives. Deliberate coaching requires the systematic use of “I do,” “we do,” and “you do.” This essentially means the coach will first model the technique, the fighter will then perform the skill (with feedback from the coach systematically faded), and then the fighter will perform independently under live conditions.

As we’ve written about in other articles by the Fight Science team, developing successful performance also requires deliberate practice as part of the deliberate coaching model. Below is a tried-and-true deliberate coaching guide geared specifically toward shaping a fighter’s proficiency, performance, and self-efficacy (Gavoni & Edmonds, 2014):

1.) New skill-sets: Under conditions where fighters are learning a new skill set, coaches should create routines that allow for safe deliberate practice. Throwing a fighter into the cage and expecting them to perform a skill successfully is counterproductive. As a student in elementary school you wouldn’t go from first learning where Portugal is on the map, to then having a geography test on all of Europe soon after right?

These routines include drills like bag work, mitts, shadow boxing, or any non-contact drill that allows for high-repetition deliberate practice. During these training sessions, coaches should strive to provide frequent feedback directly related to the specific skills. When developing new skill-sets, it is important that the fighter gains repetition to build fluency.

2.) Emerging skill-sets: Under conditions where fighters are demonstrating emerging skills,in regards to a targeted skill-set, coaches should create routines that involve low-impact controlled sparring drills to allow for deliberate practice. For example, if a coach was teaching the slip-hook-cross combo and the fighter could perform the skill independently without prompting from the coach, 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. It will also allow the fighter to experience success. As the fighter moves closer to proficiency, the coach can allow the fighters to increase the intensity of this controlled sparring.

3.) Proficiency with skill-sets: The ultimate goal is to equip the fighter with a skill-set that he or she can use effectively during sparring, and eventually in the fight. When fighters have become proficient during controlled sparring drills, coaches should systematically begin permitting the fighter to add additional punches to the combo (e.g. going from puffy clouds and bushes, to axes and swords being swung by Vikings on a battlefield).

During this phase, coaches should continue to observe and provide feedback, with the objective of fading their direct coaching of this skill until the fighter can implement the skill independently and fluently.

Remember, differentiation is a way for coaches to develop performance through deliberate practice routines. Differentiated training can be used when developing all aspects of MMA (e.g. grappling), not just striking as illustrated above. As fighters perform better, the competition and challenges should be systematically intensified. Then when the fighter experiences success, grit is progressively developed. As fighters become grittier, their potential for winning is greatly expanded!

Data Analysis

Analyzing data is a place that needs work in most gyms. Data should be used to help the fighter understand where they are in comparison to where they want to be.

In MMA, evaluating a variety of sources of data can provide teams the ability to monitor and adjust a fighter’s training regiment as needed. There are often two sources of data that we use in training: leading indicators and lagging indicators. Leading indicators are the data that match up with our day-to-day activities like body weight, miles ran, and rounds sparred. Lagging indicators are the we collect “after the fact” or are more historical in nature, data like W-L record, decision type (KO, submission), and success against fight style (Gavoni & Green, 2015).

For the purpose of this article, another source of data can include determining the percentage of correct steps implemented in a task analysis. Whether it be a task analysis of fundamental, component, or composite skills, this type of data can be used to monitor and precisely shape the fighter’s performance in the specific area needed.

A Masterpiece at Work

Like the building of a house, building a fighter’s skill-set is a long and repetitive brick-by-brick undertaking. Fighters who can pull-off new moves in the middle of a fight are the outliers; however, there ability to do so is still rooted in a strong foundation. There are far less Mark Zuckerberg’s (where success comes quickly) and far more Steve Jobs’ (where success is built off of victories and failures over time) in the fight game.

These techniques are processes that have also been cultivated over generations of repetition by some of the great minds in combat sports. And the data proves its value. Fundamentals are the foundation and beams that a fighters techniques are built upon. Component skills are the brick and mortar that solidify it all. Composite skills are like the elevators, stairs, doors and rooms that make the building come to life. Now for that flashy furniture that makes me think of Superman punches and cartwheel kicks.


Alessi, G. (1987). Generative strategies and teaching for generalization. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 5, 15-27.

Gavoni, P., & Edmonds, W. A., (2014). I cuda been a contenda part II: Skills from training to the fight. Scifighting

Gavoni, P. & Green, N., (2015). Data: The missing link in your fight camp. Scifighting

Krukuaskas, F., Miltenberger, R. & Gavoni, P. (2017). Using Auditory Feedback to Improve Striking for Mixed Martial Artists. In Press.


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 fighter’s behavioral, physiological, and psychological characteristics. Coach Paulie is a featured coach in the book, Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts and the featured Bloody Elbow article Ring to Cage: How four former boxers help mold MMA’s finest. He can be reached at

Jason Burgos is a New York based writer currently serving as the Senior Editor for Along with his contributions to MMASucka, he has also written for and and currently co-hosts the weekly MMA and fitness themed show the Fight Strength Podcast, with American Top Team strength and conditioning coach Phil Daru.