Mixed Martial Arts – The Learning Journey And Path To Evolution

If you’ve been training in MMA or any other technical sport for a reasonable amount of time you will have almost certainly observed that even with seemingly simple aspects your knowledge and refinement grows massively over time.

Your depth of knowledge is fundamental to being a successful Mixed Marital Artist and having an appreciation for the level of learning required for each technique, concept or tactic that you take on board can help you plan and focus your MMA training. Particularly if you’re a relatively new student, it’s always tempting to claim that you ‘know’ a technique quite soon after being shown it, but what does ‘knowing’ a technique actually mean?

The following diagram demonstrates some of the stages of learning  you may progress through on your journey through Mixed Martial Arts:

MMA learning and evolution


When you first begin your MMA journey there will be hundreds of techniques that you won’t even be aware of, you literally won’t even know they exist. So strange as it may seem the first level of learning a technique is actually being aware of its existence. If you’re a keen student then after you become aware of a technique you’ll most certainly want to be shown it by someone. You have to be careful here, there’s simply no way to become an expert at everything overnight and the pace at which you take on additional submissions, strikes, take downs and more will have a big impact on the depth of your knowledge.

A fork in the road

When the time comes to take on a new technique immediately you will start a journey down two intertwined paths – that of performance and understanding. These two journeys are highly dependent on each other, trying to achieve a high level of understanding without spending vast amounts of time actually performing the skill is almost impossible. Yet having a high level of understanding will accelerate advancement in your performance like nothing else.


Depth of knowledge is perhaps most obvious when it comes to the performance side of things as it’s highly visible and tangible. It may seem obvious to say but once again there are several levels or stages that our physical performance may go through. We’ll simply call these low level, mid level and high level. Let ‘s look at some of the characteristics of each of these levels and hopefully they’ll be recognisable to you and give the levels of performance some context, for the sake of simplicity We’ll refer to these levels in relation to individual techniques

Low level performance

You have grasped the general shape of the technique and given ideal conditions you can physically perform it without guidance. The mechanics are still at a macro level and the technique is achieved with gross motor skills leaving the technique looking functional but unrefined.

Mid level performance

You can perform the technique in situations that aren’t perfect or set up for you, particularly in light and or restricted sparring drills. In difficult circumstances the technique is still quite forced and a certain amount of strength has to be used to attain success. You are likely to have a favourite side that you perform it from the majority of the time and the set-ups that you know will be limited to a fairly small set.

High level performance

If the right window of opportunity presents itself you can perform the technique fluidly and effortlessly without the need for strength. The technique is refined and micro adjustments with fine motor skills are made in order to achieve success in a variety of positions and scenarios. You can perform the technique equally well off both sides and you feel comfortable with a wide array of set-ups.


As with performance, the level of understanding that we have for a technique, concept or tactics evolves over time and is heavily influenced by the experience you acquire through performance. The great thing about understanding is that you can massively accelerate your progression along the learning curve with an intelligent approach and high quality tuition (preferably in person although we do our best to provide great insight and guidance remotely with this site). If you receive clear, concise and holistic instruction while you are training then very quickly you should be able to self correct and this ability more than any other will accelerate your learning as you will be able to continuously refine and progress even when you are training without instruction.

Again we’ll describe and characterise the levels of understanding that you may go through in this journey

Low level understanding

You understand the overall concept of what a successful implementation of the technique should look like and why it works but when you’re not successful with it you struggle to understand why. In order to perform the technique you require a lot of conscious thought which requires time and clarity, consequently you find it too challenging to perform the technique in anything other than ideal circumstances. If you closed your eyes and attempted to visualise the movement from start to finish you would struggle to do this clearly and would certainly find it difficult to visualise off both sides.

Mid level understanding

Even though you may not always be successful at performing the technique, when you fail you can successfully analyse why and you do considerable amounts of self correction. You would also feel comfortable teaching the core mechanics and concepts of the technique to others. The thinking required to perform the technique is drastically reduced as most of the thinking is done at a sub conscious level as the technique starts to be become instinctive. When you close your eyes you can visualise the technique clearly and at the same speed you would wish to preform it at, even though you may still find this a little challenging if you attempted to visualise it from your least favourite side.

High level understanding

When you see a fellow practitioner failing to apply the technique successfully you can quickly identify areas for correction and help guide them to make the necessary adjustments. Away from the physical training arena and without guidance or instruction you’ve been able to clearly identify potential new set ups and variations of the technique solely through visualisation that you’ve then successfully added back into your repertoire. You are absolutely clear on the techniques strengths and weaknesses, you understand not just what makes the technique successful but also when the technique is not appropriate and when it should not be used. You’re understanding encompasses not just the technique itself but also its place in MMA in a wider context – how it can be used tactically and how it combines with other techniques to become more effective.


This is where our parallel paths of learning through performance and understanding join back together at the deepest level of knowledge.

Once we achieve both high level performance and high level understanding the parallel paths of learning that we have taken merge back together in a very exiting way. Rather than the end of the journey it’s the start of the most exiting phase of the journey, that of evolution.

This combination of great physical and mental knowledge allows us to take the technique to new places. New set ups and ways of chaining the technique with others, new variations to the angles, distances and leverage points to make it more effective and even entirely new techniques that have never been done before. Don’t be tempted to think that just because masters of the various arts have come before you that there is nothing new to discover, far from it. The world of MMA is in its infancy and evolving rapidly and there is still much to discover and invent. Fresh eyes, fresh thinking and fresh talent will drive this innovation far more than the ‘old masters’ that are less likely to challenge their own conventional and commonly accepted wisdom.

I can guarantee that years from now there will be techniques and tactics that are commonplace in MMA that right now we have not even seen. So go and seek out the best MMA instruction and tuition possible, endeavour to perform and understand every technique, concept and tactic to the highest possible level you can and then innovate, evolve, challenge and change the rules to make something even better. after all, that’s the very foundation that Mixed Martial Arts was built on.

5 thoughts on “Mixed Martial Arts – The Learning Journey And Path To Evolution”

  1. Brilliant Lee.

    As a coach we often find the impatience of a student to learn as many techniques as they can, in the shortest time period they can- a real challenge. I’ve always said “better to have half a dozen submissions or escapes that you pull off 90% of the time than two dozen that have a “half chance” of success.

    Understanding and repetition at all levels.

  2. Yup!

    All i can do right now is increase my knowledge of techniques and awareness and gain a higher understanding!

    This had led me to focus on the most important and fundamental moves. As a martial artist i have asked myself frequently…Why do i train? and the answer is Threefold, to protect myself, protect my family and friends and to keep fit. I have reasoned (with your assisted insight Lee) that the most effective submissions for self defence would be suppressions and Chokes, and whilst laying in bed dreaming about training, i decided to focus my mental training on these types of holds. And even now the fundamental moves are facing scrutiny and having to adapt and evolve as our sport and art changes with the times!

    Great article Lee!

    Thanks so much

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