I read a post by Emma Thomas on her great new Under The Ropes blog this morning, on the subject of “Gym Hoppers and the Importance of Loyalty in Muay Thai”. It’s an interesting topic and one that anyone has probably some experience with, whether training in Thailand or in the west. Thanks to Emma for raising the topic.
Basically, a “gym hopper” is someone who spends some time at one gym and then eventually or abruptly moves to another gym for the sake of different or “better” training. Emma does acknowledge that some folks are not happy with their current gyms and so go on to find better suited training for themselves, but even there adds the caveat that one should wait it out for a little while to be sure that a move is necessary.
She opens her blog post with this:
I have only ever trained at a handful of gyms in my life. At first, I trained at one on an island in the south of Thailand while on holiday, before moving up to Chiang Mai and spending a couple of months at a gym there. After that, I moved to Bangkok and found the gym that was right for me, decided to start my fight career there and haven’t been anywhere else since. However, In recent times, I am noticing more and more people who flutter from gym to gym, training here and there, and fighting for whichever gym they happen to be at during that particular time. I shall call these people ‘gym hoppers’.
Anyone who has been at a gym for long enough will have met a gym hopper. You might have that one friend whose Facebook pictures always feature shots of him/her in different gyms, or that one who trains at a different gym every time they go to Thailand. It’s not big and it’s not clever. Many people might not have a problem with gym hoppers at all, but for some reason, I do. In fact, I sometimes find myself feeling genuinely disappointed when I see this happening. Personally, I wouldn’t even wear shorts carrying the name of any brand or gym other than my own. Perhaps that might seem a little over the top to some people, but to me, it’s simply disrespectful to do so. My gym supports me, so I do the same for them by buying and wearing their gear.
I’ve ranted about this to a few people in my time, with mixed reactions. Some have agreed, and some have said that it shouldn’t be a problem, as fighters just want to build their names on their own, and should be allowed to take whatever they can from the different people that they train with. To each their own, I guess. I can agree that it shouldn’t really bother me, as since I am a fighter and not a trainer or gym owner, it doesn’t really affect me. The reason for my seemingly irrational annoyance at this issue is rooted in the fact that I believe that those who display gym hopper traits are missing one of the core values of Muay Thai: loyalty.
I have very limited experience with other gyms in Thailand – I trained at Sasiprapa for 5 weeks a few years ago at the end of my first visit in Thailand and I fought under their banner for one fight. I had a great experience there, and am glad for the friendship I made with Thakoon. But unlike Emma I have a lot of experience with composite training. When I lived in New York I trained one-on-one with Master K for a number of years, with whom I became very, very close. He is my inspiration to this day, and is my Muay Thai grandfather. Because I had no peers and due to gender cultural and generational issues with Master K, who is very Thai, I had to seek out supplemental training in order to get sparring practice. Through a school where I was getting some sparring practice (TSMMA) I also found a trainer with whom I started boxing lessons (Ray Velez) to expand my skill-set and after that I began visiting a third school where I could get more sparring partners and take part in some classes (my friend Augie Matias, MK Muay Thai & Fitness) and even was training and fighting in Manhattan (Chok Sabbai Gym). And finally I added 6 months of weekly private lessons with the incomparable Kaensak Sor. Ploenjit (AMA Fightclub) who really focused on my relaxation and confidence in a very fight-oriented way, changing me. For the most part, I have always had a collection of training in lieu of a single gym. I was and am absolutely loyal to every person and group that helped me, but not in the sense of exclusivity. As oppose to the individuals who I believe Emma is criticizing, who “jump ship” from one gym to another, leaving behind prior trainers and relationships, I wasn’t leaving one place or person in exchange for another, but rather building a web between and including all of them, as long as the trainers were supportive of me – it was Master K told me that it was good to go and learn from other people.
