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The Process of Learning in Muay Thai – How to Develop Your Game

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img_5261_lrIf you want to master a technique, it is important that you learn how to do that technique correctly. Practicing a bad technique over and over, will make you really good at performing that bad technique.

I know people who have been training Muay Thai for years who have cemented bad habits into their game. These people were never taught how to perform the correct techniques when they first started. Now that they have been practicing for many years, those bad habits have become so ingrained it is now almost impossible to change.

I know this from experience.

When I first started training over a decade ago, I started off at an MMA gym. The instructor came from a Kickboxing background and never bothered correcting any mistakes. I remember asking him if I was kicking correctly and he brushed off the question, saying it didn’t matter because I was new.

As you can imagine, my first 5 years of training MMA created terrible habits. When I arrived in Thailand over 5 years ago, the trainers had to change everything I did. Every habit I learned, would take years to try and undo.

The Thai Way of Learning

One of the reasons why Thai fighters have great techniques is because of their learning process. While foreign gyms typically have one trainer teaching a Muay Thai class, Thai gyms have 1 trainer for every 3-4 fighters.

Instead of inexperienced students holding each other’s pads, pad holders in Thai gyms are trainers who have decades of Muay Thai experience. Many of them are ex champions or have trained champions.

When a new Thai boy comes to the gym a trainer will take him aside and work with the boy one on one. Since the kids are so small, the trainers often sit on a chair so they don’t have to bend over, as they drill the basics over and over. This is not a process that happens once, but something that is repeated over and over. Throughout the development of the young fighter, trainers will constantly watch and correct them the moment they make a mistake.

Young Thai boys often start off shadow boxing and then move to basic pad work. They only thing emphasized throughout the development is the correct stance, movement and technique. Once the Thai boy develops proper technique, they start working on other aspects of their game.

Every time a Thai boy throws a strike the trainers will offer immediate feedback. If the boys make a mistake, the trainer will tell them know what they did wrong and how to correct the mistake. Once the Thai boy finally does the correct technique, the trainer will then give positive feedback confirming the correct technique.

Here is an example of a beginner learning the basics on pads. (Thanks to Matt Nielson for sharing)

Learning Through Continuous Feedback

The key element that separates the Thai fighters in Thailand from their Western counterparts is they are given continuous feedback throughout training. Whether they are on pads, shadow boxing, hitting the bag or sparring, there is always a trainer nearby to interrupt what they are doing and giving them adjustments to make.

feedbackloopNegative feedback is the process of identifying a mistake and giving a tip to correct that mistake. Trainers don’t allow a mistake to go unnoticed, they identify and correct mistakes as soon as they see them.

By giving direct feedback every time a student kicks or punches, the student will slowly understand right from wrong.

In addition to the negative feedback, positive feedback is also used to reinforce correct technique. If you watch a Thai trainer holding pads, they will also say, “good” or “much better,” when their student does something correct. The positive feedback is used to help reinforce good behavior, so the student gets rewarded when they do something correct.

The use of continuous feedback for these young Thai boys speeds up the developmental process.

When you see a Thai boy after his first year of training, they are better than most foreigners with a decade of experience. As the Thai boys begin to learn and incorporate the feedback given to them, they receive less feedback as they begin performing the correct techniques on a regular basis.

This process happens to a lesser degree to foreigners who train in Thailand. The amount of feedback given will depend on the Thai trainer and your willingness to learn. Some Thai trainers won’t say a word to foreigners and just hold pads, but when it comes to Thai boys they will correct everything they see wrong.

If a Thai trainer notices a Western student who is eager to learn and soak up information, they will put a lot more effort giving them continuous feedback throughout the training session. Conversely, if you think you already know it all, Thai trainers won’t bother correcting you.

Why Group Classes are Ineffective for Learning

When you compare the training methods of Thai gyms vs. Western gyms, it is easy to see why Thai boys develop so much faster. When you have one instructor for a class of 30 students, that instructor is only able to give feedback to one student at a time. Even though they may be going around making corrections, you will only receive feedback when your instructor sees you perform an action.

Thus, it is easy to develop poor technique and bad habits in training. You could train with the best instructor in the world, but their time is limited to how many students they teach. Even that limited time is usually allocated to fighters and people who are eager to learn.

Learning Through Trial and Error

While continuous feedback is the best way for beginners to develop the correct techniques, another key part of learning is through trial and error. Once you develop good Muay Thai technique, you then need to learn how to apply those techniques against an opponent.IMG_5027_LR

Learning how to throw a kick against a stationary target is easy when all the factors are controllable, but when you are trying to kick someone who can defend against it, it is more difficult.

Through trial and error, we learn how to apply what we learn in theory into practice.

The first time you started sparring you probably had no idea when you should throw a strike. Beginners are unpredictable because they haven’t developed any of the basic knowledge of when to strike. They will kick when they shouldn’t kick. Because of this unpredictability, beginners are often the most dangerous people you can spar with.

When you spar a beginner, who is just learning how to apply their techniques into sparring, you are likely to clash knees or get kicked in the groin. Beginners haven’t developed the proper Muay Thai rhythm and pace, which throws everything off.

Fortunately, beginners do not stay beginners forever. Through trial and error, they eventually learn better timing, rhythm and how to apply their offense more effectively.

After having their kicks blocked over and over, the beginner will start realizing the importance of timing their kicks. This process is crucial in your Muay Thai development.

While some people learn faster than others, the general learning process still occurs through trial and error.

Even fighters with poor technique, can still still improve their timing and and power. They might not look good doing it, but those fighters can still become effective in using their own style.

