Your Muay Thai training will fit into one of three categories. The focus is different for each, and knowing where you fit is key in prioritizing what’s important and getting the most out of your training. The three categories are: learning the basics, training to spar or preparing to fight.
Level 1# The Foundations: Learning the basics
First, you learn how to stand, use the ring, basic strikes, and defenses. No need to know how to apply them just yet, only get a feel and exposure for the movements.
The first phase isn’t short-lived either. It can take a while- getting comfortable with stance, various punches, kicks, blocks, footwork… can take months. It doesn’t stop there: Familiarizing yourself with each piece of equipment and tools; the heavy bags, Thai pads, mitt work, shadow boxing, and partner drills. Then there’s the jargon: hooks, uppercuts, southpaw and orthodox. There’s nothing “basic” about starting from zero. It’s a steep learning curve in the early days, which is why it’s so exhilarating too.
When you’re semi-proficient and can move around, and strike without too much mental effort, you’re ready for the next level; training to be able to spar. Not fight- Spar.
Recently I’ve been thinking about why I’m motivated to teach different students certain skills and not others. I realized it was about relevance, which I’ll get more into later. For now, I figured out a new and efficient way of categorizing what to teach depending on the level the student is working in.
They are: Foundations, Sparring or Fighting.
Level 2# Training To Spar
After the “beginner stage”, or foundations, the next focus should be how to spar, not so much “fight”. They are both different things, which is commonly (and abruptly) discovered in the first fight. In the gym, assuming it’s a fight gym, everyone is collectively training towards competence as ring fighters- the ultimate goal- even if many don’t ever set foot in a ring. It’s still the same game we’re playing, just on different levels. Sparring provides relevance and puts techniques in context.
If you learn how to strike and move, but don’t spar, then techniques beyond the basics such as countering, timing, rhythm, catches, locks, fakes, defenses…. will remain irrelevant, causing a plateau in your motivation and training. No one would have the motivation to learn a language, say Esperanto if they had no one to speak it with. You need to go to the country to learn properly and have relevance and real-life feedback to stay engaged and enjoy the rewards with every progression you make. It’s the same with moving beyond the techniques. You need context, and direct feedback to test your skills.
Then you ride another learning-curve, as more concepts open up; rhythm, timing, countering, using the ring space, dealing with various sizes and styles, etc.
But this shouldn’t be confused with the next level- training how to fight.
Level 3# Training to Fight
In sparring, you learn the game. You practice, make mistakes, and experiment. You are also likely to be surrounded by friends in a safe, supportive environment, having fun- with no pressure. The focus of sparring is growth, taking risk with minimal consequence, and with the knowledge and assurance that when you make a mistake, your partners won’t take your head off. You are safe. You can be yourself. You are even polite, a team player.
But a fight is a different animal.
Polite gym etiquette doesn’t apply in a fight. I’m not saying before or after the fight, as it’s full respect for the most part. But when approaching a fight you need a different mindset, different intentions. And you need to practice these “different” (i.e. bad) intentions.
Here are some examples of what you would do in a fight that you don’t normally do at gym practice: Take less risk, use your strengths (obviously don’t work your weaknesses), win every round, stand up straight between rounds, never show emotion (especially exhaustion), pounce when opponent is hurt, use your kills shots (most violent weapons that are either modified or omitted from training such as elbows, axe kicks etc).
Remember, day-in-day-out you are doing the opposite at the gym of what you should be doing in a fight. So, that’s where integrating these elements into the gym is important, without being an asshole (I’m still working on it).
A Point In Sparring Is NOT Equal To A Point In a Fight
Some things that work in sparring are useless in a fight. When you get tagged in sparring- whether it’s a punch, kick, or whatever- it’s perceived as an equal point. But it’s not equal in a fight.
A full-power shin kick to the ribs vs. a jab IS different in a fight than in sparring. Once you add power, things change. For one, the force throws your balance off. In sparring, for the most part, people manage and nullify their power and this creates a distortion to the real thing. There is nothing wrong with it if you recognize and acknowledge the flaw.
Also, and this is the big one- many moves, often fancy, are useless. A general rule of thumb: if you can’t execute a move with full power- as in knock someone out with it- then when your opponent feels your lack of power in a fight, they will walk right through you. You don’t want that. An unafraid opponent who doesn’t respect your power is a confident opponent, and a confident opponent will perform to his highest potential. You want to reduce your opponent’s performance, not fookin boost it.
So be aware: if you’re tip-tapping in sparring, analyze your shots and ask yourself, “if I wanted to, am I able to KO someone with these shots? Would they deter an opponent?” Test them on a bag and make sure they can. The exception is if you’re deliberately tip-tapping as a distraction or set up, but more common than not people aren’t.
Tweak All Your Variables
When you win, you can never know exactly what attributed to the win. There are so many variables, and all it takes is one to tip the scales and send one fighter soaring with confidence or one wallowing in doubt. It could start in the change rooms, hearing the relentless pounding of an opponent on pads in the next room, while you just arrived off a plane jet-lagged, no sleep and coming off a fever. You just don’t know.
Any little detail you do or don’t do can tip the scales in your favor. How you carry yourself to the ring, your facial expression when attacking, your posture after the fight, your work rate, your social media persona, the bullshit argument you had with your long-distance girlfriend… all of this plays on the delicate balance of confidence between you and your opponent.
Respect- how rough do you handle your opponents? Do you push kick their face, maul them like a pit bull in a clinch, impose your will on them? Do you fight violently with intentions to badly hurt them or fight technically and concentrate on out-strategizing them? A violent fighter can turn it from being a “sport” and into a “fight”… More adrenaline, more personal, more emotion… and for the violent one instigating it, that might just be the edge… (Conor McGregor does it with his words).
There are many details to practice in the gym to simulate a fight. You can never fully simulate a fight, without fighting. We use the different components in the gym i.e. Shadowboxing, pads, sparring, clinching to simulate different parts and then put it all together in a fight.
But you need to practice the small details, outside the actual skills. For example; start showing up to training like it’s a fight, modified. Arrive with tall posture, train harder than everyone else, win every round, take less risk, never show you are tired, always fill the gap when sparring i.e. When you land a shot instead of pulling back- pounce- but pounce lightly avoiding knocking your partner out. That way you can still have friends when you need them.
I train every person with one of these three levels in mind. If they are not going to spar, and want to learn Muay Thai: we learn all strikes and defenses, enough to do pad-work and various bag drills to stay interested and engaged. Occasionally I’ll stretch it with some semi-contact drills and fighting concepts for the knowledge of the game, and to be able to read fights better than the average person.
If they’re old dogs but still insist on sparring, (there are a few of us), then I work on getting them to look less awful and enjoy sparring, that means landing their shots. Then I pit them against each other. I need entertainment too.
Then, if they want to fight, my go-to is “how to be a cunt”, as well as all the technical stuff. The little details that will make fighting them… “Uncomfortable”. One of the ideas I try to pound in my fighter’s heads is: give your opponent hell. Make them want the seconds to be over. Shift your focus to your opponent, and make it sickening for them. By shifting your focus, you become proactive and offensive.
It’s always better to be the aggressor, and at the very least its exciting. And exciting sells tickets. And ticket sales mean you’ll get more phone calls. And more phone calls mean more opportunities. And more opportunities is more experience, more experience better fighter and so the positive feedback loop goes.
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