Muay Thai legend Kaensak Sor. Ploenjit was the first person to ever teach me the importance of “play” in Muay Thai. In our sessions he wasn’t so much interested in showing me techniques, or holding pads for me, so much as trying to get me to change my approach first. He would spar with me for an hour straight in the morning heat of the New Jersey summer or the cold of winter, and over and over again he would remind me that I needed to relax and have fun; he’d get me to laugh or after he’d land a strike on me he’d remind me, “I don’t care.” What he meant was that I shouldn’t care and, while it took me more than a couple years of training many hours each day, every day, in Thailand to actually figure out what he meant by that, to really embrace it… well, I get it now. It’s brilliant. It’s a game.
Learning how to play has been one of the most important pieces in my recent Muay Thai development. It’s also probably the most beneficial lesson to carry over into my general persona. I’m a better person because of this lesson and I only learned it through a lot of years of tension and struggle. So, the other day I was running and listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Ted Radio Hour, that happened to be on the importance of play. The main idea being driven home was that most mammals use play as a learning tool in youth, but very few continue to play into adulthood. It’s those animals which do have the capacity to keep playing which fare the best.
The podcast goes into all kinds of examples for how playing helps in adulthood, from reducing stress and anxiety to helping to heal injuries and mental illnesses. Two examples from the episode really stand out to me. The first is that everybody knows how to play. If you toss a ball at someone, whether they’re expecting a game of catch or not, they generally know how to catch it and throw it back. You can be pulled into a game quite easily, without it requiring a lot of “but I don’t know how,” business. The second is from a woman who is a videogame developer. She has a horrible concussion and suffered for over a year with recurring migraine, light sensitivity, and severe depression as part of the injury. So she turned her recovery into a game (role playing, in real life not a videogame): she was a superhero whose aim was to avoid things which caused her pain (bright lights, loud noises) and “power ups” by doing things which charged her (going for a walk, eating well, getting enough rest). She has since turned it into an a game you can download on the phone and thousands of people suffering from Depression, PTSD, head injury, etc. are benefiting from it. They’re healing by playing.
When I first moved to Thailand I was training and fighting out of Lanna Muay Thai in Chiang Mai. Andy Thomson, who had been co-owner and trainer at that camp for 22 years at that point, would tell me to smile in order to get me to relax. As an American woman with a pretty good resting bitch face, I do not like being told to smile (when I was a bartender I got this a lot, as you can imagine), so I had a pretty immediate resistance to that suggestion, which I justified at the time as being reasonable. “You’re trying to punch me in the face,” I’d argue, “it’s pretty hard to smile.” Now I smile and, indeed, laugh when the punch does land right in my face. It’s genuinely funny sometimes; other times it’s not funny at all but acting like it is funny or not a big deal is highly preferable to acting like I’m pissed. Poker Face is a big deal in Thailand Mauy Thai. But this is kind of like not identifying a ball when it’s tossed at you. Like, not knowing to catch it so it just hits you and drops to the ground. Figuring out how to pick it up and toss it back is the first step, then you can figure out how to catch it on the next time around. That’s how I learned to play in sparring. I was getting hit by the ball a lot, which wasn’t fun; but I figured out how to pick it up and toss it back. In Muay Thai, that’s knowing the game isn’t over just because you got hit, it’s knowing that you strike back to continue the game.
Video Game Power-ups and Muay Thai
Yesterday was more a lesson about the second example in the podcast, where the woman invented a real-life game that she has now titled “Super Better,” intended to increase resilience. I wasn’t feeling like going to my first gym of the afternoon sessions, where I do padwork and generally try to use the frustration and difficulty I feel there as a means to teach me to be tougher. If I can get through that, I can get through other tough situations. But I have a very hard time turning that space into a game, because it’s one of the most un-fun places I frequent. There are a lot of reasons for that and most of them are out of my control, but my attitude and response is almost 100% within my control. So I borrowed some things from her game and interpreted them for my reality: avoid things that make me miserable, like individuals at the gym who piss me off or letting myself be consumed by the frustration I feel at being kicked too hard by my trainer; and look for “power ups,” which are things that make me feel good: laughing, overly performing my confidence as if I’m “winning” even when I’ve gotten my ass handed to me, making fun of my trainer’s truly terrible taste in American music. These things make me happy. Unlike a ball being tossed at you, where you can figure out how to play really easily, it can be really hard to figure out how to “play” with being hit too hard, someone who makes you feel badly about yourself, headaches, fatigue, Depression… those games don’t reveal themselves easily. But we do know the general structure of games: obstacles and points. So figure out what’s an obstacle, make avoiding or overcoming that obstacle the aim, and then add ways to “power up” or get points. In the rules of Muay Thai, a landed kick is a point – it’s a point against me when I’m the recipient and it’s a point I don’t easily score against my much bigger, stronger, evasive trainer. So kicks aren’t my point. My point is instead acting like that point that just got me doesn’t matter. My point is getting my trainer to laugh. That’s my game.
I ended up having a really good session and then when I went to my second gym I was in a great mood. My “power ups” were in full effect and my life bar was really high. So when I was put into a “man in the middle” sparring situation, where I was in the middle and completely overwhelmed by my three bigger, stronger sparring partners, I already knew how to get my points: stay calm, disagree with all the points being landed on me, and laugh my ass off. It was fantastic. But my goal couldn’t be just “to laugh,” or to smile (thanks Andy). I get too nervous trying to accomplish even small things, like how I’ve wanted to ask Pi Nu’s brother to show me a clinch move for probably 8 months now but I’m too shy to ask. So if I turn that into a game I’m more likely actually do it. For example, I tell myself “just f***ing ask, Sylvie!” and then I feel badly for not doing it. But if I turn the task of getting the information from that lock into a Quest, I can turn acquiring that knowledge into a game and in games you have multiple lives rather than having just failed. This quest is actually going to happen today, which I’m super nervous about. So I have to design this quest, it has to have stages. So this is an example of what I’m going to try today, as he’s expected there. First stage: say something with actual words to Pi Nok (the brother). I’ve done this maybe twice ever in the 2 years I’ve been at the gym; he kind of intimidates me. So that’s like acquiring a key or object that will be needed later in the game. Then I’ll power up by showing dominance over my clinching partner, even if it’s a give and take I just need one slick move or throw, which I can then use to have a good life bar when I have to actually approach Pi Nok and ask him if he can show me the lock. That way, if he refuses (which is so unlikely; really guys, I’m ridiculous for not having asked him 10 times already) it won’t be too big a damage to my life bar.
That’s an example of how I can negotiate my shyness to improve my knowledge and training in the gym, but for instance in sparring I have to design my own game as well: if my aim is to not feel so deflated when getting overwhelmed by my sparring partners, then the methods to feeling something else have to be part of the game – see if I can take a step forward after every landed kick, just to eat up space. That’s a better game than “don’t get kicked.” I’m shit at that game. But I’m really good at the “every kick you land takes away a little of your comfort space,” game. I have the all-time high score in that one. I’m going to keep adding to this approach, will let you all know how it goes!
To listen to the TED talk on Play, and find our more about this click the photo: