Over the time that I’ve been involved in combat sports, I’ve seen a growing interest in applying science to improve performance. Once upon a time, techniques and training methods were passed down as received wisdom: you do it this way, because this is the way that my coach taught me.

When the sport of Mixed Martial Arts first started to become popular in the West, by its very nature it was all about finding what worked best. It challenged the existing beliefs of many in the martial arts world and led to a period of rapid development within the sport, as traditional methods were tested and often came up short.

Along with this technical development, athletes and coaches have also looked for other ways to get an edge over their competitors. This has included looking more closely at sports science, and applying the understanding and methods developed across a whole range of sports for improving power, strength, endurance and weight management.

Sports Science – the benefits and drawbacks

More than ever before, coaches are looking to sports science to adapt what they do, and how to train their athletes. This has undoubtedly been a positive development, but occasionally it can cause confusion. You’ll sometimes hear people say that a particular training method is something that is “scientifically proven”, or alternatively that you shouldn’t do something, because sports scientists have found that it “doesn’t work”. Much of the time, the truth is more complicated and nuanced.

Keep in mind that science works best when generalising about groups of people. If you have a large number of athletes, then it’s possible to conduct experiments to figure out which training protocols or nutritional interventions work best on average. Sometimes there’s a really clear difference between what works well and what doesn’t – at other times, it’s much less obvious. A lot can depend on the details of how the particular experiment was done; and sometimes the headline you read on social media doesn’t accurately reflect what the study actually found.

What the science is less good at taking into account are the numerous individual factors, and how to weigh those up when training a particular athlete. Perhaps your fighter’s restricted range of hip movement means that certain exercises don’t work well for him. Perhaps another fighter has small children, and sometimes doesn’t get much sleep, and sparring sessions on those days tend to go badly. Perhaps someone else hurt their back badly last year, or is suffering from anxiety, or going through a breakup with their partner, or trying to balance training with shift work. There’s no randomised controlled trial that will tell you whether or not you should tell your athlete to skip their last sparring session before a fight because their knee’s feeling “not quite right”. When it comes to working with individuals, there’s no substitute for judgement and experience.

Athletes are individuals

The relationship between sports science and coaching is similar to the relationship between medical research and being a doctor. It’s important to know what the research says, and to keep up to date with it. However, being able to apply that knowledge to the individual in front of you takes a whole additional skill set.

This is something I’m very aware of when I work with athletes in the clinic. I often explain that figuring out what exercises and advice to give can be a bit like buying shoes. You don’t buy the first pair in your size; you try a few on and see what feels comfortable. I’ve changed people’s exercise plans. Sometimes an exercise is too easy or too hard; sometimes it just “doesn’t feel right”, or they may not have the right equipment handy. In one case, I changed someone’s exercise plan because “whenever I lie down on the floor to do this one, my dog jumps on me”. You won’t find that in a textbook!

Not everyone will react the same way to the same drill, or exercise, or training programme. Anatomical, physiological and psychological factors also come into play. The best coaching takes account of those differences. The art is in how you apply the basic principles to your athlete’s challenges. Sports science can be a very useful guide, but it doesn’t provide one-size-fits-all answers or a cookie cutter approach.