Kru Syndrome: The Pitfalls of Being Taken On By a Thai Trainer as a Woman
guest post, Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu –
I’ve been wanting to write something on this for several years now. In fact, I’ve urged Sylvie to write about it herself, because I feel like she has special insight into it – we’ve talked about it a lot together – but she’s kind of crushed by the huge content load, and it seems that if it’s going to get written it’s going to be by me. Maybe we can discuss it together in a podcast of some kind. This is a kind of syndrome that I’ve noticed in other female fighters in Thailand, as far as I can appreciate them from afar, and also from themes of Sylvie’s personal experiences with trainers over the nearly 7 years we’ve spent in the country so far. I will not say that western men do not experience this, or even that all serious western female students/fighters do, but I do think it’s a prevalent and recurrent pattern that at the very least is worth thinking about as a female fighter in Thailand, and one that guides our own decisions about training, and choosing krus. I would also say, this kind of syndrome might not be active between Thai krus and western female students/fighters who have some kind of romantic or sexualized bond, that seems like it sets in motion a very different set of syndrome factors, of which I really don’t have much direct sense. I might also say that serious western female students/fighters could also run into a version of Kru Syndrome back home in the west, but there are additional mitigating factors in Thailand that makes this phenomena all its own.
The Kru Syndrome
Thailand offers an incredible opportunity for western female fighters and serious students. One thing that is very special about Fight Culture here in Thailand is that there is floating tier of what I might call “pure fighting” in the country, that is expressed by a common fight culture. Fighting as an expression of one’s soul and character is appreciated regardless of gender, or even of species. Chickens fight in huge gambling circuits, beetles fight, children fight, boys and girls fight, farang fight. Over weight people fight, relatively untrained people fight, older people fight. It’s all fighting, and there is a kind of universal ethic of what the beauty of fighting is. A female fighter coming from the West enters a kind of Fight paradise, putting their foot in Fight Culture, where they are very possibly seen simply as “a fighter”, by virtue of just wanting to fight. There is a kind of washing of yourself clean in these fight waters, becoming blemishless, as your gym and eventually a single kru takes you under their wing and prepares you for fighting. It’s a form of social tabula rosa that is truly liberating. In those initial months it can be incredibly freeing, as if you are shucking off shackles that have held you be for years elsewhere. Part of this liberation comes from the fact that Thai fight culture is in some very real sense much more embracing of differences than the cultures we come from. And part of the sense of liberation comes from the fact that you are probably blind to the strictures and social bonds that are present, but remain simply unseen because you are not familiar with the culture or the language. It feels far more free than it actually is.
This is the honeymoon period. You are experiencing a liberty in yourself, and your kru starts downloading all kinds of wonderful Thai technique and authentic training into you. You very quickly can feel like you are simply a Thai fighter. This is where one of the hidden dimensions of gender takes hold. One of the most difficult fault lines in many female fighter’s psychology come from the sense and fear that they may not be taken as a “real” fighter. Fighting is coded as “male”, essentially so, so there is a default logic of “Not a male, therefore, not a fighter”. Serious female westerners may all have developed different defenses or negotiations with this logic, and many will wrestle with “impostor syndrome”. For almost all, just being taken at face value a fighter, as a fighting person, can be huge. With this sense of acceptance comes a debt of gratitude. You feel like you owe your trainer a lot for this kind of authentic embrace. And if your kru is someone very notable in the gym (the head trainer, etc), or even worse, famous or well-respected by the community, this debt can feel unpayable. Unpayable, but joyfully given. Thank you for considering me worthy of your work! This is a very real and serious bond.
But, every luminous object has its shadow. How does the shadow of this show itself? I’ve seen this many, many times over the years. This is a rough caricature of what happens. The kru, often a well-known kru, invests very significant time into a female fighter. The female student soaks it in like crazy. Bouyed by the thankfulness of being accepted as authentic the female fighter puts everything into her training. She will far surpass the effort of western males, and even the Thai boys, if there are any at the gym. The kru will see this devotion as a sign of respect, and invest more. It feels win/win. The female fighter is growing pretty quickly. But…then the fights come. What happens in a fight is not what is happening in the training ring. Not even close.
