January 18, 2020

 

Playful Sparring

If you follow me on social media, you probably know that I highly enjoy watching mixed martial arts, particularly the UFC, whenever I am not chin deep in American football analysis. This past Saturday, the two worlds converged a bit as I was watching the first of four NFL playoff games, where the Rams were visiting Packers, and a UFC event was concurrently taking place over on ABC (for the first time since they frequently aired boxing on the network back in the day). 

Now, I would usually never flip off an NFL game as it’s taking place, especially when I have athletes playing in the game, but this was a rare situation and I am glad that I did. Once the Main Event fight began, a featherweight match-up between rising up and comer, Calvin Kattar, and former Champion, Max Holloway, my phone started blowing up almost immediately by others who I may talk MMA with. You see, Holloway, not only started putting on an absolute clinic right from jump street, but he was actually painting a movement skill masterpiece unlike almost any other ever witnessed across all sports. It was that good! When all was said and done, Holloway had landed more significant strikes on his opponent than had ever been thrown in a UFC fight. But, this isn’t a highlight show, or a written recap or report on the event, you can go see that in many other places. Instead, I want to highlight something about Holloway’s training efforts, to spark some thought for the movement skill community.

Before we go any further, I feel that it’s imperative to mention: I don’t have any inside knowledge of what Max Holloway’s training camps truly look like. Speaking from experience with players and chatting with the media, I can say that TV segments and media source interviews can often remove valuable context from how a training method or modality is actually being employed and utilized in the scope of an athlete’s overall plan.

That all said, Max Holloway, unlike the vast majority of other UFC fighters, reportedly doesn’t do any traditional sparring leading up to a fight. This is for many reasons, namely, he suffered some significant head trauma a number of years ago that he felt had such an impact on him, that he set-out to try to minimize the lasting effects of what is viewed as a reality of high-level MMA. This has led him to articulate ideas around it, because the approach is somewhat unorthodox compared to his peers, and how he now strongly feels as though others should reconsider the inclusion of this long-held training tradition.

At first glance, many may point out that I, of all people, should be strongly for sparring. After all, you don’t have to look very far to see and hear me shouting off the rooftops about how coaches should aim to present more alive movement problems to athletes and allow them to connect to the information that lives there. Furthermore, shouldn’t sparring be the most highly representative form of training for a MMA fight which would contain the most relevant information for channeling one’s movement behaviors within the competitive sport environment itself?

Yes, technically, sparring would be highly representative and the most ‘fight-like’ as you can get. However, I am with Holloway (or at least my interpretation of his approach) in that one doesn’t have to predominantly exist there in order to refine the skills to perform there. Yet, I do believe that whatever training method we choose to employ, the information which will specify opportunities for the athlete to move (i.e. affordances), must still almost always be present.

Within UNDERPINNINGS, as well as numerous other places, we have routinely discussed the idea of ‘information scaling.’ In a sport like MMA (where one doesn’t want to routinely take a high number of headshots) or similarly, in American football (where we don’t always want the athlete to be required to perform full-speed tackling), information scaling allows us to exist in a place where the perceptual-motor workspace isn’t so intense that it puts the athlete in a realm where there are subjected to any unnecessary or undue risk within the practice environment. Meaning, scaling down on the information present through reducing the complexity of the problem (and potentially changing the intentions of the athletes both explicitly and implicitly), can have tremendous benefits on allowing athletes to still solve alive problems while becoming progressively more coupled to the information of the competitive environment and coordinating their movement in relation to it.

During the fight, when discussing Holloway’s approach to sparring, they made mention to the more ‘playful sparring’ that he has been partaking in where one is able to still refine what the skill is built upon (the movement problem-solving process), but also stay fresher and preserve both physiological and psychological resources longer-term. It’s an idea that I introduced within my NFL player learning environments years ago where the athlete is required and encouraged to move at closer to movement ownership sparring speeds. Yes, we actually had the word ‘sparring’ in our reference to how they should operate. But, as you can see, for the athlete, it’s about moving at a speed where you own your movement skill execution. And it’s here, where I believe that one is able to more fully explore the environment and its problems, and potentially pick-up on more of it’s opportunities for you to create with your movement.

In fact, I believe existing there more often within training, is actually what led Holloway to display the highly attuned and adaptable nature that he did versus one of the world’s best with a shot at the title on the line. If you watched it, at one point you would see this attunement materialize in Holloway being so intimately sensitive to information about Kattar’s punches, that he was literally dodging combinations while he was simultaneously talking to the commentating crew outside of the octagon, in the last two minutes of the 5th and final round of the fight (I am not joking, check out the clip for some of the most ridiculous expression of skill you can imagine). Additionally, you would have also seen some of the most playful and free exploration of one’s environment flowing constantly with creativity in the form of Capoeria-style kicks and novel elbow strikes. Overall, to say Holloway was comfortable within the deepest waters of chaos would be an understatement.

In wrapping today, I would be remiss if I let you go without mentioning some of things that I am personally excited about at Emergence as we embark on the new year. Namely, we recently introduced ORIGINS to the world, which is a project led by Rich White and Michael Zweifel of Emergence. Quite simply, it is our team’s take on how to best set up learning environments, specifically designed for youth populations, in hopes of facilitating enhanced movement literacy through abundance and ownership of a wide range of movement skills. I would invite you to check out more information about it HERE

Shawn Myszka

Co-Director of Education