Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Foundations for Effective Training

Back to Basics


You have a big fight coming up in about eight weeks.

Do you have a ready answer to the following questions?:

  • What phase of your resistance training are you currently in and when will you transition?
  • What specifically will you eat tomorrow, and when?
  • What are your specific goals for your next training workout?
  • What is in your training log and when is the last time you and your coach reviewed that log together?
  • What are the specific strengths and weaknesses in your mental game and how have you addressed these in your training plan?
  • How will you measure and know when you are ready?

Answers to these questions reflect just some of the basic elements of a systematic approach to training and preparation. But how many times have you talked to a fighter who takes it one day at a time, with little advance planning, has only general goals for a training session or phase, and keeps no training log? He or she may train really, really hard, but have no detailed roadmap to guide the journey. Might this be a factor separating the good fight camps and fighters from the truly great ones?

Thomas Alva Edison said: "There is no substitute for hard work." That's true. But it's also true that hard work – applied unsystematically – will not benefit you as much as hard work that fits into an overall plan. It is remarkable that some pro MMA fighters – among the hardest working elite athletes in any sport today – have only one training speed: "balls to the wall" and one identifiable goal: "to win the next fight." All the blame, however, doesn't sit with the fighters.

As the competitive climate of professional MMA has exploded, many fighters, trainers and coaches have been scrambling to find cutting edge training methods and racing to keep up with their opponents. If we take a cue from other sports, we might suspect that pushing combat sport performance "to the next level" will require an ongoing, programmatic collaboration among athletes, trainers and sport scientists. But while that grand evolution unfolds, there are a number of practical steps that you can take – today- to transform your training and your fight game. I cannot promise a quick fix based on some ancient metaphysical law, but I would be very surprised if you followed a plan and did not see evidence of significant progress within a couple of months.

After you have assessed your motivation (See article on "A Question of Motivation"), setting goals for yourself is a good first step toward smarter training. Smarter training, in this case, means better planning guided by a systematic strategy. A training plan should point you toward your goals, give you directions on how to get there and help you identify some markers along the way.

Performance psychologists – through research- have identified a few key characteristics of goals that really work:

1. Be Specific: One of the main functions of any goal is to help focus and direct the athlete's attention and effort. As a result, vague goals like "be ready or "be the best fighter I can be" often don't work so well. They may give you a temporary boost of motivation, but they don't really direct your attention or effort. But think about a specific goal like this: "During this sparring session, I will counterstrike after every block or defensive maneuver I execute." This specifies the behavior, its frequency and the time frame. It is much easier to for your brain to direct attention and effort toward a goal when you give it a clear description of what you really want. Write it so that someone else could watch you on screen and unambiguously determine whether or not you did it. Specific goals typically work better than generalized or vague goals.

2. Be Positive: Define your goal by what you want to achieve, not by what you want to avoid. Having the goal: "I will not feel nervous before the fight" probably will not work as well as: "I will feel calm and in control of my thoughts while I am backstage before my fight." Choose wording that works for you, but the basic idea here is that telling yourself what not to do almost never works. Your brain is not wired that way. Remember goals work for you, in part, because they focus and direct your attention

3. Own It: People work harder to achieve goals that are important to them. Competitors should either generate or participate in their goal-setting, not just have them dictated by a coach or trainer. Research shows that athletes exert more effort and are more likely succeed in reaching goals that they have set or "bought into", than in meeting goals that are imposed upon them.

4. Make It Challenging, but Attainable: Research shows that meeting goals can significantly enhance an athlete's motivation and confidence. The benefits are greatest when the goals are tough to achieve, but realistic. If your goals are unattainable (think "perfection"), you will be less committed to them and set yourself up for failure. Be aware of your limits, but push yourself in increments. For example, Numerous studies have shown that people who set more challenging goals for themselves improve more and accomplish more than those who set easy goals or no goals at all. Meeting these challenging goals can help you feel more confident in your skills and abilities and give you concrete, measurable evidence of your preparation and progress.

5. Target What You Control: Goal-setting works best when you focus on your performance (which you control) rather than outcomes (which you do not fully control). Lots of factors play into whether you will win a given fight or what your overall record will be. You control what you do, but you can't control other external things like the ref's calls, last-minute fight card changes, or your opponent's strength. Your greatest opportunity to influence the outcome you want (for example, a win or a knockout) will come from focusing on your own performance. For example, if you have a goal like: "I will keep this fight standing up for all three sparring rounds", you are focusing on an outcome. Outcome are affected by your performance and by external factors. A more performance-focused goal might be stated as follows: "I will focus on stand-up attacks and execute good defense to my opponent's takedown attempts."

6. Track, Measure, and Get Feedback: This may seem obvious, but it is very often forgotten. After setting a goal, you should get feedback about whether or not you met it. You should have some way to measure your results, and a timeframe in which you will assess whether you met your target goals. Research on behavior change shows consistently that "feedback" is a key factor for modifying and improving performance. It is often helpful to enlist others' help in monitoring and measuring your goal attainment. Having an outside observer (like a coach, trainer, or training partner) adds a degree of objectivity and also frees you just to focus on your performance. Your watcher or monitor, however, must know the specificity details what to look for, how you want it counted or measured.

Knowing how to set goals effectively is an important step in becoming more systematic in your training. Systematic training is about developing a plan; then methodically following it toward your short and long-term goals. Your goals should be developed methodically, using some of the principles described here. But those goals also should be prioritized (probably in collaboration with your coach or trainer) and laid out within overall training plan.