I was not always Muay Thai tough. When I was twelve, I fell onto the edge of a broken log while running through a park. It felt like a basic scrape, something I was accustomed to getting now and then because I liked to play outside. My mother reached out her hand to me, helped me up and instantly tilted my head up. “Don’t look at it,” she said.
I did as I was told and we started walking to the car. It didn’t hurt that bad, I told myself, but I did feel some blood trickling down my leg. “Don’t look!” My mother reminded me as we hurried toward the parking lot.
Once inside the car, my mother began driving to the closest hospital. I tried to close my eyes, but I couldn’t help myself. I looked down at my knee and saw a gaping hole in the knee cap about two inches long and an inch wide. Instantly a searing pain registered in my mind and I began to cry.
I always wanted to be a tough girl, but I never felt very tough. I whined when I was sick, cried when I got injured and felt hurt when kids made fun of me. I played basketball, but not very well and not nearly as good as the girls who started on the varsity team.
Fast forward to 2002 when I found Muay Thai, fell in love with the training and decided this would be the sport that toughened me up proper. I loved every part of it: the bruised shins, the sore muscles, the tired legs from running, even the blisters on my feet from learning to pivot on my kicks.
Muay Thai is a rough sport. Minor injuries are common even if you don’t train to fight. But another aspect of toughness that Muay Thai teaches you is mental. Most of what we consider pain is mental. Ever see a kid fall? They don’t cry right away. If it’s a small tumble, they pause and often freeze momentarily, waiting for an adult’s reaction. If the adult freaks out they cry; if the adult laughs and smiles at them and picks them up, they usually just move on and keep playing. We learn how to be tough. Even if we don’t learn from our parents, I’ll argue that we can teach ourselves later if it’s important to us.
How has our upbringing from parents and society shaped our toughness? Boys are often taught to “suck it up” or “walk it off” or “rub some dirt in it,” but girls typically get babied and their ouchies and hurt feelings are fawned over a bit more. Furthermore, I’ll argue that these days parents treat their kids male and female more and more like delicate flowers, rarely teaching them the physical and mental toughness required of rigorous athletics or life for that matter. We live in the “participation trophy” generation, the painkiller generation, the instant gratification generation, the “let me whine about it on social media and see how much sympathy I can get” generation.
This lack of mental and physical toughness is something I often notice from people who start training Muay Thai. I teach intro sessions every week at my gym. I love teaching them because I get to expose people to the sport that made me who I am today. The sport that changed me and molded me and made me a better human. I can’t wait to share it with them, and I start each session hoping they are open to learning and growing and getting real vulnerable and real tough. Because getting good at Muay Thai requires that you open yourself up, allow yourself to be raw, feel the mental and emotional struggle, but work at overcoming it, harnessing your emotions, and make a commitment to improving yourself. This takes work. Make no mistake it is far from easy. Many people look at the sport and think, “That’s badass. I want to try that! It seems like a good workout, and I get to look real cool doing it!” Then they try it, and they realize something right away – this is HARD.
…getting good at Muay Thai requires that you open yourself up, allow yourself to be raw, feel mental and emotional struggle, but work at overcoming it, harnessing your emotions, and make a commitment to improving yourself.
There was a young, strong, and eager teenage boy did an intro session at my gym a few weeks ago. He stopped me halfway through his lesson and said, “Man, this is harder than I thought. It looks so easy on TV.” I chuckled a bit and agreed with him. “It is hard,” I said, “but nothing worth having comes easy.” Then I told him to keep his hands up. To my disappointment, he took one class after that and then stopped coming.
“There’s so much to think about.” “Why can’t I get it right?” “Why doesn’t my body listen to me?” “I thought I was in shape.” “Why does it hurt to kick the bag?” “My foot hurts.” “My wrist hurts.” “Why is this so hard for me?” “You make it look so easy.” – These are all common phrases I hear in someone’s first lesson or first month of trying Muay Thai.
Yup, Muay Thai is hard. Learning to throw a jab without dropping your hands is hard, learning to pivot on your kicks is hard, learning to generate power is hard and learning to control your power is hard. Additionally, you can’t get good just going once a week. Consistent dedication is the key. So you have to prioritize your training and make sacrifices. So, yeah sorry posting an Instagram pic of your gloves and wraps with #beastmode does not make you any better at Muay Thai, the only way to get good is to show up often and train hard. Not every day will be a good day, growing pains are real, and that’s okay.
You don’t have to already be tough to get good at Muay Thai. You just have to be open: Open to learning, open to growing, open to change.