The Thai kru can’t really make sense of this. For a Kru raised in the long form, slow cook, methods of a Thai kaimuay know and believe the truism that your level of achievement as a fighter is a direct correlation to the degree of your commitment to the work, to the program. Anyone, and I do mean anyone, who commits to the work will become a pretty decent, authentically dangerous fighter. This is of course a myth. Over the course of many years there will be Thai boys who do commit to the work and somehow fail, but their failure becomes quickly explained away by a variety of factors. For Thais there are always extracurricular explanations of why a fighter loses or does not perform well. But, in general, the myth is true. Do the work under the guidance of a kru, you become a damn good fighter. But, this is of Thai boys, raised from a young age. Respected Thai krus simply are not prepared for the time scales involved when adult female fighters enter a gym and devote themselves to a kru’s direction. All the kru sees is lots and lots of training, lots of respect and conscientiousness to guidance, and then failure to perform these same qualities or directions in fights. There invariably will be a loss of face for the kru, even if the fighter wins, but especially if they lose.
The truth of the matter is that western female fighters, especially adult female fighters, simply are not in the right time scale to absorb the attention the kru is giving them. And almost invariably there develops a tension between time invested by the kru and performance in fights. I’ve seen this with Sylvie over the years, to be sure, but I’ve seen the telltale signs of it in so many other western female fighters. There is a schism that develops. This is one of the more likely dynamics to develop out of this: the female fighter will beat themselves up over their failure. What the hell is wrong with me that I can’t block? Why can’t I do anything I’ve trained to do? There is a terrible potential for a downward spiral of self-hate and self-critique that then will only produce more tension, more self-reflection. The female fighter is in a very real bind. She owes a great deal to her trainer, in fact he is often one of the first real experiences as being marked as “authentic”, but also is faced with the sense that they can’t even pay their trainer back, properly. The kru is also struck with a growing loss of face. This is something that is I think pretty underappreciated by westerners. If a kru visibly puts effort into a fighter in the gym, if the entire gym watches the investment day upon day, and then the student fights without the supposed skills imposed, there is a social cost. I suspect that the female fighter almost never will equal the expectation of those first honeymoon months. The future of the relationship between the fighter and the kru really depends on how both of them negotiate the pitfalls of that schism.
To add to this dynamic it is pretty common in Thai camp culture to never directly praise a fighter to their face. I’m not sure how this plays out in more western oriented gyms, but I do think it a feature of Thai on Thai training. The fighter never (or seldom) gets praised, only gets criticized. Even a very fine performance will be met with all the things that the fighter did not do. If a female western fighter runs into this tendency it can be quite difficult. There may already be a great sense of debt – the student to the master – maybe a debt that can’t be repaid, and added to that is that praise, even when performing well, may be very hard to come by. The female fighter is left to a sea of self-critique and disappointment, unable to separate out genuine areas in need of improvement, from the kru’s elevated loss of face, and also a fairly relentless focus on the negative and failures in fights. The Fighter’s Paradise can become a little nightmarish, depending no how harsh the fighter is on themselves.
The Kru Syndrome does not stay in this state of emergency for very long. It will cycle into it again and again, on occasion, but with repetition the kru will take a kind of acceptance of frustration. Depending on their level of pride or egotism the Thai kru may have little to no acceptance of responsibility for the incomplete performance of the fighter (this is where the character and quality of the kru really shows itself). Instead the relationship can slip into a kind of vague minimization of the student as disappointing. It is very difficult for a Thai kru to save face when their student trains so hard, and shows so much promise in the training ring, and then fights with a lack of fluency. They will insulate themselves against it.
But what is a western female fighter to do? Very often they will simply internalize the entire repeat experience as failure that resides wholly within themselves, or, they may alternately find faults in their gym and the relative aspects of decay that ultimately are present in any Thai gym, and start to show themselves over time. The longer you are in the gym culture, the more you see the laziness of trainers, or note the ways Thais are separated out from westerners, or the dis-equality with which western men and western women are treated. Any number of social flaws start to show themselves. What was a Fight Paradise over time has flaws and warts, and all of this becomes an expression of the failure relationship between the kru and the fighter, the Kru Syndrome.
