Do you remember that feeling when you were a kid at the top of a snowy hill on your sleigh, and you were scared to go down it, but you did it, and it was terrifying and glorious at the same time after you got to the bottom you ran back up and kept doing it again and again for hours? No? Okay, well maybe you lived in a warmer climate and there was some big rock your friends dared you to jump off of into the water and you were so freaked out, but finally you did it, and it was so much fun that you told everyone about it and maybe started to recruit other people to do it, and maybe you teased your friends who didn’t want to jump.
Well, that’s kind of what sparring Muay Thai is like… kind of. At least that the best analogy I could come up with today.
I will say that learning to spar is one of the hardest things I’ve accomplished in my life and also the most rewarding. I’ve written before about why it’s okay not to spar if you don’t want to and still train Muay Thai with pad work, but I wanted to write about why you should along with the mental and physical benefits of sparring Muay Thai.
Obviously, sparring makes you better at the sport of Muay Thai, but what can it do for your life in other ways?
Sparring is hard
Why do something hard? Doing things that are challenging improves our lives and makes us better people. We are deeply emotionally rewarded by accomplishing difficult tasks, and the mere act of tackling such an endeavor will help you in other areas of your life. Get used to letting things be hard, enjoying the challenge and battling through!
Sparring teaches you how to be in control of your emotions
Now, I’m of the belief that we should be in touch with our feelings and not judge them too harshly, but there is a big difference between that and also not being able to stop crying in a business meeting because someone attacked your work or flying off the handle at a customer service rep cause you had a bad day.
When you spar it is a weakness to show emotion. If you get hit hard and you show it hurts your opponent gets confident and they will continue to impose their will. They will also know where you are hurt and continue to try and hit you there. While some emotion is good like a stubborn will to win, fighters also know that sparring or fighting on pure emotion is dangerous and a smart fighter will use more rational techniques in the ring. Life works in a similar way.
Learning to spar, you will have to learn to develop a good poker face, or maybe just a good attitude (some fighters smile when you hit them). How awesome would it be when every time life threw you a blow like getting dumped, spraining your ankle, of spilling coffee on your new shirt you just smiled and continue on your way cause you knew that getting sad/scared/angry doesn’t do any good?
What if every time your boss said some backhanded remark about your work that hit hard you were just like, “Meh, you can’t hurt me. I’m indestructible!!!!” Mental toughness is a good skill to develop in life and business, and sparring can teach you that.
How do people develop mental toughness? Practice. What better way to practice mental toughness than when some giant leather fist hits you square in the nose and you choose not to flinch, but to suck it up and move forward? Sure… you could practice by making gratitude lists and posting inspirational quotes on Instagram (both of which I also find have merit by the way), but in my personal experience learning to spar has taught me far more in less time than any self-help book ever has.
Sparring improves your pain tolerance
Pain is a natural thing that teaches us to avoid things that could potentially cause us harm. Kids commonly hold their hands over a match to test this theory. However, pain is also a natural part of life, and you need to know how to deal with it. Don’t believe me? How about childbirth? How about headaches? How about when you stub your toe in a silent room and try not to squeal?
While the verdict on pain tolerance being environmental or genetic is still out (there are some studies that suggest it’s related to stress or gender or genes), in general having experience ignoring pain in the interest of a greater goal can help you with survival and life skills.
Getting hit in the leg is painful, getting hit in the liver is painful, getting hit in the nose is painful, getting the wind knocked out of you just sucks, but these things will not kill you in a controlled sport. They may kill you if someone does that repeatedly to you and you don’t fight back, but that I will discuss in a minute. Sparring improves your tolerance to pain in a mental way. By consistent practice you become desensitized to having wussy-like reactions to pain (don’t you like my science savvy terminology!)
With continued practice you’ll be like, “Oh, hey that leg kick hurt…. Whatever! I got more important shit to do, like try to hit you in the liver to get you back for that.”
Learning to spar means it’s less likely I will get eaten by zombies
I don’t know about you, but I think about the Zombie Apocalypse often, or some sort of end of world scenario. I know that Crossfit gyms everywhere have slogans like, “Harder to kill! Rawr!!!” Well that may be true. They can throw heavy stuff around and run fast and that’s cool and all, but through sparring I know that my mind and body are trained to react in a very specific way when someone tries to inflict pain on me. I fight back.
That bro over in the corner of the gym doing 30 clean and presses with 135 pounds? I’m not so sure if some Zombie came at him if he could teep him in the face and beat him over the head. No offense to weightlifters, I love to lift heavy shit too; but Muay Thai sparring has taught me to be both physically and mentally tough, even when my physical well-being (i.e. my life) is being directly threatened – and that is a real life survival skill.
Learning to spar is an amazing human bonding experience
Now I will say that there are several d-bags out there that are a pain in the butt to spar. They are bullies and fucktards that just can’t learn how to play nice (more real sciencey terms, people!) But in general, over the years sparring my teammates has been a rewarding and pleasant bonding experience.
My boyfriend and I spar each other regularly. Some people laugh and call it “couples therapy.” I just find it to be fun and a true testament to our shared passion, trusting relationship and our ability not to get butt hurt about stupid shit. We see each other’s accomplishments as something we want to celebrate too, sure we love “winning” and getting better, but we are competitive with ourselves, not each other. Friendly competition, with a shared celebration of either person “scoring”, is something that friends, family, and partners should all partake in, but I know you know as well as me humans can be jealous assholes and rain on your parade just because you got a promotion, lost 10 pounds or went on a good date.
I am an extremely competitive person, but sparring has taught me how to celebrate others talents just as much as I celebrate my victories. I am impressed when my boyfriend, sparring partner or a student lands a clean shot on me. I am impressed and invigorated to test my skills and get better. No one “wins” at sparring, it’s just practice for the big fight. Through this shared practice, me and my sparring partners have become good friends over the years.
There is a shared bond between fighters that runs so deep. I can’t quite put it into words, but perhaps it’s the knowledge that you are two people who live life so deeply and fearlessly that you have an immense respect for one another instantly. I have sparred at gyms with new people, and after a few rounds together I feel like I have known them for years, then after I’ll walk up to them and introduce myself. The fight world is funny that way.
If sparring is not for you, it’s cool. No judgment here. If you decide to learn to spar plan on it being uncomfortable. Plan on having ups and downs before it feels natural (it probably will feel super strange for a while). Plan on some bumps and bruises and hopefully just minor injuries. There is a sacrifice to be made for this unique skill to develop. There will be some blood, most likely… and lots of ice, but I also promise you it is so worth it.