Tips for Muay Thai Newbies
Do you remember all your fears about the first day of a new high school or college? Worrying if you could find the right classroom, wondering if you were overdressed, underdressed, or had even picked the right image to present yourself to your new classmates. Always check your schedule, trying to figure out where to sit, trying to decide if you should raise your hand or not in class. Looking around the room and wondering who would be a good person to talk to and become friends with, wondering if you were cool enough to be their friend. Formal schooling might be over for most of you, but I like to remember that feeling because it can be a little like the first day of school for people when they walk into a martial arts gym for the first time.
For a newbie, instructors, competitors, and other students are intimidating. Muay Thai traditions are completely foreign. You don’t know a Thai pad from a focus mitt, Thai oil smells funny, warm-up feels like an eternity, and you have no idea how to take 180 inches of fabric and somehow with what seems like 37 different twists and turns, wrap it neatly around your hand without either cutting off your circulation or having the whole wrap fall apart after the warm-up.
These Tips are for Muay Thai Beginners and for those who train in programs where the core of the training program is Muay Thai.
1. You don’t need to be in shape to start training Muay Thai. MuayThai is a skill based sport. If you focus on the techniques you are being taught, drill them with focus and patience you will naturally get more conditioned as you practice, being able to do things faster and harder as you get better. If you are gassing out on the first round of pad work try going lighter, it will help you focus on your technique anyway. Sure the warm ups and the conditioning drills will be challenging at first, but you probably signed up to be challenged and improve your fitness. Besides, your instructor and the other students know you are new. No one expects you to be in top shape coming in and no one will make you feel bad if you aren’t.
2. Expect to Suck at First. Every single person sucked at some point. My first coach used to say, “If it was easy everyone would do it.” I tell this to my students all the time. Learning how to use your body as a weapon in a rule-based sport is not an easy task. Instead of getting frustrated by not being able to do a strike or combination perfectly, get FASCINATED by the sport and use that drive and passion to focus your practice. Sure there are always those students who pick it up faster and look like a pro on the pads in a few months, but that is rare and usually that “natural athlete” is just an average person that wanted it more and spent more time working at it.
3. Shadow box and mean it. I know shadow boxing isn’t fun in the beginning. It’s one of the things I distinctly remember. I hated it. I felt stupid, didn’t know what combos to do and just wanted to hit something solid. I may not absolutely love shadow boxing even today, but I understand its benefits and see its results. Shadow boxing gives you the opportunity to practice strikes, footwork and new combos with precision, by slowing it down, checking your work in the mirror, fixing mistakes and then speeding it up. To get better it’s very important that you drill things the right way in shadow boxing and not be sloppy. Try working on a combo you did in your last class during shadow boxing or focus on a particular element of your game like keeping your left hand up or extending your hips on the knee. If you don’t know what to work on in shadow boxing, ask your instructor for suggestions.
4. It’s okay to stick to the basics. If your gym has mixed level classes chances are there will be days when the class format calls for some advanced footwork or a long combination. Don’t get overwhelmed, tell your partner or pad holder you just want to focus on the first strike or two to make things easier since you are new. They will understand. If you are working the bag, take your time and think about your cues and instructor’s suggestions before each strike. Don’t just drill the strikes incorrectly over and over because you are trying to get a workout. Take the complex and break it into small pieces, putting them together one at a time paying particular attention to the transitions. If you stick to the basics in the beginning and refine them before you know it a 6 strike combo will not be so confusing.
5. Come early, stay late and ask questions. Remember that kid in school who was always in class before you, they always raised their hand and had something to say and when the class was over they stayed late to ask the teacher to elaborate on a particular lecture point. Yeah, that kid was a nerd, but that kid also went on to run a Fortune 500 company, discover a new gene or write a best-selling novel and probably earns more a year than the kid that showed up late, closed their book as soon as the bell rang and never participated. Want to be good at Muay Thai? Be a martial art nerd. Get fascinated by the sport, do extra work, take advantage of the open gym, ask your instructor lots of questions, no one will think it’s weird. The only way to get good is to care too much and put in work.
