Many people start training in martial arts and the fighting disciplines of Boxing, Muay Thai and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) with the goal of learning how to fight and look after themselves, however, the drop-out rate of these disciplines is incredibly high.
One of the major reasons for this high drop-out rate is the poor approach to sparring, particularly in Muay Thai training and to a lesser degree, but still of concern, MMA. If the school does not have a productive and safe environment for sparring then the average student will struggle to work with confidence, particularly when trying to implement and develop new techniques in his/her game. This is also found with some of my students that learn Muay Thai online, in that they see sparring as a competition between themselves and their training partner.
Sparring is one of the most valuable aspects of training, in any fighting system, but it is also the most frustrating and difficult to master. And while the grappling disciplines generally appear to adopt a safe and productive attitude to sparring; the striking systems such as Muay Thai kickboxing and MMA struggle.
Sparring is still a part of the training development and learning process. It is a major element in your training that is crucial for the testing and inclusion of the various techniques that you are learning, into your fight game, so that you can ultimately use them in competition or for self defense purposes in a real street fight.
All too many treat it as a competition between them and their fellow students such that the stronger and more aggressive students dominate. It thus becomes a filtering process or trial by combat, for the right to stay on as a student befitting the class or group of elitists within the school. If this culture is allowed to propagate within a school many aspiring and developing students will be forced out, student numbers will rapidly decrease and the number of new students starting will decrease. The dominate group will work within the confines of their own games that they know and have essentially restricted themselves to.
We can learn valuable lessons by taking analogically similar examples, from history, of groups that have shut themselves off from the rest of the world and become isolated. Ultimately the isolation has led to them falling far behind the rest of the world and either suffering internally from lack of development or being crushed by an enemy that has become technologically superior.
The value gained in sparring consistently, in a positive environment and with a good training partner, will lift your Muay Thai techniques to new levels, however, finding that ideal training environment and partner can be very difficult. The quality and culture of the martial arts school must promote a healthy attitude to MMA and Muay Thai sparring and how it is carried out. This must have the development and safety of all students in mind and the students’ personal egos must be set aside.
We find a far more healthy and productive attitude, to the competitive training elements, reflected very strongly in team participation pursuits in which the members of the team tend to help each other. This is very seldom present in the individual achievement combat sports, unless a team attitude has been built into the training place.
Some of the best examples I have found of training partners, in sports or pursuits that emphasize individual development and competition, have been sibling combinations, i.e. brother/brother and (at younger ages) brother/sister combinations, and groups of really good friends that get along well together and start training together. There is a degree of competitiveness between them, but not to the point of trying to dominate each other. A degree of mutual respect and the desire to help each other reach higher levels of ability is present.
Siblings develop a team attitude; working at a micro-team level that results in them working at a level that benefits them both and that, looking at it from a bigger picture, anyone outside of their micro-team is the competition.
This attitude can be readily adopted at the class or school level in Muay Thai and MMA training and, if cultivated well, will benefit everyone who trains at the school.
Once again I look to the sibling and friend groups mentioned above where I have observed their willingness to work at a speed and level of striking power that they can both tolerate and still work productively, In addition, they acknowledge each other’s ability and technique and share each other’s experiences of the training session; their good and bad moves and give each other feedback on what they were doing right and wrong. This type of exchange is extremely useful and productive for all practitioners.
Another point I have often noted, about such combinations, is that not only do they encourage each other, but they are also willing to vent their frustrations and/or annoyance with each other if one of the pair is not working in a manner that is conducive to productive development of their ability. They are prepared to set aside their egos a lot more readily between each other.
I usually also find that these attitudes more often than not, and if given the right opportunity and conditions, will also be reflected in the way that the same individuals train and spar with other students and training partners.
In summary, from these observations, I suggest several guidelines for developing a productive attitude that we should cultivate in the training environment, particularly during sparring, in order to get the most from your training.
- The cultivation of a team attitude, whether at the paired off student, class or the entire school level.
- Always take time to discuss your weaknesses and game with your training partner so that you can learn from each training session.
- Give recognition to a well executed strike or move so that the training partner is acknowledged. If you are continually falling victim to a particular attack then analyze what is happening and ask your partner how he/she is pulling it off or what mistake is he/she capitalizing on, that you are making. In addition put the drilling time in to make your attack, defense or counter-attack better as this will produce great improvements in your Muay Thai Moves and MMA techniques.
- Develop a culture within the school (if you are the instructor) and for yourself to remove the ego when sparring and training. This is absolutely essential if there is to be any value gained from the training session.
Individuals who come to train and only have their own interests in mind are best to find somewhere else to train if you as a coach are serious about giving your students the best opportunity to succeed at what they are passionate about.
The value of a good sparring session with opponents that have an attitude that promotes learning and development will also give an excellent physical and mental conditioning experience that will enhance your game in every way. In addition it will develop the flow and continuity between your techniques and increase the fluidity of execution enabling you to develop a game that is adaptable and versatile.
If your training partner/s are getting better, then you will develop and get better, because it is of little concern who wins in the training gym or academy. What matters is the development of all members of the training establishment so that they all get better. If your training partner is improving from training with you then you must also get better as you both become more competitive. If you only spar with a low risk attitude and a need to win over or dominate your training partner then your Muay Thai or MMA training development and progress will be extremely slow and limited.