Why Your Muay Thai Dreams Might Not Come True in Thailand – The Two Great Fears for Fighting
(above) my video introduction the common fight fears of gassing out and shin pain, the video below shows Den talking about what to do for fight conditioning
Some Tough Talk
One of the advantages of training non-stop in Thailand for so long is a sense of perspective I’ve gained on people who come with Muay Thai dreams. I’ve met maybe 100 people over the past year and a half who have come through the gym with serious aspirations to fight. They arrive very enthused, but less than a quarter of them actually do fight and none of them – not a single one so far – has fought how much they dreamed they would or to their capacity, which is sad because these persons absolutely can do as they dream. The main reason they end up not following their fighting dream is fear. And even when some come here to fight “many times,” they end up fighting much less than they had perhaps pictured in their minds’ eye it’s largely out of laziness and failing to make the effort toward becoming who they think they are, or would like to be in their minds.
Here’s the thing: it’s difficult to get to Thailand and much easier to be in Thailand. I love that people are writing to me from around the globe with aspirations to come to Thailand to train and fight for both short and (even better) long periods of time, but it is a damn shame when all the work that went into getting here isn’t respected by all the work that goes into being here.
Of all the different individuals I’ve talked to who are thinking about fighting, even those who have fought before but not in Thailand, the two greatest fears most often expressed to me are: 1) gassing out; and 2) the pain of shin-to-shin contact. The short response to these fears are: 1) if you are in reasonable shape it’s impossible to gas out in the duration of a single fight; your mind gives up before your body does and if put to it anyone can get through the 10-15 minutes that compose a fight (if you just breathe). And 2) you will not feel the pain on your shins during a fight. Adrenaline is an incredible thing and, while you might have pain from any variety of impacts to your person, you don’t experience it as pain. You just won’t care.
The Importance of Running
But there are longer answers to both of these fears, also. Master K told me from the very beginning, long before fighting was even on the table, that “if you don’t run, you can’t do Muay Thai.” Honestly, I didn’t appreciate that fully until I started fighting and even more so until I started watching fights up close and live. Watch any fight at all and you can see who has done their roadwork and who hasn’t. There’s nowhere to hide in Muay Thai fights. So running is one of the most important parts of training for a fight. If you’re going to come to Thailand, I recommend you start running before you get here, to build up a base and to reenforce self-motivation. If you are already running, run more. Training in the west is just very different from training full-time in Thailand – most people in the west have jobs or school or kids or all of the above and aren’t spending 2-4 hours at a time, twice per day, six days per week. It’s going to be hard when you get here and it’s going to be uncomfortable. You will absolutely grow as a fighter and as a person through the experience of training at a Thai gym, but not passively – you have to be engaged in the training and you have to actually train. So many people come here, train hard a few times with big dreams and then become overwhelmed and end up just training a few times per week. Know that it will be difficult and more importantly that it stays difficult; but you can do it – when you push through it you get better and confidence eats the fear. Be patient with yourself, but be persistent.
(above) Den of Lanna Muay Thai, talking about getting into condition for a fight. He says to give him two weeks.
Shin Pain – the Answer
With all that time at the gym you’re going to be kicking bags, kicking pads and sparring with shinguards, all of which will help condition your shins. But what’s more important than the pre-fight conditioning is actually the post-fight (and post-training) care, something that a lot of folks simply don’t know about and so they neglect it out of ignorance. A lot of guys I meet out here think that just resting the sore and knotted shins by not kicking on them is the way to heal up and that’s simply not enough, in fact it delays healing. You whack a hard bag, or hit the edge of a hard pad the wrong way in your first few days and it can really set you back mentally if you don’t figure out how to recover and/or train around it. The same goes for those who want to fight more than once. I got a hematoma at the bottom of my right shin, on the side down by my ankle, from a fight in the US long before this move to Thailand and it lasted for four months because I did not treat it. Four months! It was squishy and full of fluid and painful for the whole time and I couldn’t really kick on it. If I knew then what I know now about treating shins after fights, I would have had a very different experience of that injury I would have been able to kick on it within 2 weeks in all likelihood. And it’s simple: use hot water massage to draw fresh blood to the area and speed recovery. Western guys out here just stop kicking and end up being “out” for weeks and sometimes a month or more at a time often resulting in a fear of fighting again. If they would just treat the shins they could be back much faster and less afraid of re-injury in the next fight. This is a very important component for both those starting to train with the ambition to fight, or for someone who hopes to fight multiple times.
