Fear of Escalation in Sparring and Training Aggression as a Skill

A lot of us feel that aggression comes with an “on/off” switch, and that we should be able to flick it back and forth based on context. Many of...

A lot of us feel that aggression comes with an “on/off” switch, and that we should be able to flick it back and forth based on context. Many of us who are learning Muay Thai struggle with aggression, perhaps because we don’t feel that we are “naturally aggressive,” and it’s frustrating to watch those who are seemingly naturally gifted with aggression succeed in ways that we don’t see in ourselves. But aggression isn’t natural, even if it does seem innate in some more than others. I contend that aggression feels natural to some due to having spent years cultivating it before they knew what to call it, whereas it feels unnatural or even against our nature in others because we spent years avoiding it. The Pitbull above can be astoundingly sweet or atrociously vicious – both are in her nature. But it’s how she’s raised that determines which she’ll be; and indeed, the more you look at the photo the more you see that she’s poised between the two, her ears back and her focus fixed, her discomfort can soften into a wagging tail or stiffen into a bite at break-neck speed. So, too, are all of us.

What I consider “natural” to myself is likely a culmination of consistent behavioral choices made over my 31 years of life. For instance, from my childhood when I got attention from strangers, I didn’t like it and so I found ways to avoid it. There are others who bask in the glow of attention and so they learn to attract it. In my experience of Muay Thai gyms in Thailand, I’ve struggled in seeing those with a kind of innate gift for aggression look absolutely amazing beyond their experience in sparring, while I beat myself up for not being able to turn on my aggression, even after 150 fights. What the fuck is that? It comes down to beliefs, beliefs about ourselves and about the way we impact the world and people around us. A confident, aggressive person believes that they can get someone to back up with a good burst of energy or a chain of strikes. The non-aggressive, self-professed pacifist believes it’s safer to shrink away and so we do, even when we’re screaming inside our own heads to do anything else. In my own experience, I’ve learned to recognize my fear of escalation. I don’t want to hit hard because then someone will come back harder; it’s an arms race that I believe I’ll lose (I know I’m tough, I know I’ll get back up if knocked down 1,000 times, but first I’ll lose). If I were more aggressive, I’d believe that by going harder my opponent will not come back hard but will submit and retreat. Both are possible outcomes and when the actual result doesn’t meet our expectations, we need to prepare for that too. For instance, a person who believes they can shut their opponent down by hitting hard and instead the opponent comes back harder might not be ready for that – it might be a paper tiger situation. Someone who thinks their opponent will come back harder but the actual result is that the opponent shrinks away might not follow him… he might not take responsibility for the reaction to his own aggression. For some, rather than a fear of escalation – and I suspect this is more common among men – the fear might be aggression itself, the fear of “being a dick” or losing control. These are folks who, I believe, do have a kind of natural aggression but have practiced suppressing it for a long time, for any number of proper-social-conduct reasons.

So, what do I mean about “training aggression”? Aggression is not, indeed, your nature; it’s a skill. Those who seem to have a natural aggression have just used it more, perhaps in their everyday life due to necessity in rough upbringings, or because they are bullies, or because they had a positive response to it early on and it got them what they wanted. Others are very unskilled at aggression because we haven’t practiced it at all, perhaps due to abusive upringings or because we had negative responses to aggression early on. Who knows? But if you are trying to change this because in the context of sparring or fighting in the ring you need aggression, you have to understand that your pie-chart of aggression vs. non-aggression is very uneven. You’ve spent years being non-aggressive and you can’t just flip that switch in the ring out of nowhere. You’re actually going to have to train it outside the practice ring as well. You don’t have to go out and chain-punch people because that’s what aggression looks like in your gym, but you do have to identify all the ways in which even small demonstrations of aggression make you uncomfortable, and then you have to practice confronting and changing that.

I’ll give an example: as a tattooed, muscular, non-Thai woman with facial scars living in Thailand, I get stared at a lot. When I’m at the checkout of a 7-11 or getting coffee from a gas station shop when Kevin and I are driving across the country for a fight, it is not a “stealing glances” kind of deal – it is a full-on, unbroken gaze that is sometimes so distracting the cashier doesn’t even hear my drink order. It’s uncomfortable, to say the least. It actually makes me angry, which is a slightly more energetic version of feeling super self-conscious and kinda shitty about myself. One time, when this guy in the line next to me was staring hard-core at me, I didn’t just look down at my feet and wait for my first chance to exit. Instead, I looked right back at him, made eye-contact and smiled. That didn’t feel “natural,” mind you, but it was an assertive response to what felt very rude. He immediately smiled back and then stopped staring at me. So I tried it again when a cashier was staring at me. I looked right back at her and she broke her gaze and then she was staring down at the register, rather than at my scars and tattoos and whatever else. I did that. It took a bit of courage, but it certainly feels better than shrinking into myself and waiting until I can get away back into the privacy of my rented car. I had to recognize that my actions affected the situation and positively, at that. This is the kind of training outside of the ring that is really important for being able to train aggression inside the ring. You can’t compartmentalize it; you simply don’t have enough time in training to make up for all the practice you have that goes against it in your everyday life.

I get a lot of correspondence both in private and also through the Roundtable forum, and I try to help with my perspective as best I can. It just so happened in the same way the same sort of topic came up, but in different ways, so I’m posting my two answers here because maybe they will be of help to others. The first is from a private conversation, the second from a forum thread.

Fear of Escalation

It took me a long time to figure out for myself that what I was afraid of in sparring is “escalation.” I grew up with three brothers and as the smallest AND youngest, I never won physically. Never. If I tried to hit my brothers, they’d hit me back but harder and faster and I could never make it even. That same frustration and even the fear of retaliation and escalation is what I’m feeling in sparring now, even after 150+ fights. I don’t want to hit too hard because I’ll get hit back really hard. I don’t want to piss off my partner because they’ll come back harder, stronger, and I’m already overwhelmed. I wrote about this in a blog post a few years ago Balance and Inequality: Lessons in Sparring (2012).

But now I know that, so I can work on it, right? My focus is on trying to truly believe that I can back someone up and intimidate them with a good strike – whether that’s power, accuracy or timing. Doesn’t matter. I can get in their head and make them not want to keep coming forward. I still struggle. And I think part of it, too, is that when we’re training at the gym we’re generally working with people who occupy social roles that our opponents in the ring don’t: they’re people we like, people we trust, and sometimes people we don’t really like. You don’t know anything about your opponent, so you don’t feel any of those things; not genuinely. So you get emotional in the practice ring in a way that you don’t get  emotional in the fighting ring. I’ve never ONCE felt like crying in the actual fight. Never. But I cry a lot in training. I tear up because I know my training partner, because the emotional response to them going hard against me is confusing. It’s not confusing with an actual opponent.

So you have to identify and let go of that part. Identify that the fact that you trust this person or the fact that they’re going really hard makes you feel upset has to do with your relationship with a training partner. There’s nothing wrong with you. Once you own that, then you start working with it. You think, “THANK YOU for going so hard and making me feel like crying,” even when it sucks, because that kind of pressure is precious. It teaches you all kind  of things you cannot learn without it. Pressure is an amazing gift and so much better to get it from someone you know and in controlled situations so you can face it again, incrementally. If you feel like running away and curling up in the corner in order to make it stop, that’s a totally natural feeling; a totally normal response. But it’s not the one you want. So you think about times that you WOULD protect yourself – throwing a rock at a dog that was growling at you, screaming at a bear to scare it away… even if it’s theoretical. You do believe you could scare off an animal, so you can scare off a person. You scare people with energy, even if you can’t hit as hard as they do. You take up their space and they stop breathing, they get tired, they back up  you can do that. That’s also a totally natural response, even if it’s not YOUR natural response. You just practice it, incrementally, until it comes more naturally.

And it’s not a quick fix. I’m still working on this all the time. But it just gets more detailed, you catch yourself feeling slivers of fear instead of overwhelming fear. It’s okay. Just keep pushing back against it. Do things outside of practice that follow the same values: take up more space, be assertive and confident in small ways; quiet ways. Then you bring that back in to the ring and it’s more comfortable. Just like you get used to being hit, you get used to hitting back. It’s the same thing.

Training Aggression As If a Skill

My good friend Robyn taught me a really long time ago that aggression has to be trained, just like any other skill. That doesn’t make it easy and I’m still figuring this out, despite being told and kind of understanding it so long ago. But the larger problem that you mention in your question isn’t the aggression issue – don’t compare yourself to other people. I used to go nuts over these guys who would come to the camp and train totally half-assed but were super gifted and seemed to be way more fluid, trying more things than I do, fighting in a more advanced way than I was despite having way more experience than they do. I finally figured out that the difference was confidence. Men have a natural gift for confidence, like actual cockiness is a true gift. That’s what makes them seem more free. But some of them are made out of paper; building confidence out of not-natural cockiness is like carving stone. It takes a fucking long time and it’s frustrating, but it’s solid and you keep what you work for.

So, step 1: stop comparing. It doesn’t help you and it feels shitty. People have different learning arcs, different paths, different drives, different strengths and weaknesses. If you see something working for someone else, figure out why it works and try to steal it for yourself. But don’t think, “why them and not me?” It’s a worthless line of thought. Believe me.

Step 2: practice aggression the same way you practice any skill. You have to break it down, find why it’s difficult for you: are you too polite? Are you afraid? What does aggression actually look like? Moving forward, blocking, not backing up, striking more… if you know what it means to you then you can break down the elements and work on bringing them into your training in small pieces. For me, aggression is not be affected by mistakes. So I make a point to laugh if I flinch so I can correct that. Or staying closer to my opponent. You can practice this stuff outside of the ring, too. For me, I’m super shy and feel like I’m bothering people or imposing myself to ask anything – like, very normal stuff: asking directions, asking someone to show me something, ordering a coffee… I’m very unwilling to interact. But I push myself to do those things, because that’s part of assertive, confident, and aggressive tendencies as well. I’m not a jerk about it and in the ring you shouldn’t feel like you’re being a dick just by being aggressive in training. You’re helping your training partners by being aggressive, by “acting like” an opponent who does want to hurt them, even if you, personally, don’t want to make your training partners and friends uncomfortable. But we’ve talked a lot on this forum about what a disservice it is when our training partners go too light on us or don’t challenge us. Think of it as that you’re helping the team, but also know that it’s not easy. It feels weird. But do all those small things that, to you, feel and look like aggression: staying close, hitting more often, not backing up, blocking strong instead of kind of as a flinch…

Again, I’m still working on this on a daily basis. It’s not easy. But it’s also not impossible.
from the Muay Thai Roundtable Post: Building Aggression

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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 patreon.com/sylviemuay


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