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This is an offshoot of a previous thread I started, on the "light" versus "hard" sparring and how that kind of divides down the emotional line, rather than the physical power of strikes. I wanted to ask my trainer, Kru Nu, about this. He's been teaching Muay Thai for 25 years or so, grew up in a gym that had the very, very early westerners who lived and trained in Thailand, has raised countless Thai boys to be stadium fighters and champions; and has had his fair share of "what the f*** was that?" experiences of people losing their cool in sparring and things erupting into potentially dangerous situations. My impetus for asking Kru Nu about this subject was two fold: 1) the "Thai sparring is so light," refrain I hear from westerners is often one that I've failed to witness with my own 7 years' experience living in Thailand. Thais don't spar super light, at least not the way that I see it performed by the westerners who are trying to mimic what they deem to be "Thai style sparring." And 2) I've seen some pretty intense sparring under Kru Nu's supervision, where he doesn't tell people to turn it down, whereas I - and probably most coaches in the West, would have done. With very little kids, like 7 and 8 years old, when they're clinching they aren't allowed to throw knees. Kru Nu tells them explicitly, "if anyone throws a knee, it's a foul." That's so they don't hurt each other, because they don't have control of themselves yet. They're tiny, so the impact is relative to their size, but I think it's more of an emotional precaution - they don't have control of their emotions yet and so they'll knee hard and hurt each other. They're emotionally not in control, so if they get mad they don't have a stick in their hand at the same time, so to speak. Most of the time, sparring or clinching with little kids like this ends because someone's crying. They're learning how to control their emotions way more than they're learning how to do proper technique, although they do get a few pointers here and there. Mostly it's just spending time in the water, as I like to say, and learning not to cry about it being too cold or deep or whatever else. Back to adults. The teenaged Thais in my gym have mostly been training for a lot of years, so they've gone through the emotional bootcamp long before they ever get big enough to really do any damage to anybody. We have one young fighter, Maek, who is often my clinching partner, and he's new enough and young enough that he gets a little emotional sometimes. He's ignored most of the time when he gets like this, or he's teased to put him in check. But he's pretty big, 60 kilos at only 13 years old, but a little butterball so he goes with partners who he outweighs but is shorter than. So, with his weight he can do some damage, but with his size and age he's kind of not so dangerous. In contrast to this, the westerners who come to train in Thailand are mostly pretty big, compared to me and Thais. They can do damage before they have any kind of skill, or moderate skill, and they've done usually no kind of emotional formation by a culture that esteems "jai yen yen," cool heartedness. So, you've got giant babies. Yesterday, my regular sparring partner and I were told to go spar but to go "bao bao," which is Thai for gentle. I've never been instructed to go light before. The reason was that both Carabao (my sparring/clinching partner) and I have fights in a couple of days, so a clashed knee or bruised eye or ego is not on the ticket. I fight often, Carabao doesn't. So, the instruction to go light is more to do with his fight than mine, but interestingly, Kru Nu has credited Carabao's wins in the past with being my clinching partner. In clinching, nobody is ever told to "go light." Just maybe to be more careful with hitting with the inside of your thigh instead of with your kneecap. So, this sudden "go spar, but bao bao," thing got me thinking. I wanted to ask Kru Nu about how he does sparring at his gym. I told Kru Nu that westerners seem to think that sparring in Thailand is all really light. He frowned at me when I said this, like "why?" I laughed. I don't know. But then I used the example of this Indian guy, who I referenced in my other thread. He goes too hard (in my eyes) with everybody. He's not out of control, but his power is enough to do damage. In the example I gave in my last thread, he sparred with an Italian who also goes quite hard. Hard vs hard, and Kru Nu said, "they like that, so I give for them." But I reminded him of a match up that was not a syncing of likes, where one guy didn't like to go hard. A few weeks ago he was sparring with a fellow from Spain. The guy from India is cracking these leg kicks and has good boxing, so he's touching up the guy from Spain and then just bashing his leg. The guy from Spain is not super experienced, but not totally green. He does okay for a round, listens sincerely to my advice to teep with the leg that's getting kicked when I talk to him between rounds, but ultimately lays down and sparring is ended with a "TKO" late into round 2. I thought that was shitty, honestly. I asked Kru Nu (yesterday, not when this happened), why he let the sparring go like that. "Because I want the guy from Spain to understand that in a fight, if someone kicks you hard here (he chops the side of his hand into his leg), you cannot ask them to stop. And you cannot stop. He has to understand." And, as I recall, the next sparring session, Kru Nu put the guy from India with Team (Thai, stadium fighter) and he got worked, which Kru Nu had said was, "so he can understand." Keeping everyone in check. I nodded my head in understanding when I was listening to Kru Nu. It's what I was saying about hard sparring, how it teaches you that you have to figure shit out under duress. You have to know what contact feels like and how to hide your fear, your shame, your pain, but you also have to be able to not get upset yourself. If you're going to hit hard, you have to know you'll be hit hard back. Kru Nu actually pointed at me, poking my shoulder as I sat next to him on the ring for this conversation. "Sometimes Carabao kicks you too hard, I know, I see," he said. Honestly, guys, I know Kru Nu sees everything but I totally assumed he was not clocking the times that Carabao is hitting me hard. "But you don't get angry, I know you are okay. And if you want, you can show him that you kick hard too and then he understand." I know there are times I've lost my cool in sparring and clinching when I feel like I'm being hit too hard. I've been punished for that by Kru Nu before, basically by him telling me to get out of the ring and go kick the bag and he ignores me for the rest of the session. But I've also learned how to control that shit myself. With Carabao it's a bit harder, just because of his size and the relationship we have in the gym, but with Maek I've learned how to take a too-hard strike, hit him back hard as a warning shot, and then use the next shot as an immediate comparison (much lighter), to let him choose which kind of strike he wants. You hit me hard, I hit you hard, but we can always go back to this. And know what? He always tones it back down. No words spoken. No looks. No complaints. No calling "dad" over, and the escalation in emotion is super short. But I wouldn't know how to do that if I'd never been hit too hard in sparring; if I'd never been overwhelmed and wanted to cry. When Kru Nu lets these big Western dudes bash on each other, he's giving them the same lessons that led me to where I am now, but on a much shorter timeline. These two go hard, they go hard together. This guy goes hard with someone who doesn't reciprocate and he doesn't read the temperature, make him go with someone who will touch him right back (Team) and then some to keep him in check. It reminds me of the Cesar Milan approach to reconditioning aggressive dogs: put them in with the pack and a natural order will shake out, pretty quickly. I remember taking our dog Zoa to a dog park in New York and she was growling and nipping at some dogs who came to sniff her. I immediately thought to go control her and Kevin told me to wait, let it sort itself out. Sure enough, within 3 minutes the group had figured itself out and Zoa was playing chase with a dog she'd just been ready to fight with. You can't control everything. And if everything is always controlled for you, you never learn to control yourself.
I'm a bit inspired by Coach James's recent thread about kids "fighting" (they're sparring, but James is bothered by it and in his mind used the word fighting in his title, which I think is significant), but also because I just was watching some hard sparring at my gym here in Thailand. Here's the set up. In the West, we tend to have this "holier than thou" attitude toward "technical sparring" over "hard sparring," usually accompanied by some kind of credit to how "technical and light" sparring in Thailand is. Okay, sure, I've seen very little sparring among Thais in which they're trying to hurt or knock each other's heads off (I have seen some), whereas I have seen that kind of sparring in Thailand but usually when one or both of the people participating are not-Thai. This said, when Thais spar with shinpads and gloves, it's not "light." The word for sparring in Thai len cherng, literally means to "play techniques." That's the point, and usually the spirit of it. But it's not "light" in the sense that the West tends to characterize it as for their own uses and purposes. It is more "lighthearted," but the actual power of strikes and intention is well over the 60% that I'd qualify as "going light." I was watching two sets of sparring at my gym yesterday. The first couple were both not-Thai. One guy was from India, the other from Italy. The Indian guy always goes too hard, as judged by me for what's appropriate for practice. But he's never told by the coaches to turn it down, which means they see a purpose to how hard he strikes. He also tires easily. And they never put him with someone who is close to a fight, because they know he goes this hard. The Italian guy has way more experience than the Indian guy and, while he got battered pretty good by hard leg kicks and punches in the first round and a half, he took the lead with clinch and knees to "win" the sparring - as if it were a fight, judged by others. The thing is this: the punches and kicks were 100%. The emotional stress and intention was 100%. And the guy who goes too hard, by gassing and ultimately being bettered in the end, his disappointment was 100%. All of those elements are important for learning how to fight. You have to deal with real stress. You have to deal with the consequences of coming out too hard, too early, if you don't have the stamina to keep it going. You have to learn how your power overwhelms someone and then doesn't. And likewise, the Italian guy has to learn that you can't only practice going in and having everything controlled for you. I was pretty impressed by the way he handled it, honestly, and I'm not very generous in things I like about this guy. As an important note, while nobody was told to take their power down, there were shinpads, large gloves, a referee and spectators to break the two men when things were too heated or stagnant, or to stop the time early if needed. It's still being supervised, just not interfered with very much. The next couple were two Thai boys, both about 14-16, same weight as each other but a gulf in experience. One has been training and fighting since he was 8 and surely 100+ fights, the other a handful of years with only 20 or so fights. One loves to go backwards (the experienced one) and gets yelled at for it, the other likes to come forward and strike pretty hard. They both kicked and punched less than 100% power, but not far below that. There were exchanges when the power would go up, but then it would come back down. There was never any "danger" throughout that match, unlike the other one. The biggest difference, however, was the emotional charge. There were moments when the two Thai fighters were amped up a bit, the dominance was real. But they weren't trying to hurt each other. They were trying to dominate each other and shut the other down. It wasn't like that with the non-Thais; there was an element that felt not in control with them, an emotional derailment that felt dangerous... although the Thai men who sat around the ring to watch found it incredibly entertaining. So here's my point: there is a purpose to hard sparring. There is purpose to "technical" sparring. There is an art to both, and I think both are required for the development of a fighter. But what's "light" about Thai sparring is not the power of strikes; it honestly is in the "asshole factor" of emotional energy put into the sparring itself. It's a lack of control that makes hard sparring dangerous or not worthwhile, not the power itself. Stress is an important training tool. Disappointment is a training tool. Gassing out is an important training tool. To only ever advocate for some kind of pantomime sparring robs fighters of those tools. This was Jame's original post discussion that lead to these thoughts: