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My Trainer Kru Nu's Philosophy on Sparring - What It's For

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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.

Pi Nu General.jpg

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.


Pi Nu Authority.jpg

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.




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somehow I recalled my first ever sparring session in Muay Thai, well actually K1, reading this.

I had experience with full contact sparring from Kali several years back but it was my first time doing any sort of actual kickboxing sparring with gloves, mouthguard, shinpads and all.
I had asked if someone was up for some light sparring with a beginner. and found a guy who was like "sure! lets spar with open hands! don't want a headache tomorrow either" so I climbed into the ring expecting LIGHT and just feeling this out for a first time.

Granted, the hands weren't a great problem even though I sucked at boxing technique but he totally surprised me by starting to throw hard lowkicks over and over.

At least I had learned defence against stuff like that in Kali so I was like "oh, ok, so thats whats going on here? unexpected, well ok then but I'm not just gonna stand and get smashed". I started defending with me own legs as good as my somewhat rusty technique would allow which actually worked better than I would have expected. Then I misjudged his attack and raised the "wrong" leg for a block but had enough time to realise my mistake and pull the leg to the other side for a cross-block that hit right in the perfect spot. It was a hard kick but it didn't hurt me at all since it connected flush with the largest portion of bone just below my knee but we actually had to stop sparring after that because HE had hurt his shin in the process.

Don't know if he took that as any kind of lesson and it certainly wasn't my intention to teach anyone anything as the newbie but I think it can serve as an example for lack of control in sparring.


How would you say should people who start at adult age best get into sparring? Start out light to improve and test out techniques without too much fear of getting smashed for mistakes? Hard(er) to get used to the feel and stress? Some kind of mix approach?

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In my opinion light sparring in the physical sense is hard for a beginner as they don't have the technique down enough to go light.  I actually start my students off with reciprocal drilling, starting with 5 for 5 and soft, once they get the gist of the combination they go 1 for 1 and soft, under my watchful eye. Once I feel they exhibit enough control in drilling, they then spar. This may take 1 week or 6 months, depending on how I feel the student can control themselves physically. At my school, sparring is done with solid contact, with the idea of enjoying it, (I don't run a fight gym). Where I go for training, beginners are always started off sparring (if they want to spar) with the more experienced students and instructors.  This is so there is no ego involved, the student knows he/she is with someone who is there to teach and help and not bash. 

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17 hours ago, Jeremy Stewart said:

At my school, sparring is done with solid contact, with the idea of enjoying it, (I don't run a fight gym). Where I go for training, beginners are always started off sparring (if they want to spar) with the more experienced students and instructors.  This is so there is no ego involved, the student knows he/she is with someone who is there to teach and help and not bash. 

The specification of whether these are fighters or not is interesting to me. Because Kru Nu's philosophy is toward fighting. The whole "keep it light" enforcement in the west, I suspect, is largely because the majority of a gym is made up of clients who are not ever going to be stepping into a ring. The assumption is there's no reason to scare people off, get hurt, get upset, etc. That's bad business. I do believe, personally, that there's a lot to learn from putting yourself under that duress in sparring, even if you never plan to fight. But hey. The worst offenders of this going way too hard, with little emotional control with it, are bullies. They're usually men who want to identify as fighters but not actually fight, so they get their "fights in" at the gym, during sparring. One of the men I've mentioned in both these posts is absolutely that type. I do believe he'd ask to schedule a fight, but likely wouldn't go through with it and, if he did, would never be one to fight regularly. He just wants to pound on people who he knows are controlling themselves.

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In the general class, some of the fighters turn up to train or help. There's generally a couple every class. They are very helpful and knowledgeable and a great help especially to the new guys. I know what you're talking about with the bullies. All of us, the more experienced students,  the teachers with their own clubs and the fighters keep a very good eye out for the bully type. If one is found they usually get toweled up and don't come back. We have a very tight nit sort of thing, not cliquey but tight and don't take kindly to wankers. 

Sorry Sylvie, the above is in reference to where I train, not my own school. I never have any intention to train fighters, 

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It's a cop out response on the light vs hard thing, but getting both is beneficial. Like a musician's work time in between playing live shows, the practising vs playing issue. They're not the same thing. The Western dudes mentioned above who just want to brutalise each other in the gym for their facebook but not have fights, it's kinda like a music student who only wants to play through songs at home start to finish, or keep going over stuff that's already familiar. Without actually taking apart the song structure and it's harmony, so he knows that it works without knowing why it works. 

A player worth his salt will do way way more of what the other guy thinks is boring - basically sit there with a metronome for hours, slow the whole thing down, drill, try new stuff, experiment with new phrasing recently learned etc. Sounds like tedious baby steps, but the legit players still do this light sparring way even with 15 years behind them. The musical 'hard sparring' is getting together with other players afterwards for rehearsal and then playing through the songs on the set list before the show. And playing with others, especially live, leads to stronger improvement than anything. But...you kinda need the first way, the practice thing, in order to do the second thing effectively, the playing/rehearsing. If you really wanna be tight and clean.

Best training so far, hands down, was light sparring in the morning session with a teenager with the eyes of an old man - and like, no shin guards and no timed rounds, just continuous. Then in the afternoon, the hard sparring with shin guards, 16s, rounds, and we each had a corner etc. Awesomeness.



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