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How I Coached (well, this time at least)

I had thought about putting this together as an article for VPX, but I decided I’d stick it here, since the blog has had a fallow period and this might seem a little long and jumbled, and I really don’t want to spend much time organising it. Think of this as a stream of consciousness post and you’ll understand the lack of structure. I’m afraid I’ve been just too busy to blog. I’m writing now for a friend, writing for VPX, putting together some new business stuff, working a bit on a project that hopefully will see the light of day soon, and of course, trying to train and train others too. I’m busy, mercifully busy. I love it.

So this isn’t a post on how to train an MMA fighter. This is a post on how I trained an MMA fighter, this one particular time, and how it came about and how it went. I thought it was worth committing to writing because it really is a bit of a journey, and I hope Amanda and Grant  don’t mind being characters in this, but then I think walking into my gym is like signing a consent form for my blog.

I was done training fighters this time last year. Absolutely burned out and finished with the whole thing. I had bottomed out on MMA and has lost the drive to train anyone at all. I told everyone that I was taking a rest and would start again in 6 months or so, but really I was hoping that someone would step up and start taking MMA sessions in my stead. This didn’t happen, and while every now and again we’d do some wrestling with strikes, or we’d hit pads a bit, I wasn’t missing it. I enjoyed going to shows as a judge or as a commentator, and I still enjoyed watching fights, but I just couldn’t see myself training anyone anymore. It was strange. MMA is the reason I started down this whole BJJ and grappling route in the first place. I can only suppose that this was a reaction to the fact that I had just shut down a gym and had some bad vibes and experiences with a couple of my fighters. I was just sick of it I suppose.

A previous life

Anyway, we all enjoyed our grappling during this time, and my two remaining fighters, Shafty and Amanda, seemed happy enough too. But it turns out happy and satisfied are two different things. Amanda sat me down one evening and basically asked me outright to get going again. Once I said yes, but just for you, Shafty decided he’d like to get going again too. So I said yes, but just for you and her, but that’s all. Then some of the younger guys in the gym began to ask about it too. So I said yes, but just for him, and her, and you guys too but no one else right?. Then some people who had never trained before started asking… and well, it goes on like this. The net result is that we’ve been back and training hard now for the last 3 months, and we had our first re-entry into the competitive world of amateur MMA last weekend, which ended with a win for Amanda.

We started in February with a 4 week strength block for both Amanda and Shafty, who was originally on the card last weekend but who now looks like he’ll be fighting in two weeks time instead. Both guys have very different needs when it comes to strength. Amanda is slightly older, though a lady never tells, and has some very specific needs to work around to do with her injury history. As such when I programme for her I avoid heavy loading in the lower body. So we worked a lot in this phase with single leg work and when we did load bilaterally, it was with the Goblet squat up to a 40kg kettlebell. For her upper body it’s pretty much open season and we used weighted push ups, pull ups, chin ups and ring push ups in the main as her primary upper body strength exercises. Shafty on the other hand isn’t limited by anything but his bodytype. He’s long limbed for a bantamweight! We did a standard 5×5 template for his work with some special focus on his core and on anti-rotation where he’s had some injury difficulties in the past.

Goblet Squatting Nice and Light

Around this time, we barely sparred. The guys rolled every day, occasionally in MMA gloves, but the priority here was to re-programme good technique after the lay-off. So it was all padwork, wrestling against the wall, takedowns and takedown defence, pummelling and so on. We’d spar in a limited fashion but I don’t think we did one full MMA round for the month of February. Not that it would have done any harm, we just had our focus elsewhere.

In April, things changed a little bit. The rounds got harder and the sparring increased slightly. We switched from a strength template to a strength/conditioning one, with the guys doing one full conditioning session per week plus a conditioning or faster strength-work block at the end of one of their sessions. We were lucky enough that despite the obvious gender difference, there’s not much between them, so they were able to work together with similar weights. We also took on a new pad man after I hurt my elbow, and the guys were so happy with him that they want to work with him from now on. That’s great as it’s one less thing to think about for me. I might go ahead and outsource more stuff from now on.

We spend a lot of time against the wall. Look at MMA matches around Ireland or the world and you’ll see that if you want to wrestle somebody, then you’re going to have to do it against the fence, so it’s very important to spend a lot of time working there. Cage wall work is one of the unique things that has come out of the MMA revolution in the last 15 years. It’s vital to be able to use the cage to our advantage and it’s more than just what boxers would call ring craft. This is a whole new avenue of wrestling, and indeed striking. So most of the time if you walk into a wrestling or grappling session in our MMA classes, you’re going to see the guys against the red wall, fighting for position and learning how to use that wall to their advantage. We have a cage wall in the gym, but I prefer to use the padded soft wall for both injury and comfort reasons. I think I’ve caught my fingers in the cage wall at least, oh, a million times now.

