Precision – A Basic Motivation Mistake in Some Western Training
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A Husband’s Point of View – Consider this a working theory. I’ve written about the uniqueness of Thai style training before, in The Slow Cook vs the Hack, and this article can be seen as something of an extension of that. But as Sylvie’s husband watching her progress through very earnest training and a hell of a lot of fighting, and seeing numerous westerners come through her Thai gyms, I’ve come upon something I think is pretty important. What led me to this is a very particular quality many serious western practitioners have in Muay Thai. They hunger after precision. There is a True North that marks any “real” Muay Thai technique, and that is the crispness and the balance of the absolutely beautiful strike. Serious westerners, not wanting to be grouped in with the “brawlers”, the ugly, aggro, pumped up, arm-flailing, off-balance rage monsters who definitely are not “Thai” in style, seek on their bags and in their shadow true Thai technique… the beautiful strike. The beautiful combination, the artful check.
There is no one to blame for this, as for so many of us the thing that simply glues our eyes to screens are those impeccable forms, the exquisite balance, all amid the raging torrent that is a fight. It practically defines Muay Thai, to have equipoise and art while malintentions are in the air. And this reaches to the Buddhistic elements of the sport and art, the way that Muay Thai is about overcoming. Overcoming one’s opponent, ultimately overcoming oneself. It’s all very beautiful and noble.
You can see also meaningful sources in this view because there is so little high-level (I’ll call it “real”) Muay Thai technique available in the west. Very, very few gyms have Thai trainers raised in the culture, ex-fighters with 100s of fights, people who can actually execute these beautiful techniques under pressure, and have gone through the nurture of a Thai kaymuay. Instead it is not uncommon for westerners who have spent a little time in Thailand, maybe even a lot of time, and had a handful or a fistful of fights, to be responsible for disseminating “proper” techniques, a shadow of the shadow that they learned themselves, to a room full of earnest students. This can at times result in an overt fascination and concentration on the techniques and principles that are known, as gyms celebrate their technical connections to Thailand. I mean this not only of instructors, but also in the self-critique of students, and they seek to improve drawing not only on in-person instruction, but also from what they can find in video sources too, of which there are some great examples now.
Following this, in western fight programs you can get arguments between approaches, as “brawlers” face “technical” fighters who seek to show off their Thainess throughout the fight, perhaps above all else. There is nothing wrong with any of this, and I really only describe it in some detail here because I believe it points to something, a difficulty in teaching (and learning) itself that ends up producing a Muay Thai that might look really great on the bag, in shadow or even on pads, but which can’t really fight in the sense of fight like a Thai, which is the ultimate aim. To accelerate to my conclusion prematurely: there are 7 year olds in Thailand who fight more like a Thai than many 7 year students of Muay Thai in the west. Why is that?
I’ll detour for a moment into Sylvie’s story. She just has written about her own struggles with letting loose, and the fears of looking bad. This is not a small thing, in fact it has made up a sizeable chunk of her mental and spiritual journey into the art. She was gifted with an amazing 70+ year old Thai teacher, Master K, who had the most beautiful Muay Thai we had ever seen. In fact, after all these years in Thailand, I’m not sure I’ve seen someone with more beautiful Muay Thai. The more we learn about “real” technique, the more we realize what he was saying and showing all along. But this was not only a blessing. The beauty of the movements also became a terribly high bar, a bar so high that made any imitation or approximation a mockery of his 6 decades of grace. We ultimately came to Thailand so Sylvie could somehow catch up to where Master K was, to get closer to it. It felt all too advanced. So in Thailand Sylvie dutifully pursued the right techniques, measuring every instruction, copying it faithfully over and over and over. She’s really good at figuring out what is physically being done – breaking down the mechanics – and duplicating it. And she had some excellent early teachers in Chiang Mai. But mystery of mystery, especially in the early going, very little of that technique was coming out in fights. Something was amiss. And I’m going to tell you what I think it was, and I think it is amiss in much of western training: too much love of precision.
