I recently convinced one of my MMA fighters to take a week off. I use the word “convinced” because it was an epic 2-hour back-and-forth exercise in persuasion and negotiation. For more than 12 months, he has been training non-stop 6-7 days per week, 2 or more sessions per day. No time off. Hard sparring, whether MMA or Muay Thai, was done 3-5x a week.
That’s a lot of strain to put on the human body (and brain).
He told me that he felt ‘off’ after he would take a break and with a fight coming up, he wanted to stay on the grind. But finally, I got through to him and he agreed to take one week off of hard training.
What happened AFTER the week off? Well… nothing miraculous. He didn’t magically heal up like Wolverine. He felt good and was excited to get back into training. But more importantly, he had gotten a baseline of how he feels so in the future he can better understand his own level of ‘well-bring’. He can better recognize what are the normal ups-and-downs of training vs. what are signs of something being seriously wrong. He knows his baseline.
This baseline is harder to determine in combat sports than in pure physical fitness activities.
If you were a runner or a weightlifter, you could easily compare your performance to how you feel. If you start to feel burned-out and your lap times or lifting pounds begin to drop at the same time, it might be time for a break.
When dealing with combat sports, it is a lot harder to measure burnout. First of all, the training is more ’emotional’ because it involves one-on-one competition and oftentimes egos and self-perception issues start to come into play. Secondly, your training partner has a lot to do with how you “felt” you did. Imagine how you would feel when your training partner, who you usually dominate, turns the tables on you during a practice. That experience might discourage you even if physically you were absolutely fine.
So even though emotions can be an important source of information, they often can’t be used alone to justify time off in combat sports. Different people can handle different amounts of emotional discomfort; what this means is that sometimes coaches need to push their athletes to train more despite how they feel and other times, they have to push them to train less.
The differences between the fortitude of students can be immense. Recently at Crazy 88, a casual student decided to train seriously for competition. She had never fought before so it was a completely new experience. With her full-time job, she was not training at a “professional” level but it was still extremely taxing on her. Training six days a week, she was getting ill, throwing up, freaking out during practice, etc. She was not prepared yet for that level of training. She actually ended up getting sick and having to take a week off to recover in the middle of the ‘camp’. Funny thing is, she actually had massive skill improvement after this period. As a bonus, she gained valuable experience about what hard training feels like and the effects it can have on one’s daily life.
Rest and Reflection are important for Skill Development.
For myself, the balance between practice and rest is largely based on the rate of skill development rather than ‘how you feel’.
The average person has the capacity to train MORE than what he or she thinks. Their obstacles are mainly initial discomfort and low baseline. The first week you do 2 practices in one day, you will very sore and probably think “oh I’m over-training.” By the 10th week, you’ll feel fine.
However, there are a very elite few that can and do actually train MORE than what is ideal. These athletes, who do not take the time to recuperate, could have faster skill development rates if they trained less.
Some statistics indicate that an Olympic-level athlete spends 23 hours per week training. This number is in line with the successful professional fighters I have had experience with. These competitors generally follow a 2 or 3 practice a day routine, 5 days a week with a light day during the weekend. The practices are non-consecutive to allow rest in between. Other studies show that these athletes also sleep longer than the average person, presumably to recover from the stresses they put their bodies through.
One of my business mentors recently sent out an email about what to do when everything is changing so fast and so much. His point was that the important insights and perspectives that emerge from moments of great change are gained from the quiet times in-between the crazy times. One can not learn and gain insights by running around like a madman, dealing with emergency after emergency. The book, Guns, Germs, and Steel also supports this view – that idle time often leads to innovation.
This seems to be the case for skill development as well. The human mind and body needs stress (from practice and competition) but also time to analyze and recover from the stress. Therefore, it is important to determine whether it is an overabundance of stress or too little of it, that is preventing optimal skill development rates.
Sidenote: Accurately identifying and dealing with the individual factors that are causing stress is an important skill to develop. A common problem among young athletes is the tendency to stop training when under any duress. An athlete gets into a fight with his girlfriend, is going through financial issues, or gets into a slight fender-bender and the “solution” is to stop training. Obviously there are times when one has to step away from athletics but it’s important to really identify when these situations truly require that. Its like the old prayer which goes:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.