Leaving Trails – Leadership and Following in Muay Thai
Growing up in Colorado had innumerate perks that I only came to appreciate long after I took them for granted. City kids in New York and Philadelphia learn how to handle themselves on public transportation from an early age and kids like me in the wilds of mountains and deserts learned how to “pack out what you pack in” with equal diligence. The first rule of backpacking in the mountains of Colorado and deserts of Utah is to leave no trace of yourself, the foremost lesson being to preserve the world you’re exploring.
When I was maybe 12 years old I went on a backpacking trip with my two best friends, Nell and Nyxi, and a long-time older friend of Nell’s family to guide us, Maddy. Our backpacks were huge, external framed contraptions that were not intended for our little bodies, but we packed them to capacity and headed out. I remember parking the car and unloading all our gear, then heading out on the trail to find our first camp site. We kept up a decent clip, splashed around in rivers when we stopped to fill our water bottles (that thick plastic smell of a hot Nalgene bottle is strongly ingrained in my memory of childhood), learned songs and chants and how to not be disrespectful to our surroundings.
At one point we came upon an open field that we had to cross in order to connect between two trails, or to get back onto a trail after breaking down camp; something like this. The field was pristine, wild with long grasses and purple and pink flowers that seemed to go on forever into the backdrop of gray mountain rock and blue sky. Maddy tested us, asking whether we should walk single file or spread out. We answered immediately that we should go single file, so as to disturb as little of the field as possible. That was the wrong answer. Maddy explained that it only takes three persons walking single file to wear a path, so we should actually spread out so as to not scar the seemingly undisturbed field.
It was a memorable moment, the solution to the problem being the exact opposite from what our young minds had imagined. In order to “leave no trace” we had to disperse, each taking our own way across the field until we met a path on the other side.
I was thinking about this lesson the other day, in the context of women who have come and gone through the Thai camp where I train. I’m not the first woman to train at the camp long-term, but I appear to the first to train the way I train. When I first arrived at the camp there was another woman who had been there for a little under two years (we overlapped for about 6 months). She clearly trained hard, running, skipping rope and hitting the bag and pads with practiced experience. While she wasn’t there every day, when she was there she was training hard. But she never clinched and never sparred, I suspected because she felt she wasn’t “good” at them and therefore made her feel uncomfortable. It’s hard to want to do things that you’re bad at; it’s much easier and feels better to do the things you’re great at. And that’s her prerogative as an individual, acting on her own motivations and toward her own goals. But it is also a fact that her acceptance of being left out of clinching and sparring made it harder for me to be included in those activities myself.
Why is that? It’s not her fault by any means – she’s not choosing to be the example by which other women will be either included or excluded from activities, but the fact of the matter is that her choices (or passivity to choices being made by trainers or other fighters) have a strong effect on every other woman who comes into the gym. This is partly due to the fact that women are already “outsiders” in Thai gyms – because it’s a male space and a male sport, but also because we are universally the minority and the exception and therefore how we are treated or to what degree we are included is very much based on precedent. I see this every day in the “men’s ring” at Lanna: men who have little experience in training and/or no interest in serious training or fighting are included in clinching and sparring simply for the sake of being male, because of a long precedent of men clinching and sparring, it has become habitual. Women, on the other hand, are left out because other women have not participated (either elective or through neglect) and we’re all just following the routine.
I spent the better part of a year continually asking for more clinch and for sparring and was repeatedly told outright that I didn’t “need” it or was given one or two sessions of clinch and sparring and then left without for months at a time. It was frustrating; it was infuriating. But eventually – as in quite recently – I’ve started to get clinching practice on a frequent basis and, even though I still have to ask for it all the time, I started getting sparring. It’s still not automatic to the degree that it is with the men, but it has become expected, which is pretty incredible. What’s more exciting than the already amazing fact of finally getting the kind of training that I absolutely need in order to grow as a fighter is that other women at the gym are being pulled in to the “women’s ring” for clinching and maybe a little sparring here and there as well. It’s only a little bit, but that little bit is a huge step forward from nothing. In short, my repeated request for inclusion has set a precedent upon which the inclusion of women will follow, just as the precedent of exclusion led to more exclusion before.
This is the thing with women training in Muay Thai gyms: we’re all trailblazers. Women have come before us who were real pioneers in their own rite, but any woman in any gym anywhere is still cutting ground for the women with her and also after her. I believe in tradition and I love many aspects of preserving rituals, but exclusion based on sexism is neither a tradition nor a ritual, so keeping women out of an activity or space doesn’t count as something worth preserving – that shit should be blown up and scattered at sea. But as women in gyms, in male-dominated spaces and sports, we are setting out across an uncharted field. We are all following our own paths and are free to do so – and that’s a beautiful thing – but in many ways we are responsible for cutting a path for others to follow. By walking only as individuals across this field, we leave no mark for those to come; if we follow one another down the paths that open opportunities for everyone, then we leave a path that benefits everybody. It only takes three to wear a path, so follow those who lead toward inclusion and invite someone to follow with you.