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An evaluation of coaching and training practices in mixed martial arts: A mixed methods approach

Kirk, C (2022) An evaluation of coaching and training practices in mixed martial arts: A mixed methods approach. Doctoral thesis, Liverpool John Moores University.

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Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a body mass (BM) regulated combat sport, permitting the use of striking and grappling actions in standing and grounded positions, in order to achieve victory over a single opponent. Contests are conducted over 3 x 3 min or 3 – 5 x 5 min rounds following rules codified in 2002 in the United States of America (USA) and now broadly accepted globally. Despite the recent development of the sport, MMA is an established event with 4,000+ ranked professional male and female athletes worldwide and 100+ amateur national governing bodies registered with the International MMA Federation (IMMAF). Despite this rapid growth, there is a scarcity of data regarding the training methods, practices and effects of training for MMA competition. This includes an absence of studies examining the backgrounds, beliefs and practices of professional MMA coaches; the durations, internal loads, external loads and fatigue effects of MMA technical/tactical training; and the effects of MMA training on athlete physiology. As such, existing suggestions for MMA athlete preparations are mostly unevidenced, with the requirements of the sport itself not currently being characterised within the literature. Therefore, the aim of this thesis was to evaluate the current coaching and training practices that are used to prepare MMA athletes for competition. This was completed using a pragmatist mixed methodology to provide recommendations for future models of athlete support and development, as well as stimulating future research.
Study 1 aimed to explore the coaching and training practices of professional MMA coaches who actively prepare participants for competition. To achieve this, 9.5 hours of semi-structured interviews with four full time MMA coaches were conducted to provide a dialectic understanding of the MMA context. This understanding informed the quantitative training load data reported further in this thesis. Following reflexive thematic analyses, four higher order themes were identified: 1) Evolving coaching in an unknown world: MMA coaches have developed their practice via experiential and peer learning in the absence of formal MMA coach education or support. Such peer learning appears to reduce when coaches become club owners with established capital; 2) Constrained early explorers: MMA coaches have a dual aim of producing competitive athletes whilst providing sessions that will appeal to the majority of their club members who are recreational participants. This simultaneously enables and restricts provision for their athletes; 3) Training camp dictated by external factors: The length of time provided for competition preparation is dictated largely by independent private event promoters, meaning competition preparation may often be sub-optimal; 4) Monitoring of load and improvements is subjective and led by folk pedagogies: MMA coaches rely on ‘coach’s eye’ and personal relationships with their athletes to determine changes in fatigue and skill in a reactive manner. This again means competition preparation may be suboptimal. The unique and rapid growth in the popularity of MMA has resulted in coaching structures and practices that may not be supporting optimal athlete development or preparation.
On the basis of qualitative findings from Study 1, the aim of Study 2 was to quantify the internal training loads of MMA training practices that are used to prepare participants for competition. A mixed sex cohort of fourteen international amateur and professional MMA participants were observed completing their regular training for eight consecutive weeks without intervention. The training durations, loads and fatigue related effects of their normal practices were recorded. Seven athletes were training for competitive bouts whilst the remaining seven were not. Training duration, internal load (sessional and segmented RPE), strain, weekly monotony, fatigue, reaction time, sleep quality and soreness did not change within or between weeks. Between weeks monotony supported little variance in weekly training load. There were no differences in any variable between participants who competed and those who did not with the exception of the final week before the bout, where an abrupt step taper in training duration and load occurred, leading to no between group differences in fatigue markers. These data report the internal load intensity estimates of MMA training categories for the first time. Training intensity distribution corresponding to high, moderate and low was 20, 33 and 47%, respectively. Only striking sparring and wrestling sparring displayed statistical weekly differences in duration or load. It was concluded that periodisation of training load is largely absent in MMA training, as is the case within and between weekly microcycles.
