One of the first things you’ll notice when you begin training in Thailand is that the Thai trainers take a very different approach to coaching than most western trainers. The western and Thai cultures vary a great deal, so it’s hardly surprising that there are a few differences, but visitors are still a bit miffed when they first arrive here.
Not only are the cultures different, but the whole process of creating a muay Thai fighter in Thailand is different too, which can greatly affect the way the two sets of people train.
In Thailand, some Thai boys are sent to muay Thai camps by their parents at around the ages of 6-8 years old. It varies, but this is generally how it works. The boys then train in the muay Thai gym full time; 6 hours a day, 6 days a week in their new home for the rest of their career. Some of the boys nowadays are allowed to attend school as well, but most of these fighters do not. They are fighters.
By sending their boy away to be a muay Thai fighter, the parents of the child lessen the burden on the family expenses and gain an extra income from the child, as he will send home his winnings to his parents.
This mainly happens in the poorer parts of Thailand such as Isan in the North East, due to the fact that the boy’s parents’ can no longer afford to keep their child and need extra money. Most of these are farming families with a very low income.
Not every Thai boxer is forced into muay Thai. Many fighters make the move themselves, but they are generally a bit older when they make the decision to fight for a living, and may do it for reasons other than supporting their families.
In western countries, very few people get the opportunity to commit full time to training. We generally have to hold down full time jobs and train in our spare time. There is no system. With these general differences in time commitment to muay Thai brings about the different approaches we take to our training.
Thai Style – Method to the Madness
Thais tend to use a largely democratic coaching style; there’s usually very little instruction during training sessions. Some foreigners are often a bit confused by this and may misconstrue this behaviour as laziness. Of course, some trainers actually are lazy, but you should be able to tell the difference between the two once you’ve trained in Thailand for a while. Their style of coaching is a lot of doing, but not a lot of showing. They use a lot of repetition, which is usually performed in a fast-paced, “real” situation.
For example, instead of showing you a clinch technique step by step and then allowing you time to practice in a controlled environment, you’ll often be expected to just get in the ring and clinch. The theory behind it is that, by continually being put in a given situation and facing the problem head-on, you’ll figure out the best way to overcome the obstacle yourself through training with higher calibre fighters on a regular basis. You’ll develop a form of self-coaching, as opposed to being instructed what to do 100% of the time.
In a fight, you’ll have your corner men to give you advice in between rounds, but fighting is an activity that a fighter does alone. If you haven’t been made to think for yourself in training and have never had to overcome problems you face in training then, chances are, you won’t be able to do it in a fight either. In fact, a lot of the time when you go back to your corner during a fight in Thailand, they’ll give you very little (if any) advice then too.
The benefits of this Thai style coaching is that, once you have learnt a particular technique, you’ve learnt the bigger picture of the technique; through repetition and trial and error in training, you’ve learnt when you can use it, when you shouldn’t use it, how it can be countered, advantages, disadvantages, possible flaws, follow up techniques etc etc. You only get that type of knowledge and ability from repetition in real situations and from being forced to figure things out for yourself. Sure, you can be told all those types of things by your coach, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to react in the correct way when required to in training or in a fight.
The Thai Style Learning Curve for Westerners
I think the learning curve for westerners travelling to Thailand for the first time would look something like this. Any kind of progress is slow to begin with, but the curve then steepens sharply.
Let’s take a clinch technique for example; any position where you’re in a disadvantageous position and you need to make one small adjustment to your hand and arm position to improve that position.
The student gets little or no pre-instruction, he just clinches with other fighters every day. The progress is slow to begin with as the boxer doesn’t know how to deal with the situation. As the days, weeks and months go by, the boxer is put into that same situation time and time again, and has been feeling the way his peers are using that technique against him i.e. moving their hand and arm into the right place at the right time. With repetition after repetition of this movement, the boxer becomes proficient in the technique. Not only has he learnt the technique, but that technique has now been added to his arsenal, ready to pull out and the correct time.
Of course, Thais don’t solely use a democratic coaching style; they use a mixture of different styles, but they rely more heavily on the trial and error method, especially when clinching.
In my opinion, Thais generally have better muay Thai technique in all areas, and they can be competent at teaching it. Some trainers aren’t, but the majority will correct you while you shadow box or hit pads. On the other hand, Thais are pretty poor at explaining tactics. Even things as simple as, “what can I do if my opponent does this”. They just don’t seem to be able to to coach it. One of the classic responses you’ll usually get when you ask them a question such as this is “up to you, can do everything!”.
Of course, most of them have had 100+ fights, and they’re tactical experts. But they’re not very good at coaching it. Some people believe that it’s not a case of them not being able to coach it, but a case of them not wanting to coach it to foreigners. I do believe that a bit of that goes on, but in general, I genuinely believe that they’re just not good at explaining things, even if they have a good level of English.
Going back to the way the fighters are brought up – if they’ve been coached that way themselves and have never had techniques thoroughly explained to them, then I can see why they may be unable to break a technique down and explain it to somebody else.
Muay Thai – Train Like a Thai, Fight Like a Thai?
When all is said and done, the proof is in the pudding. However, it would be ignorant to think that because the Thailand has more high-level fighters than western countries, they must have the best training methods. That simply isn’t true. There are many reasons for this, but I’ll leave that for another article.
There’s no denying that Thai style training works, you just need to put it to practice 6 hours a day, 6 days a week, just like the Thais do. It’s a longer road to becoming proficient in a technique or becoming a better fighter, but the results are 100x that of a purely instructive or autocratic style of coaching.
The next question that needs to be answered is “how do we find a balance?”Follow MuayThaiScholar