It’s OK to Be the Bottom Dog at Your Gym: Contact Exposure
my vlog from this morning, above
Years ago, Kevin and I watched a documentary on Muay Thai and there was this talking head of a dude (some kind of scholar/academic) who was saying that Karate and Tae Kwon Do experts in the past would come test themselves against Muay Thai fighters in Thailand and just get destroyed. It wasn’t that Muay Thai was “better” technically, he explained, it was that the sport versions of Karate and Tae Kwon Do (and whatever other Martial Arts were involved) had lacked the kind of exposure to contact that Muay Thai practice is based in – these “martial artists” had never been bashed from one end of the ring to the other, but nakmuay had all be raised that way – and so the hardened Thai fighters just wrecked everyone. Yesterday, I witnessed a concentrated example proving the truth of this claim.
My gym has become known as a gym where young western boys can get “real” Thai training, that is, trained like a Thai boy would be, which involves lots of play, clinching and sparring…lots of “doing”, not a lot of teaching, because that is how it’s done. There’s a European family that trains there. It’s a father who is a Tae Kwon Do guy but he wants his two young sons to be raised in Muay Thai, I assume with some kind of dream of them being the next falang superstars or something. He’s an incredibly loving father, no doubt in that, but he pushes his sons quite a bit and at their ages they aren’t always receptive to this process. The older one has improved significantly over the year they’ve been at the gym, but his dramatic European non-Thainess is a sharp contrast to the stoicism of the Thai kids. He’s maybe 12 years old now. The younger one is 9 or 10 years old and he’s a bit of a mess. He’s at a rough age, for sure, but he’s definitely not a cool version of whatever that phase is that he’s in. I don’t speak their language but I can hear the tone in the way he speaks, kind of spitting his words all the time and his emotional readout is… not good. In truth, I find him very disrespectful, regardless of cultural differences and difficulties with that age; if I could be very blunt about it, he’s a little shit (said in my grumpy old man voice). He’ll grow out of it, but I don’t think anytime soon. But he’s soft, both physically and emotionally, in a way that is in contrast with the Thai boys all around him. He crumples at everything, either twisting his face up and flailing around in an emotional cyclone response to being overwhelmed by a kid half his size and younger in sparring, or just laying on the ground and refusing to get up. In his most recent fight he collapsed onto the floor after 30 seconds to lose by TKO, probably just as a protest to not wanting to fight in the first place. I do feel bad for him because I know he has no love for Muay Thai and doesn’t want to do any of it. But then there are times when his dad and the trainers all just leave him alone and he plays with the much younger kids in the gym, just play-sparring and jumping around on the ropes in the kids ring the way the really young kids are left to do, and he has a lot of fun. His heart is free in those moments and I can see that his fragility is just toward pressure.
Yesterday something kind of incredible happened. We’ll call this little kid I’ve been describing “M.” Another foreign kid, a little older than M, bigger by a few kilos, came back to the gym after several months of being home in his native country. He’s been training at Petchrungruang for a few years at least, off and on. He’s not a fighter, has very little sparring experience at all, but he’s trained. He has time in the gym and skills under his belt. He was matched with M for sparring in a kind of “round robin” style, so M went with a boy a year or so younger and quite a bit smaller, then had to stay in and go with the returning bigger kid. M got beat on by the little one, who he always loses to, so he was a little rage-ball by the time the returning kid went in there. I wasn’t watching closely as I was training myself, but I saw enough to witness M physically overwhelm and then emotionally defeat this returning kid. Pi Nu jumped in and separated the boys after giving the returning kid a fair chance to get back into the game, but he couldn’t get himself together and Pi Nu called a break and waved his hands in the air like a referee calling a TKO. He put the returning kid, now sobbing, onto a stool in the corner of the ring and rubbed his head with cool water, in a kind of comforting expression. On his face was a kind of wry smile, but in talking to the kid who had been overwhelmed he was very direct in his explanation, “don’t worry about it, you haven’t been training. We train you for a week and you try again.” In the background, everyone was hollering about how this was M’s “first win,” (he has never won a fight; pretty sure he’s been TKO’d in every single one of about 7-10 tries) and they used a bellypad as a championship belt to give him praise. (They then also gave this belt to the returning kid, once he stopped crying, which made him smile.)
But here’s the lesson: even though M is the bottom dog – like, the worst – in the gym, he still is exposed to contact all the time. He’s been hardened even if it never shows because of the contrast to the other kids at the gym. I listened to a Joe Rogan podcast with Dominic Cruz where he talked about a long lay-off due to his knee injuries and he said when he came back to training he’d lost all his “callouses.” It’s a great word because in Jiu-Jitsu you literally have these calloused fingers to grip with and without it you’re just raw, but he meant his whole body. I know exactly what he means; you are just hardened by contact and this makes everything hurt less, injuries less likely, your mental ability to withstand infinitely better (this is one reason why I never take time off in my 5+ years in Thailand). M, even though he reads as a weak little muppet all the time, is still growing callouses, they are just hidden. It was only exposed when put against a kid who hasn’t had this contact for months, who’s softness lost to the what reads as softness on the scale of our gym (M), but on a scale of contact vs. no contact, contact always wins. This is an important lesson for me, even at my experience level. I’m smaller than almost all my training partners and have less experience (in terms of years) than a great number of them. So, I lose all the time in training. I’m overwhelmed and bettered all the time. But that’s on the scale of my training environment; put me in the ring with someone who doesn’t train like me, who doesn’t lose everyday, and it’s a different scale. You might be the underdog in your gym, but so long as you’re being exposed to contact (both emotional and physical), you are being hardened. It will reveal itself in other contexts, when a new element is introduced or when you step outside that context into the ring or another gym or whatever else.
I watched M have a burst of confidence after this experience. He had another round with the younger, smaller kid who usually beats him up and he was still getting his ass kicked, but he stayed in it. He didn’t crumple and cry to get out of it, as he usually does. Who knows how long it will last, we’ll see how he goes today, but M got to experience something about himself that can change him. His own callouses were revealed to himself and, at least for a moment, he reveled in it. We all need those moments, however fleeting. The first thing is to be aware of them and to own them. The next is to learn how to create them; and that’s a long process. But it requires us to stay in the fire, to know that the exposure, while uncomfortable and difficult, is building us.