To reach a high level in Muay Thai, you need to spar. Unless you are fighting every three weeks, sparring is how you are going to develop your offensive and defensive timing.
You can work on technique and practice drills all day long, but sparring is where your theory gets put into action.
Once you get over the initial stage fright of being hit in the face, sparring starts becoming fun. Instead of worrying about surviving, you will start thinking about different strategies and tactics you can use to beat your opponent.
In your first year of sparring, you will face people from a range of backgrounds. Technical sparring is essential for the development of your timing and technique in a safe environment.
While technical sparring is the goal, the reality is that you will encounter plenty of sparring partners who spar at a hard level.
Going From Beginner to Intermediate
Most people think that the amount of time you are training determines your skill level.
Someone training for five years should be better than someone who has been training for six months. However, I know people who have been training for three months in Thailand who are better than some people who have been training for five years.
The real factor that determines your skill level is the amount of time spent in quality training. Training at a Cardio Kickboxing gym is only going to help you burn calories, not make you better at Muay Thai.
Experience and quality of training are the real factors that determine your skill level.
Develop Timing through Trial and Error
When it comes to sparring it is trial and error that helps you develop better timing. The more experience you have facing different types of people, the more you will learn when to kick and when not to.
Developing your timing is different than good technique. Someone can have poor technique and still have excellent timing. Good timing is the reason why some people can be very effective strikers, even with unorthodox styles.
Experience helps you learn how to read different opponents and adjust your fighting style to them.
As a beginner, sparring is simply about trying to become comfortable in a hostile environment. The goal of a beginner is to learn how to get hit without flinching, work on staying calm, and attack and defend with control.
When you move past the beginner stage people will stop taking it easy on you. Suddenly, those guys who you thought were advanced, start looking normal.
Once people start noticing your improvements in sparring, they will start increasing the tempo and trying to get the better of you. The better you get, the bigger the target on your back.
The following are some tips that you can use to help you thrive in sparring. These tips can help you survive the onslaught against tough opponents who are trying to hurt you in sparring.
Sparring Tip #1 – Give as Much as You Receive
Only go as hard as your sparring partner. Don’t be that guy (or girl) that everyone hates to spar.
Sparring intensity always escalates when one person lands a hard strike, and the other person feels the need to return the favor. I’ve seen regular sparring sessions turn into full-on brawls because two guys keep trying to return the favor of the last hit.
Keep in mind that some people don’t realize they hit hard, so they may not consciously be trying to go 100% on you.
When you run into someone who is going hard in sparring, feel free to return the favor. There is no point playing paddy cake with a guy who is smashing you with full power.
If you someone hits you hard you have two options:
Option 1: Keep the intensity down and let your opponent have a free shot. Maybe they didn’t realize that they went hard and will probably lower the intensity when they realize you are hitting them with no power.
Option 2: Fight fire with fire. If your opponent hits you hard, you can hit back with equal force. They say, “an eye for an eye would make the world blind,” but sometimes it is important to stand your ground.
Option 3: Ask your opponent to lower the intensity. I don’t recommend you do this often, but it is a suitable choice if you are facing someone better than you.
Go as hard as your opponent.
If your opponent goes soft, go soft. If your opponent is trying to kill you, either shield up and wait for the round to end, or respond with the same intensity, they show you.
How you respond will often depend on your temperament and your confidence level. If you think your sparring partner will beat you up, play it safe until the round is over.
Sparring Tip #2 – Play It Safe Against Dangerous Opponents
If you are sparring with someone who is dangerous, play it safe. If you are going up against an aggressive fighter, who is hunting for power shots, this tip will keep you from getting knocked out.
I recently witnessed a young guy get knocked out by a skilled fighter in sparring, and it didn’t surprise me. This young man was going hard with everyone he sparred with and was dropping his guard as he swung for the fences.
This poor kid got knocked out cold and now needs a surgery that he can’t afford, all because he ignored rule number 1 and 2.
The young guy sparred with a lot of heart but didn’t realize that you have to be safe when you are facing dangerous opponents. When he got hit hard, he would try to come back even harder and didn’t mind feeling pain. Because he had never been knocked out, he didn’t realize he was playing with fire.
If you face a dangerous opponent, don’t swing for the fences. Keep a tight guard, and stay safe. Trying to knock out your opponent in sparring may feel satisfying if the guy is a douchebag, but you will quickly feel guilty when you see him lying on the ground.
