This article was published in Fighters Only magazine in the UK. The main thesis below, and the reason I am reposting here has to due with the division and balance between sport-specific practice and artificial training in the gym. The context happens to be MMA and jiu-jitsu but the idea can and should be applied to all sports.
In the Human And Weak essay in the Knowledge section I wrote the following:
"Strength and endurance are relatively easy to come by, given adequate attention and self-discipline, which are, apparently, not so easy to come by. And because these attributes may be easily obtained, and mankind is inherently lazy, some see strength and conditioning as a shortcut to improved sport performance."
I also wrote that, because the gym training is easy and the results satisfying in the immediate we easily trick ourselves into placing greater emphasis on conditioning, when "increased skill or technique, or evolution of the mind lead to the most radical progress in sport performance." But these are difficult tasks to practice. The results are not nearly as obvious - accumulating over months and years rather than happening in weeks. And the work is damned frustrating. The disciplined athlete recognizes this and keeps doing the things that have proven to work over and over for others in the past. Eventually, given adequate fitness the skill and technique and psychologic resiliency developed through consistent mindful effort put that athlete on top and the merely "physical" players on the heap of has-beens and never-weres. So here we go.
The first point of the Gym Jones training philosophy is The Mind Is Primary. All actions originate in the mind. And all physical actions affect an individual’s psychology. The mind isn’t separate from the body – in life, in a fight, or in training for either.
I used to climb mountains. The Gym Jones training philosophy evolved from the way we climbed new routes up a steep and difficult walls: how can we best solve this problem? What’s the safest, fastest, and, given our resources and the conditions, the most efficient route to the top? How much risk are we willing to accept? We approach individual sport or work-related challenges in the same way.
Despite common themes, each mountain presents different challenges. In the gym each individual challenges us in a particular way, each performance objective has its own characteristics. Even if increased power, endurance, speed, skill, and tenacity are a common thread, and we use similar methods to develop those characteristics, ignoring the individual nature of training and performance is the weak link in many programs. To avoid this we focus on a small number of athletes at Gym Jones. But our philosophy may be applied anywhere.
We address each individual with a degree of flexibility. Everything that has been done before may be useful but it may be a distraction. Knowledge and expertise are tricky things: being keys to locks and also bars on cages. What we know and believe may help us achieve objectives but it can just as easily enslave us to automatic, thoughtless response. Questions open the mind. Answers either free or close it. Experts often apply a rigid 'solution' to particular and similar problems while being closed-minded to other possibilities. The closed mind stagnates, and repeats its meager experience over and over.
Expert knowledge can be the finest weapon or the worst sort of prison. Details often blind us to the principles. When we focus on individual steps we lose sight of the path, of fundamental values and also lose the Way.
To remain true to the Way we separated ourselves. We created our own standards. We built a hierarchy of effort. We don’t care how heavy or how fast. Instead we value the struggle – across all aspects of performance: from gut-wrenching workouts to mindful, sport-specific practice to dietary discipline to intelligent recovery practices. If one values an objective or experience highly enough to commit all resources to it then top performance results. Heavier and faster aren’t causes but effects.
The rest of it - the posturing, the look, the decoration - needs a mirror to mean something. Competence remains after the audience goes home. There are no shortcuts to it.
Strength and conditioning is important to a fighter. In some cases it might be decisive but more often than not technical ability decides a fight’s outcome. Rob “Maximus” MacDonald, UFC veteran, reigning Ring of Fire light heavyweight champion, and a coach at Gym Jones, states that, “placing too much emphasis on physical conditioning helped derail my fight career.” For his most recent fight (against Chuck Grigsby in VFC 26) Rob was in the best physical condition of his life but he was KO’d in the first round. Did fitness matter? Did he achieve superb physical fitness at the cost of sport-specific technical practice? Would more emphasis on fight training have produced a better result?
Most fighters train too much in the gym because progress is quantifiable and satisfying while technical fight practice doesn’t provide the same frequent, positive feedback. But Rob asks, “who cares how fast you can complete workout ‘X’ if you get knocked out? The judges don’t compare training logs. Your bench press one-rep max doesn’t matter if you can’t apply your strength in a technical and controlled manner. Technique is the dominant contributor to success and it sits on top of a foundation of physical fitness.”