Whilst Study 2 detailed the internal loads of MMA training practices, the aim of Study 3 was to quantify the external loads of MMA training practices that are used to prepare participants for competition. A mixed sex cohort of twenty international amateur and professional MMA athletes were observed for two consecutive weeks without intervention. External load was measured via Catapult Optimeye S5 accelerometers (Playerload) for the full duration of each session, with the corresponding internal load (sessional and segmented RPE) also being recorded. Absolute and relative external load was found to differ between training categories. Despite these distinctions, overall daily external training load did not change between days, leading to a flat loading pattern and reflecting the internal load findings from Study 2. Predictive relationships were found between internal and external training loads, providing support for the use of Playerload in conjunction with RPE to measure the training load of MMA participants preparing for competition. These data provide the external load intensity estimates of MMA training categories for the first time and may be used to appropriately plan training loads during technical/tactical sessions in MMA.
Following the results of Studies 2 and 3, Study 4 aimed to determine the physiological adaptations and changes in body composition that arise from completing a typical six-eight week training period that is used to prepare participants for competition. A cohort of nine male professional and international amateur MMA athletes completed a laboratory-based testing battery six-eight weeks before official bouts and again one week before. The participants displayed statistically relevant reductions in BM, fat mass and fat free mass following the training camp. In terms of performance measurements, no statistically relevant changes were found in maximal muscular force for squat, bench press or prone row exercises. Neither were there any changes to V̇O2max. Only isometric midthigh pull force was found to improve, though this was only a moderate effect. The data supported no improvement in impulse as measured by squat jump, countermovement jump and reactive strength index. MMA athlete’s force, impulse and aerobic capacity are lower than many other sporting events, including other combat disciplines. In addition to the loss of fat free mass during training camp, these results suggest MMA training is sub-optimal for the physiological preparation of athletes for competitive performance. It may be recommended for MMA training to be supplemented by specific strength and conditioning interventions to provide sufficient stimuli for adaptation to support athletic performance.
On the basis of Study 4 reporting an absence of positive physiological changes during an MMA training camp, Study 5 aimed to examine the effects of a supplementary high-intensity aerobic training intervention (completed alongside traditional MMA training practices) on aerobic capacity and indices of competition-specific performance. Therefore, this case study applied a seven-week treadmill-based high intensity interval training intervention to a male MMA participant without altering their technical/tactical training. A laboratory testing battery conducted pre and post intervention demonstrated improved submaximal running economy with reduced V̇O2, heart rate, energy expenditure and O2 cost. There were no improvements in stroke volume or O2 delivery, as evidenced by no changes in O2pulse or V̇O2max. Economy adaptations were therefore most likely due to improved neuromuscular efficiency resulting from this participant completing running based aerobic training for the first time. These physiological adaptations resulted in a 4% improvement to their velocity at V̇O2max. This may have manifested as more consistent movement with less exertion in simulated sparring bouts conducted pre, mid and post intervention. These results coincided with a 4% reduction in BM. The intensity and volume of this intervention do not appear to have been sufficient to cause cardiovascular adaptations in a trained participant. Neuromuscular adaptations may have occurred as a result of the participant undertaking a running-based training intervention for the first time.
In summary the presented data provide an evaluation of the current coaching and training practices that are used to prepare MMA athletes for competition, whilst documenting the durations, loads, intensities and effects of MMA training for the first time. The findings of this thesis provide impetus for MMA coaches to work with sport and exercise professionals to plan MMA training programs within and without training camps. This should aim to provide technical/tactical training load undulations and supplementary strength and conditioning to ensure sufficient physiological stimuli to cause positive performance related adaptations. Researchers are also encouraged to realign MMA investigations to be conducted with the Applied Research Model for the Sport Sciences to provide findings that better support the coaches and practitioners working with MMA athletes.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Uncontrolled Keywords: combat sports; training load; coaching; training; physiology
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Q Science > QP Physiology
G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GV Recreation Leisure > GV561 Sports > GV711 Coaching
G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GV Recreation Leisure > GV561 Sports
Divisions: Sport & Exercise Sciences
SWORD Depositor: A Symplectic
Date Deposited: 31 May 2022 15:25
Last Modified: 30 Aug 2022 13:26
DOI or ID number: 10.24377/LJMU.t.00016944
Supervisors: Morton, J, Langan-Evans, C, Clark, D and Cronin, C
URI: https://researchonline.ljmu.ac.uk/id/eprint/16944
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