Duncan French, VP of Performance for the UFC joins Association of Sporting Directors members to discuss their return to play

Duncan French is the VP of Performance for the UFC and has strategic responsibility for the Performance Institutes in Las Vegas and Shanghai. The UFC have 600 rostered fighters from across the world and the Performance Institutes provide support across all aspects of preparation, competition and recovery. 

UFC were the first professional sport to return to competition during the pandemic with three fight events hosted in Florida, and Duncan joined ASD members in conversation with Alistair Milner about the preparation and protocols required for the return.

It was great to have Duncan share his experiences with the group as many of the ASD members are integral to their clubs returning to competition. The discussion covered the following areas:

·        How the Performance Institute network supports the global roster of UFC fighters

·        Preparation behind the scenes and embedding key protocols to ensure a secure environment

·        Lessons from returning to competition and long-term impact

UFC Performance Institutes – Global Network

The Performance Institutes, based in Las Vegas (2017) and Shanghai (2019), form a network of excellence which creates evidence based protocols, using the latest technology and practices to help professional and development fighters prepare, make weight and recover. The intention is to keep building regionalised talent pools and, where appropriate, build more Performance Institutes and expand the global infrastructure.

The pandemic has had a significant impact over the last three months with it being no longer possible to put on fights in 20,000 capacity arenas. 

Fortunately the UFC business model is based on live streaming and as its an individual sport, the challenges of putting teams back together in one place weren’t such a constraint.

The biggest challenge has been managing external fighters (and their teams) coming into a controlled environments and how to maintain the integrity of the physical space for the duration of the event.

Return to Training and Competition

Its been a steep learning curve for the Performance Institute team in their effort to support UFC’s ambition to return to live competition. A great deal of preparatory work was done on setting up as secure an event facility as possible. The movement of individuals through arrivals, testing, on-site weigh-in, conditioning, fight night, medical care and accommodation was meticulously mapped out. In addition to the fighters, production crews, hotel staff, media and officials had to be taken into consideration.

Testing procedures, the correct use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and hygiene protocols at key stages of the fight were also critical components of the event. This was highlighted when one of the fighters tested positive on arrival and the protocol enabled the fighter and his team to be safely quarantined and supported to return home safely by the UFC organisation.

As well as the physical environment, Duncan commented on how the Institute helped athletes and staff make a confident return to the Octagon. Understandably the fighters were nervous about lack of conditioning and readiness, so access to holistic support, including psychologists was key. The option to return to the competition environment was voluntary for staff, so everyone felt comfortable about their involvement. But the overall response was one of motivation to get back to the routine of preparing and competing. The toll on mental health was always going to be a side effect of the enforced suspension, but the UFC are keenly aware of their role to support a safe and timely return.

The Future

The UFC continue to stream live fight events from their purpose built facility in Las Vegas and are planning to stage international fights from their much discussed “Fight Island”. The organisation will continue to ensure the safety of the fighters and staff by refining the testing and control protocols. Adherence to the regulations will be strictly enforced when it comes to Zone Management and the correct use of PPE.

Duncan and the Performance Team will continue to work closely with fighters and staff to provide both physical and psychological support. They will continue to develop new protocols and practices, which make the support as efficient and effective as possible. It will mean short to medium-term changes, but it will ensure that the Sport continues its growth in the US and overseas.

The ASD would like to thank Duncan French for sharing his experiences with the group and wish him luck as the UFC returns to full strength.

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