Most of what I’m talking about here is broad-themed difficulties that are involved in eventual kru disappointment, and the difficulty of saving face. How the kru and the fighter deal with this spell out really what the relationship is capable of. Krus will sometimes take the tact of saying you won your fight, that the refs were bad (especially if they gambled on it), this can take the edge off of responsibility. Fighters will devotedly throw themselves back into hard training, and this too will cut the tension of disappointments. But what happens if you DON’T disappoint your kru? What happens if you outperform what is expected? It isn’t all negative. This article is about psychological and cultural pitfalls to look out for, so that you can avoid them. It isn’t about what IS going to happen to you. But, outperforming, or performing really well also has its pitfalls in Kru Syndrome. If you start beating your opponents, looking good, defeating them with things you train, you can suffer an additional difficulty. Your Kru may very well start becoming more protective of your record, taking more care to make sure that you have opponents you can handle, buffering you. There is a strange place that Thai female fighters kind of get to in Thailand, the “nobody can beat her” place. This happens in the closing arc of a young female fighter’s career when they have already beaten many of the top opponents. Now the strategy becomes holding onto this undefeatable quality. Gyms might start looking only for big, defining, high side-bet fights, the kind of which might settle the “nobody can fight her” claim. This is a kind of natural evolution of a female Thai fighter’s career which often starts in prize fighting at a young age, all in the larger context of male Thai fighting (which unlike female fighting has an expansive upper tier of achievement in which to prove yourself). You see the parallel in the Golden Age career of Dieselnoi who beat all comers in his weight class. Then couldn’t get fights at all. It wasn’t that nobody could fight him, it was that nobody would fight him with a huge side-bet, faced with his formidable and connected manager. He would only fight a few times after this. Over the years he went down in weight and beat Samart, then up in weight and beat Sagat (2x). There were drips and drabs. He was the fighter “nobody could beat” and it ultimately meant not fighting. Female fighting also has this kind of attractor. There is a sense in the Fight Culture where there really is no purpose to female Muay Thai fighting, there is no ultimate aim or achievement, and that as Thai female fighters mature and dominate their careers kind of dry up. Each of their gyms feeling “nobody can fight her”. I’m talking about something unspoken maybe, but there is a kind of drift to “not fighting” built into Thai female fighter arcs. There was an interesting example of it with Phetjee Jaa who fast ascended to the “nobody can fight her” position after beating several boys, and top Thai females her weight, but as (by rumor) Loma’s camp tried to set up a big showdown fight (a few years ago now) to really see who “nobody can beat” Phetjee Jaa’s camp repeatedly backed out of proposed cards. But Phetjee Jaa’s camp is not alone in this, once Thai females reach a certain level, fight matchups become very picky. They would rather not fight than take fights they could lose, in unfavorable conditions. (And there is always money on the line, so losing is a significant investment, not only the pride of name and face.) A big part of this is that in Fight Culture if you agree to unfavorable conditions and lose you look like you’ve been manipulated, you lose face. You lost the fight, but you also lost the negotiation. The negotiation is the face-making fight before the fight. But another part of it is that top female fighters have already pretty much reached the peak of what they are. They have already gained the “nobody can fight her” status, if only relatively so. Phetjee Jaa lost really nothing by not fighting Loma. She just went into amateur boxing and fights for the Thai National Team, likely with an aim to enter the Olympics and gain name and money via that route. The reason why I write about this arc into non-fighting, thought, is that if you as a western fighter are taken up by a Kru whose face is invested, success can also work against you. It is sometimes the case that your Kru will become more and more choosy of opponents, more controlling of the possibility of loss (losing the “nobody can fight her” status), feeling that once you are dominant you kind of have reached the apex of really what a female fighter is. You beat a lot of those around you, you win some nice side-bets, you say you are Queen of the Hill, and then soft-retire. The problem is that if you’ve come to Thailand as a female fighter you are probably not really so much interested in becoming Queen of the Hill as becoming the best fighter you can be. This likely involves fighting lots and lots of times. Once you beat those in your weight class, if you are physically small enough, you’ll probably be faced with prospects of having to fight up if you want to keep fighting frequently. If you are on the wrong side of Kru Syndome these opportunities may be cut off for you, as your Kru becomes protective of face (and possible gambling losses). If you have been losing, it can be even worse. Your Kru might become even more picky, more sure that he has to control each element of the matchup, to make sure there isn’t a string of losses.
