Fight Science: Experts are made

Film Study Film study is a tried-and-true strategy that should be employed as a tool to enhance the quality of practice, yet is often…

By: Bloody Elbow | 6 years ago
Fight Science: Experts are made
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Film Study

Film study is a tried-and-true strategy that should be employed as a tool to enhance the quality of practice, yet is often overlooked and an underutilized component for developing expertise and champions in MMA. UFC champs, Dominick Cruz and Tyron Woodley, stated that their game has advanced tremendously as a result of spending time breaking down fights in film study as a part of their jobs as analysts. When trying to get better in high-impact sports one cannot rely only on physical training alone. The body can easily be over-trained while the mind is undertrained! Film study is a major part of time-spent training for NFL athletes. Literally, a third of their training is done in the classroom watching and studying film. In MMA, a fighter can advance his or her game by never breaking a sweat, and one way to achieve that is through smart film study.

Many people believe the best-of-the-best are born not made. However, we subscribe to the experts-are-made model of champion development because it’s too difficult to discount the concepts of hard work, dedication, devotion, commitment and all the other qualifiers that athletes put into their training to become the best they can at their craft. Of course, we don’t dismiss the concept of natural talent (genetic predisposition), but a coach can’t control that aspect of the athlete—what he or she can control is the quantity and quality of the training regiments as well as the feedback that is provided. And by quality, we don’t just mean train harder, we mean train smarter. The best way to improve quality is to integrate effective strategies into an athlete’s training camp, such as film study, that have been developed and refined through years of practice and research.

Experts are Developed through Deliberate Practice

A quick note on experts- the conceptual definition of “expert” in the scientific literature is not as consistent as one may think. The general definition of an expert is an individual who can perform a particular task at a high-level on a consistent basis. But then, what is “high-level?” The bottom line is an expert is someone who possess the ability to perform at a level where others cannot, or only a few can. The definition is not exact and it never will be. The amount of time it takes to become an expert is not exact, and it never will be either. To emphasize the point, we would imagine that not all BJJ black belts developed at the same rate under the same conditions.

With that said, we recommend MMA fighters and coaches utilize the primary basis of becoming an expert performer—engage in deliberate practice. This would first require an understanding of what deliberate practice is and then transform current practice or training into deliberate practice. The simple fact is that the primary mechanism that separates non-experts and experts is the amount of deliberate practice one has engaged in over the years.

Deliberate practice can be employed, for example, by taking the rear-naked choke and breaking it down into all its components and understanding all aspects of it. Next, the athlete will practice all scenarios related to executing each component that leads up to the submission technique and practice it over and over again until proficiency is achieved. It also requires non-stop coaching that includes correction and reinforcement. And then, the skill should continually be practiced by making it more and more challenging. Is this easy? Hell no! Many fighters don’t have the luxury to roll with competitors to make it more challenging or even have access to high-level coaches to gain corrective feedback.

But again, not all practice has to be physically oriented. Integrating film study into the regimen is one step closer to advancing the non-physical aspect of practice into deliberate practice. Film study is cost effective and allows for deep analysis because of the practical benefits of using pause, rewind, and slow motion options. As we mentioned, film study isn’t used enough, even by the highest-level fighters in the UFC. But we should be clear, just like practicing the rear-naked choke, there are optimal ways to integrate film study into a regimen and there are non-optimal ways, which we discuss here.

For the purpose of this article, we break film study down into three simple categories:

  1. Study the experts
  2. Study your own fights
  3. Study your opponent

Each one of these categories should be studied systematically to get the best out of each. However, not everyone knows exactly what they’re looking at in film study. If you don’t have the luxury of sitting with an expert coach who can help you breakdown film footage, then we suggest spend a lot of time in category 1—studying the experts.

Study the Experts

One can learn a new skill by watching others and copying it. With video feedback this is easier than ever before! Anyone can easily find several clips of a professional executing strikes, submissions, takedowns, and transitions. In addition, there are experts who breakdown popular fights by showing what the fighters did well and where they failed. After studying these films, we then we suggest setting up a camera, grabbing a practice partner, and recording yourself attempting a particular technique. After you have recorded your move, compare it to the professional. Was it similar? What was missing? Make note of what was good and what needs to be improved, and also make note of what the practice partner was doing.

For instance, though Demian Maia is far from an expert striker, one might study his BJJ as he is considered one of the world’s best for his set-ups, take-downs and transitions. Or perhaps if you’re a striker then studying Cody Garbrandt’s boxing technique might be a wise approach. A great and recent illustration of this might be found in the Alexander Gustafsson vs Glover Teixeira fight. In it, Gustafsson can be seen throwing a long uppercut, one that was ultimately used to stop Teixeira. We would surmise that through film study, Team Gustafsson noted patterns and nuances in Texeira’s striking that lead them to believe the uppercut would prove fruitful.

Beyond just studying another fighter’s skills, fighters and coaches should observe the conditions under which he or she was most successful. For example, when was a particular fighter most likely to land the overhand, hit a takedown, or successfully execute a submission. A decades worth of Mike Tyson fights likely laid out a blueprint for Evander Holyfield to successfully build a game plan against Iron Mike. For example, during the fight when Tyson would close in, Holyfield tied him up to take away his inside game. This strategy, while only used intermittently by other fighters prior to Holyfield, provided at least momentary respite from Tyson’s onslaught. Seasoned coaches and fighters are able to recognize and capitalize on such patterns.