I don’t agree with every point Emma makes in her blog post, but I do agree wholesale with the importance of loyalty as a core value of Muay Thai. It has been my experience that the time you put into training and fighting for a gym and the time the trainers put into training you and coaching you is a two-way investment. When I think about the fact that I currently spend roughly 7 hours per day, 6 days per week at the gym with my trainers, I realize that I’ve spent more time with them in the year and four months I’ve been at Lanna than I did with co-workers for the four years I worked at one place. Other than college roommates, my husband and family, that’s the biggest social investment of my life. Like family, loyalty is a big part of this relationship.
That said, there is also a financial element to this relationship included also in the investment. While I don’t pay for training anymore, I am absolutely a financial investment for the gym in that I make money for them when I fight and my trainers might make some extra money when they gamble on my bouts. Something that is easy to miss for westerners training in gyms in Thailand is that it’s work. If you train just for fitness or fun that’s fine, but it’s entirely different from what is happening for Thai kids and Thai fighters who live at the gym and full-time Falang fighters who devote themselves to training and fighting. Money is involved in both kinds of relationships. For the casual Falang visitor who comes to the gym to train part-time, for fun, for fitness, or for any reason at all really – even if they are very committed to the training, if they don’t fight, their relationship to the gym is as a customer. Period. Once you decide to be a fighter for a gym, however, that relationship transitions from being a customer to being a worker, a part of the business, an investment, etc. This sounds cold from a western perspective but it’s important to understand that in Thai culture money and family go together. Unlike the west, where money and loyalty are sometimes at odds with one another – don’t mix business and friends, you might say – in Thailand money and intimacy go together and thus loyalty is incredibly important in that bond. Taking your “business” elsewhere is not a capitalist freedom, it’s a betrayal. In the US the Wai Kru/Ram Muay is often omitted from fights, but in Thailand it is ubiquitous and the Wai Kru is literally respect to your teacher. Bowing with your head to the floor in honor of your teacher at the onset of every fight is a pretty strong indicator and reminder of what your position is as a fighter for a gym. And indeed, as a sign of my heritage, I perform the Ram Muay taught to me by Master K and cannot see myself ever changing that, even though I fight under different teachers. It’s important to me to perform his Ram Muay and I see it as creating a lineage of my experiences as a fighter, respecting all the teachers who have had a hand in developing me. (The Ram Muay is indicative of a gym in style, but I believe it is not directly associated with one in particular, so it’s not quite the same as if I were to use a different name in fights, for example – not every fighter in a gym will have the same Ram Muay, depending on where they learned theirs. But it’s notable that mine is not the same as the Thai boys, for example. In Chiang Mai it is often noted by announcers that my Ram Muay is mai tamadaa unusual.)
The Muay Thai customer, however, also has an important place in the business of camps. Westerners who pay for training without making the multifaceted investment to fight are what keep many gyms afloat. The day-tripper is not an unwelcome element in a commercial gym. And for gyms with an internationally recognized name, like Fairtex, Lanna (to some degree) and Emma’s gym is highly recognized because of Master Toddy’s reputation around the world, it is understandable that many people will be coming to the gym for the sole purpose of the experience of training at that camp. To be fair, I don’t think Emma is talking specifically about these people, but she isn’t excluding them either. I do believe she has particular persons in mind and when enough of these people come through any given gym they become a “type” that you can easily recognize and kind of exchange for one another. We have many types that come through at Lanna that drive me nuts and I would rant about them, but that’s a different post. The point is that, in general, the number of individuals who will devote themselves as fighters to a gym is far smaller than the number of folks who “pass through” with varying degrees of transience. Therefore, the loyalty of those few is concentrated, so to speak, and for those few to whom the gym has made a connection and in whom an investment has been made, I agree 100% with Emma’s sentiment that a kind of fickle change of gyms without regard to financial and social bonds is an unfortunate and potentially damaging move to make.
I’m not writing to so much as disagree with Emma’s post, but rather to engage in a conversation with it, inspired by the issues it raises. Emma’s post is a difficult one to write because it expresses a strong opinion and raises interesting issues – we need more blogging like this.