Tip # 1 – Control Your Power
Don’t Go 100% – I do not think it is a good idea for beginners in Muay Thai to spar very hard. If you have a fight coming up, hard sparring can be advantageous; however, as a beginner start slow. Usually it takes one person to kick or punch really hard, then both parties start elevating the pace. The easiest way to tell if someone is new is usually when the person is going 100% trying to KO their sparring partner. Remembering that you are sparring to improve your technique, not to KO your partner. Sparring is teamwork and neither should be going 100%.
Tip # 2 – Let Go of Your EGO!!!
Lose the Ego – You will hit and get hit. Accept it and be ready for it. Get over your ego. People who feel that they are too good to get kicked or punched are not in touch with reality. You are training in a full contact sport and if you are new to sparring and worried about looking bad then you are in the wrong sport. The only way to get better at muay thai is to get your hands dirty. The only way you will learn to block and punch and kick is if you get kicked and punched. Eventually you will learn to block those kicks and protect yourself from those punches. Having an ego will only get in the way of becoming a better fighter. You don’t want to be “that guy” in the gym that everyone is talking about after training and at the end of the day no one even wants to spar and train with you. You can only get better with the help of others. Be sure to respect everyone at the gym and be humble.
Tip #3 – Time Your Strikes
Look for Openings/Timing is everything– Don’t kick for the sake of kicking! Look for an opening in your opponents guard and try to exploit it. Throw a right kick and see how your opponent responds. You need to test the waters to see if you can find any weaknesses. After all, everyone has a weakness and it is up to the opponent to identify it and maximize this to his/her advantage. The more you spar, the easier it becomes to identify weaknesses and different styles.
Tip #4 – Work on Combinations
Use Combinations – Once you get used to sparring you should start to try and put together combinations. Instead of throwing a low kick, why not throw a jab-jab-low kick? Remember that putting combinations together is much more effective at landing shots than throwing single attacks. Use as many combinations as you can in order to be more effective. Focusing on using your hands and feet together in the combinations. For example, you might try a jab-jab-left hook-low kick. It is always good to try and end a combination with a kick as it scores more points.
Tip #5 – Have a Strategy
Create a Game Plan – Before every sparing session you should have specific things that you want to improve on. “My goal this session is to…” Try and select a few key things that you will focus on during a sparring session. For example, you might want to enter a sparring session to try and work on setting up your low kicks. During the session, focus on throwing that low kick after every punch. This is a great way to improve your kicks. Realistically, in a fight, you’re not going to throw that low kick after every punch but at least your body is use to certain combinations and there is no hesitation when you want to execute it.
Tip #6 – Focus on Learning
Knowledge is Power – Ask for advice! After sparring with someone, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Think of it as a partnership. Your sparring partner is your teammate and you will grow if you work together to improve your game. This goes both ways, so don’t hesitate to offer tips and advice if you see something that the person can improve on. The more knowledge you have during training, the closer you are to becoming a better fighter.
Tip #7 – Change Your Sparring Partners
Change your Sparring Partners – Don’t be afraid to spar different people. Variety is essential! Everybody has their favourite combinations and their own style. Sparring with different people will enable you to react and respond faster and easier the more you do it. As a beginner you want to go outside your comfort zone. Practice and train your weaknesses. Whatever you feel least comfortable doing…train it, so that it becomes second nature! Make your weaknesses your strengths. Don’t be afraid to spar someone that is better than you. Often you will learn the most from people who are at a higher level. It’s easier to pin point your weaknesses when your game is elevated. Those old habits your trainer was knit picky about will come out during uncomfortable sparring sessions. A good fighter is able to adapt and respond quickly in a fight to different styles and use it in a way that will win.
Tip #8 – Look for Patterns
Look for Trends– When you begin sparring with someone you should try and look for specific patterns you notice about their style. If they are a southpaw you will want to adjust your game plan. If they have heavy hands, you will want to make sure your guard is strong and look for the leg kick opening. Use that first minute of sparring to your advantage and see what combinations they keep on throwing. Knowing their strengths and favourite combos will help you better prepare for it the next time they throw it.
Tip #9 – Stay Relax!!!