Here’s the thing, you don’t have to be already tough to get good at Muay Thai. You just have to be open: Open to learning, open to growing, open to change. Dedication to the sport and an open mind will give you all the confidence you need to become tough. Over the years of training, I learned quite a few hard lessons from Muay Thai…
Here are the lessons that taught me to be Muay Thai tough:
Suck it Up Buttercup
One of the coaches I worked with used to say this, and it annoyed the F#$!@# out of me. “Who are you calling Buttercup, MF?” I’d silently think. But his words came from a good place. Muay Thai and my tough coaches taught me when to suck it up. Bruised shin? Suck it up. Got cramps? Suck it up and train anyway. Feel sad cause some dude didn’t call you? Screw him, train harder. Did someone call you weaksauce on the internet? Suck it up; you don’t stand for anything if you don’t have haters. You broke a toe throwing a teep? Suck it up, tape it to the toe next to it and work your boxing. It’s the art of eight limbs; you got seven others to use if you have a bruised shin. Keep practicing. Get Muay Thai tough.
Tore your knee? ….Hell no, don’t suck it up! Get to the E.R. ASAP! There is a line between sucking it up and knowing when to get medical attention. Don’t be an idiot when it comes to this. However, I will say that the majority of excuses I hear for not training are pretty lame. Stubbed toes, minor aches, and muscle soreness, period cramps, a cut on your pinky finger, a bruised knee, hurt feelings or a sunburn are not legitimate reasons to take a day off; they are excuses. Muay Thai taught me I am not fragile. I am not easily broken. My body is pretty damn resilient. I am a warrior. I am a survivor. I can overcome many things for a greater purpose. Muay Thai can help shape you to become stronger and tougher if you let it and if you work for it.
Muay Thai Tough…
Muay Thai taught me I am not fragile. I am not easily broken. My body is pretty damn resilient. I am a warrior. I am a survivor. I can overcome many things in favor of a greater purpose.
Blood Isn’t Gross
Some people faint at the sight of blood. I understand that in a person’s mind blood can equal death and that is scary, but let’s get real…. Bleeding does not always equal death. Women, who happen to bleed monthly, really shouldn’t get squeamish about blood, but for some absurd reason, we are taught from a young age to be grossed out by blood of any kind. That’s just crazy! Blood is inside of us, and bleeding is human.
In Muay Thai bloody noses do happen, cuts happen, toenails get bent back, shins get split. This isn’t a common occurrence in everyday training, but it does happen and is not a reason to freak out. I know there are sanitary considerations when dealing with blood and of course I take great care to clean up any blood shed in my gym, but getting Muay Thai tough has taught me that blood is a natural part of being human and being a fighter and coach; we can all just relax, wipe it up, spray some Lysol, use some hand sanitizer and not make a big deal about it.
Soreness v.s. Injury
So you got sore? So what? Does that mean you now have to take three days off and feel perfect before going back to train? No! Let me repeat that…. No! Soreness is common when you a) do a new exercise or movement b) push yourself past your former limits. You will not die if you train while sore, nor will you ruin your progress or anything like that. Occasional soreness is okay, and you can expect to be sore more often at the beginning of starting your Muay Thai training because it’s all new movements! If you are sore all the time, however, this might be a sign of a bigger problem. Make sure you are drinking enough water and getting good sleep, as dehydration and lack of recovery can amplify soreness.
There are plenty of days I have shown up to train sore and creaky, but after using Thai liniment and doing ten to fifteen minutes of jump rope and some stretches, I felt good to go! I have learned through training that the human body is an amazing machine, it will rise to the occasion if you treat it right and will it to do so. Besides, moving around, drinking water and sweating often does soreness a lot of good.
I have learned through training that the human body is an amazing machine, it will rise to the occasion if you treat it right and will it to do so.
If soreness is so extreme you cannot move properly, have pain at the joint or are pissing blood, this is a sign of something more serious, and you should seek medical attention, but generally speaking, just being sore is no cause for alarm and not an excuse to break your training routine.
Sweaty, Smelly Things
Getting Muay Thai tough requires you to get sweaty. You will get very, very sweaty. Your gym may not have air conditioning in the summer. I have AC in my gym. My students are spoiled. I tell them this all the time. I hardly ever trained in gyms with AC until I opened my own. You will not die from training in hot, humid weather. Your clothes may get soaked through, and your hair will get dripping wet, but it will be okay. I miss that feeling, having not trained hard in a hot gym with sweat pouring down my back in a while, I crave it. The closest I come to that these days is a hot yoga class. There is something zen about oozing sweat, out of breath, hitting pads and loving every minute of it; it makes you feel alive. Besides, heat is good for the muscles, you get warmed up faster.
Sweat is a natural part of the Muay Thai experience, even if you are okay with your sweat, you also have to get used to others. Your partner may sweat on you. When I hold pads for people, it’s not uncommon for sweat to brush off their face into my eyes or mouth as they punch. Although this is not something I welcome or desire, it happens, and I try not to cringe when it does. Short of wearing goggles and a dust mask, there is not much I can do to avoid it.
