Blood, Sweat, and Science: How Behavior Analysis and MMA make a Winning Combo

By Paul Gavoni, Ed.D & Nick Green, M.S., BCBA

Guest Authors

With the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) closing in on 4 million Twitter followers, it is clear the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) continues to rise. With popularity, comes growth. New gyms are spawned, teenagers get into the sport at earlier ages, and sophisticated training camps are slowly shaped over time. With growth comes opportunity. Combat sports are practically asking for behavior analysts to help…they just don’t know it, and many behavior analyst never dreamed of it. For coaches and fighters looking for a competitive edge, an opportunity for behavior analysts to apply themselves and the science to the sport is calling….LOUDLY!

The interdisciplinary phenomenon that is MMA blends the techniques of boxing, wrestling, and various forms of martial arts (e.g. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Karate, and Muay Thai). Nowadays, a successful fighter cannot become a champion by mastering only one of these disciplines. The fighter must become a master of many. Each technique requires “perfect practice” to develop fluency in a fight style, or fight repertoire. Fight repertoires are combined in ways to allow a fighter to effectively perform in any situation such as when an opponent strikes, makes a defensive error, or puts the fighter in a submission hold.

A fighter’s repertoire is composed of many individual behaviors, chained and sequenced together.  As such, there clearly lies great opportunity for behavior analysts to implement their craft in a way that has meaningful results to fighters and coaches, that is, winning!

In this article, we highlight a few key areas where behavior analysts can add great value to MMA. Coaches and fighters alike can accelerate their performance through the effective shaping of individual behaviors that compose effective coaching and fight repertoires.

Training: What to Teach

In boxing and MMA, observable behavior is the main focus for determining a winner. A fighter can win by knockout, or by forcing their opponent to tap out. These behavioral indicators provide immediate feedback to the referee and spectators about who is winning at any given time.

Common targets in these sports include: striking with hands and feet, putting the body into a good position to set up or leverage a submission, and executing certain combinations of punches or kicks.

The more complicated repertoires include: reading an opponent (knowing when to attack or defend), establishing control of the fight through footwork and body position, and sticking to a coach’s strategy through multiple rounds (rule-governed behavior).

Here is a list of some common behavioral strategies to teach any of the above or not mentioned fight behaviors:

Repetition for building fluency­ – Provide reinforcement when strikes are topographically similar. For example, a strike must follow the same path.

Shaping – Reinforce more and more accurate strikes to a target. A strike receives reinforcement the closer and closer it lands to targeted area.

Task Analysis – Break down a complicated striking sequence that includes its subsequent parts.

Let’s look at the steps that make-up a correct fight stance:

  1. Feet Apart (shoulder width)
  2. Lead Foot Flat
  3. Rear Foot 45 degrees
  4. Heel Up one ¼ inch
  5. Posture Vertical
  6. Knees Slightly Bent
  7. Hips 45 degrees
  8. Hands Held to Eye Level
  9. Knuckles Turned in Towards Each Other
  10. Chin Angled Slightly Down

And those are just the steps to complete before even throwing a punch! All observable and measurable behavior.

Observation Techniques – observation of fight targets can occur from anywhere: inside the ring while sparring with a fighter, at cageside while coaching, or reviewing fight tape. Behavior analysts can help coaches refine their observation skills (and feedback) related to targets, or even teach fighters to become better observers of their own behaviors and the behaviors of their opponents.

Examples of Observation Techniques:

  • Coaches can often be found wearing the mitts and body armor in the cage or ring with provides opportunity to provide immediate feedback related to directly observed behavior. Here, coaches can be taught to identify targets for observation.
  • Coaches and fighters using video to analyze the opponent’s behavior, or assess their own performance related to targeted behavior and strategies.
  • A fighter is taught to “look for” leading indicators to an opponent’s attack.
  • A fighter is taught to observe their body positioning after they throw a hook.

Measurement – an area where combat sports for the most part remain in the dark ages. Metrics are typically reserved for areas such as weight, miles ran, or perhaps rounds sparred. As behavior analysts, we know the extreme value of measurement for shaping any type of behavior and performance.  And in MMA, there are many, many areas where metrics can be embedded to accelerate performance.  Data can be used in training regimens, for specific skills and skill-sets, conditioning, nutrition monitoring, or even live sparring.

Examples of Measurement in MMA:

  • Successful chains of behavior – each time a fighter pivots his or her foot when throwing a right cross.
  • Rate of punching – punches thrown per minute on a speed bag.
  • Total duration – when getting “time” in on the heavy bag.
  • Health records – sleep time, macronutrients, and hydration levels.
  • Total duration – how long a fighter keeps his or her hands up during a round.
  • Partial interval recording – each minute in a round the fighter applies the fight strategy.

Feedback – Fighting is a physically demanding sport, and receiving constant feedback is critical to maintaining a fighter’s motivation and repertoire. Any slip, or pause in reinforcement, could end the fighter’s motivation, training camp or career.  Behavior analysts can help fighters through specific feedback related to targets, or teach coaches how to provide effective performance based feedback for shaping behaviors.

There has even been recent research in the use of audio feedback for developing new skills in MMA (Krukauskas, 2016), and Judo (Ferguson, 2014). Video feedback has also been used to in increase the percentage of correct acrobatic moves in a martial arts performance (BenitezSantiago & Miltenberger, 2016).

The application of these strategies for accelerating the development and strengthening of fight repertoires may only be limited by the analyst imagination.

Naturally occurring reinforcement – fighters learn that executing a particular combination may be highly effective against a certain opponent, and in turn, this may lead great opportunities for a more powerful punch or opportunity for a takedown.  For example, a fighter may lead with the left hand and learns the opportunity for a right hook will ALWAYS be there (if the other fighter doesn’t adjust their strategy quick!).  Furthermore, coaches can be taught to help fighters observe the naturally occurring reinforcement through observation and measurement techniques.