Shafty hates the Rower, but it’s got to be done

In May, there was even more sparring, though we were limited by the size of our club. Other gyms can call on 5-10 sparring partners of similar weight, but Shafty and Amanda really only have each other. We have plenty of grapplers though and I put them to use, plus I dusted off my gloves a bit too. I still enjoy punching people now and again. Pad rounds got more intense, sparring sharper, and conditioning sessions were shortened but intensified. We bought a new C2 rower recently and I just stuck them on that for their conditioning. Relatively non-technical and easy to use, the rower is something they can use brainlessly and without significant risk of injury, especially over the short distances and times we use it for. They have enough to absorb without having to concentrate on complex weighted movements. It annoys me to see guys whacking tyres or snatching barbells at this stage. Just do your sport, you don’t get enough time to do it as is. Amanda also worked more on power at this stage, mostly unweighted (as per her injury history) in the lower body and with moderate weight in the upper body. Conditioning wise, this training period was all about developing more power for Amanda. She’s where she needs to be in terms of her physical strength so we focused on speed and explosiveness. I think she surprised even herself with the results.

The violent very vascular vegetarian

I can’t emphasise how important technique is to me. I don’t care to see guys just beast their way out of things in training, or to see takedowns finished badly, or to see people swinging wildly in sparring. Some might say “save that for fight time” but I don’t believe that either. They way I see it is this; for hundreds of years, people have been studying and perfecting the art of fighting, be it Boxing, Muay Thai, Wrestling, Judo or Jiu Jitsu. The nature of competition means that over those years, and particularly the last 100, the techniques have been refined, the useless discarded, and the meaningful, high percentage skills have been retained. You owe it to yourself to learn this craft, and to learn it so well that you can apply it come fight time. Learning how to escape an armbar technically is pointless if all you intend to do in a fight is just pick a guy up and slam him. (a technique which actually rarely works, but anyway) Learning how to jab and cross is pointless if you intend to go in and swing for the fences. There will probably come a time when just pure aggression  or strength gets you through, and of course you need that as well, but in my gym, you do it right 100% of the time. Under pressure or not.

Diet wise, well, Shafty eats like an 11 year old with hyperactivity problems, though he is improving, and in this training period he showed a new maturity in his approach to what he eats. he still needs some guidance but I trusted him to make good choices which he did. Amanda is a vegetarian, which makes for an interesting challenge when it comes to ensuring adequate protein intake. She usually supplements with whey for convenience, but she does try to get as much in the form of whole foods as she can. Occasionally she’ll ask for some dietary advice but to be honest, she could teach me a thing or two about how to look after yourself and eat for recovery. This means that weight cutting is easy enough for her. She has no unwanted bodyfat to be concerned about and can ease off certain foods in the run in to make weight. She’s never had to go to the sauna and for this fight a little bit of padwork while wearing some layers got the last 700g off. Shafty won’t struggle for 61kgs either. He can actually make flyweight (57kg) but there’s a lack of opponents at that weight for him, so we stick to bantam. It’s a shame because I do like watching his face drop when I mention going to the sauna.

A Reward for Hard Work

I don’t like cornering all that much. I think it’s a bit like being on a plane. I dislike flying a bit. I’m not particularly scared of crashing, but I don’t like the lack of control. I can’t think of anything worse than for the crash position to be called for, the oxygen masks to drop, and to just have to sit there and wait for either the impact or for someone else to fly the plane to safety. Is there a psychologist in the house? Possibly, and I’m just spitballing here, there’s a link here between that, being self employed, running my own business, running my own gym, and not liking being a passenger in a car too. Oh yes, and I don’t like being in a corner when my guys are fighting. Not really anyway. I get on with it though, but of all the people I’ve cornered, Shafty and Amanda are the best to deal with. This is probably because I’ve coached them the longest and they know what I want and I know how they’ll understand it best. I’ve also stood in to corner for guys who have been left short of a cornerman, but who have been good, experienced fighters, and I’ve almost enjoyed that too.

Anyway, I enjoyed cornering Amanda on Saturday night. Her opponent was frustrating and put up a good show, but ultimately Amanda won through. At one stage in the second round I lost my voice. I don’t mean that figuratively, I mean it literally. I shouted something across to the far side of the cage and when I went to speak again, nothing came out but a croak. I’d had a bad cold all week so I suppose that was to blame. It was right at the end of the round and I thought I was going to have to whisper instructions in her ear at the break in some sort of Don Corleone croak. It came back thanks to a clearing cough and gulp of water, and I was able to talk away.

So that’s a nonsensical, rambling blog post on my last few months of coaching. Next up is Shafty fighting in 2 weeks’ time against person unknown. maybe I’ll blog a bit about that. Either way, it’s nice to be back in the game.


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