Motivation is 80% Expectation – Lessons in Attitude in Muay Thai
Afternoon training at Petchrungruang yesterday was a pendulum swinging between, “hey, that’s not so bad,” to “holy hell, I’m never going to make it through this.” I didn’t feel well, mostly fatigued and feeling a little bit flu-ish in the sore muscle and fever department. So of course, of course, as I’m pushing my way through bagwork I get called in to the ring to do sparring with this kid who has been kicking my ass in clinch the last couple days.
So I sucked it up and got in the ring, focusing on just having the right kind of energy since I didn’t have actual physical energy to spare. Just trying to apply pressure whether I’m striking or not. This kid is way smaller than I am, by probably 7-8 kilos, but he’s got a really fast kick, good power, and knows how to turn the attitude on at just the right moment to make a little mistake or slip up look like you’re just falling on your ass repeatedly. You know, that kind of skill. But I must have been doing pretty well because I was backing him up with punches and he didn’t have good answers for most of them. I missed checking a few kicks here and there but mostly I was hitting him with far greater frequency than he was hitting me. I wouldn’t have even noticed, really, except that this skinny older guy who holds pads for some of the boys – he has a 9-year-old daughter named Bai who trains sometimes and is awesome – this guy was giving my sparring partner all kinds of advice and chiding him for getting backed up by a girl… no matter that I’m so much bigger. This guy trains his daughter pretty well and she’s had a few fights, but he’s also intensely sexist and cuts into my clinching with boys all the f****ing time, either by giving them help and not me or by literally giving the boys permission to stop training with me. It makes me furious but it also really hurts my feelings. It’s pretty far over on the scale of shitty. But here’s a weird thing: it’s actually a mark of “authenticity” to have some dude playing guardian over masculinity against a woman in the ring. That doesn’t make it good… it just makes it part of something very deep.
We continued sparring for probably 30 minutes and in that time there were some shifts back and forth. I did start getting frustrated – not just by everyone helping this kid who does not need any help to solve the one or two things that are working against him – but also because I just didn’t feel like what I was doing was what I wanted to be doing. But that’s a common feeling. It was just compounded by the emotional mire of being cheered against by way of being ignored while the other guy got advice. Kru Nu had us go into clinching, instructing me that his son Bank would be the “man in the middle” and every time someone is thrown a partner changes, so it was me and this kid I was just sparring against Bank, alternately. This can usually go only one of maybe three ways: 1) the two boys clinch together and never throw each other for long lengths of time, so it’s never technically my turn; 2) Bank immediately throws me and I lose my turn; or 3) they clinch very differently with me than they do each other (that’s normal, I’m not the same level they are so I present different limitations) and basically I just get locked up and it’s an extended “rest” period while I struggle to get out of a nasty lock. This is a shitty attitude and I get it – they’re teenaged boys having to clinch with a woman and they don’t like it – but at least I do learn something in the process. This day the kid I had been clinching somehow opted out after a few minutes, citing pain or something, and so it was just me and Bank and in 15 minutes we clinched for maybe, maybe three minutes and he kept stopping to wipe some massage oil off the back of his neck that I don’t quite understand how it got there. Fair enough, that stuff burns, but he was doing it to stall. I got pissed at how I was being positioned and instead of just throwing myself into clinch whether he was game or not I decided to leave. I just got out of the ring, packed up my stuff and left the gym to head over to O.Meekhun.
This wasn’t a good move and I don’t advise it. It was a result of my shitty attitude in response to other shitty attitudes. I don’t believe that one always has to be “the bigger man” or whatever – sometimes people are assholes and their behavior needs to be corrected, especially if they’re kids, but in this case we were all being jerks. I own that my response wasn’t great, but I also don’t think that women in gyms anywhere in the world should just “suck it up” when being treated like this. It’s bullshit.
I had amazing training over at O.Meekhun and went to bed last night utterly and completely spent. When I woke up this morning to start the day over I just didn’t want to go. My muscles screamed every time I moved, I had no energy and more than anything I just lacked motivation. I pictured myself trying to hit the pads with Kru Nu with the way I was feeling and I just couldn’t find anything good about it. Presenting myself as exhausted can have positives (shows that I can push through fatigue to my trainer) but it also has negatives (allows him to see me completely spent and powerless). A heavy rain began beating against our side window, the sky disappeared into a general mist of gray everywhere, and I couldn’t take my dog out for his morning walk – which is my first objective in getting out of bed – and he just happily rolled over, let out a sigh, kind of smacked his mouth a few times and fell back asleep. I wanted to do the same.
I read somewhere that 80% of motivation is expectation. So, naturally, expecting that I’d continue to feel like crap at the gym was not really motivating me to get up and go. While considering the pros and cons of each decision, I announced to Kevin that I didn’t want to go. He immediately brought up one of my big major cons, being that after the way I walked out of training yesterday, not showing up today would not send the kind of message to Kru Nu that I would want to send. Basically it would be telling him, “don’t have me clinch and spar with the boys because I can’t handle it.” By going, I might be able to record over that and maybe even discuss with him a little bit of my frustration. I’m usually the only person at the gym in the mornings for a couple hours and we tend to have good dialogue during padwork or between rounds of my hitting the bag.
