MMA for Football?
By: Michael Boyle
“MMA training for an NFL athlete does not only NOT make sense, but would simply be counterproductive. The demands of the two sports clearly could not be any more different from each other. It makes as much sense as choosing to going to chemo therapy because you are sick of shaving your head (Michael Jackson’s doctor said that line, I believe). Taking a multi-million dollar athlete and having him train in such a nonsensical way is foolish and irresponsible… and please realize I am an MMA coach.” Dewey Neilsen, Nationally Recognized MMA Strength and Conditioning Coach
A couple of NFL strength and conditioning coaches have written to ask about NFL athletes using MMA training techniques to train in the off-season. I guess my reputation as a person with an opinion is following me. I can start the controversy right off. In my mind it is foolish and short-sighted for an NFL player to train like a mixed martial arts fighter. I watched a recently released NFL quarterback on Youtube engage in a sparring session with an MMA trainer. Trust me, I don’t want to get beat up by an MMA trainer, but I don’t think this is a good idea. The only guys on the field who really can’t operate without their hands are quarterbacks and receivers. If I’m paying a guy a few million dollars, I would really prefer he doesn’t punch anything. I was really surprised that one NFL GM actually endorsed the idea. Seems crazy to me.
To further draw on the controversy, let’s ask ourselves, what is MMA training? The majority of what we see on the web as MMA training seems to be muscle endurance stuff that doesn’t appear to be good for anyone except combat athletes, and certainly does not seem appropriate for an NFL player. I’ve seen guys training with snorkels in their mouths for oxygen deprivation; I’ve watched a guy literally throw rusty barbells in a field. So I will qualify myself and say that if we view MMA training primarily as sparring with mitts or kicking, I still can’t see how it has a place in training for a football guy.
Let’s look at the basics. A football play lasts approximately five seconds. An MMA round lasts five minutes. Right away, do you see a problem? The rationalization I listened to in the Youtube interviews revolved around the mental toughness developed in pushing through fatigue. I do not doubt this type of training is difficult, however what they are describing never happens in football. Plays last five seconds and the rest lasts about 30 seconds. This in no way resembles anything in the martial arts.
Moving on from the obvious energy system issue, an MMA fighter wears almost zero equipment and is able to punch and kick his opponent. An NFL player wears pads on most exposed bodyparts, and it is basically illegal to punch and or kick an opponent. Running is a huge part of football; in MMA, running will not win many matches and too much running will damage an athlete’s reputation as a willing opponent.
To add even more complexity, the best MMA strength and conditioning coaches probably train their fighters more like NFL players than the opposite. Jon Chaimberg’s and Dewey Neilsen’s MMA programs are not typical MMA programs. Instead, they are scientific programs based on the current science of performance enhancement. If an NFL guy told me he was going to train with Jon or Dewey, I would endorse it wholeheartedly. However, what they would do is train like a football player. The best MMA strength coaches realize their athletes get plenty of work with their MMA coaches. Much like NFL strength and conditioning coaches, the good MMA strength and conditioning coaches spend lots of time on basic strength training and power work.
The truth is, training like an MMA fighter is cool and trendy and might get a player featured on ESPN. What it might not be is intelligent or effective for conditioning for football. Football players and MMA is a lot like athletes and actors. MMA training means ringside seats at fights, pretty girls, nights out in Vegas. Sorry, it still doesn’t makes sense for highly paid athletes who participate in a physically violent sport six months out of the year.
If I’m an NFL strength coach, I’m not happy if my guys are missing workouts for sparring sessions. I’m less happy if they are using this type of training instead of the football specific routines I have taken years to develop. If you are an NFL executive, you are undermining the credibility of your strength and conditioning staff, and pretty soon your off-season program will be an MMA free-for-all you’ll need to rein in. I know I’ll get some negative feedback on this, but I owe it to my NFL colleagues to state an opinion that they can’t.
Look at it this way: How would position coaches feel if a player said he wanted to skip practice to go to MMA? The position coach’s feeling is, “This is my time with you—we need this time to get better.” The strength coach feels the same way. The off season is his time to do his best work. If a player is off sparing in an MMA gym, that is time away from the important things that really need to be done.