Unleashing the Science of Behavior Analysis into the World of Mixed Martial Arts

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Dr. Paul “Paulie” Gavoni, an educator, behavior analyst, and leader in educational applications of applied behavior analysis, completed advanced studies in social work, academic leadership, and organizational leadership at Florida Atlantic University, Barry University, and Nova Southeastern University, respectively. For over three decades, Dr. Gavoni has applied concepts and tools from behavior analysis in competitive sports, elementary and secondary education, and organizational performance. Dr. Gavoni’s influence grows through his podcasts, Crisis in Education and Thoughts and Rants of a Behavior Scientist, and his books, which offer solutions to modern challenges in education, martial arts, and the nature of leadership. As a sought-after speaker and former Golden Gloves Champion turned coach in combat sports, Dr. Gavoni’s multifaceted career showcases the range of behavior analysis to address many issues in human performance.


Introduction by Darnell Lattal

Many of us would agree that skill development in sports benefits from our help. Still, some are not inclined to endorse what can be interpreted as violence against another in combat sports like boxing; moreover, few have applied our skills to help improve training and outcomes for those who practice the sport, even as it might provide life skills to benefit them in positive ways, as Dr. Gavoni points out.

Paul has been a pioneer in the use of the science of behavior in shaping fighters’ repertoires, and through coaching coaches in mixed martial arts (MMA); his application of the science in MMA has produced local, state, national, and even world champions.   Whatever your understanding of MMA, you are in for a thought-provoking and clear-eyed read that challenges assumptions about where the value lies in this particular human endeavor and demonstrates the efficacy of behavior analysis in developing performance.


Unleashing the Science of Behavior Analysis into the World of Mixed Martial Arts

Guest Author: Paul “Paulie” Gavoni, Ed.D., BCBA-D

In behavior analysis applications, there’s a phenomenon that I’ve come to refer to as “behavioral myopia.” It’s the tendency to limit the application of ABA principles to traditional clinical and educational settings, inadvertently overlooking the countless opportunities where behavior analysts can make a profound impact. In writing this article, I aim to broaden my fellow behavior analysts’ horizons to see beyond our field’s conventional boundaries. MMA) is just one compelling example among many, that showcases the amazing power of contingencies of reinforcement in building performance and helping individuals produce socially valid outcomes.

I am proud that my journey through the world of MMA has shed light on the remarkable potential of ABA beyond traditional boundaries. It demonstrates that behavior analysts can play a pivotal role in improving coaching performance or directly training athletes in any sport.

My Laboratory: The Rough and Ready Gym where Precise Skills in MMA are Mastered.

My love for combat sports was driven not by a penchant for aggression but by a deeply personal chapter of my youth — being on the receiving end of bullying. The decision to train wasn’t because I desired to hurt people. Quite the opposite, in fact, I made the decision to essentially strengthen my self-efficacy and resilience so that never again would I feel the vulnerability and humiliation associated with bullying. The link between those experiences and the person I’ve become is clear and straightforward. It doesn’t take a behavior analyst to understand what led me to the “fight game.”   But if you lift up the hood, I think you’d find that I am a compassionate, sensitive, and thoughtful person.  I’ve been described by some as something like a tootsie-pop – hard on the outside, but soft in the center! So please don’t judge me by the color of my skin but by the content of my character.

As a behavior analyst, I have found a unique and effective laboratory for applying ABA principles in MMA gyms. I’ve dedicated countless hours to developing skills and facilitating their generalization into the most critical real-world context—the actual fight.

Success Our Science Helped Me Accomplish

As part of a coaching team, my niche has focused on honing the striking skills of fighters who’ve reached out to me personally, often at critical career junctures. These athletes, like world heavyweight champion Kenny “Deuce” Garner, sought my expertise to fine-tune their striking, a testament not to my prowess but to the robustness of ABA in crafting champions.

As a result, I’ve been able to travel around the world, from the UK to Italy and even Russia, blending the art of combat with the universality of human behavior. Local champions like Anthony “2 Ton” Ciampa have looked to me to elevate their game, seeking to recover from losses and regain their standing as pillars in their communities. Similarly, when legendary UFC fighters like Brad “One Punch” Pickett and Jeff “The Snowman” Monson wanted to enhance their striking to complement their ground game, they came to me.

The stories of these fighters—such as current Bellator Champion Johnny “Pressure” Eblen and the up-and-coming Kody “Kojo” Cook, as well as veterans like Rich “the Raging Bull” Antonito and Luigi “The Italian Tank” Fioravanti—are further evidence of how coaching others through the science of behavior can improve performance and achieve socially valid outcomes. They didn’t know the underpinning of my approach; nevertheless, they benefited from the science. Even Aleksei, “The Boa Constrictor,” Oleinik, after facing setbacks in the ring, embraced the behavior analytic approach we implemented to revitalize his striking.

Please don’t take this as a narrative about my achievements. This is not the point. While I would not have achieved as much without understanding the principles of behavior, it’s not about me, but rather an illustration of how behavior analysis can reshape careers when integrated into MMA training or any sport. The application of science-based learning principles is the real champ! Each of these fighters’ victories is a compelling showcase of ABA’s potential in competitive sports.

