The changing demands of combat sports
I've a little personal experience with boxing. I used to regularly train at a boxing club, get pad work and coaching from experienced boxers and boxing coaches and frequently got pummelled by younger, faster and more talented boxers. It was exhilarating and often terrifying. I stopped after a very short period as an amateur with only one mediocre fight (a boring loss on points) under my padded belt.
I decided that the juice wasn't worth the squeeze. In fact, getting punched in the face quickly became something I could do without. I say quickly; I spent about 3/4 years boxing on and off, white collar before training at an amateur club. The attraction faded as I realised that whilst I may be mildly better than average, I certainly wasn't winning any medals, trophies or championships. I definitely didn't stand a chance of making any money from it and was content knowing that I'd done it, given it lots of time and effort but that there were more sensible ways (and safer ways) to get exercise and adrenaline kicks.
I owe a huge amount to the guys who trained me. Gary Nickels was like a Freddie Roach character to me. I would do everything he said, and not just because I knew he could take my head off. Anyone who met Gary liked him instantly and could see the passion for boxing pouring out of him. It always played on my mind that giving up boxing was letting Gary down. I knew I was too old to get really good, too soft to really be a good boxer but quitting is never an easy decision for me. Having only started in my 20's I struggled against 16 year old school boy champions and former pro's who would come down to the youth club where the boxing club met. It was a great set up run mainly by volunteers. I paid £1 to train for around 3 hours.
Gary was a member at my first gym in London and he had donated a heavy punch bag to the fitness studio. There he trained myself and a couple of others (one great boxer who I later sparred with that would rattle the entire gym with huge body shots on the bag). He didn't want money to train me, just to know that I would actually fight and compete and not just do it for fitness. I obliged as best I could and we trained at least twice a week for what seemed like hours. It was the fittest I'd ever been and I loved every agonising minute of the training.
There were other coaches and training/sparring partners along the way that I also owe my gratitude. Friends who punch each other are a special type of friend.
I quite enjoyed the fighting too. I remember back to playing football as a teenager and that I only really tried hard when I'd been knocked or tackled hard. Sparring was similar in that until I'd taken a couple of shots I found it hard to really engage and box well. That was probably my downfall looking back. No one should require a punch in the face to wake them up.
Fighting is a strange sport. Gladiatorial in many aspects but not purely done for glory's sake. It challenges something inside you to stand and fight not run and hide. You have nervous energy that needs to focused and directed into action, violent action towards an opponent. Not everyone can do that. Not many can do it well.
Now, as a strength and conditioning coach, I work with fighters from the other side. Boxing is my favourite combat sport by far and I understand the intricacy and nuances needed to develop that particular set of skills. Learning about other martial arts has been a big eye opener. Karate, where I now work directly with three athletes and indirectly with four others is a different ball game.
To simplify it somewhat, boxing matches two opponents of the same (ish) weight for multiple rounds of fighting. During the fight you can score points by being the most aggressive, accurate and dominant boxer but the real aim is to stop the opponent from being able to fight back. That is to say that you really want to knock them out, or at least down. You might plan to do this over a few rounds, or as quickly as the first but the aim isn't to hold on and hope for a points win as the judging can be... subjective, lets say.
Karate, in contrast, is a fight of control and tactics. Points are scored for landing punches and kicks whereas warnings are given for being forced to leave the fighting area which can lead to disqualification. You are penalised for showing excessive violence and drawing blood goes against you. Punches can be deemed 'too hard'. This was a shock when I first encountered competition level full contact karate. "It's a fight" I thought, "and you're not allowed to knock them out?" In reality it is a 'semi-contact' sport which makes sense as it was devised as a self defence martial art. Do enough to protect yourself and win, not so much that you harm your opponent permanently.
Understanding a sport is what my job as an S&C is all about. You can't replace personal experience but neither is it absolutely necessary to do a thorough analysis of the athlete and the demands they go through. Science and research are important but neither will they replace personal experience. A solid combination of both will allow a coach to get down to the really important stuff. The things that really separate the good athletes from the great ones.
Meenhaz Janar and his last opponent
My role is to understand how a fighter who only attacks using punches differs from a fight in which hands are not the only weapons. Kicks and sweeps, throws and grappling all represent different movement challenges and knowing how to make them more powerful and faster is key. Mentality of fighters is different when the objective is knock out or prevent being knocked out as opposed to scoring points through fast and hard (but controlled) force. This brings great variety to my work and I relish the challenge of new sports, especially ones I can personally relate a little to. Throw staying in a certain weight category into the mix and things get really interesting!
The karate athletes I work with now are making great progress with their strength and conditioning. Medals and trophies aside, their feedback has been brilliant in 2017. Feeling faster, reacting quicker, hitting harder (but not too hard!). Add to that winning performances and international competition and its a really exciting time to be involved with karate. Tokyo 2020 will see Karate on the Olympic stage for the first time ever. I'm hopeful that GB will put forward a good squad and do well as we have done as a nation for years in boxing and now Taekwondo.