If you try to go hard against a dangerous opponent, there is a good chance it could be you lying unconscious. While you shouldn’t be sparring at 100%, sometimes you can’t control who you spar. It is only a matter of when it happens, especially if you are training in Thailand.
Sparring Tip #3 – Stay Relaxed and BREATHE
I have mentioned this point countless times before, but this is important enough to repeat. Whenever you spar with better people, you will find you might get a bit anxious. There is a good chance your heart rate will naturally elevate, and you will get nervous, causing you to tense up.
When you start to experience those nerves, it is important to calm yourself down. Being nervous in sparring will only slow you down and make you gas out faster. Staying relaxed against a hard-hitting opponent will allow you to get through the sparring session without taking too much damage.
Staying relaxed is something that you must focus on when you are facing difficult opponents. The higher the risk of getting knocked out or hurt in sparring, the more nervous you will become. Calming your nerves can help prepare you for the ring when you have someone trying to hurt you.
Sparring Tip #4 – Push Yourself Out of Your Comfort Zone
Sometimes the best learning comes from pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
When you push yourself to a point when you are uncomfortable, that is where you force yourself to grow. That is why going against better sparring partners is a great recipe for improving your game.
If you spar with the same people over and over, you will find that it is easy to get complacent. It is important to spar with new people, so you are always forced to adapt to different styles.
If you spar with the same guys, try working on different techniques every sparring session. Don’t do the same thing over and over against the same guys. That is how you stay the same and don’t improve.
To become a complete Muay Thai fighter, you need to learn how to use different styles. If you always sit back and counter off your opponent’s attacks, work on trying to push forward and be aggressive. Forcing yourself to do things you aren’t comfortable with will teach you to adapt to different types of opponents.
Work on your head kicks, knees, teeps, punches, and all aspects of your game. There are so many tools you can use in Muay Thai, try to implement each technique into your game.
You don’t have to do everything at once, but every sparring session you can pick a few techniques that you want to improve. Isolating specific techniques will help you improve your ability to use those techniques without having to think about using them.
Sparring Tip #5 – Utilize Ring Control
If you are sparring in a ring you should learn the importance of using the ropes and controlling the center of the ring. The ring is important because it prevents guys from always backing up and running away. If someone wants to back up, they will get stuck in a corner unless they have good footwork to circle out.
Ring control can even be practiced outside of the ring, using other sparring partners around you as the unofficial ropes.
Whenever you back your opponent into another sparring group, don’t reset the sparring. Corning your opponent will teach you the importance of controlling where the fight ends up. You should try to avoid ‘resetting’ your position in sparring because you don’t get to do that in a fight. If you are against the ropes, you need to learn how to utilize footwork to get out from the ropes.
Learning positioning and ring control is an important element that can help you thrive in Muay Thai.
Sparring at a New Gym? Watch one session before you start sparring.
I’ve noticed that every gym has their own sparring culture. Gyms filled up with a bunch of buff fitness guys, are probably going to want to smash each other up because of all the testosterone in the air. Conversely, if you are training at family orientated gym, they probably want to keep things light.
If you are worried about sparring at a new gym, I suggest you decline sparring your first day there and watch. Pay attention to how the guys at the gym spar, and make note of any particular guys who look a bit excited when they spar. This can give you a preview of what you can encounter when you start sparring the guys.
Sparring Will Help You Sharpen Your Tools
The best way to prepare for a fight is to spar. Sparring is the closest simulation you will have to a fight, without fighting. Therefore, it is important to spar with different types of opponents. Technical sparring is ideal for improving your timing and technique, but harder sparring is also beneficial because it will prepare you for the ring.
Watch: Technical Sparring with Lumpinee Champion Penake
The only way you will improve your game is to get experience and spar as much as you can. There are no short cuts to developing; you must be patient and put in the work to improve. No ‘secret’ technique or strategy will turn you into a champion overnight.
Sparring is one of the most valuable training tools that can help you translate what you learn in class, into something that works. Working on 5-6 combos in a controlled environment is great for a cardio workout, but the reality is that those combinations won’t work most of the time. Develop your timing first, and the rest of your game will follow.
More Sparring Articles:
- 5 Sparring Tips for Beginners
- 12 Sparring Tips that Everyone Should Know
- The Importance of Technical Sparring for Muay Thai Development
- Muay Thai Sparring Drill: Trusting Your Guard