Land of Smiles – Non Verbal Cues in Muay Thai
After an intense padwork-turned-sparring session with Nook in the morning, I was pretty satisfied with the effort I’d put in but had definitely experienced difficulty in feeling positively about myself and my performance. In between morning and afternoon training sessions I rested and slept, but still felt pretty emotional about the experience of being completely overpowered by Nook.
My husband and I went to the gym early so that we could get our ring work in before the rest of the folks showed up. The gym wasn’t empty and was, in fact, busier than the morning session had been. Having an audience was not affecting me in a conscious way, but I struggled in the work we were doing, which is basically padded punching and kicking drills.
I didn’t feel very confident after the drills, even though I’d done pretty well near the end of them. I laced up my shoes and went for a run while trying to chase the negative and emotionally volatile thoughts from my head. When I got back to camp I felt a bit better, but was not energized. Andy was down from Hill Camp and I asked him to hold pads for me, which is always strenuous and rewarding in terms of what I learn.
As Andy was wrapping his hands Den asked if I wanted to spar. He’s never asked me that before as I am usually begging for sparring. I was so surprised to hear it that I actually had to ask him to say it again. I told him that Andy was holding pads for me and I’d like to spar afterward, which Den seemed only mildly satisfied with. Padwork illustrated a lot of my new strengths and demonstrated some persistent weaknesses, but it was great. I wore Andy out pretty quickly and he seemed happy with that as well. I went to ask Den if there was still sparring and he told me to wait until he was finished holding pads, so I went and did some bagwork.
When Den did call me into the ring I was feeling good. I knew he was going to give me a hard time, as is always the case with sparring a trainer with over 300 fights to his name. He couldn’t avoid being tricky, fast and overwhelming if he tried. But I was surprised by how quickly I felt emotional surges that had me fighting back tears as I pressed forward and received countless counters right in my face or kicks – unblocked – blasting across my shoulder. I’m not fast enough to block them and when I tried to counter with my own kicks my standing leg was kicked out from under me almost every time, so I decided to just walk through his kicks, which did start to cause him problems.
It wasn’t being hit that was affecting me emotionally. In fact, the few times I’ve experienced this state it’s stopping that allows the tears to really come and it’s only through digging deeper into the task at hand that I can get a handle on the emotional swelling. And it’s not even truly emotional. It feels similar to the unattached emotional swings of hormonal shifts that some women experience before or during menstrual cycles in that there is distance between the actual feeling of needing to cry and any real catalyst. You may find a reason why you’re about to cry, but it could just as easily be a dog food commercial as a personal reason. The urge to cry during sparring is like this – it’s not weakness, it’s not even really anything in particular. It’s like having the giggles when you just cannot stop laughing even though whatever is supposedly making you laugh isn’t really that funny anymore – it’s the trigger, but it’s not the reason.
It’s complicated because explaining that I’m not upset because of what’s happening to me but because I feel unable to control myself is not really a concept that translates well across language, culture or even gender necessarily. And Thai culture is a performance culture in that it’s all about appearances – getting emotional about training is not an acceptable option. If you watch Thai kids training and getting beat up, it’s a perfect poker face all around.
This is both very easy and very difficult for me to handle. It’s easy in that I’m pretty hard to read in general so I don’t necessarily show it if I’m having an emotional storm on the inside. But it’s difficult because the absence of a discernible emotion can mean a fill-in-the-blank interpretation of my flatness as disinterest. Instead, I have to smile and be outwardly positively affected by things I want to be interpreted as positive events, even if my internal experience of it is complicated. Getting my ass kicked and feeling impotent isn’t positive, but the fact that someone is sparring with me and giving me hard training is positive, so for the event to be interpreted as something good that should be repeated the outward expression of my experience of it has to be unquestionably positive.
Sometimes the predominant effort I’m putting in is not in the act itself, but in demonstrating how I feel about it. Like the line from Lawrence of Arabia, the outward expression needs to match the inward experience: “The trick, Mr. Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”