Quite honestly, part of me was emotionally triggered by Kevin not just soothing me and saying, “that’s okay, take a rest.” He does say that, sometimes. But I knew what he’d say and I was pissed off that he was siding with the part of me that already knew I had to go. I can push myself though anything – it’s my attitude that needs the most work. As I launched myself upright from the bed Kevin caught me and forced me to lean against him and relax a bit. Like a caught cat I was all tensed up and ready to growl, but he told me that there was no purpose in going with this frame of mind. If I couldn’t change my frame of mind, don’t go, but the first step to changing my attitude was to concede that I didn’t have to go. What? A stared at the rain on the window and felt the puppy’s feet twitching, Kevin holding my shoulders and speaking gently into my hair. I had to choose to go, I couldn’t just push through it like pushing through pain or fatigue or whatever… you can’t just push through a shitty state of mind. That’s why it’s so hard.
So I gave myself permission to be tired. I gave myself permission to have no power, to be sore, to take it slow and just work technique if I needed to. The only thing I had to do was be relaxed. That’s not easy, it’s probably the hardest thing I keep working on, but it’s more important than faking power or speed. The rain stopped and I drove out on my motorbike with a powerful wind ripping across mostly empty highway. It’s a holiday today, the start of “Buddhist Lent” as some call it, so most people were at home after a morning at the temples and traffic was very light. In fact, Kru Nu went to the temple in the morning and asked me to come later, so when I arrived at the gym there was only this Russian guy and his blonde-pigtailed 9-year-old daughter. She’s got mean hands. As I walked through the front door Bank and two of the kids who live at the gym were all sitting in the front store. Bank looked at me and wai-ed, because he’s polite. I smiled and he smiled back very wide; burying the hatchet from yesterday already. Kru Nu held for the Russian man first, just hands, then for his daughter while I shadowed in the other room. I could watch them and hear them through these dusty windows that line the whole wall, wrought iron designs all throughout. At the other end are the same windows but they open a little bit, just cracked enough to let some air in and the sound of the chicken farm next door. There’s a rooster that climbs up some of the cages in his enclosure and watches me through the windows. I watch him, too.
After probably 5 rounds between the father and daughter Kru Nu called me into the ring. Oh God, here it is. I hadn’t felt my muscles loosen up much in shadow but I had permission to be sore and tired. Just do what I can, but do it relaxed. Before I could touch my glove to the pad to start the round, Kru Nu turned to the little girl – her name is La La, which he loves to say – and told her to watch me. Great; now I have to perform at least a little bit. But my first jab flew out easy and smacked the pad with a triumphant sound. My kicks were relaxed and strong, my knees very direct. It was all coming together. And it was fun. Kru Nu backed me up and tried to kick my leg out when he caught a kick, which made me laugh. I usually don’t laugh at this because it’s something I’m trying to learn, but today it was not only funny but I also had an audience so I knew I had to punish him back, of which he completely approved. Between the first two rounds he walked over to La La and told her, “you can be like this. Right now you baby, but when bigger… can be same.” La La doesn’t speak English, at all as far as I can tell. But it was a beautiful message and one that probably gets through anyway.
She bounded off as we started our third and fourth rounds and I talked to Kru Nu a little about my frustration in sparring yesterday, showing him how I stick my butt out in sparring and it makes it so I can’t block and my kicks are slow and short. His response was exactly what I expected, “why you do that?” I don’t know, I offered, maybe pressure? I don’t do it in padwork. I showed him how I need to tuck my hips in a bit better and asked if my hips should go forward. “No, not forward. Just do like nature,” he said. He means do what’s natural, which makes sense because you can’t be focusing so much on body position – being relaxed means being as you feel most natural. But if you are “naturally” putting your butt back, that’s got to be fixed. Like flinching – it’s “natural” but it won’t do at all. I didn’t say anything about my feelings regarding sparring but Kru Nu immediately started talking to me about the kid I was sparring. His name is Dtee and he is waaaay older than I thought. He’s 16! (I thought maybe 12.) And he’s one of their best fighters and has experience at Rajadamnern and holds numerous belts. “You can spar Alex, easy,” Kru Nu said, referring to another of my practice buddies, a 12-year-old Italian kid who is neck deep in his gangly phase. “Alex, good technique, but you strong… easy,” he said. He was telling me that he gives me Dtee as a partner because it will make me better, but more importantly he was letting me know that he does not expect me to be able to do much against him. “You win against Dtee in sparring, ” and he laughed, “you champion,” he said. I laughed also and nodded my head. Kao jai kaa (“understand.”)
So why am I writing about all of this. The take-home is this: my expectations are not the same as Kru Nu’s expectations – I shouldn’t be having an easy time in sparring with Dtee. If I adjust my expectations to simply be that I know I’m getting better by sparring with him, as frustrating and at times demoralizing by sexist chauvinism as that might be, if my expectation is improvement then my motivation can stay strong. And if I’m motivated, my attitude should be much better as well. I wanted more than anything to stay in bed this morning and just let rest be my medicine. There are days when that’s the right answer and I take those days. But there are days when showing up with a black eye and a huge smile says more than the message of staying home with an ice-pack does. In general, my trainers have to learn what to expect from me as well – and they should expect me at the gym with the black eye and a smile.