When you face someone for the first time are you aware of what is going on in your mind? Do you try to read your opponent to find any weaknesses in his game or does your brain turn off?
The answer to this question will likely depend on your experience level and your fighting style. Fighters who only use aggression in the ring, are less likely to read their opponent because they are only focused on their offense.
Reading your opponent does not happen over night. It is a process that is developed in training by practice and enhanced through experience.
When you first learn how to spar, your focus should be on simple execution and staying relaxed. The term K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) should be the only thing going through your mind. Learning how to stay relaxed when someone is standing in front of you is the key element you want to work on.
Once you start becoming comfortable hitting and getting hit, you can start focusing on more advanced areas that can improve your game. Instead of just throwing strikes, the next stage is to learn how to LAND strikes. This requires you to develop better timing so that you know WHEN to strike and when not to strike.
After you begin executing your offense fluently, the next step is to learn how to start using your head when you spar.
Instead of trying to impose your will on your opponent, you will start noticing what your opponent gives you and counter their tactics. Being able to expose weaknesses in your opponents and fight to your strengths, will make you a difficult fighter to face.
Reading Your Opponent Takes Practice
Do you remember the first time you learned how to read a language?
You might remember the painful process of having to sound out each letter as you attempted to form a word from the groups of letters (learning Thai is also pretty painful). Once you start becoming familiar with different words, you will start to recognize words when you see them, instead of having to sound them out.
Through practice and repetition, you slowly begin to add more words to your vocabulary. After enough practice, you will eventually have a full vocabulary and be able to read without having to “think” about reading.
Learning to think in Muay Thai is a similar learning process. The first time you try to read your opponent you might be able to “see” what is happening, but your brain will not be able to translate his movements (letters) into something that you can understand.
As you face different fighting styles and gain more experience, you will begin to recognize similar patterns that occur from person to person. Once you start recognizing specific patterns, combinations, and fighting styles, you will start understanding how you can adjust your game to match your opponent.
Over time, you will naturally start to counter your opponent without having to consciously think about what you are doing. Just like reading a language becomes second nature with enough practice, the same can be said about reading an opponent in Muay Thai.
An Example of Reading Your Opponent
Imagine you are sparring someone who keeps catching your right kick and sweeping you. The following are three different responses you might see.
Response #1 – The Beginner
As a beginner sparring, everything around you will happen at a lightning speed. You are at the survival stage of sparring and are trying make it through the round without getting hurt. You mind will not register that your kick is being caught because there are so many other things that are racing through your brain.
Beginners have to much going on in their minds to worry about trying to analyze their opponent. This is the equivalent to someone who is learning how to ride a bike attempting to learn tricks, before they can even balance the bike. You have to go through step A before you can get to step B.
Response #2 – The Hot Head
The second response is from someone who is a Hot Head (has a temper when they spar). This person gets swept repeatedly from their opponent and starts to get angry. After each sweep, they start to increase their power and try to go harder to get him back. Instead of using his brain when he spars, the Hot Head spars off instincts and emotions.
This fighter might recognize that his kicks are getting caught, but thinks the solution is to increase his power and try to catch his opponent’s kicks. The Hot Head will probably try to catch their opponents kicks and knock them on the ground, in order to get “even” on the score cards.
Response #3 – The Thinker
The third response is from someone who has learned to think in sparring. After his opponent catches his kick for the second time, he sees this pattern and looks to take advantage of it. In addition to seeing his opponent grabbing his leg, he also notices that his opponents hands drop every time he goes in for the catch.
Since he knows that his opponent wants to keep grabbing his leg and throwing him down, he adjusts his tactics to counter this. His next strike will be another kick, but instead of allowing his opponent to grab the kick, he will use it to set up another strike. When his opponent takes the bait on the third kick, he will use that bait to set up a strike to take advantage of his opponent dropping his hands.
The Thinker sees what his opponent is trying to do and adjusts his offense accordingly.
Now that you understanding the benefits of thinking when you spar, it is important to identify specific ways that you can learn how to read your opponent.