6. Don’t buy cheap gear. Invest in some quality equipment. I can understand why at first you might buy a cheap pair of gloves because you are not sure if this type of training is for you. But once you have been training for a bit and want to take it seriously you’ll want gear that lasts and is protective. With most gear the price indicates quality. So yeah, that $50 pair of gloves will wear out much sooner than the $100 pair. With most brands, you really are getting your money’s worth. As far as style and brand, that’s a personal choice. Ask your instructor, or advanced students at your gym what they like and read online reviews.
7. You don’t have to fight. You don’t even have to spar. No one is going to think any less of you if you don’t want to. Crazy people like training that involves getting punched in the face. Fighters are insane, we acknowledge this and don’t think any less of people that want no part of it. Sparring will definitely improve your skills, but it’s not necessary to being a welcome contribution to your gym.
8. Be a good partner. Learn to hold pads well. Not only will being a good pad holder make your fellow students appreciate you but it will also make you stronger. You don’t have to think of exciting flashy combos to call out for your partner. Some of the world’s best pad holders keep it straightforward and basic. Just call basic punches kicks and knees, keep the pace up, work on your footwork while holding and hold pads with a good amount of resistance. Communicate with your partner about the right height, angle, and resistance of the pads. They will be grateful for your thoughtfulness.
9. Don’t forget to breathe! Breathe out when you strike, breathe out when you hold pads, pushing against your partners strikes and breathe out when you get hit in sparring. You don’t have to make funny grunting noises if you don’t want to, but at least breathe out and tightly flex your abdominal wall.
10. Don’t expect to get proficient at Muay Thai training just once a week. If you want to get decent at the sport, start training three days a week. If you want to get good at Muay Thai, train five to six days a week. If you want to be great, get so obsessed with Muay Thai that at least once you get asked to stop training because the gym is closing.
11. Support your team. To get the most out of your gym you have to be a part of the community. Go to your gyms events, parties, and especially go see your gym’s fighters compete. One of the best parts of Muay Thai is the community. If you just come to your 2-3 hours of class every week and keep to yourself you are missing a vital part of the experience.
12. No one likes a gym hopper. There is nothing wrong with checking out a few gyms when you decide to start training Muay Thai, that is a great idea, and I encourage it. You will find the right gym for you if you look around. There is also nothing wrong with changing gyms if your needs change or training at two gyms because you are bi-coastal, but “gym hopping” is not doing you any favors. As a beginner and even as an amateur fighter it is important to have a home, a team and one head coach you listen to. If you just pay drop in fees at various places and jump from gym to gym you will not make the improvements you could if you committed to one style and system, staying and training long enough with someone to actually work on your weaknesses. Learning a variety of different styles and approaches won’t help you in the beginning, it will only confuse you. Have the courage to trust one team and learn from them, if you need to move on later you can. Professional fighters may utilize different training partners and coaches, but those are professional athletes that have already honed their style and skills at a high level, that is entirely different.
13. Offer to help. I believe that the classic martial arts concepts of respect, honor, and gratitude still exist. I believe that respect is earned and through my teaching students will respect me just as through their hard work I will respect them. One way to show your instructor you appreciate their time and dedication to your Muay Thai education is to offer to help with stuff. It could be as simple as mopping the floors after class or helping a new student wrap their hands. If you have a skill like design, baking, or music you can offer to help with a new logo, bring cookies to a gym party, or offer to DJ an event. Muay Thai coaches don’t teach because it makes the big bucks, we teach because we love it and when our students recognize that by offering their help be it big or small it makes us feel like a million bucks.
14. Invest in private lessons. Group classes are excellent but ask any great fighter how they got great, and they will tell you they had one on one coaching as well as team training. Even if you can’t afford privates every week, getting a private lesson once a month would do wonders for your progress. There is only so much individual instruction teachers can give in a class setting. Don’t think that private lessons are just for fighters or advanced students, anyone can benefit from them.
15. Don’t go on the mat with dirty feet. Anyone that goes to my gym knows this is a major pet peeve of mine. But let’s think about this: The mat should be a clean sacred place where Muay Thai magic happens. We all know to take our shoes off before going on the mat. Our school makes you gently wash your feet in hiberclens each time you enter the mat. In what world would it be okay to go to the bathroom (the dirtiest place in the gym) barefoot and then walk on the mat? You wouldn’t want to do push ups and stretching on a mat that someone just stepped on with their pee-infused or outdoor dirt-encrusted feet. Eww. Respect the mat and the students who use it!