You can tell someone to keep their hands up a hundred times, but the best way to learn the importance of keeping your hands up is to get ‘rocked’ with a hard punch. The first time you get hit hard you may not learn, but trust me, after nearly getting knocked out a few times you will force yourself to keep your hands up.

A while ago someone asked me how I learned to keep my chin tucked in when I am sparring. I told him, “it’s easy, when you face enough good Boxers you either keep your chin tucked or get knocked out.”

Knowledge of how to do something is important for teachers, but to become good at doing something you need perform that technique over and over until you can do it without thinking about it. Trying and failing, then making adjustments and trying again, is the best way to improve.

Leaning through trial and error is one of the reasons why surrounding yourself with guys who are better than you will in fact raise your own game. You will be forced to adapt with sparring partners who are one step ahead of you, which will help your brain react to their attacks faster over time.

A good example of learning through trial and error is defending against feints. When you first encounter a feint from a skilled fighter, it will fool you. If you keep facing that same fighter over and over, eventually, after enough times being faked out, your brain will unconsciously recognize the cues of the fake, and you won’t bite on the feint.

When I first started sparring against Thai trainers they used to be able to land a lot of techniques on me. Now, I am not fazed by any of the tricks they use. My brain has learned to recognize the cues from my opponent, to help me determine what they are going to do as they throw the strike. I don’t have to think about reacting to a punch, I simply do.

Damien Trainor, an experienced fighter, made a great post a while back called the small fish, big pond. In his post, he talked about the importance of always surrounding yourself by bigger fish (better fighters). You never want to be the best guy at a gym, because it can stunt your growth.

Therefore, certain gyms breed a lot of champions. If you want to be a Muay Thai champion, you should probably be training in Bangkok with a gym loaded with the top talents. Tourist gyms in Phuket and other parts of Thailand can help you reach a good level, but to reach the upper levels you need to surround yourself with next best fighters.

Don’t be Afraid to Make Mistakes

If you want to improve you need to take risks and make mistakes. If you are trying to learn a new combination or technique, try to use it in sparring. The first few times you try it, you may fail miserably. Maybe your timing was off or you telgraphed the move. Whatever the case, just because you fail once, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it again.

We get better by doing. If you try and fail, you can make adjustments the next time. Every time you adjust, you will become better at performing that technique. Trying and failing many times, is the recipe for success down the road.

mistakecorrectionOne of the reasons why you often learn more from your losses than wins, is because when you lose, you are more likely to admit you made mistakes and learn from them. People who win, often overlook their mistakes because the result was positive.

A fighter’s development in the ring is something that comes after gaining experience. When you fight, you are given feedback before, during, and after the fight. When you start facing different types of opponents and fighting styles, you will learn what works for you.

The combination of continuous feedback from your trainers and learning by trial and error, will help you develop a well-rounded game. If you put yourself in uncomfortable situations, it forces you to adapt and learn. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, then you probably won’t make it very far in the sport of Muay Thai.

Final Thoughts

In the early stage of your Muay Thai development, it is important to receive continuous feedback in training. Through direct feedback, students can make corrections right on the spot. By correcting a mistake early on, it prevents that mistake from turning into a habit.

Constant feedback is how Thai boys develop perfect technique at such a young age. This is similar to other sports like Tennis, where students are drilled technique over and over until it becomes second nature. Every time you get feedback, it gives you a chance to listen and adjust your strikes.

As much as you want to get things perfect, you won’t. You will start off making a lot of mistakes, until you drill the correct way into your head. If you can afford private lessons with your trainer (make sure they have a good Muay Thai background) then do it.

An even better option is to visit Thailand where you will get to hit pads with a trainer every training session. Thai trainers are not afraid of giving feedback if you are willing to listen. I know some trainers who stop correcting certain students because they think they “already know” what they are doing.

Once you develop good fundamentals, the next step of your development is learning how to put those techniques into practice. That is where your learning will take place by trial and error in sparring. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes because that is how you learn.

Learning through trial and error is a big part of your Muay Thai development. Too many people expect to get things the first time and expect to be good, without understanding the process required to be good. When you see a champion, you are seeing the finished product of someone who spent years of hard work developing their game.

To develop into a competent fighter, you need go through the learning process to develop your game. Watching YouTube videos is not going to magically improve your technique. Beginners need to have someone watching and giving you direct feedback so you can make instant corrections.

If you don’t have access to a coach, record a video of your technique and find someone who will offer you feedback. Video breakdowns are a great form of analysis if you don’t have a trainer around you.

The more self aware you become of your stance, footwork and techniques, the better you will be at making self corrections. Once you are able to solidify good technique, the next step is to start developing your timing through trial and error.

About Author

In 2011, Stephen decided to move to Thailand in search of 'real' Muay Thai. After training MMA for 5 years, he wanted to focus solely on his standup striking. After gaining a few years of experience in the ring, he decided to start Muay Thai Pros with his brother Ben, to share their experiences from the land of Muay Thai. You can follow Stephen on Instagram or read about his Muay Thai journey HERE.

1 Comment

  1. dwayne@madrat.com'

    I started training muay thai over 12 years ago at a mixed martial arts gym. Gradually the class became MMA class. I miss some aspects of training strictly muay thai in that I work kicks and punches simultaneously. This became a problem if I did classes where we only used hands. I became aware that my thai rigid stance was great when I could mix things up with legs and arms. But not so much in just boxing. I started moving my head and body more and while doing kickboxing it has helped.

    I have a friend that recently went to Thailand to train. His game has stepped up considerably. So, I think the focus on one style, from those focused on that style does have more impact.

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