Deliberate and inadvertent punishment – participating in combat sports is our modern-day survival of the fittest, those that knockout or submit the most people rise to the top.

Examples of Punishment in MMA:

  • For the journeyman, years of training results in constant avoidance of certain movements and position relative to the other fighter. This is one-trial learning at its best…how many times does it take to learn dodge a flying wrench (Dodgeball anyone???)
  • Coaches can be taught how to develop generalization strategies of new skills into live sparring in a way that allows the fighter to effectively perform the skill. In many situations, new skills can be inadvertently put on extinction as the fighter’s attempt to implement them are not immediately met with reinforcement, and sometimes immediately punished (e.g. a fighter learning to slip punches tries to slip a right hand and is knocked out).

Data Collection: What to Measure

We highlighted a few dependent variables above. But first, as with any behavior change strategy, it is important to determine how fine-grained your analysis will be. Is it more important to collect data on physiological measures (e.g., weight, water intake), on the skill, or on the performance of the skill through in vivo training?

The schedule and opponent of an upcoming fight will typically determine what data the coach will be focused on in terms of skills, strategy, and strength and conditioning. For example, when the weigh-in draws near, coaches will focus on data related to food intake, water consumption, and miles ran (to lose weight and monitor energy levels). Many types of data are collected, but the value of each will vary as the fight day nears.

A “Packaged” Delivery 

ABA even comes with methodologies that can easily be applied to MMA to help coaches and athletes develop new skills and promote generalization.  One intervention “package” is called Behavior Skills Training.  This method, commonly used with students, parents, and professionals, combines instruction, modeling, behavioral rehearsal, and feedback as performance and competency based strategies for developing new behavior and skills (Reid et. al, 2003).

Another approach, termed Behavioral Coaching, was first employed by Allison and Ayllon (1980) in a study on football, gymnastics, and tennis. In their research, behavioral coaching consisted of five components: (a) instruction, (b) judging the response, (c) feedback, (d) modeling, and (e) imitation.

Though neither approach can be found in the literature in regards to MMA, it is easy to imagine the applications for developing and generalizing fight repertoires.

In Summary…

There are many ways to prepare for a fight. Great coaches intuitively know how to train fighters from years of experience. Others go about training haphazardly, yet still may get good results.  Similarly, some fighters achieve different levels of success, but fail to reach the pinnacle of the sport because they are unaware of the essentials for accelerating performance. In both cases, knowing what is most effective for developing a fight repertoire will allow for the acceleration of fighter performance anytime, anywhere.  Any discipline or training regimen that incorporates tried and true behavioral principles has a strong advantage over any opponent.  This is why behavior analysts in MMA is a winning combo!

Selected References

Allison M. G., Ayllon T. (1980).  Behavioral coaching in the development of skills in football, gymnastics, and tennis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 13:297–314.

Benitezsantiago, A., & Miltenberger, R. (2016). Using video feedback to improve martial arts performance. Behavioral Interventions, 31, 12-27.

Ferguson, T. E.,  (2014). Using auditory feedback to improve the performance of judokas during uchi komi (Unpublished master thesis). University of South Florida, Tampa.

Krukauskas, F. (2016). Using auditory feedback to improve striking for mixed martial artists (unpublished master thesis, University of South Florida)

Reid D. H., Rotholz D. A., Parsons M. B., Morris L., Braswell B. A., Green C. W., Schell R. M. (2003). Training human service supervisors in aspects of positive behavior support: Evaluation of a state-wide, performance-based program. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions. 5:35–46.

An expert in human performance and organizational leadership, Dr. Paul Gavoni works in education and human services to provide administrative teams, teachers, and staff with coaching and consultation in analyzing and developing behavior and performance management systems to positively impact key performance indicators.  As an Adjunct Professor, Paul is passionate about engaging and empowering his students through the development and application of knowledge. 

Beyond his work in education and human services, Paul is also a highly respected coach in combat sports. In 1992, Paul began boxing in South Florida and went on to win a Florida Golden Gloves Heavyweight Title in 1998. Since then, Coach “Paulie Gloves,” as he is known in the MMA community, has trained many champions and UFC vets using technologies rooted in the behavioral sciences.  A featured coach in the book Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams a the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts, Coach Paulie is also an author who has written for online magazines such as Scifighting, Last Word on Sports, and Bloody Elbow; most recently he has published his own book with Manny Rodriguez titled Quick Wins! Accelerating School Transformation through Science, Engagement, and Leadership.  

Nick Green is currently a PhD student at the University of Florida and studies how physical activity can be improved with behavioral interventions. He received his MS degree in organizational behavior management, applying the science of human behavior to business. Nick has a wrestling background, is an avid CrossFitter and actively pursues opportunities to bring the principles of behavior analysis to the sports industry. He writes blogs, presents workshops, and offers trainings through his health-centered company, BehaviorFit. His research interests are in decreasing sitting in the workplace and schools. He also writes and lectures for ABA Technologies in Melbourne, FL.


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3 Comments on "Blood, Sweat, and Science: How Behavior Analysis and MMA make a Winning Combo"

  1. Excellent article. The application of ABA to sports is an interesting and relatively new practice area, with the potential to help countless individuals. Thank you for drawing attention to this important topic!

  2. Dr. Corrine R. Donley | January 1, 2017 at 5:17 pm | Reply

    This demonstrates the wide expanse of the discipline of Behavior Analysis. Thank you!!!

  3. Please follow this up with a discussion of how the application of ABA within this market area meets the Standards for Ethical Application of the technology of the field

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