This is the thing, when you find yourself in Thai camps – real camps developing real fighters from a young age – you tend to see very little correction. Very little. There is, at least from what we’ve seen, almost none of the western fear: If you practice mistakes you’ll be burdened with terrible flaws in your technique your whole life! Instead, kids are left to train and train, often with terrible, fundamental flaws. Bad body positions, horrible angles, it’s all there. There may be the occasional physical correction, or krus making fun of how awful someone looks (Thais are really good at this kind of humorous pantomime), but the entire western obsession with absolutely perfect technique is generally not there. Sometimes there are foundations of stance or basic forms cued in early on, but krus are not moving elbows into place, or calling time outs. Instead, there is just doing. For a long, long time in Thailand Sylvie wanted to get that “Thai kick” just right. That particular whip that is just so beautiful. She would stop krus and ask, and they would tell her this or that, but she just couldn’t do it. Like dutiful westerners we filmed it, we studied it, we broke it down, but it just wasn’t coming, even after a year here. There was one memorable time where Sylvie called over Wung, someone with incredible, but albeit at times Drunken Master, technique. She explained her problem with her kick, so he walked her over to the bag so she could show him her kick. She kicked the bag several times. He showed her his kick. But he just shook his head: “Your kick is good.” He didn’t see the problem, or at least didn’t see a need to correct it. To Sylvie, her kick was terrible. Ugly. No whip. Short. But Wung was a fighter’s fighter. Probably had 300 fights. That kick was good. You could hurt someone with that. That’s what mattered. Sylvie never kicked in fights, she believed her assessment was right. It was no good. In someways she even believes that still today. So long has the self-criticism of it has been ingrained. Sometimes trainers would say: your kick is too slow. Why was it slow? Take a guess.
The Fundamental Energy of Muay Thai
This is where I want to talk about where I think so many Muay Thai purists get it wrong, or at least are a little bit off in the west, though you certainly can’t blame anyone. There is a fundamental, underlying energy of Muay Thai. Every single strike and block and evasion exhibits this. It is the invisible force and form behind it all. If you can’t learn this ground energy then you are learning something that might look like Muay Thai in many ways, but it is not. It looks like this:
Muay Thai is the essential rhythming between these two states. It starts Green, goes Red, gets back to Green. You cannot start Muay Thai movements from any place other than Green. And if Red does not go back to Green, it isn’t Muay Thai. This is what is behind the basic movements of the Thai sway, very lightly moving between green and red and back. And this is why when westerners encounter Thai instructors they are told over and over: relax. Sabai, sabai.
I do think that a lot of people realize this in principle, but what I think fewer see is that when learning movements from the motivation of precision, you simply are not starting from Green. Instead, you have a mind that is distinctly critical and self-diagnosing, one that is readying the body to do something it does not know yet. You are readying tension. This can be okay if your goal was simply to memorize and master the body movement yourself. But what I believe is often missed is that while chasing the perfect technique you have accidentally been training a fundamental energy that is not Muay Thai. And that body movement has become emotionally, affectually coded as something like this:
When training in this way one is coding an emotional circuit into everything you have learned. Each time you move to execute those memorized movements you will enter into the same stress circuit, unconsciously. As you become more and more practiced, and gain more and more experience, the “relax” portion will grow, and the orange tension stage will shrink, but it still will be fundamentally be the same circuit: Orange to Red. You are not only training physical movements, you are also rehearsing the thoughts, and even more importantly the feelings and body states that will precede those movements. You can’t just take the technique and leave behind all the associative states that are part of the circuit. You take the whole thing with you. When training with Tak in Pattaya, or Rambaa, or really so many others – intimidating people to have standing opposite you – they would all tell Sylvie the same thing: I can see everything you are going to do before you do it. Now these are epically experienced people. They see everything. But what they are really seeing is Sylvie’s circuit – the rehearsed tension of self correction, the guarding of mistake, and then the decision to act, often followed by a quick self-diagnostic review and critique. And it is what they see in much of western trained Muay Thai. In a physio/emotional sense, it’s the 0-60 mph that characterizes Thai technique. If you are hovering at 30 or 45, you can’t perform 0-60, or 0-30 for that matter.
