Muay Thai fightHave you ever wondered why some people look great in sparring, but completely flop when it comes to competition? While most people understand that competition is different than training, unless you compete you won’t understand how different it really feels.

Rarely, and I mean rarely, do you see a fighter step into the ring for the first time and look like they do in training (it does happen on the rare occasion). What usually happens is wonder why they felt so slow and out of rhythm.

The more fights a fighter has, the more comfortable they feel during competition. Fighters who have lots of experience are able to stay relaxed and are able to perform at a high level on a more consistent basis.

What separates experienced fighters from beginners is how they deal with adversity in the ring. Just because someone is good in sparring, doesn’t mean they will thrive in the ring. Here are a few reasons why some people don’t live up to expectations when they fight.

#1. Fear

When you are sparring in a familiar environment against familiar faces, there is a level of comfort that you are familiar with. Even when you are sparring hard, deep down inside you know your sparring partner won’t try to knock you out (unless you are sparring with a Russian).

On the other hand, when you step into the ring your opponent will try to knock you out. If you drop your guard for one second they will not hesitate to capitalize on that opening. The moment you show pain, they will go for the kill.

This increased risk of getting injured causes something that you don’t experience in sparring, fear. The addition of fear is one of the biggest reasons why competition feels so different than sparring.

The human body has a natural response whenever we encounter a dangerous situation: fight or flight. While this evolutionary response is great to help us survive dangerous situations, it doesn’t work well when it comes to Muay Thai competitions. As your body gets pumped full of Adrenalin (this is why some people don’t feel pain during a fight), it will increase our heart rate, shut off your brain, and cause you to become very tense.


While fear can affect some fighters in a negative way, it also has some benefits. Without fear, fighters wouldn’t keep their hands up or worry about getting knocked out. When you walk across a street you look both ways because you fear getting hit by a car. Fear is an important ingredient that keeps you honest and ensures that you don’t take too many risks in the ring.

#2. Increased Pressure

Another element that you will experience when you compete is Pressure (nerves). Pressure is good because it will motivate you to train harder and prepare for your competition, however, it can also be crippling if you become overwhelmed by it.

When you are sparring with someone in a comfortable training environment there is very little pressure. You are there to improve and work on your techniques. There is no “winning or losing” in sparring because your goal is to improve, not win.

Conversely, when you step into the ring you have to deal with expectations from your coach, your family, friends and most importantly yourself. While pressure can be a good thing, too much of it will affect your performance in a negative way.

Every fighter is different and reacts to pressure differently. Some people thrive in pressure environments and perform their best when people are watching, while others fold and let the pressure affect every aspect of their game. You don’t truly know how someone will react to pressure until you see them step into the ring.

#3. Increased Power

Can you remember the last time you sparred with 100% trying to hurt your opponent? If you can remember, then you are probably sparring with guys who are going too hard. Most sparring does not take place at full power because it can lead to injuries and knockouts.

Most sparring takes place between 50-70% of full power, which allows people to get better without worrying about hurting each other. When you step into the ring there is no holding back. If you can win by knockout, you will go for it.

When you kick and punch with 100% power, it will change the timing of your strikes. This means that your defense might be a little bit slower and less likely to block kicks that you were blocking in sparring.

Unlike other individual sports like Tennis, BJJ or Wrestling where you can train at 100% intensity, in Muay Thai you can’t. Unless you want to have a very short career and suffer a lot of injuries, you won’t spar at full power.

#4. No Protection/Small Gloves

Another big factor why fighting feels so different than sparring is that you don’t have any shin protection, use much smaller gloves, and are allowed throwing elbows.

If you are used to sparring with 18 oz gloves on, you will have huge holes in your guard when you switch to 8 oz gloves. Good punchers can exploit bigger openings because you won’t have as much area to protect yourself.

In Thailand, the glove sizes range from 6 to 10 oz gloves depending on the size of the fighters. In addition to the smaller glove sizes, they also wrap your hands in layers of tape that are formed to make your hand into a ball of steel.

This ensures that every punch feels like you are being hit with a hard punch because there is so little padding. With harder punches, those light jabs that only stung you in training will have a much bigger impact when it lands on your chin.

Probably one of the biggest difference between sparring and competition is the addition of elbows (in pro fights). Rarely do people spar with elbows, which makes them extremely intimidating when you face them in the ring.

#5. Different Environment

When you spar at your gym you are in a comfortable setting and surrounded by people you know. You are familiar with the coaches, the faces watching you and most likely your opponent. A familiar environment can help you relax when you are sparring, which will make you perform better.

On the other hand, when you compete in the ring it is a completely foreign environment at takes getting used to. From the stadium noise, to the crowd, to your opponent standing in front of you, everything you experience will be foreign.

The change in environment will make competing feel very different because you aren’t used to it. Think of it like showing up to a new school or joining the gym for the first time. If you stay long enough, you will become comfortable in that environment. The same is true for competition. The more you compete, the more comfortable you will become in that environment.

How to Overcome These Obstacles

While there are a many ways to deal with these obstacles, here are a few tips to help you. I will write an in depth article on this topic in the future.

Visualization Techniques – Before you step into the ring you should visualize everything you are going to do before it happens. From the pre-fight warmup, to your wai kru, everything you do in the ring should feel familiar already. Visualization is a great way to help you

Put Yourself in Uncomfortable Situations – People who are always comfortable sparring with the same people become to comfortable. By putting yourself in uncomfortable situations and sparring guys who you are not familiar with, it can help you learn how to adapt. If you are used to sparring the same people over and over, you will become too familiar with their game and nothing will be new.

Hard Training Before the Fight – Hard training before a fight will give you confidence, which is an important factor in competition. If you have confidence you will be less affected by fear, pressure, and other factors because you will believe in your abilities. Confidence is one of the key ingredients to being successful.

Final Thoughts

Some people are extremely good at thriving in pressure situations and performing their best, while others are unable to handle these situations. Usually people have athletic backgrounds or people from hard upbringings have experience dealing with pressure situations and overcoming adversity.

Fighters who are able to overcome these obstacles, can thrive in the ring with very little experience. The more fights you have, the more comfortable you will get when it comes to competing in the ring.

At the end of the day, if you have the opportunity to gain ring experience you should go for it. The worst case scenario is always worse than how you imagine it. Win or lose, fighting is about getting in there and growing. If you want to improve your game, you need to get ring experience.

Muay Thai Strategy RESIZEWant to Learn More?

If you enjoyed reading this article then you should check out my book Muay Thai Strategy. This book is designed to help you build a solid Muay Thai game from the ground up.

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