Here are some tips to help you read your next opponent:
1. Let Your Opponent Act First
One of the best ways to train yourself to read your opponent is to let your opponent act first. While you might feel tempted to strike first because of habit, it is better to see what kind of game your opponent has first. Allowing your opponent to act first allows you to see what kind of tricks he might have up his sleeves.
Now when I say sit back and wait, I don’t mean shelling up in a ball like you are scared. If you shell up in a ball then your opponent will probably assume you are scared and will fight with more confidence. Waiting for your opponent to strike requires you to be confident in your defense regardless of who you are up against.
A side effect of allowing your opponent to strike first is that it puts your concentration on your defense. When you focus solely on defending, it makes it difficult for your opponent to land significant strikes against you. A strong defense will not only allow you to see what your opponent will do, it will also set a strong defensive tone at the start of the round.
Given the fact that the first round of sparring/fighting is often the most dangerous round because you don’t know what to expect, focusing on defense reduces the risk of a fast knockout in a 5 round fight.
2. Test Your Opponent
In addition to allowing your opponent to work, you should also be testing their defense to find holes that you can exploit. Throw a body kick and see if your opponent blocks it. Does your opponent like catching your kicks? Is he constantly leaning back to avoid your kicks?
Testing someone’s defense means throwing strikes that are designed to give you feedback. Controlled, calculated strikes can help give you important information about your opponent.
When you watch experienced Thai fighters face foreigners in Thailand, you will often notice them throw calculated strikes to see how the foreigners respond. Since it is well known that foreigners don’t like elbow strikes, you will often see Thai fighters throw hard elbows and see if they can scare their inexperienced opponent.
If a foreigner responds to the elbow strike with fear and panic, the Thai fighters will attempt to exploit this advantage with hard elbow strikes designed to cut. If the Thai fighter is successful in exploiting this fear, there is a good chance the foreigner will “go down” to a punch or kick in order to end the fight.
If you don’t test your opponent’s defense, you will not be able to see how they react. So while it is important to read your opponent’s offense and see what they give you, it is also important for you to see what kind of defense you are working against as well.
3. Spar with New People
When you spar with the same guys over and over, you already know their favorite weapons, their style, and their tactics. Your regular sparring partners won’t do anything that you haven’t encountered before.
While it is great to have regular sparring partners that you train with, you also need to mix in new sparring partners so you can experience facing unfamiliar opponents.
Facing someone for the first time is like showing up for a blind date. You don’t know what to expect until you start sparring and see what your opponent has to offer. When you spar with someone new it gives you the opportunity to analyze your opponent from a blank slate.
The Harder the Sparring Session, the Harder It is to Think
It is worth pointing out that when you are technical sparring with no power, it is much easier to sit back and try to analyze your opponent. However, as soon as you add more power and the risk of being knocked out in a sparring session, suddenly thinking becomes much more difficult.
If someone is throwing strikes that could knock you out, your adrenaline level will increase, which causes your increased nerves, tension, and heart rate. Unless you are able to slow things back down, you will probably fight off instincts and won’t be able to use your head.
That is why you should focus on technical sparring first, before you try increasing the power and sparring at a harder level. Hard sparring without a good foundation will only make your technique worse and create bad habits.
Putting It All Together
Learning to think when you have someone trying to hit you takes practice. Before you learn how to think, you need to be able to stay relaxed. When you can slow your breathing down, it will work to reduce your nerves and allow you to use your head.
When you look at high-level fighters like Saenchai or Yodsanklai fight, these fighters have so much experience that they can read their opponents without consciously trying to. Just like you can read the words that I am writing right now without any conscious thought, good fighters have enough experience that they don’t have to think about reading their opponent, they simply do.
This is the level that you should aspire to achieve as you continue to progress in Muay Thai. You should always go out and try to become a better version of yourself every day in training, that is how you will make long lasting improvements.
Do you want to learn more?
If you enjoyed reading this article then I highly recommend you check out my book called Muay Thai Strategy. This book walks you through everything that you need to build a complete Muay Thai game from the ground up. Click here if you want to learn more about the Strategy bundle