I’m going to cherry pick a moment in a technique to illustrate what I mean. It’s a GIF from an upcoming post by Sylvie, a Patreon supporter content private with Thai superstar Yodwicha at Kem’s Muaythai Gym in Khorat. He is showing how he likes to fake a teep and then knee. Look at the moment in the slowmotion version, after the fake…when he falls into complete ease:
This lulling into ease is not only important for the set up of the fake, its much more. It’s part of the essential rhythm of Muay Thai. This is not an ease that is added in after all the techniques are memorized, as an advanced part of experience, when one can finally relax. No, Thai kids will show this very same soft tidal shift between ease and explosion, its woven into the technique. It is part of the form itself, it comes at the very beginning. Another way of saying this is: If you are going to be looking closely at technique, you have to also include all the silence between the notes, the gaps…the relaxation. If you practice this move without feeling the full swing of states you will not be able to execute it in fights the way that it is meant to be used.
The Case of Alex
There is an incredibly illustrative example of the Thai non-corrective approach at the Petchrungruang gym here in Pattaya for the last 2 or 3 years. It really is eye opening. Alex is an Italian boy who moved into the gym as a full time fighter at the age of 12 or so, after the tragic loss of his mother. He more or less was adopted by the gym, and Pi Nu became his guardian in Thailand. He was a gangly, very sweet kid. Shy. Smart. He had come from a western upbringing and his initial training was in Italy under “kickboxing” style and rules and had trained and fought under different Thai gyms before this, but this was the first time he was just absorbed into a Thai setting, and taken as a Thai. He lacked confidence, would habitually be beat on and owned by top dog boys in the ring, not in a mean way, but a Thai way, he was very perserverant. He just kind of worked his way forward though it all. I could feel through it all that this kid was going to be a monster. He was just stuck in a very long and awkward phase where his body just wouldn’t coordinate, and it seemed to last forever.
All this while he developed a very wonky fighting style. It was noodled armed and hesitant. In the clinch and even in sparring he would put his ass back, a classic western body mistake, everything seemed off and out of whack. Even after winning a fight our trainer Pi Nu would pantomime the body positions he deemed ridiculous from Alex’s performance – all of them accurate but exaggerated to a single pose. But it was his fighting style, what he had to do to get through the days and days and days of training, against the Thai boys. I wasn’t around the gym much during this time, but Sylvie tells me that he almost never was corrected in his technique. Sylvie could see what he was doing wrong, and she tried to cue him to it in clinching (just mentioning the hips in vs. hips out position), but it really was to no avail. He just had a bizarre way about himself. The Thai krus never really concerned themselves with all his technical errors at all, other than making fun of how odd he looked, cracking the whole gym up. It wasn’t his technique, what they were really concerned about was his heart. He lacked confidence. He fought weakly. This was really their only concern it seemed.
I guessed that once Alex’s body caught up with itself his confidence would change. I guessed that his years of being the runt of a kaimuay litter, in a certain sense, would pay off with a transformation. And frankly I was shocked at what I saw in his last MAX Muay Thai fight, because I hadn’t seen him fight in a while. He still had something of his wonky style, but he had tightened it up, he had gained an aggressiveness, and a continuity in exchanges that really only comes from very long hours of just doing. And from not being a 12 or 13 year old any longer. As he turned the tide of that fight, landing endless knees and winging sudden elbows, it felt like he was being born to me. He is going to be a very fine fighter. Big promotions are getting in line trying to map out his future. But I’ll tell you none of that really came from the correction of technique. It did not come from: no, not that. Do this. He learned techniques, he stole techniques. He tried things out for himself. He, like water, kept finding his way down gravity’s way, but what he really was learning this whole time was something far below technique. It was something that could show itself even when all the technique seemed wrong or off. His style is still wonky but it’s his; it works together as a system that is unique to Alex but looks coherent. He is pretty incredible, and I’ll consider it an honor to have known him as a kid before his transformation.
Now this is a difficult teaching quandary for the west. One of the main reasons why Thais can teach in the way that they do is that fighters learned Muay Thai when they are children. They are able to start ingraining the proper Muay Thai emotional circuit from a very early age. And, because they have years to work with, and often an entire gym of boys, they can also be very lax with corrections. They have years to iron out the wrinkles and smooth over the errors. Corrections are spare, I believe, because corrections produce tension. Instead, corrections are produced though imitation, as the entire gym moves as a whole towards proper technique, and there are always more advanced boys to provide visual models for younger boys, techniques to emulate. And, as I said, corrections sometimes come through ribbing or ridicule, making a joke of someone’s style…which also does not produce tension. Western gyms just do not have these kinds of advantages.