While I have lots of success, I’m nothing special. It’s the science itself that is special. As such, behavior analysts, with their deep understanding of behavior change, can function as performance improvement specialists in MMA. Harnessing behavior analytic expertise can enhance coaching strategies, refine training methodologies, and directly optimize fighter performance. If I can do it, you definitely can!

Let’s look at just a few of the practical applications of ABA I’ve used in MMA. Remember, these can and should be used in any sport.

  • Task analysis: This approach has helped me to streamline skill development in MMA as I systematically broke down complex skills into their components, ensuring that every component is chained, and the skills can be systematically shaped and built to fluency. Behavior Analysts can do a lot with a good task analysis to accelerate performance through systematic training and coaching.
  • Behavior skills training: BST is indispensable for building fluency, and typically built into MMA training at some level; however, with an eye for behavioral nuance, behavior analysts can still design, refine, or implement training regimens that maximize skill acquisition and refinement.
  • Data-driven decision-making: Data is a core component of ABA, and pivotal to improving both athletic and coaching performance. Behavior analysts can help both fighters and coaches analyze performance metrics, design data collection systems, and make informed adjustments to training strategies, ultimately leading to better outcomes.
  • Generalization: Where training functions for skill acquisition, coaching, or Deliberate Coaching (2019) as Dr. Nic Weatherly and I have coined the behavior analytic version of it, functions to support the generalization of learned skills into the natural environment. Behavior analysts can assist fighters in generalizing their skills across various opponents and scenarios, ensuring they are well-equipped for success in the real fight.
  • Resilience: A cornerstone of MMA, Acceptance and Commitment Training concepts offer powerful tools for helping fighters be more aware of their behavior, the impact of their behavior on the environment, and the impact of the environment on their behavior. This includes their overt and covert behavior; moreover, the approach helps them to identify precursors to behavioral patterns that do not align with their performance values, and then identify and initiate replacement behaviors that move them toward those values. I’m certain no specialist in ACT, and no very little about RFT; however, I love to use the ACT matrix because it’s practical and can be easily explained in simple terms through a radical behaviorist’s lens. Behavior analysts who integrate these concepts into fighter training regimens enhance their coaching capabilities and the individual’s skill mastery to navigate the sport’s psychological challenges, particularly the mental roadblocks and self-talk that many in this field describe.
  • Video feedback: I’ve also used video feedback whereby videoed his or her own performance of a particular skill, and then had them directly collect data and assess against a performance goal. This particular approach has typically had a large and immediate impact on performance. Behavior analysts entering any sporting arena should use video feedback to accelerate performance.
  • Video modeling: As part of our regular training program, I provide my fighters with a video clip of a champion fighter performing a specific skill, and then I have them report on the behavioral details associated with it. This is something a behavior analyst can do anytime, anywhere. I typically send a text saying something like “Check out Fighter X’s rear foot. What do you notice? And how does that relate to what we’ve been focusing on.” Keep it simple!

While integrating ABA into training and coaching through these practical approaches has yielded some amazing outcomes, our science has boundless potential. I hope these illustrations demonstrate that ABA can thrive in any context, including what I consider the fascinating world of MMA.

Unfamiliar Territory

Now, venturing into the domain of MMA, behavior analysts might find themselves in an alien environment surrounded by larger-than-life figures, booming voices, and a kaleidoscope of tattoos. It’s also a place where women are forging their path despite preconceived notions of exclusivity. One of my co-authors of MMA Science is the coach of the greatest female fighter to have ever lived: Amanda Nunes! Now, while some may view the sport through a lens of violence, there’s an intricate artistry at play where combat sport learners, male and female, can master their craft under the guidance of a behavior analytic framework. In a sense, it’s very much like physical chess.

Consider this an invitation to demystify this world for the uninitiated or the ‘shy’ among us. Join a local MMA club, attend a fight, or start a conversation with those in the sport. It’s about taking that first step into a broader world. Earning a badge as a behavior analysis (BA) coach in this arena does require a deep dive into the sport’s behavioral nuances.

Most behavior analysts might not fancy themselves as part of an MMA coaching team, and rightly so if MMA is not their forte. However, you can still collaborate effectively with coaches, contributing your expertise in human behavior to increase safety and enhance training outcomes. The crux of the matter is not the sport itself, whether tennis, golf, or MMA; it’s about tapping into the universal pursuit of maximizing potential. As behavior analysts, we have a rich reservoir of knowledge to contribute. The MMA community is not a world apart—it’s a field ripe for the application of ABA, waiting for those willing to step beyond the familiar and contribute to the extraordinary journey of human performance.

You Can Do It, Too!

It is my sincerest hope that my journey in the MMA world showcases the vast opportunities for behavior analysts to make a significant impact beyond our traditional domains. Whether improving coaching performance or directly training fighters, behavior analysts can bring their expertise to improve socially valid outcomes in MMA, illustrating the power of ABA for making a profound difference anywhere. Just remember, if I can do it, you can do it, too!