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Fight Science: The Fundamentals

In this latest Fight Science article, we will reflect on some high impact coaching behaviors in relation to a coach’s responsibility.

MMA: UFC 198-Werdum vs Miocic Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

(This is a special guest column written by Dr. Paulie Gloves)

I Promise Teach, You Promise Learn

For many, “The Karate Kid” might be considered the Rocky of martial arts. Brimming with literal and metaphorical life lessons, there are also many lessons that can be applied to MMA. Amongst these lessons are gems related to the shared coach and fighter responsibility. Mr. Miyagi illustrated this responsibility well when he declared “First make sacred pact. I promise teach karate. That my part. You promise learn. I say, you do, no questions. That your part.” While his words are wise in the sense that they clarify the shared responsibility in the relationship, they are just the tip of the iceberg as it relates to the actual complexity involved in coaching and learning.

In fact, many believe the coach-fighter relationship is solely based on Mr. Miyagi’s simple formula. That is, the coach tells the fighter what to do, and the fighter does it. If only it were that easy. There is actually a science behind coaching and learning. Though most of the greatest coaches were not formerly trained in the science of coaching, they are likely great observers of their own coaching behavior, the coaching behavior of others, and the impact of their coaching behavior on fighters. Professors in their own right, they’ve become purveyors of the Sweet Science of combat sports.

Similarly, great fighters tend to be good observers of their own behavior (e.g. noticing the smallest change in their guard), how their behavior impacts their opponent’s behavior (e.g. an opponent may throw less right hands when the lead hand is kept high in their guard), and how the opponent’s behavior impacts their own behavior (e.g. a certain offense evokes a particular defense).

If you have a strong work ethic and you are one of these coaches or fighters, you likely excel at your craft. If you do not, there are some things you might consider for accelerating your performance. In this article, we will reflect on some high impact coaching behaviors in relation to a coach’s responsibility. Similarly, in follow up articles we will highlight high impact learning behavior as it pertains to a fighter’s responsibility, and finally the reciprocal and often idiosyncratic relationship between the coach and the fighter.

The Coach

Despite Mr. Miyagi’s suggestion, coaching should be more than “I say, you do.” It should involve the fighter contrary to Mr. Miyagi’s “no questions” edict, and ultimately involve a very specific sequence that includes establishing objectives, task analyzing, determining standards, assessing a fighter’s current repertoire, and deliberate coaching. While many great coaches understand and apply these processes using various sequences and terminology, the following reflect the essence of coaching for skill development:


The goal of a coach should be to bring out the best in fighters. For this to happen, there must be focused objectives (sub-goals if you will) that lead you to desired outcomes. Some might think “winning” should always be the objective. But it shouldn’t. Objectives can be strategically aligned with ideal performance that can lead to the ultimate long term goal of winning, but they shouldn’t be listed as “winning” as this does not provide the coach and fighter with direction. It’s like saying you are going on vacation, but not figuring out where or determining how you will get there.

Breaking it Down

One of the primary functions of a coach should be to break complex tasks down into chunks that can be easily practiced, thus helping the fighter move closer to an objective. In the behavior sciences, this is known as a task analysis. For example, if the objective was improving defense through increased and specific head movement, then a task analysis might break that head movement down into very precise steps a fighter can follow. The less skilled the fighter in a particular area, the more specific the steps should be. The trick here is targeting the right skills to practice, which requires understanding the difference between fundamental skills, component skills, and composite skills.

Fundamental Skills

“Wax on, wax off” was the mantra repeated by Mr. Miyagi. What Mr. Miyagi understood very well was that his fighter must develop fundamental skills before learning more complex skills. The fundamentals are prerequisites for all other learning, and sometimes the task analysis must be broken down into these micro behaviors if you will. Much like an arrow being shot by the archer, if fundamental skills are initially off in even the slightest at the beginning, they will fall far short of hitting the bullseye in the end. For example, a fundamental skill might be having the appropriate fight stance, or effectively distributing and shifting weight between combos. Like the hub of a wheel, if fundamental skills are not in place, everything else is impacted. In the case of weight distribution, too much weight in the wrong direction can effect performance in virtually every other area.

Unfortunately, though fundamental skills are by far the most important aspect of training that should receive deliberate practice, it is typically not trained to fluency to the detriment of the fighter. Working on fundamentals is not “sexy” so to speak. It doesn’t look “cool,” and it might suggest to some the fighter or coach is somehow “less than” because he or she is not focusing on composite skills that make up exotic combinations. Fighters or coaches who are less confident may opt for focusing on the “show” combos instead of the “grow” fundamentals.

The concept of accelerating performance by focusing on fundamentals was illustrated well in research related to teaching elementary students to read. In this research, the investigator found that by blending (think sounding out letters to make words) only 40 or so letter-sound combinations in the English language, a child will be able to read almost 500,000 words (Alessi, 1987). Can you imagine the time saved teaching the 40 sounds as compared with teaching 500,000 words??

The same concept applies to MMA. Coaches who focus on developing fundamental skills multiply their fighter’s ability exponentially to learn and apply more complex skills in the future. Examples of fundamental skills include, but are not limited to:

  • Posture
  • Stance
  • Weight distribution
  • Core rotation
  • Shifting weight
  • Linear and lateral movement
  • Proper Guard
  • Extending the arm
  • Rotating fist

The irony is that if coaches and fighters focus on developing fundamental skills to fluency when teaching a new skill, not only does a fighter’s skill and performance develop at an accelerated rate, but fighter’s actually can learn far more and develop their own skills spontaneously…even in the absence of coaching. And this isn’t reserved for new or green fighters. This is applicable to fighters at the highest level of the game. While many are successful despite flaws in their fundamentals, we will never know how many potential world champions came up short simply because of only the slightest flaw in a fundamental. These flaws become progressively magnified as fighters climb the rankings in MMA.

Putting the Piece Together

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. In the next article, we will focus on the development of component and composite skills as well as provide tried and true strategies for helping the skills rapidly generalize from drilling to actual fighting.

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

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

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