So how to transmit proper technique to largely adult students, in an atmosphere where technical knowledge itself may be limited? I think it really comes down to this. Above all else, no matter what you are training, you are first and foremost training the Thai movement from Green to Red, and back to Green. Everything is about this, nothing is outside of it. Train nothing without realizing that this physio/emotional circuit is what it is all about. Every technique, whether it be a block, a teep, a head kick, the Thai sway, a parry, a 5 punch combination, a lean back, is this circuit – and in clinch perhaps more than anything else, this is the circuit. See that any technique you learn which is not learned in this circuit will be impaired, when it come to actual fighting. Precision in the fighting Muay Thai of Thailand, comes out of repeated application, in contexts simulating fighting.
These are the things that Sylvie and I talk about, born out of her own experiences, frustrations and perseverance. I don’t think that Muay Thai is unique in its flow from ease to punctuation, and back to ease. You see this transference in all martial arts. What makes it perhaps more difficult to keep an eye on in Muay Thai is that as a living sport fighting art, meant for fighting, the pedagogy matters. More like boxing, less like Karate, the transitions from calm to strike or block and back are less formalized, the focus on energy transition becoming buried more in the aesthetic of the art, and its teaching methods. The teaching of Muay Thai in Thailand is so vastly different than how it is taught anywhere else in the world (there are no kaimuay full of fighting 10 year olds in the west), and the rulesets and scoring aesthetics, the underlying form of the art, the specific and spectacular transitions in energy can be lost. I am only a close observer, but to me Muay Thai is almost entirely composed of these transitions. The speed and fluidity of its fighting style comes out of its transitions, the contrasts between resting states and peak moments. It’s the contrast, the differential, that creates the art. And this celebration of the contrast, the transfer of calm to escalation and back, in the mode of the art, is in many ways what makes it uniquely Thai.
Power and Tension
It should be also said of course that the other spectrum of western Muay Thai fighting, the ass-kicking version, with some irony broadly speaking also participates in the same Orange to Red physio/emotional circuit as does technical learning. Instead of internal pressures of self-diagnosis that foreground any technique, you have the bracing or the build up to the strike or defense. Strong, aggressive tendencies also deny the movement from Green to Red and back.
John Boyd’s OODA Loop
I place this here as only a marker to future study if others want to think more deeply on this. Above is a model of perceptual action made by innovative military strategist John Boyd. There just is not enough space here to delve into John Boyd, a big philosophical influence on me. You can read his biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, or this summation of his thought: Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd – he was a remarkable man who essentially transformed the United States military with his ideas. The model above though is one of the more important analytic tools he created to examine how in agonistic situations we make decisions and process information. His claim is that this fundamentally consists in loops, whereby the decisions are made towards action, assessed, eventually leading to new actions. Over and over this is the circuit of the fighter. Loops within loops. Instantaneous loops within long flowing loops. What he claimed was that as a fighter one was continuously trying to get inside your opponent’s loop, to penetrate and break the connective circuit that allows them to be able to integrate themselves into and control an agonistic environment. What I’ve been talking about in this article is really about the blue box above, the repeated “Orient” phase when the consequences of previous actions and changing circumstances are balanced together in an abiding sense of self. The calm within which one starts can definitely impact the “Observe” phase, as focus will filter information, but in this star of Orientation, the place where bearings are repeatedly taken, this is where dispositions are most important. It’s where the organism moves from. It’s continuity and found, but synthesized, homeostasis. It could be that in processes of learning with an eye toward precision grounds those techniques in an orientation experience that is far from fighting.
For Sylvie, what I’ve seen is that after a long haul and wrestle with this fundamental circuit she figured out a way to start recoding her techniques, and that has come out of Play. This is an essential teaching technique in Thailand, there is a hell of a lot of play in Thai gyms, even among older ex-fighters as trainers. The play is always from Green to Red and back, over and over and over. For her it started I think with learning to play off-script with her padholders, pulling out their fighter instincts, learning how to mock fight in padwork and in sparring as well. This has really begun to transform her relationship to her own techniques, the way they feel before they start and when they end. Right now she’s starting to make the commitment to learning how to play in fights themselves, to feel how the calm and the storm are so naturally related.
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