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Progressional learning and long term athlete development in combat sports

The old way of doing things in combat sports especially boxing and Muay Thai has been to skip, hit bags, hit pads, hit people, and do a few hundred push ups and sit-ups. They’ve done it for centuries so it must be best practice? Not necessarily. Too much open ended training (e.g. open bag work is throwing any combination you feel like, open ended sparring is sparring with no intention or purpose and just doing what ever) lead to slow and minimal results for the general population. Of course if you spend long enough doing something you will eventually make some improvement, but what if there was a better and more efficient way?

I recently attended a Boxing certification course that was run by Boxing Victoria and presented by two coaches who were involved with the Australian and Victorian boxing teams. They used the term “performance outcomes” in many of there coaching philosophies and coaching methods. Performance outcomes are a pre determined result that you want to achieve from a situation e.g. sparring round or training session. They would let an athlete know that there performance outcome for a set sparring round would be to work the lead body shot. This meant the athlete would spend the entire round of sparring focusing entirely on the lead body shot, and in turn would make improvements through focusing on the single performance outcome they are trying to develop.

Normally, during “open” sparring rounds, beginner to intermediate level combat athletes always get overwhelmed with the amount of things they needed to think about e.g. footwork, guard, punching, defence, and cardio. This usually results in them under performing and not being able to put anything together. They simply don’t posses the motor neural skills to work everything in sync let alone use them effectively. Intermediate to advanced level athletes tend to stick to only practicing things they are good at because they don’t feel comfortable working on weaknesses, or might be a blow to the ego to not be good at something all over again. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. Eventually this leads to gaping holes in there games when it comes to competition, and by that time it’s too late. There weaknesses are exposed in the fires of competition. As a coach it’s our role to identify these weaknesses and minimize them before competition.

Another coaching methodology I’ve been implementing in my athlete development is progressional learning. This is training with purpose and gradually building up to meet your final performance outcome. Here is an example from one of the classes I ran. During this my performance outcome as a coach was to teach people the following 3 skills:

1. Slip outside opponents lead straight & counter rear straight
2. Slip opponents outside rear straight & counter lead hook
3. Weave opponents lead hook & counter rear straight.

Here is a breakdown of how the class worked:

Footwork is the foundation of all combat sports and the single most important factor to everything you do. I worked a few drills to get people moving there feet and upper body for slipping and punching.

It was a smaller class today so we practiced shadow boxing singular punch technique then moved onto the bags to practice the punches. I had the class focus mainly of the punches they were going to use today.

I demonstrated the technique to make sure everyone understood the techniques and had partners practice each combination individually so that they could perform it perfectly with minimal stress and no other variables. The practice involved turn for turn punching combinations into the partners gloves. The combinations practiced were as followed:

1. Slip outside opponents lead straight & counter rear straight
2. Slip opponents outside rear straight & counter lead hook
3. Weave opponents lead hook & counter rear straight.

Assuming that everyone was able to perform each set skill individually and properly this is where I started to introduce different variables.

Stage 1 – Perform the 3 combinations with a partner in sequence. Heart rate starts to increase and athletes feel more pressure to perform. If athletes can’t perform at this stage (delivering all three combinations in sequence with minimal error) then we slow it down or go back to singular combination practice. During this stage athlete A is a feeder and athlete B is the boxer. They stay in there roles for the entire round.

Stage 2 – Assuming the athlete can perform Stage 1 close to perfect we introduce the next variable. Randomization. The combinations are no longer in sequence and athlete cannot anticipate and must now react. There is a short pause between combinations and gradually reduced if the athlete can handle the new load. During this stage athlete A is a feeder and athlete B is the boxer. They stay in there roles for the entire round.

Stage 3 – Assuming that the athlete can perform Stage 2 close to perfection then we introduce the next variable. Randomization but turn for turn based. This is even closer to simulating sparring, but athletes only have to work 3 different punches and only 3 counters. Short pauses are mandatory between each combination and gradually reduced as the athlete begins to master this stage.

At each level I introduced more variables to stress the athlete and constantly test them. If they can’t perform at a certain level then we slow it down or even move back a level. Did I meet my performance outcome of teaching my 3 skills I wanted to athletes to develop? Yes. More importantly I coached them to think for themselves a lot of the time rather than spoon feed mindless technique.

At the end of the day this style of coaching won’t suit you if all you’re after is a scripted fancy pad work video you can post on your Facebook to impress your friends. My gym is about world class coaching for everyone. Learning like this will make you a better boxer in the long term. So many “coaches” these days live off old glory days and stick with the same old format and try to smash there athletes with 10 rounds of pads to impress others. That’s cool that you can hit 10 rounds of pads with someone barking mindless combinations. I’d rather my athletes be known as technical, intelligent fighters with beautiful technique rather than the person who can do 10 rounds of lousy technique on the pads.

Filed under: Phillip Lai Coaching

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When one door closes, another opens. The journey never ends. This is the life I choose to live. This is my story.

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