Ben Askren’s ‘dialed in’ training

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Practicing With Purpose

Very few athletes get as excited to practice as they do to compete.  It doesn’t matter what their sport is, it just seems tedious at times to keep going over the same “stuff” day after day.

If you’ve read the skill development research of experts like Dr. Anders Ericsson, you’d know that “it’s not always fun” and “it’s highly repeatable” are two of the two qualities of deliberate, effective practice (in sports, music, chess, etc…).  Many athletes over time have shared their feelings on practicing, for instance former NBA star Allen Iverson who had a press conference, now infamous, dictated solely by his hate for the “p” word.

Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson has always been very vocal about his dislike for preparing for fights.  The cardio, having to eat right, the hours on end spent in the gym; it’s understandable that some athletes get fed up or “burned out.”

In fact one time I was in the gym with three professional boxers.  Each had matches on the horizon and they all got giddy saying how they couldn’t wait for the fun to start – the actual fight – and how they were glad the worst part (practice) is over. There are – however – athletes who relish in the practice itself, not just in the value of training, but in the art and science of pushing themselves – and constructing the most effective hours they possibly can.

What it Means to Be “Dialed In” in Training

For Ben Askren there is no such thing as taking it easy when he’s on the mat.  There’s a quote from basketball legend, Tim Duncan, which goes “Good, better, best.  Never let it rest ‘till your good is better and your better is best.” There are athletes like Duncan and Askren who live by this mantra, and as an attitude it tends to manifest itself in a specific “kind” of training.

With so many facets to the world of MMA and grappling, someone like Ben has to focus on every little nitty-gritty detail that he can. Is his boxing up to snuff?  Can he defend kicks well enough?  Are his double-legs still top-notch?  Is his BJJ good enough to hang with the best of the best?  All of these need to be addressed, which calls for complete focus and dedication while training.

“I’d try 20 variations of a single move within five minutes,” Ben shares of his training regimen.  It’s that type of hard work that keeps him atop the rankings in the world of MMA.  Knowing that his sport his ever evolving; fighters like Ben have to prepare for anything and also be willing to produce the unexpected.

In training, this involves a kind of “Tinkering.” Twenty reps of a duck-under slow, 20 fast, 20 with emphasis on the sit-through, 20 with emphasis on the finish – always tuning in and being mindful of what seems to be working and not working. Often, drilling is “going through the motions,” with body moving but brain turned off. Ben’s perspective is that every drill set should also tease out new keys to the technique, and emphasis certain new details that make moves work.

Applying this to wrestling is what brought him two NCAA championships – and applying it to MMA
Practice Makes Perfect.

In the sporting world there is a saying, “practice how you play.”  It’s simply put and quite easy to understand but it can get lost if you allow your mind to drift away in the sea of complacency.  Training with a purpose and a goal in mind is vital to the progression of an athlete in their on-going quest to better themselves.

It’s a simple notion in life: everyone wants money but doesn’t want to work, everyone wants good grades but doesn’t want to study, everyone wants to be good at their sport but don’t want to practice. Ben decided to embrace this at an early age when he was in an environment that nobody thought could produce a wrestling champion – but only the weak of will depend wholly on environment – and Ben rightfully attributes his success to that will, and the training that it pushed him to perform.

Everything in life stems from hard work.  Sure, from time-to-time a lucky break will come into play and you can utilize your specific skill set to achieve your goal, but then what?  Luck and your basic skills won’t get you further.  Being able to work for it and keep pushing your self is the key to bettering yourself in and out of the gym.  As the saying goes, you just have to keep your nose to the grindstone.

Back to the mat…

-Daniel G. Faggella

Dan Faggella is author of a book based off of interviews with Ben Askren: “The Unexpected Champion: Training Strategies of an Underdog Fighter.” You can learn more about the book in eBook form, and get Dan’s interview notes with Ben for Free at: