above: photo credit: Lord2k
Petchrungruang is unusual in that because it has a growing reputation in training Thai boys and is open in spirit, western boys who are serious about becoming fighters are brought by their families to the gym and experience a kind of immersion into Thai training. Thai training is not only “boot camp” toughness.
There is a refrain, “there is no winning or losing in sparring.” The idea is that it’s just about learning, letting go and trying things out without having to “win.” I agree with that. And my trainer at Petchrungruang, Pi Nu, loves to tell me that he used to “lose, everyday” in training against his brother at the gym when he was growing up. What he means is that he was the underdog, but there was not a consequence of losing the way there is in a fight, because training is infinite – fighting is finite and countable, but training just continues on as an endless process. So, you lose, but you’ve never “lost.”
How You Can Lose in Sparring
Today, I saw how you can actually lose in sparring. I sat on the corner of the ring and watched a visiting little Italian kid get playfully beat up by an older Italian kid, Alex, who has been raised at Petchrungraung for a few years now. Watching Alex slowly but firmly tag this (I’m guessing) 8-9 year old boy’s leg over and over again to make him drop to the floor (timing), and lightly punch him in the face with shoves that knocked him off balance, reminded me a lot of when I was a kid and my older brothers would just demonstrate their size and power over me. It’s not mean-spirited, but it’s dominating and not exactly fun as the one being beat upon. Mostly this little kid was just getting exhausted, but he’s Italian so dragging himself back up off the floor or making a big show about how hurt his leg was from the impact were dramatic performances. All that was fine. But then Pi Nu ordered the little kid to clinch with a much smaller, although older, Thai kid. The Thai kid is probably 12 or so, but he’s tiny – like a stick figure with a poker face, 35 kg at the most. The Italian boy is younger but beefier, maybe 40 kg. For those of us who refuse the Metric System, that’s a conservative estimate of an 11 lbs difference… in little kids, who weigh 77-88 lbs as it is. It’s a big difference.
The Thai boy has more experience and just destroyed the Italian kid with technique. He grabbed his neck and wrenched him around, threw him on the floor and threw slow, controlled, but straight in the Solar Plexus knees. Pi Nu sat down in the corner next to me, but with his back to the boys. You’d think he wasn’t watching, but he’s got eyes on the back of his head. But yeah, not involved in instructing, directing, or overlooking the action. And the little Italian kid was just getting angrier and angrier, which made the poker-faced Thai kid just be calmer and more punishing. Just as any number of kids in the west, experiencing frustration in a physical situation like this, the Italian kid started holding his breath and building up his aggression for little bursts, like, launching himself at the Thai kid with his arms out and no real game plan, just with the leap of faith that his emotional charge alone would somehow bring their level to even ground. That doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t, especially in Thailand where technique and calm is king. And when that doesn’t work the Italian kid starts playing up his despair at having to pick himself up off the ground over and over again. He props himself up on one arm first, shoulders staggered like a man crawling across the desert, trying to muster the strength to rise to his feet. And this is the thing: this boy is undisciplined enough to not have a solution to the problem himself, but still obedient enough that he won’t stop unless someone with authority tells him that he can, releasing him from the torture that he’s trying so desperately to portray. Nobody lets him stop, so he keeps getting up, taking a moment to hold his breath and make sounds of frustration and then dive toward the Thai boy with the sum of his might… and then have to pick himself up again.
While Pi Nu wasn’t showing any sign of paying attention, the only people observing this were a few Thai men scattered around the ring. They laughed in slight puzzlement and a little true entertainment at this emotional surge of the Italian kid. It’s very, very un-Thai to behave like this, even if you’re getting your ass kicked. And the Thai boy was playing the only hand he had, which was to try to control his opponent’s outbursts by punishing them but definitely not showing mercy other than that he wasn’t going full power in any of his strikes. For my own part, I shook my head in disapproval of the Italian kid’s attitude, albeit with total awareness of being able to understand his frustration. Finally, the Thai boy got an idea – how to deal with the unending emotion and drama before him. The Italian had been ineffectively tugging at his long shorts, hoisting them up when his head was trapped in a grip and he was about to be thrown. They weren’t really falling down, but because they were wet from the sweat and humidity and gripping the skin of the Italian kid’s legs, they probably felt as though they were being tugged down. So, the Thai kid let the Italian boy land a neck lock after one of his desperate forward dives and then just reached down and “pantsed” him. Everyone roared with laughter as he turned red, pulled his shorts back up and then flew wildly after the Thai. When he caught him, his own neck viced by the Thai boy immediately, the Italian tried in vain to return the action of pulling the Thai kid’s pants down but failed. But the Thai kid smiled and we all laughed. The Italian noticed this, realized it was a joke, a game, and he smiled. That smile was a big deal. A moment of a lesson.
Flow of Learning
He didn’t stop getting thrown to the floor. He didn’t even stop his pent-up, breath-held attacks. But he did smile a little when he peeled himself off the floor, taking longer and longer to do so until finally Pi Nu turned around and told them it was enough for the day. I’ve experienced equal inability to score on my clinching partner in training. And I’ll admit quite openly that as an adult I’ve cried as a result of the exact same frustration – usually very quietly – that this boy felt, a frustration which in his case presented itself as uncontrolled and spastic aggression. By losing emotional control, by giving in to the frustration, you lose. Pretty much any time you turn a learning environment of training into a competitive exercise with consequences, you lose. Even if you are “winning,” you lose. It’s okay to cry, it’s okay to get frustrated and make some stupid mistakes while trying to get even, but it’s not okay to dam up the flow of learning. You dam it up with emotional attachment to the outcome of what you’re attempting, whether that’s the emotional importance of beating on someone or the emotional importance of being bested – you have to let go of both of those. You can feel them, that’s okay, but you have to let them go, they can’t mean anything. Like Volleyball, you only score when the ball hits the ground, so both sides play the game by keeping the ball moving. This is why it’s okay to lose in training, because it’s an infinite game of winning and losing and dominating and failing… you just keep moving on to the next position, the next attempt, the next failure. You lose by taking the game out of the air – let it float.
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