Related to shin pain, for a new-comer is the toughness of the bottom of your feet. You will be training on either cement or rug-burn prone carpet, but even if your chosen gym has mats the heat and humidity can make even the better fabrics of mats and the canvas of rings very hard on the feet. If you can, walk barefoot for several weeks before you get to Thailand. And once here you may have to tape your feet, (I had to) and deal with toe-bangs, peeling skin on the tops of your feet and blisters from running. It’s pretty unavoidable as part of the initial toughening of Thai camps, but the above are ways to ease the the transition. You will be injured in small ways – pretty much all the time. Learn to recover, and learn to not let it weaken your resolve.
Owning Your Training
I think a common fantasy is that coming to Thailand and training at a Thai camp will transform you into a hardened, skilled fighter without exception. That’s unfortunately not the case and to fantasize this way is like having a conveyer-belt that runs in the “input” end of a machine and you come out a ninja on the “output” end without ever seeing what goes on within the machine all through the middle. That’s where all the hard work is. Thai culture is very non-confrontational and while there is a level of intensity at camps that is “bootcamp-like” in a sense, as paying customers westerners will not be submitted to the kind of intensity and, in some senses, the brutality of “authentic” Thai training. Some gyms will run something like classes where everyone does the same things, but most won’t. You are largely responsible for yourself, so own your training and respect yourself enough to work hard, show enthusiasm and intent to learn so that Thais know that you are a worthy investment. And ask for help, technique, suggestions, training tips, etc. You cannot be passively transformed into a fighter and you get out what you put in. It is incredibly easy to waste time in training – you can do that anywhere in the world, so do yourself a favor and don’t do it here.
Exhaustion for Two Weeks
If you train hard, with patience and commitment, you will be exhausted. You will sleep almost all the time between training sessions and for the first few weeks you might be crashing midway through your dinner. This is absolutely normal – in fact, I still sleep a great deal after a year and a half of doing this non-stop. But the first two-weeks is the most difficult. When I told Kaensak that I was moving to Thailand to fight the second thing he said to me was, “sleep a lot.” This is a man who lived Muay Thai as a way of life for his whole life; it doesn’t go away. You will feel like there is something wrong with you, but there isn’t. You will sleep like a dead man. After 10 to 14 days you will come out of this much, much stronger, and your sleep patterns will be more normal and you might have more energy for other activities during the midday break in training. But you cannot train “like a Thai” and go out partying at night. It’s not possible.
The Party Scene
Thailand is Disneyland for adults and persons who want to come here have a number of different fantasies about what it will be like and what s/he will be like. Some people come here for an extended “Spring Break” type vacation and can eat up an incredible amount of time and money doing this. What’s difficult to see is how many guys come here with the fantasy of training and fighting “like a Thai” and then once they have their first fight they either go on the reward-center binge of not training and eating/drinking whatever they want because they feel they were “good” while preparing for their fight, or the fear of pain or gassing out causes stress and they end up segueing into the Farang cafe/party scene even before their fight. Their intentions of training and fighting become only verbal tokens whereas their actions are almost entirely in the ethic of vacationing. It’s hard to see this happen, and at such great frequency, because it is disrespectful of a true Muay Thai gym space.
One of the difficulties about living the Muay Thai dream is that you will find a fair amount of Farang who also came with a Muay Thai dream, but now are staying more or less in a soft orbit around the gym. Most of them have had problems with the fears of gassing out or shin pain at some point and have largely adopted a vacation lifestyle, while still connected to the gym. As you look around you to get your bearings you may naturally begin to feel that it is normal to just let go of your Muay Thai ambitions, and settle into how most longer-term Farang are. There is absolutely nothing wrong with making your stay in Thailand more of a vacation than a Muay Thai journey, not one bit. Everyone finds their level and pursues what they wish. But know in advance that if the most important thing to you is your Muay Thai experience it can very easily become something you didn’t originally intend. The idea of fighting gets pushed further and further into the future, you train less often, you keep telling yourself that you just want to get into shape first but refuse to take responsibility for actually working hard to get into shape. It becomes the waiting game and it never, never leads to “ready.”
You Are Never Fight Perfect
One is never 100% for a fight. Projecting some future state where you are going to be in great condition, or all your body parts will be free from pain is most often just a cocoon of self-delay. My husband and I joke that whenever I get injured in training – and I probably have been injured more in training that in my fights – we know that at least I’m training right. Training involves injury. And training involves getting tired. There is no magical state in the future where either of these things stops being the case. Some days you have more energy than others, some days you have less pain than others, and some days you feel like everything is “clicking” and some days you feel worthless. It is part of the beauty of Muay Thai. Fighting is part of training, it isn’t a separate affair. If you have a Muay Thai dream, the time to fight is soon. Your trainers will tell you if you aren’t ready, but at Lanna where they have experienced thousands of westerners, if you come in reasonable shape and are trained in enough skills to block and attack, largely they think they can have you ready to fight in 2 to 3 weeks. And to avoid the eternal delay, I always say to those hoping to have a fight while here: “plan to fight twice; not only once.” It changes your motivations and expectations; it takes the pressure off of just one fight and it gets you back to training rather than directly into the revolving door of reward/recovery. The hurdles to fighting in Thailand are not primarily physical. They are almost entirely mental.
I’m Not Advocating That You Be Me
I’m not telling you to be like me. I may have fought more times in Thailand this year than almost any other Farang, male or female, in this time frame – and that’s because I want to, not because of any kind of “should.” Everyone has their own priorities and their own dreams. My particular dream is to get absolutely as good as I can in the short time I have here in Thailand. You very likely have a different dream, a unique one. But what I’m saying is to identify and be real about your dreams and priorities, and to take ownership and guardianship of those dreams in order to act on them. It has been difficult to watch maybe a 100 people come with beautiful thoughts about themselves, hopes for a kind of experience, but to see them fall back. Sometimes it happens because they aren’t prepared mentally for what it will be like, sometimes it’s because they don’t know how to deal with things like treating pain, and sometimes it’s because they don’t have the right support. Sometimes it happens though because they realize they wanted to do something else, like relax – like how summer vacation felt when you were still a kid and had no responsibilities or obligations. I just want to just give fair warning to those who have Muay Thai dreams that you really can do it… you can. But it isn’t going to be easy.
It happens a lot at the gym that persons who clearly love Muay Thai, who have some degree of dedication to it and are willing and eager to train, pay me an odd compliment. They ask me how I can train so hard. It’s in how they ask it, with a small suggestion of defeat underneath it, a betrayal of the difficulty they’re feeling in themselves and the misguided assumption that I’m making it look easy. I tell them the secret every time, right away: it never gets easy, you just get better. I do this every day, that’s why I can do it – I’m not special, I’m just accustomed to the pain, the fatigue, the difficulties; and I’m passionate, so I accept these things as part of the art and part of the experience of growth. In life we all have things that never get easier. School doesn’t get easier. Work doesn’t get easier. Being responsible doesn’t get easier. But what happens is that our mental attitude about such things change and you just keep going, and you find joy instead of looking for “easy.” Your Muay Thai dream is going to be like that. It’s harder than you think it is going to be, but you’re stronger than you think you are. It isn’t going to get easier – you just get better. But if you work through it your mental attitude will get to a more beautiful place. That, maybe above all else, is what the Thais have to teach others about Muay Thai.
My friend Pook shared a quote on her Facebook page the other day that I think applies to the value we offer to ourselves and those around us: “A comfort zone is is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”