Of course these dynamics of losing disappointments and protective of winning streaks happen in the west too. The difference is that because you are in another culture you are probably much less aware of the social cues and mores that define and express those dynamics. There may be a language barrier. Your fight opportunities may be drying up, but you don’t know why. You may have a very hard time dealing with the frustration and criticism of a Thai Kru who had previously granted you authenticity by his embrace. The added cultural layer is what can make this difficult.
What We Do
I’m really writing this as a kind of lay of the land post. If you have a map of where you are going to climb and cross you can prepare for features of the landscape. I’m not saying that this sort of swamp or sand pit is inevitable, many long term female fighters may have avoided it (by luck of Kru, by internal character, etc), but these are features of the landscape in front of you. You can choose to avoid them, or skirt the edges of them. Or you can dive right in. What we did and do – and most of these observations have come from Sylvie’s first few years in Thailand, then at Lanna Muay Thai, when she went through and experimented with several krus, now many years ago – is maybe be characterized by the Goldilocks Principle. You want things to be just right. Just as the Earth needs to be not too close and not too far from the Sun to support life, as a western female fighter it’s probably beneficial to position yourself at just the right distance from your Thai Kru, especially if your Kru has face saving sensitivity. You will disappoint your Kru at times. How you and he handle that will be a big factor in what is possible. So how do you take distance from your Kru so that disappointments can be more easily absorbed? It is pretty common that as you settle in your gym you’ll be kind of informally assigned a trainer. This may just be one kru or trainer falling to you over time, or literally a kru taking you on more formally as a student. What we found, after a little trial and error, is that staying involved with other krus in the gym can have a buffering effect. If one kru holds pads for you all the time, asking other kru to show you his lowkick, or another specific technique on the bag, and then visibly practicing it (which gives social credit), can help diffuse the social impact of your fight performances. It spreads the blame around when you lose, but it also spreads the merit when you succeed. At Lanna when we repeatedly ran into Kru Syndrome we went so far as to take extra privates with one of the lower status trainers of the gym (who happened to be a champion boxer), not only to work on additional skills, but to become more socially diverse, to spread the credit (and also whatever blame) that was to occur in fighting. This is a little tricky, and you have to play it by ear, because privates are a big thing, but I could feel how these privates took the built in pressure off of Sylvie’s main kru at the gym. More and more Sylvie became an expression of the entire gym, rather than of a single trainer, and this seemed to make everyone happier. Victories then spread shine to everyone, in a much more sweet and embraced way, without so much harsh critique involved in one on one credit taking. Also over time any time Sylvie ran into a new trainer that got hyper-excited about her, and it still happens of course, (there is a lot to be excited about), for me is the first sign to take distance. There is no surer way to fall into Kru Syndrome than to start a kru/student relationship with lots of enthusiasm on the kru’s behalf. Nope, not that.
If I were advising a female fighter entering a gym in Thailand for the first time:
- #1 find the most esteemed trainer in the gym…even the “star” trainer…and try not to be paired up with that one. He might be a very good trainer, but he likely has too much social capital at risk. Instead, find the number two or three guy. That guy is probably the worker.
- #2 diversify: even if you are pretty happy with your trainer, whomever they are, find ways to pay respect and learn from other trainers. Most Thai gyms are huge resources for differing techniques and styles. Steal from everyone, and pay small amounts of respect by asking questions and visibly practicing what you find on the bag or in shadow. It may cause some political tensions, but in the long run if you keep respectful it plays out better in the end.
- #3 invariably when you under-perform in a fight this is really not your fault, it’s not a sign that you suck. It’s the fault of the wrong expectation. You bake a cake and how it tastes is because of the recipe and mix of the batter. Fights express where you are at, plain and simple. Wins make you look better than you are, losses make you worse than you are, but everything you did under pressure is just an expression of your state. You are not a Thai boy fighting since they were 8. The things you train, no matter how hard, are not in your body in the same way that they are in a boy whose nervous system has been exposed to programs since a young age. And know that this is fundamentally not going to be understood by your trainer. You need to chill on this. Trust that the work is slowly making you better, and it may take years.