Study your own Fights

Although a mirror can give us live feedback on our own behavior, it is rarely possible to look at a mirror while sparring or in a live drill. An easy fix for this is to study your own sparring sessions and fight films if available. The best way to study your own performance is to create a form (see example below) for you and your coach to study and review. Have your coach note the various aspects of each fight and note exactly where you’re strong, just okay, and poor. And be specific. Remember, part of deliberate practice is breaking down a specific technique into its components. In this case, not only are you breaking down a technique into its components, but you’re doing it to yourself, and then adding performance notes. Next, you should watch your own fight and see if you see the same thing the coach saw. This approach will advance your perspective and understanding of your strengths and weaknesses at a level you would not have been able to achieve prior.

When watching, slow down the clip and look closely at precisely what you were doing. How were your feet? Did you overextend? Did you exhale while striking? Record yourself again and repeat the process. Each fighter and coach should be studying his or her performances without bias. Using this information, you can create a plan for improvement with your coach by digging down into the specific areas. Beyond observing your performance, observe the conditions in which you were more likely to perform optimally, moderately, or poorly. Sometimes poor performance is not skill related, but rather tactical in nature. In other words, fighters may be doing the right thing at the wrong time.

Study your Opponent

Many fighters boldly declare, “I don’t study my opponent.” In some cases this is simply bravado; in others, it may be true. And sometimes, the fighter who is not studying his or her opponent may be a good or even great fighter. However, we contend that fighters who neglect this aspect of their development are not reaching their maximum potential. We strongly recommend this be programmed into a fighter’s camp. Good fighters can become great, and great fighters can become champions.

The primary purpose of studying an opponent is to understand then recognize a fighter’s tendencies in a fight. Though it’s not a perfect solution, understanding a fighter’s tendencies allows for prediction of their next move, thus, increasing the likelihood of an effective response which increases your chances of winning.

The best way to study your opponent is to create a scouting report for each fight. In the NBA, there is a scouting report developed for each player prior to a game. If you are charged with guarding that particular player for a game, then that scouting report provides the most relevant information needed to understand that player’s tendencies.

See our Smart Camp series for tools like the SWOT Analysis and the Fighter-opponent Assessment Tool (FACT) that will allow you to build a scouting report of your opponent based on film study. But it’s important to observe key areas besides the obvious punch or kick. For example, a batting coach will always say, “keep your eye on the ball.” However, in film study, the athlete does not focus on the ball. Instead, they likely study the feet, hips, shoulders, hand movement, or perhaps patterns of pitches that precede or follow certain pitches.

When it comes to MMA, it’s important to look for tendencies related to a few broad areas and then hone in on more specifics. For example, when looking at striking, a simple but critical piece of information is stance. Preparing for a southpaw is vastly different than preparing for an orthodox fighter. More nuanced aspects of striking might be the tendency of the fighter to throw overhands, or perhaps even subtle movements like shake their right hand just prior to throwing it. After observing tendencies, pick two or three to focus on and create drills that allow for deliberate practice related to capitalizing on these tendencies.

Remember, film study should be considered a major part of practice, not just an adjunct to it or a side note. Become a student of the game. Treat fighting like a game of chess. Be aware that becoming better doesn’t just involve physical training—it involves training the mind too. And this will ultimately translate to the cage, octagon or ring. This is how experts become experts. This is how champions are made!


Osita, C., Onyebuchi, I., & Nzekwe, J. (2014). Organization’s stability and productivity: The role of SWOT analysis. International Journal of Innovative and Applied Research, 2(9), p. 23–32.

An expert in leadership and human performance, Dr. Paul “Paulie Gloves” Gavoni is a highly successful professional striking coach in mixed martial arts. As an athletic leader and former golden gloves heavyweight champion of Florida, Coach Paulie successfully applies the science of human behavior to coach multiple fighters to championship titles at varying levels worldwide. With many successful fighters on his resume, Coach Paulie tailors his approach to fit the needs of specific fighters based on a fighters behavioral, physiological, and psychological characteristics. Coach Paulie is a writer for Last Word on Sports and is a featured coach in the book, Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts.

Alex Edmonds, PhD, BCB, is currently an associate professor of research at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida. He graduated from Florida State University and received his doctoral degree in Educational Psychology with a minor in Statistics and Measurement. Over the years, Dr. Edmonds has applied his knowledge of research design, measurement and assessment in both field and laboratory examinations. He has published extensively in a variety of areas such as research design, psychophysiology and sport psychology. Prior to graduate school, he was a strength and conditioning coach working with professional athletes in football, track, and boxing. He then combined his passion for the sports with the field of psychology making it the emphasis of his graduate work. While in graduate school, he conducted his field work with the track and field team at Florida State and started using biofeedback for research and practice during this time. He has utilized biofeedback extensively with various types of athletes for performance enhancement, as well as stress-regulation techniques. Dr. Edmonds is certified through the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance in general biofeedback.

John Barnes is currently a master’s student at the University of North Texas studying Behavior Analysis. He has spent five years fighting as an amateur in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has coached wrestling and instructed youth classes in taekwondo. In what free time he has, he reads books on marketing and behavior economics, trains animals, and re watches the greatest movie ever made — Vision Quest (1985).

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Bloody Elbow
Bloody Elbow

Independent MMA Journalism

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