When you clinch, you just have to embrace the sweatiness. It’s skin on skin, sweaty, messy hair all up on each other every second. If you are looking for a sport with personal boundaries, Muay Thai is not it. Get used to your personal space being invaded on the regular. The power comes from learning the techniques to punch, kick, knee, and sweep people to keep them off you and to impose your will on them. However, you have to get real up close and personal with your teammates to learn how to execute your will with proper technique effectively. Also getting close to your teammates is good. It solidifies your gym family bond. Touch is therapeutic to humans, even when it’s striking and clinching. You can hug it out after punching each other in the face.
Things will smell. I do my best to stay clean, keep my gear clean and bring an extra shirt for clinch work…. but still, sometimes people will be smelly, and gloves will be smelly, and at the end of class most everyone is smelly, but that’s what showers are for. Just embrace the smelliness and clean yo self up after class. Not a big deal.
Sticks and Stones Will Break Your Bones…
No one likes getting their feelings hurt, but Muay Thai has taught me to let insults slide off my back like water. How can emotional toughness result from physical toughness? For me, every single physical accomplishment I achieved in Muay Thai training helped me gain confidence in my life. Surviving five rounds of pad work, getting hit in the face and not backing down, running my first 5k in under twenty-five minutes, winning my first fight. Each time I accomplished something in training or competition, it mattered less and less what someone else thought of me or said about me because I was building myself into a person I genuinely liked. Sure the opponent staring across the ring at me had the ability to break my ribs and knock me out, but I was going to do my best not to let them, and in overcoming that REAL fear, the keyboard warrior that said I’m a talentless bitch doesn’t matter one damn bit.
I notice this change in confidence with my students, even those who have no intention of fighting and even those who chose not to spar. They keep training and creating success in the gym, and they hold their head a little higher, they smile a bit more, they laugh a bit louder, they give more to others, they give fewer fucks, they become a strong, shining example of a human being. I don’t want to credit all this to their Muay Thai training, I’m sure they are doing other things to better themselves too, but I suspect their success with training a challenging sport like Muay Thai has a lot to do with the positive personality changes I see in them day after day.
Beauty in Suffering
I like things to be hard. I like to suffer. I like to feel some pain now and then, physically and emotionally. Pain reminds me I am truly alive. If it were all rainbows and puppies all the time, no one would appreciate shit. Muay Thai training has made me enjoy the uphill battle. It has forced me to push past my comfort zone and into new uncharted areas I never thought possible. I have grown to like feeling things that many people think of as scary. I like feeling out of breath. I like feeling pressured. I like feeling tired and pushing through. I know I will not crumble from adversity. I know I am stronger when I overcome fear. I even like feeling hungry. Cutting weight has taught me that I can sacrifice instant gratification for a greater reward later. I have improved my willpower through training. I don’t need that pint of ice cream. The Chocolate Fudge Brownie pint of Ben and Jerry’s is just a craving. I want to step on that scale at weigh-ins and know I accomplished something and I want that championship belt. Suffering can be a means to an end. Pain is not always negative.
Suffering can be a means to an end. Pain is not always negative.
I am not suggesting we focus all our attention on negativity and pain. As Winston Churchill said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.” I’m not sure why people choose to dwell on their suffering in an unhealthy way, but it’s a common occurrence judging from Facebook feeds. I have a rule of de-friending people who regularly post negative or complaining status updates. Because really, why the hell do you need to keep focusing on life sucking? Is that going to make it any better?
What I am suggesting is that we realize that a little pain, suffering, and sacrifice are a necessary part of success and that while making those sacrifices we don’t have to complain about shit, instead we can admire the journey.
Losing Sucks, But it Sure Makes Victory Taste Better
I hate losing. There is nothing fun about it. I cried myself to sleep the night I lost my sanctioned amateur debut because I was in so much physical and emotional pain. I had stress fractured my shin and that hurt, but the emotional pain of the loss was what haunted me. But when I got back to the gym soon after, I remembered that moment alone in bed during my training and in many fights after that. The pain of losing fueled me to do better.
The saying goes that we learn more from our losses than we do our victories and that is true. Losses require us to evaluate our mistakes. When someone exposes your weaknesses, it forces you to take a look at where you can improve. When you win, it’s easy to gloss over those mistakes and just bask in the glory.
Even for those students just training Muay Thai, you can learn how to “lose” gracefully. Sometimes you will have trouble learning a new technique; sometimes you will get your ass kicked in sparring (okay, a lot because that’s how you learn), sometimes you’ll just have a bad day in class. It sucks, but if we show up to training every day expecting to feel special and rewarded Muay Thai will quickly kick you in the butt with a reality check. Lose, learn, grow, getting tougher each day and you will become truly successful.