Brain Science: Why Sparring Gets Out of Control – Neurology and Muay Thai

We all know the bro (or the female version) who says “Let’s go light” in sparring, and then whacks you. Or, when you get a hit in they suddenly...

We all know the bro (or the female version) who says “Let’s go light” in sparring, and then whacks you. Or, when you get a hit in they suddenly step it up two notches in a way that seems inordinately ego-driven, like they’re trying to “win” at sparring. What’s up with these people? Don’t they know how to spar? It turns out that although there indeed may be all kinds of psychological reasons why people just hit back harder than they are hit – not understanding their own size, or just being a jerk – there also may be a neurological reason: our brains don’t experience the levels of intensity accurately.  Even with our highly sensitive fingertips we cannot accurately feel just how hard we are pushing and being pushed.  In reality, it’s all in your head.

Force Escalation - Sparring Too Hard

A very interesting study was conducted in 2003 called “Two Eyes for an Eye: The Neuroscience of Force Escalation” (illustration above) – you can download the short study here. In it they describe the testing of our powers of judging how hard we are pushing back when we are pushed. It was a very simple study using force transducers which push against fingers. Subjects are asked to push back against the transducer with force equal to that they received. The transducer then returns a push with the same force at which it was pushed, but mathematically, rather than through subjective experience. If humans were good at this the transducer and the subject would push back and forth with a mirroring force that would not change over time. Under variable conditions though one thing remained constant: the shoving match between finger and transducer quickly became a runaway event, with the subject pushing back harder and harder, trying to match the perceived escalation of the transducer.

As it turns out the efference copy of our motor actions – the body imaging we use to predict and gauge our effect on the world –  is inherently sensorally dulled, while when things happen to us they feel amplified.  Simply put, you might feel like you’re taking up very little space on the bus the guy next to you is taking up the exact same amount but it feels to you like he might as well be lying down with his feet up.  It is built-in that we experience the world impacting us more forcefully than how we are impacting the world, at a very basic touch level. Several writers have connected this hardwired escalation to the reason why shoving matches get out of control. One can see how it would affect sparring as well.  You feel like you’re going light, then you feel like you got hit harder than what you perceive you’re giving out, so you go a bit harder – but you’re hitting a person with the same subjective ability to judge intensity, not a machine with mathematical algorithms, so your partner goes harder, too.  Real escalation.

Thais Do Spar Differently – Psychology and Culture

Dominance, not Aggression

It takes just 1o minutes in most Thai gyms to see that Thais spar differently from westerners. There is a myth going around out there that Thais don’t “spar hard,” and that the reason for this is because they fight so frequently. This may be the case in some gyms, but from what I’ve seen and experienced at a few different gyms and youtube videos out there of champions sparring, there is indeed hard sparring in Thailand among Thais.  What’s universally “light” about Thai sparring is the attitude brought by the guys engaging in the play fight.  In Muay Thai the hardness of the strike is a demonstration of domination, not of aggression, at least not as we’d recognize the concept in the west. The difference is glaring. Let’s assume that like the subjects of the study, Thais also experience the dis-equal force of an opponent sparring for neurological reasons. The way that they respond to this experience is very different. You do not show what affects you in Muay Thai, you don’t acknowledge it visibly and the escalation is absolutely not manifested with an emotional burst.  Rather, the escalation is theatrical, not even necessarily with greater force, and it’s used to re-set the equality between the two sparring; to correct or calibrate the dominance scale. Once that is done (or failed) things settle immediately back down to sanook, to play. If there is a point still to be scored or neutralized it is kept in the mind, for retribution.

Getting Objective About It

When I hung out with fighter Amy Davis at Lion’s Fight in Las Vegas several years ago I remember her relating a story about how her husband and trainer Darrin Davis hits her in practice. She talked about how during the session she was getting pissed because it felt like he was clobbering her and hitting unnecessarily hard, especially given their size disparity (Amy is much smaller, even though she’s strong as hell).  Later, when she looked at video of the tape she saw how Darrin was barely touching her – like just kind of patting her with the glove or focus mitt or whatever.  I can attest that there is an emotional component when a spouse or “significant other” is training you – I take everything personally when Kevin works with me, the exact same stuff I would tolerate much better from a trainer or practically anyone I’m not sexually and emotionally invested in – but it would seem that the dis-equal perception of striking strength also plays a strong part. More or less objective tools like video tape can let you know if you are experiencing these things with distortion.

Sparring too Light – If you are someone who somewhere in their lives resists escalation instinctively – I think women can be like this, in particular if they experienced violence on a personal level, but also just because, culturally, we are taught to be more passive – how does the mis-perception of contact strength affect you? It may mean that even when you are sparring at equal force, you are experiencing it as your sparring partner going harder than you are. You may find yourself reducing the force of your strikes over and over, trying to “turn the heat down”, when in fact it already had begun at equilibrium. This, unfortunately is to some degree the opposite instinct one wants in a fight. You can find yourself training non-escalation, or even de-escelation of force, while experiencing dis-equal striking.  In a fight, you want to end up on top, or as the final word, on every escalation.


It’s hard to say that there aren’t sparring partners who quite frankly are going too hard, when it stops being beneficial for both parties.  There are also just bullies – people who have to “win” at practice.  It’s also rare to have a sparring partner who is your same size – we don’t weigh in for training and generally we come in all different shapes and sizes – so you’ll end up being much bigger, or much smaller, or at a different proficiency level than your sparring partner.  We do our best to take our strength up or down accordingly, to try to make it helpful for everyone.  But it’s likely that the miscommunication between sparring partners is taking place at a neurological level as well.   As much as we give conscious effort to create equality between two dis-equal partners, our brains are also working against us by distorting our perception of what’s taking place, often to our disfavor: we’re hitting with perfect power but this jerk-wod just keeps hitting too hard.

It’s hard to know how to solve this.  Just knowing that your mind is perceiving things other than how they may actually be can make a big difference in creating better communication between partners.  There are jerks, but maybe it’s you.  In the same way that Thai sparring is seen as “light” because of attitude, the perception of intensity is, I believe, largely influenced by emotional components – something Thais are not immune from experiencing but are very adroit at not expressing, culturally.  I think that by understanding the neurological distortion of perception can help us to avoid becoming emotional about what we see as going on in sparring.  Get the point back by all means, but do so to bring it back to an equilibrium, rather than the run-away escalation of trying to match the physical intensity of your partner, which may be far different from how it is registering to your brain.

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A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see


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