One of the keys to reaching a higher level in Muay Thai is understanding how to read your opponent. If you can get a correct read on your opponent, it makes it easier to throw them off their game because you can predict what they will do.

Every fighter has a set of techniques that they like to use. While every fighter is slightly different, when you spar with enough people you will notice many similarities. Fighters can often be grouped by the ‘style’ of fighting that they use. Some fighters are aggressive and like to push forward for knockouts, while other fighters sit back and let you come to them.

By attaching labels to fighters, it makes it easier for the brain to recognize what patterns and counter tactics you can use against those fighters. Even though individual techniques are going to vary from fighters within a style, there are some general strategies you can use to counter them.

Fighting styles are the Muay Thai equivalent of movie genres. If you watch enough movies from a specific genre, you will notice repeating story lines that keep emerging (Romantic comedies for example), that make the movies very predictable. The more movies you see in a genre, the less likely you are to encounter a different story line.

Facing a fighter for the first time is the Muay Thai equivalent to watching a new movie, without knowing what movie genre you are watching. You won’t know what to expect until you start to see how the story starts to emerge. With enough experience, you will know what type of fighter your opponent is and how you should best counter them.

When you face enough fighters from similar backgrounds, it will start feeling like watching a movie you’ve seen a hundred times. You’ll be able to recognize patterns and sequences from the fighter, that you’ve encountered hundreds of times before, which makes it easier to counter them.

The Process of Chunking

“Chunking in psychology is a process by which individual pieces of information are bound together into a meaningful whole” – Wikipedia

It would be impossible to read an opponent if you had to stop and think about what your opponent is doing on the spot. Fortunately, our brains use the process of chunking to quickly gather information around us and give us a clearer idea of what is in front of us.

Chunking allows you to interpret multiple things happening at once, to create a meaning of the entire picture. This concept is used widely in the NBA. When an NBA point guard brings the ball up the court, he needs to be able to recognize what type of defense the other team is playing him and what offense he should run to counter that.

The basketball point guard doesn’t have time to stop and think; he needs to recognize cues that help him make split second decisions. These decisions get better over time, the more experience a player has, the better recognition the develop. When a rookie point guard starts in the NBA, they don’t have the experience to recognize the defense and often make the wrong decisions. It takes years of experience for the guards to gain the ability to read defenses correctly.

A fighter goes through the same process of developing. When you first start sparring, you won’t recognize anything in front of you. The only thing you will experience is fear. Once you start gaining experience, everything will start slowing down, and you will develop the ability to see past your opponent’s physique and see what kind of fighter they are.

Suddenly your brain will start recognizing cues that give you signs on what your opponent wants to do. You’ll begin to understand fighting styles, whether you think about them or not. Good fighters don’t even think about countering, they do it without having to think.

Recognizing Set Patterns

Once we can start identifying fighting styles, the next step is to read specific patterns that your opponent has. Every fighter you face will have patterns to their offense that they repeat over and over. Whether they like to throw a low kick after every combination or throw strong body kicks, everyone has techniques that they favor.

One of the best ways to recognize patterns in your opponent is to allow your opponent to throw their offense first, while you wait. This can give you important insight into your opponent’s game. By listening first, you can notice important signals.

Jack Ko punchHave you ever had an argument with someone and realized that you were arguing over the same thing? Because you didn’t take time to listen to what that person was saying, you missed out on important information that would have solved the argument.

Thai fighters in Thailand often do very little in the first round of a fight. They use this round to gauge their opponent and his fighting style, without revealing any information about their own strategy. By concealing their cards, they can make a bigger impact later in the fight.

I once faced a Thai fighter who allowed me to beat him up in the first 2 rounds of the fight. This boosted my confidence and made me believe I would win the fight. Unfortunately, in the third round, he suddenly turned on his engines and utterly destroyed me in the clinch. Most of the time clinch fighters won’t do much until the 3rd and 4th round of a fight.

Most fighters have specific techniques that they like to use over and over. If you can learn to recognize these patterns, you can time your counters to get the better of your opponent. Through years and years of experience, you will slowly begin to start seeing familiar patterns when you spar with new fighters, even though you’ve never faced them before.

Why Skilled Fighters are Hard to Read

Good fighters make it difficult for you to read them because they can adapt their fighting style to their opponent. Instead of having one style, they can use multiple styles depending on the situation they encounter.

With the ability to play multiple roles, skilled fighters don’t rely on set combinations for their offense, they use speed, timing, and feints to land their strikes. Their ability to setup their strikes effectively, make them extremely hard to predict.

Skilled fighters utilize timing, instead of combinations to land strikes. If a fighter can beat you with good timing, you won’t be able to block them no matter how hard you try.

While it can be easy to read the pattern of a normal fighter, skilled fighters present a lot more challenges. They throw a sequence of strikes once, maybe twice, but on the third time, they will change the sequence. The moment you think you see a pattern starting to emerge, that is when they will change their tactics and use another technique.

My Thai trainer always used to tell me how important it is to use different Muay Thai weapons. If you use the same techniques over and over, your opponent can easily counter you once they recognize your patterns. However, if you always change your rhythm and diversify your techniques, it makes you much harder to read.

By constantly switching up your moves, you make your offense much more versatile and harder to read. If your opponent can’t get a good read on you, he will not be able to counter you effectively.

Putting it All Together

putting-together-the-puzzleIf you want to improve your Muay Thai game you need to get out and spar with as many people as you can. Venture outside of your gym and organize inter-gym sparring days with people at other gyms. This is an excellent way to mix some new blood into the equation and face new opponents.

Sparring with the same guys will make you too familiar with their patterns, but only their patterns.

Most Muay Thai gyms have a particular style that is passed down from the head instructor. This means that a lot of the students a gym will use the same combinations and patterns over and over. This makes it easier to guess what your opponent is going to do when you have already been taught the same moves.

The more experience you gain, the more you will be able to recognize different things that went unnoticed before. Suddenly, when you face a fighter for the first time, that fighter will feel exactly like someone you’ve faced in the past. That feeling of déjà vu is going to give you confidence and help you beat that person.

To take your game to the next level I suggest you train in Thailand. With dozens of people coming and going to the gyms every week, you get a fresh batch of training partners from all over the world on a weekly basis. This constant flow of new blood allows you to experience facing practically every style there is.

Once you get enough experience, you will eventually reach a place where everything comes natural, and you don’t have to think about what you are doing. This is called a ‘flow’ state, also known as ‘training in the zone.’ When you reach that ‘zone’, that is when you take your game to a new level that you have never seen before.

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