Fighters Are Using Self-Improvement Principles To Improve At Maximum Speed – You Can Too

Ever wondered how MMA fighters in their 20s manage to master several different martial arts while working jobs and having lives? They practice smart and compete smarter, and now so can you…

At UFC 217, in the closing minutes of a title fight against up-and-comer Ray Borg, defending champ Demetrious Johnson did something nobody had ever seen before. He’d outclassed Borg for the whole fight with a combination of crisp boxing, technical Muay Thai and slick catch wrestling, but the finish he used was a combination of Greco-Roman grappling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Popping Borg up in the air for what looked like a suplex, he bailed on the throw halfway through and caught an arm instead, locking it up and forcing Borg to tap almost as soon as they both landed on the mat. It was easily the best submission of 2017; maybe the best ever. But how did he do it?

‘Deliberate practice is a behaviour, and flow is an experience’

The modern UFC demands more skills from its athletes than any other sport. Olympic-calibre wrestlers have to develop high-level Muay Thai. Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champions need to be able to stand with boxers. Karate black belts are using spinning kicks that would have been unthinkable in the early UFCs, or borrowing techniques from arts as diverse as Capoeira and Muay Boran.

But it’s not like they have much time to do it; champs start young, and often juggle their fledgling careers with full-time jobs. So they also have to train smart, using the latest training techniques and neuroscience to speed along their progress, whether they know they’re doing it or not. Fighting, it turns out, naturally encourages some of the behaviours that lead to rapid progress in any skill – but the good news, as latest research on self-improvement shows, is that you can use them in your own sphere, once you understand them. Here’s how:

Use ‘Deliberate’ Practice
If you’ve read any self-help books recently, you’ve already heard of this concept: the idea that, for optimal improvement, you need to set well-defined, specific goals and push outside your comfort zone, zeroing in on your weaknesses. Instead of doing mindless reps, for instance, the challenge is to stay focused, eliminating tiny errors in technique.

The best fighters do this through improving the quality of their practice. Rather than simply doing armbars against an unresisting opponent, Ronda Rousey suggests using 10-second ‘micro-drills’ where each partner has a clear goal (armbar the other person/ get out of the armbar) to get dozens of quality repetitions rather than hundreds of mindless ones.

Do it yourself: it helps to have a coach who can design you a better improvement plan, but the next best option is to film yourself practising movements, then review the video – preferably with someone who knows more than you – to see what you’re doing wrong. Alternatively, do the same for writing, public speaking, or anything else you want to improve.

Get In The ‘Flow’ State
For psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – who’s interviewed hundreds of athletes about peak performance – the signature experience of experts in any field is ‘flow,’ a state of complete concentration that feels ‘effortless’. How does this square with deliberate practice? ‘Deliberate practice is a behaviour, and flow is an experience,’ explains psychologist Angela Duckworth. ‘Deliberate practice is for preparation, and flow is for performance.’ For flow to kick in, argues researcher Steven Kotler, athletes need ‘clear goals, immediate feedback, physical awareness and high consequences’ – all of which are inherent parts of boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Do it yourself: Even if you aren’t in a high-stakes situation, argues Kotler, you can increase flow by keeping the challenge/ skill ratio on point – aiming at goals that are just about manageable – to minimise both boredom and anxiety. Good communication also helps clarify where you’re in need of improvement – listen to feedback, accept it, and build on it. You might not be risking getting your arm broken if you don’t pay attention, but that’s no reason to slack off.

‘Doing anything worth doing takes effort’

In 2011, Korean fighter Chan Sung Jung became the first ever UFC fighter to land a Twister submission, the signature technique of BJJ black belt Eddie Bravo. How did he learn it? YouTube. While pre-UFC fighters had to scour magazines in search of hard-to-find techniques, the modern generation can use gifs to watch techniques dozens of times, or scour obscure YouTube channels for breakdowns of complex techniques. The result? Even teenage fighters can master techniques that didn’t exist a few years ago.

Do it yourself: Whatever your field, there’s an online learning solution that makes it more accessible than ever – from Draw A Box for art to the Khan Academy for targeted lessons in almost anything.

…And Improve Your Grit
MacArthur Genius grant winner Angela Duckworth suggests that grit – aka the ability to persevere under pressure – is the only true path to excellence, since ‘Doing anything worth doing takes so much effort.’ The good news? It’s a quality you can build, not one you’re born with. Practice and purpose help to develop it, but it’s something that comes naturally to fighters – by constantly doing hard things, they’re tempering themselves against further adversity. If you’ve wrestled at an Olympic level, for instance, you know how to grind out the reps when it’s time for jiu-jitsu.

In 2011, Korean fighter Chan Sung Jung became the first ever UFC fighter to land a Twister submission, the signature technique of BJJ black belt Eddie Bravo. How did he learn it? YouTube. While pre-UFC fighters had to scour magazines in search of hard-to-find techniques, the modern generation can use gifs to watch techniques dozens of times, or scour obscure YouTube channels for breakdowns of complex techniques. The result? Even teenage fighters can master techniques that didn’t exist a few years ago.

Do it yourself: Whatever your field, there’s an online learning solution that makes it more accessible than ever – from Draw A Box for art to the Khan Academy for targeted lessons in almost anything.

…And Improve Your Grit
MacArthur Genius grant winner Angela Duckworth suggests that grit – aka the ability to persevere under pressure – is the only true path to excellence, since ‘Doing anything worth doing takes so much effort.’ The good news? It’s a quality you can build, not one you’re born with. Practice and purpose help to develop it, but it’s something that comes naturally to fighters – by constantly doing hard things, they’re tempering themselves against further adversity. If you’ve wrestled at an Olympic level, for instance, you know how to grind out the reps when it’s time for jiu-jitsu.

Do it yourself: Duckworth insists that everyone in her family is always doing one ‘hard thing’ that interests them – which could be improving at their job, a sport, playing the piano or doing ballet. ‘A Hard Thing is something that requires daily deliberate practice,’ she explains. The other rule? You can’t quit until you get to a ‘natural’ stopping point – the end of the season, for instance. So, no quitting on a bad day.

WHAT NEXT? Watch this analysis of Ronda Rousey to better understand the level modern mixed martial artists operate on – and just how hard they have to work to improve.

Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.