The Challenge of Non-Ideal Sparring Partners and Avoiding Bad Habits
I’m sitting in front of the big mirrors at WKO gym in Pattaya. This is where I start my afternoons, there’s some terrible music blaring over the speakers but it’s a different kind of terrible music from what my trainer there, Kru Mutt, likes to listen to, so probably this is someone else’s playlist from their phone. I hear Den Siam, the younger trainer at the gym – a new hire in the past few months – call my name and I look at him through the mirror’s reflection, rather than turning my head to find him in the ring. He’s smiling at me as we meet eyes in the mirror. He asks if we’re sparring and I nod, like, “of course,” and he gets up to put his gloves on.
I like sparring with Den. He’s somewhere around 29 years old and still an active fighter, although fighting very rarely. He was getting ready for a fight at Max Muay Thai Stadium here in Pattaya, on the televised show on Friday which is still Thai vs. Thai. He’d be representing WKO, a gym that has been here for decades but hasn’t had a Muay Thai fighter in a long time. Kru Mutt says I’m helping to train Den for his fight when we clinch and spar, which is true, but I’m 46-47 kg walking around and he’s probably 63 kg walking around… so my help is limited. But sparring with him is fun. It took a while for us to get the rhythm down due to our size difference. He never went too hard, but his style is very forward pressing and because he’s so much bigger, there was nothing I could do to really stop him, whereas someone nearer to his size would thwart his onslaught just by taking up more physical space. So I had to get him to settle down a bit, to take his pressure down to a place that was still difficult but at least manageable, because if you’re under too much pressure all the time, you end up training bad habits. I trained a lot of bad habits with him and I train a lot of bad habits with my clinching partner Team over at Petchrungruang, who is only recently significantly bigger than I am. Damn kids, growing all the time.
Today I hand Den a pair of elbow pads and show him I have a pair as well. Kevin and I just went out to buy these for exactly this purpose: sparring elbows. Den laughed and made this big ordeal about how bad an idea this was, but I pointed to the scars on my face and said, “elbows already, now I have to learn how to do it well.” He nodded and put the elbow pads on. If I were to put it plainly, the next 5 rounds were a disastrous unraveling. Den’s energy was way up and due to my frustration at being unable to even throw elbows, while eating a million of them, was getting me down and my energy got worse as we went. I was training very bad habits, putting my butt back and back-pedaling under the stress of Den’s attacks. I felt terrible that I wasn’t even throwing elbows, I couldn’t even miss. Between rounds I stopped and refocused myself. I could see that I was training bad habits but it dawned on me that I didn’t have to. I could choose how to feel, I could choose what to work on that was not dependent upon the pass/fail of the elbows. So I came back to the next round with the mindset that all I had to do was stand my ground and keep my hips in. No problem if I got hit a lot. No problem if I didn’t throw elbows. Just keep my hips in and oppose Den’s energy. Know what happened? It all got better. I felt better, even if I was still getting my ass kicked. And I did manage to throw a few elbows in those rounds, albeit from distances that were laughable. But that’s still good. It’s still a step.
I finished up at WKO and headed over to Petchrungruang with my new discovery that I really could be in control of what I was training. That these bad habits I’d really gotten good at practicing under that intense pressure could actually be avoided if I would just calm down enough to practice something deliberately. There is a limit to this. Under intense pressure you cannot calm down to focus on anything and you will train whatever your body is doing, whether it’s good or bad. Turtling, turning sideways, flinching, running backwards, getting in the ropes… all these things will be repeated under too much pressure. Because I’m small, the majority of my training partners are un-ideal. They’re bigger, they’re better, stronger, more skilled, whatever. Any of those things can be fine as long as the dynamic between us is one that allows practice and growth. An overwhelming partner can be good for you in small doses because we all need to train under intense pressure at times, but this is all my training partners and it’s the only format. If you’re always overwhelmed, it’s not helping you. There are benefits to being the underdog in your training. Emma of Under the Ropes and I are always the small partner in training and so it allows us to develop skills that allow us to be undersized in fights as well. If you’re always bigger than your sparring partners and then get in the ring with someone your size or bigger than yourself, you don’t have practice in the skills you’ll need for that situation. However, if you’re never better or bigger than your training partners, you never learn how to practice and use dominance; your advantages aren’t honed. Den and Team are learning advantages and strengths by overwhelming me. I’m learning disadvantage and weakness at the same time. If I’m absolutely solid and tough and find a way to quiet my mind and focus under that pressure, I’ll be fucking amazing. But it’s a tall order to do that all the time.
So what’s to be done with un-ideal training partners? I’ve recently decided I had to do something which for me, in a Thai gym, feels crazy. I have to ask my partners to take it down a bit. This isn’t easy, not only for my ego but also because I have to ask more than once in any given training session. Nobody wants to say, “that’s too hard,” because it makes you seem like a crybaby or like you’re acknowledging weakness, like you can’t hack it. But you know what? Sometimes it’s too hard. It’s not helping you. I have to tell Den and Team to take their energy down, but not so much that I don’t have pressure, just enough that I’m not in a state of total panic. I’ll tolerate bits of it, a few seconds here and there in all the rounds where the intensity is high enough that I’m red-lining, but only for a few seconds. Not the whole damn round. Not all of them. Not every day. And, both Den and Team respond immediately. They take it down, no problem, no eye-rolling. Den knows he’s enormous compared to me, even though he’s a pretty small dude in the world at large. He acknowledges the size difference all the time, but he doesn’t adjust for it unless I ask. And Team is happy as a clam to take the power and energy down because he can cruise a little bit. He doesn’t have to hit the gas every second; it’s easier for him, more relaxed. He can practice skills instead of just the steamroller skill he has for when he goes against the boys bigger than himself. The hard part for me is asking. But the terrible part is not asking because then I’m just training bad habits through repetition: high stress responses, breaking my stance, not exploring freedoms. By asking, I’ve now turned two un-ideal training partners into two good training partners. Still not ideal – ideal is someone closer to my size who can go all out at times so I can face that energy without the danger of the size difference – but I can grow from them and with them by making the adjustments. Sometimes in your gym there’s no perfect partner – I don’t have one at any of my gyms. Team was near perfect for about 6 months, but then he grew. So instead you make a good training partner, out of the pieces that are available to you. But you have to be brave enough to communicate what’s needed, and you need to be willing to reshape yourself to be a good partner for someone else as well.
As an addendum, this is a recent decision I’ve come to, out of that realization I had while getting my ass handed to me by Den Siam that I didn’t have to train bad habits. Reflecting back, as part of some of the mental training I’ve been doing lately. I realized that I’ve been under this kind of pressure from ill-fitted training partners for 5 years now in Thailand, with brief periods of good training partners who matched well with me for a few months before literally outgrowing me. This is kind of the way of the Thai gym, where kids are small and undersized or inexperienced and they just get the pressure beat into them in semi-playful, semi-serious dominance until, slowly, it’s beat out of them. Either they became so incredibly tough in their tiny stature that they are these incredible bulldogs in tiny bodies, or they literally grow beyond their inadequacies and start pounding back, and of course all have the next generation of kids under them to relay the difficulty onto. I don’t grow though, so my place is more or less fixed. It was the same with my brothers, who all outgrew their oppressors in rank, which I fully expected to experience but then I stayed pocket sized. It’s only through sheer experience and capacity that I’ve outgrown my brothers, but their size would still give me trouble. Because I’ve had oversized and over-skilled training partners for all these years, it’s allowed me to fight bigger opponents all the time. So regularly, in fact, that I don’t even give myself credit for the feat of being so undersized. I’ll look at an opponent who outweighs me by 8 kilos (17 lbs) and really be disappointed I didn’t control her better, not even factoring our size. But that affects my capabilities. Always being outsized in a fight means I’m pushed into a pretty limited way of fighting – if I want to win and not get hurt and humiliated, anyway. I can’t tell you how many men try to give me advice on how to spar or fight or move, having never been faced with an opponent who outweighs them by 15% of their body weight. They have no concept for what that kind of size disparity does to each fighter, what it permits the bigger opponent to do and what it restricts the smaller one to. As it is in a fight, it is in training. In a fight, I can’t ask my enormous opponent to take it easy so I can try to learn something, but in training I can. Facing headwinds all the time will make you a strong runner, but tailwinds provide you with strengths, benefits and growth as well. In realizing this, it occurred to me that it’s on me to create my own tailwinds. I have to create the experiences of freedom and dominance as training experiences, as skills to be honed. That is the lesson here, you find a way to make your own training optimal as it can be. It’s very easy to get settled into unfair, or dis-equal situations, keep your head down and just tough it out. But realize that you are always training something. You are creating not only physical patterns, but also mental patterns that will return to you under pressure, and ultimately it is up to you to figure out how to train what you need to train, even if your very good coaches, or gym doesn’t see it.