Build that foundation, and once it’s solid, give enough attention to maintain it but not more. Our top guys only train in the gym 2-3 times per week. In that same period they do 7-10 fight-related training sessions. However, until you have put in two years of consistent, injury-free training you probably aren’t fit enough to follow this plan. You need more volume.
How much is enough? When my wife brought the first fighters to the gym they weren’t in shape but instead got by on superb technical skills. We trained four days per week for 18 months to build a solid foundation. Once fitness was no longer a factor in the cage or on the mat we shifted focus back to the more important issue of technique.
Maximus urges fighters to, “spend limited training time wisely. Develop what’s weak instead of doing what you are already good at. If your boxing sucks, box. If your jiu-jitsu game is lacking, hit the mats. If you are weak pick up some weight. There’s a far greater return on investment from developing what’s weak than from making small improvements to what is already strong.”
Finally, he insists that fighters pay attention. “Track your progress. Write a detailed a training log. Update it daily. You can’t know what worked and what didn’t if you don’t keep a record of what you did, how it felt, how you felt, and why. If you don’t have the discipline to do something as easy as keeping a log you don’t have what it takes to succeed in the cage.”
In the end strength and conditioning only goes so far. Fitness is our bread and butter but the role of Gym Jones is supporting. Sport-specific practice comes first because it’s easier to make a technical fighter strong than to make a strong fighter thoughtful.
I recently posted this article on the public site with access to it only via the Twitter feed. Almost immediately I received a telling email.
"Once again your site has served as a beacon in dark times for me on my journey. Prior to becoming a Salvation member, I had subscribed to what I understand to be the Gym Jones attitude towards training. I trained hard, smart, and often. I "arrived" at some arbitrary fitness standards I had given myself and immediately thought "So what? What do I do with this strength? I need a sport". In 2009 I started training MMA as I had always intended to "one day". I immediately realized that all that fitness didn't mean a damn thing against someone more technically skilled than me. Who cares about a sub 1:30 500m row when you're getting punched in the face? The black belt sporting 120lb woman beating me up sure didn't. My fitness made me stand out among the fighters, and carried me through some serious beatings, but I saw that I had misguided myself for the past three years training in the gym. It's a different kind of fitness. Technique and mental focus is everything in a fight.
In October of 2009 I did my usual analysis and summary of the past year's training log (October 08 to 09). I looked at time spent in the gym vs. time on the mat. I made the determination then that my fitness training can either wait, or be rebuilt later. I knew then that I had to focus on technique or lose. Every single opportunity to train technique after that was taken, even in the gym. If I went to my gym, I didn't lift weights or even knock out a set of pull ups, it was to find a quiet corner and practice techniques. I lift weights once or twice a week at this point. In six months I have already surpassed the number of MMA training hours recorded the previous year. The shift in focus has certainly paid off in fighting, but my frustration with a decline in fitness in the gym cast doubt on my choice. I began to question even my membership to Gym Jones, am I wasting time and money if I'm not in the gym working out? I pushed on, unable to focus beyond my own doubt.
Your article has helped me remember that I'm not alone in my thinking, and made me feel more secure in my path. Thanks again for doing what you do.
In reply I wrote:
We have learned over the years that this thesis is not only true for fighters but for many sports: fitness plays a role but let's not trick ourselves into assigning it more importance just because it's the focus of the gym. Or because even a inattentive, inconsistent dweeb can make himself more fit. The technical and mental management aspects of (virtually) every sport trump physical fitness every damned time.
However ... it doesn't mean fitness is irrelevant or that time spent preparing physically is wasted. For every athlete a high level of physical conditioning should e a given, it should form the foundation on which technical skills sits, and through which that skill is expressed. So you have to be fit. But how much s enough? And when comes the point of diminishing return?
On top of that, when the fitness training is properly designed and executed great psychological benefits result - especially in the beginning of one's relationship with fitness and sport. Later - and it sounds like you have reached that point - the gym doesn't provide enough stimulus for mental growth no matter how tough the training. At that point one needs to spar or to get in the cage, one has to show up on race day, to actually play and compete in the sport because only that competition can provide the appropriate intensity and specificity needed for continued psychological growth.
So do what you need to do in the gym to maintain the fitness that allows you to do the sport-specific practice, and to learn while you are doing it. This is no small part: when you are pushed to the limit of physical conditioning the mind is occupied with other things than seeing and learning. The greater your fitness, the higher your threshold, the more freedom your mind has to assess, to analyze and to learn.