By PJ Nestler
The last few weeks of a fight camp can be hectic, particularly when there’s a significant weight-cut involved. While every coach on the training team is trying to get in the last bits of crucial work, the athlete, sick-and-tired of it all, just wants to fight and eat a cheeseburger.
This is when easily avoidable mistakes are made that can jeopardize months of blood, sweat, and tears.
As training winds down leading up to competition known as the tapering period, the focus shifts from skill development and strength and conditioning to performance management. Athletes and coaches should be monitoring training loads, stress, and recovery throughout the camp but this is especially important as the fighter enters the final two weeks of preparation.
With weigh-ins just around the corner, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture and make decisions that can seriously impact a fighter’s success. Below are three common mistakes that risk months of effort — avoid them and increase your chances for success.
Mistake 1: Lack of Communication
In MMA, several individual coaches may contribute to an athlete's training. Since the total workload must be accounted for to help a fighter peak at the optimum time, effective communication is key.
When coaches don’t communicate, it’s nearly impossible to structure a training plan that gets the most out of an athlete. The athlete may be getting conflicting advice and that leads to added stress. The athlete may become over trained as each coach pushes the fighter so he or she is ready to perform on fight night.
Each coach must understand what the rest of the team is doing while respecting everyone’s role. In my personal experience, this fails to happen more often than not. If you are involved with the fight preparation on any level, it's important you pay attention, remain flexible, and let your athlete’s energy, demeanor, and performance be the guide.
Mistake 2: High Intensity Conditioning
All too often, fighters are given high-intensity circuits in the week or two before competition. Sometimes by a variety of coaches. Despite good intentions, this type of training, especially with an athlete cutting weight could be detrimental to his or her performance on fight night.
Understanding the basics of metabolism is helpful when working with an athlete cutting weight. Since carbohydrates are the body’s primary fuel source for high intensity activity, a fighter who hasn’t had a plate of pasta for a month may not have the fuel available to optimally perform grueling circuits, nor the energy balance to recover afterward. This can easily create a negative hormonal cascade that results in an over-trained, injury-prone athlete who feels like shit when the cage door closes.
An athlete should be in shape by this point in the training cycle. Pushing harder, especially after six weeks of intense training increases the risk of over training and injury. Focus on speed work, mobility and technical review to assist with recovery and maintain the gains made during training camp.
Mistake 3: Over Taper
On the other side of the spectrum, there are coaches who begin to taper and “de-load” too much and/or too soon toward the end of training camp. There is a specific window of time where an athlete’s body is operating at peak efficiency. On either side of this window, the physical abilities developed and conditioned during training significantly decline.
For example, maximal speed is only maintained for two to eight days after training finishes. This highlights the need to replace grinding circuits with speed training during fight week. Speed training is less demanding on the body and keeps an athlete moving and feeling good.
There’s no quick fix for this one. It takes time and experimentation to find the sweet spot where an athlete does just enough training to perform at his or her best and no more. It’s different for every athlete, and may change from fight to fight. It’s not easy and the target is constantly changing, but this should be the goal for every fight camp.
Respect the Athlete
Perhaps the most important aspect of helping a fighter prepare for battle has nothing to do with training, diet, or technique. The fighter’s mindset or psychology influences performance more than anything else.
Some athletes feel the need to lift heavy weights or perform explosive sprinting or power work in the lead-up to fight night. Others like to lie in bed and watch movies all day. There are stories of NBA players who insisted on a few reps of a super maximal squat on game day to feel like they were “turned on.” While this may not be the ideal from a physiological standpoint, if the athlete feels it’s needed — then it’s needed.
What You Need to Remember
- It’s very difficult to get in better shape or improve technically in the week or two before competition.
- Recovery, both mentally and physically are what’s most important while maintaining the gains from training.
- Take time to learn each athlete's needs and do your best to respect his or her approach. Even when the fighter is "wrong"! This will pay off in the long term.
- Communicate and respect the other people who have sacrificed their time and energy during this past few months.
- Lastly, enjoy this time. Don’t let the pressure of competition become greater than the pleasure of competition.
PJ Nestler is a human performance specialist with over a decade of experience preparing top athletes for competition. He is on a life mission to help athletes and coaches realize their true potential.
Over the past ten years, Coach PJ has trained dozens of athletes from the UFC, NFL, NHL, and MLB. His passion for combat sports and commitment to excellence has driven him to become a leader in combat sports performance training. He has worked extensively with over one hundred fighters, including multiple Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champions and top ten ranked UFC fighters.
Outside of training top athletes, Coach PJ is devoted to sharing his knowledge and experience, with the purpose of elevating the fitness profession. He continues to raise the bar for fitness professionals and has emerged as a sought-after expert in human performance and trainer education.