How Being an Armchair Mixed Martial Arts Expert Can Help Make You a Better Personal Trainer

Mighty Mouse: World class fighter has world class coaching.
Mighty Mouse: World class fighter has world class coaching.

It’s Sunday afternoon here in Melbourne, and the end of the biggest sporting weekend on the Australian calendar. The AFL grand final was played yesterday in front of 99,454 footy fans in what turned out to be a fizzer, with the slight underdogs Hawthorn stunning Sydney with an early blitz from which they never recovered, and the match all but over by half time. While celebrations continued into today for Hawks fans (as they will all week), I was far more interested in the absolutely stacked fight card at UFC 178 today.

The entire card lived up to expectations and then some, for reasons that all MMA fans will understand, but this isn’t a blog about the UFC. This is about training and the fitness profession, and for that I want to focus on the main event of the card: the flyweight championship bout featuring defending champ Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and, more pertinently, his cornermen led by head coach Matt Hume, and what was pointed out by expert MMA commentator Joe Rogan.


Mighty Mouse finished his opponent Chris Cariaso via a savage kimura (an arm lock submission) in the second round.

But it was the technical coaching of Matt Hume yelling from Johnson’s corner late in the first round, and the ensuing commentary from Rogan that caught my attention and switched my mind back into trainer mode.

Here’s an excerpt from that first round:

Mike Goldberg (Rogan’s co-commentator): “…listen in on “The Wizard” Matt Hume…”

(The cameras and audio focus in on Hume delivering instructions from ringside to Johnson; Johnson immediately and successfully implements the received instruction).

Goldberg: “Matt’s (Hume) always so calm.”

Rogan: “Well it’s also very technical instruction, it’s not “Go get him”, “You can do it”, none of that nonsense. It’s all very technical. I mean how many times have we heard corners talk and they don’t know what to say, they’re just talking, they’re just making noise with their face.”

Moments later, Goldberg continues: “It’s very similar to what we hear from Greg Jackson* when he gives instructions.”

(*Greg Jackson is another highly regarded – perhaps presently the highest of all – MMA head coach, renowned for his stable of top-calibre fighters including current light heavyweight champion and pound for pound king Jon “Bones” Jones, as well as for his calm and technical inter-round coaching style). 

In my last post I wrote all about why I believe actively coaching clients is the most important aspect of what we do, or should be doing, as personal trainers, and that this is simply lacking, if not completely absent, in trainers who are below the minimum standard to effectively and ethically fulfil their role.

I felt this snippet of UFC footage and commentary beautifully illustrated that exact same rationale in a very different yet related domain.

Matt Hume and Greg Jackson train world beaters. And while at the end of the day it’s the fighter who has to step into the cage and get it done – just as it’s our clients who have to get into the gym and move some iron – the coach is there – being paid to be there, in fact – to be active in their role and provide useful input. They are not there to motivate. They are not there to dress up a bad situation and delude the fighter into believing they are winning when they clearly aren’t (an all too common occurrence even at the top level of MMA). They are not cheerleaders.

The coach is there to coach.

As a personal trainer, we are not cheerleaders either. We coach.
Or at least, that’s what we should be doing.

Just as Matt Hume and Greg Jackson tell their fighters to create space and push away in the clinch, or to let go of the leg on a takedown attempt, or to switch his grip when going for a rear naked choke, a personal trainer is paid by a client to tell them when to adjust their stance (technical), when to end the set because form is breaking down (experience), when to alter their posture to achieve a desired effect (internal cueing), or when to think about reaching/driving/stomping/jumping or anything else to achieve another desired effect (external cueing).

The client takes ownership of their program. I'm just there for consultation. I give direction, they do the work.
My client takes ownership of their program. I’m just there for consultation and organisation. I give direction, they do the work.

While of course there is more to the art of coaching than solely technical coaching cues, this is huge part of the gig and a woefully lacking one in the industry at large.

Sure, the C.S.C technique – Compliment, Suggest, Compliment (AKA the “Shit sandwich”) – is sound practice; a client no doubt wants ample encouragement that they are on the right track and that we appreciate their genuine effort.

But focusing on the above aspects of coaching will yield far greater results for a client than any amount of cheerleading from the sidelines and “You can do it!” attitude ever will.

Through our service to our clients we are already providing accountability, which is a strong aid in adherence, which in turn is key to success.

Motivation is a vague and primarily intrinsic concept, and one that should probably have been determined at the first meeting with your client, with ongoing reassessments throughout the client-trainer relationship.

Yelling out rah rah slogans in cheerleading fashion or harden-the-fuck-up ultimatums like some pseudo drill sergeant will provide a fleeting speck of increased output at best, and at worse, a serious blow to the client’s enjoyment level, one which could, rightly, be the final straw in helping the client realise that they actually aren’t receiving their money’s worth from this whole personal training caper.

I’m far from a psychologist, but in my experience (which happens face to face with multiple clients on a daily basis, not just on Internet forums) accountability + direction will trump accountability + extrinsic motivation every time. It works for the best MMA coaches in the world and it works for the best personal trainers and S & C coaches in the world.

Don’t just make noise with your face. Put down the pom poms and get in there and actually teach your client how to get better at fitness.

Thoughts, questions, hate mail, or anything I missed? Feel free to drop a comment below. And of course, sharing this article will naturally help you jump the queue in your wait for karmic justice to start paying out. 

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