- #4 any overly enthusiastic initial response from a kru about some quality of yours, this is something to be cautious about. It often can be a set up for a reversal. You want a calm, open initial response.
- #5 consider changing gyms. If you’ve found yourself in Kru Syndrome it can be very difficult to get out of, especially if you have a high-status trainer. At Lanna we kept shifting krus every 6 months or so, which provided lots of opportunity for growth, but eventually when the “oh, this fighter is just x” it was time to leave. Thailand is filled with stories of low level Thai fighters who left gyms, found themselves in new environments, and rocketed to stardom. New gyms always can provide new starts, just keep in mind that you are always bringing your habits with you, and that starting with new environments mean taking stock of new Kru Syndrome patterns before they develop.
Female Fighter Ceilings
A major component in Kru Syndrome that needs to be acknowledged is that even though you may feel embraced by your gym or kru as a “real fighter”, and that on many levels this is true, all potential in the gym also falls to a very hierarchical breakdown of value. Ultimately your value to a gym (or trainer) is conferred by the honor and respect you bring to them. The shine you provide. Even though you will be fundamentally embraced on one level, you also are caught in a tier of lower value. If there are Thai boys in your gym, as a female western fighter you will never hold the perceived potential of value that a burgeoning Thai fighter would have (and, sorry as it may be, it’s the truth). If there are western male fighters, you may very well struggle in your position of value unto them, even if you find yourself fighting on “big”shows. There is a stratification of Thai culture, and Thai female fighters are more or less expected to retire when they reach formal adulthood. They are expected to, and expect themselves too. Yes, you are coming to Thailand as an older, fully adult female fighter, but you are an anomaly. You might very well be appreciated by your gym as a representative of their pro-western approach, but your reasons for fighting, wanting to continue to fight will never jigsaw-puzzle themselves into Thai sensibilities. The reason to take this into view is that any disappointment that is involved in Kru Syndrome can become reinforced by the previously mentioned overall picture that female fighters, especially those over 25 or so, should probably just retire anyways. This is just a constant translation problem, a stream in the current, that one has to swim against. As of yet there is no Lumpinee or Rajadamnern for female fighters, There is no crown that if won brings shine desired by all gyms. Yes, ideally you win a few belts, give your gym some shine on big shows, and then that is about it. There is no upper aspiration, the elite kinds of development in Thai minds that a westerner might have at heart. I just think it’s important that if you really do have high aspirations that you understand that there is no corresponding place in the Thai mindscape, for where you want to go. They will not understand it. Sylvie’s Thai trainers, and she has a lot of them by intentional diversity, really have no clue what it is that Sylvie is looking to achieve, even though we’ve tried to convey it. By the time most elite Thai female fighters have hit 22 they have already reached the “nobody can fight her” claim, and are on their way to ending their career. Or they lose a few times and are waved off into the “she’s finished,” pile. You have to fight through isolated Kru Syndrome instances and also forge for yourself your own motivations, a place that others might not fully follow you to.
As I said to start, I’ve been wanting to write about this for several years now. This is not so much the story of things we objectively struggle with in Sylvie’s path at this point, but that is because we’ve worked very hard to find the right krus for her, and that we have a gardener’s sensitivity to Kru Syndrome weeds that spring up overnight. This dynamic seems like it is ever present in almost every kru/student relationship, even if it does not overtly show itself. You have to be respectful of it, and guide oneself away from its missteps. We have very positive kru relationships because we tend to them – and it’s a lot of work. And Sylvie’s long lineage of krus of the past (read about that here: A Mosaic of Knowledge) are now huge supporters of her, because we fundamentally take it as part of our debt and privilege to cast shine towards all of them if we can. There though is just an ever-present awareness that a Kru’s face is always at stake, and not easily recoverable with a female fighter, and this is potentially coupled with that female fighter to be inordinately hard on herself. These two things can really amplify and exaggerate each other, we’re always looking out for those difficulties. When you do, you can become a much more giving fighter, one who gives out of their excess.