Editor’s Note: Written in collaboration between Nick Green, BCBA, Ph.D. Student and Dr. Paulie “Gloves” Gavoni, a professional MMA and boxing coach who works with American Top Team, amongst others.
In the 1950’s, A.J. Libeling captured the public’s attention and popularized boxing as “The Sweet Science” through his series of writings that culminated into what Sports Illustrated once called the “best American sports book of all time.” While an entertaining and highly descriptive piece that seems to capture the essence of the sport within the cultural nuances of the 50’s, the book isn’t actually about science at all. And that’s ok. If it was, few people would have likely read the book, and the sport would have never been paired with science, which is something fundamental to everything a fighter and coach does. More specifically, the science of human behavior.
There are many ways to prepare for a fight. Great coaches intuitively know how to train fighters from years of experience. However, there may be others that go about training haphazardly and still get great results. But without knowing what was most effective part of their coaching. This is where behavioral science steps in.
Any discipline or training regimen that incorporates tried and true behavioral principles has a strong advantage over any opponent. Utilizing the properties of reinforcement (why certain behaviors occur more often) can lead to increases in strike accuracy, proper form, and reduce the effort put forth in a match. Sometimes reinforcement can be simple things like gestural feedback (e.g. a thumbs up after a fighter performs a specific skills), behavior specific feedback (e.g. “you did a nice job pivoting your back foot when you threw your cross”), or simply helping the fighter see the benefits of a certain skill (e.g. “did you notice you were hit less when you used your jab more”). Once fighters begin recognizing the benefits of using a certain skill, they will continue to use it, even in the absence of coaching. We call this type of reinforcement naturally occurring reinforcement.