Relax – In Thailand you’ll often here the trainers say “Sabai Sabai!” This is a tip useful to anyone and is often the most difficult when you start sparring. Try to focus on slowing down your pace with calming breaths. The biggest challenge is when people aren’t relaxed the body tenses up. All of a sudden your punches and kicks are slower and it is easier for your opponent to hit you. Before you know it, you feel as if all technique and training is forgotten. You’re not alone! If you’re mindful and conscientious of being relaxed you can practice and train your body to do what you want.
Tip #10 – Say Balanced at All Times
Stay Balanced – Hold your ground! Balance is an essential component of muay thai. One thing that you will notice with Muay Thai compared to other martial arts is that after every punch or kick you are back to your neutral defensive stance. This will ensure that you will always be in a good position to block and counter any attacks that you might receive when you are sparring. It is important to focus on always trying to maintain strong balance to put you in a position to counter or attack.
Tip #11. Pretend You are Playing a Game
Imagine Sparring is a Game – When you spar, pretend you are playing a game. You want to score as many points as you can without your opponent scoring points on you. You should also remember that in traditional muay thai body kicks score the most points, then knees, low kicks and punches. When you pretend you are playing a game when you spar, it will help you relax and focus on trying to do the right things. Sometimes we need to “trick” our brain or breakdown a task, so that the mountain only looks like a small hill. It’s easy for one to say “relax”, but it is more difficult to understand how to get the mind and body there.
1. Control the Kick in Shadow and on the Bag
Learning the floating block was perhaps the single biggest thing I learned with Sakmongkol. It was key to breaking down my kick and improving its control and balance, and I think this focus on controlling my kick has done more to change and improve my kick (as well as general balance) more than anything else up to now. It was one of the very first things that Sakmongkol began working on with my Muay Thai when he told me he wants to “change [my] style.” The more I work on this, the more my style does change – most certainly for the better.
2. Full Deep Return on Kicks
This is very important (and much neglected) in shadow, bag work and in pad work too. It’s an extension of controlling the kick, landing back not only in a position where you can strike again, but more importantly being able to strike again harder. For a long time I was bringing my kicking foot back to a fairly squared-up position and thus was never really on balance enough to throw another kick, to block, or anything other than a kind of wonky punch. This one change, while not easy to establish as habit, is certainly simple enough to be a single focus in shadow or on the bag, as well as getting used to it in padwork and eventually sparring. It makes a huge difference and I’m using a lot of mental energy to be diligent about it now so that it will be automatic soon enough.
3. “Play” Knees on the Bag
For someone who has struggled to get clinch practice and training, the “play knees” on the bag is invaluable in giving me a chance to improve my clinch without having to rely on a partner. To clarify, this do not replace clinching but are absolutely a wonderful supplement. A bag doesn’t turn the way a person does and a person doesn’t “swing.” A bag that’s hanging is lighter than a person, doesn’t have legs to contend with and won’t knee or grapple back. All those things make real clinching more complex, but what is so instrumental about this playing on the bag is the playing part. It gets you used to relaxing, having fun, timing your strikes and your pulls, getting your yanks and pushes aggressive and direct enough that when you go up against an opponent who has a will of her own, you’ve had some good practice imposing yours. I’ve been doing this at the end of my bagwork at both morning and evening sessions and people like to watch it. It looks fun, too.
4. Dynamic Energy in Pad Work and Sparring
There are aspects of fighting which require training and practice but are often overlooked by the more obvious foci of technical form, speed, power and movement. But the thing that brings all those aspects together is the energy of a fight. The intention behind all of it. It’s like being able to pronounce words and put them together in proper order but never learning how to “express” anything – what language is actually for. Sakmongkol spent a lot of time working with me on this, without actually telling me. He just stopped talking to me and let me know he was going to be really hard on me. It was up to me to be tough, to figure it out. Because an opponent won’t hold your hand through it; they won’t tell you outright when you do something well or if you make a mistake – there are simply consequences for either case. I need to bring this to padwork, sparring and clinching. It’s not easy because my trainers are ex-fighters and their ego is often still very much in play, so I’m truly up against someone else’s intentions – which are not necessarily aimed at making me look or feel good. But it’s one of the most important things to train. Period.
5. End Workout with 10 Minutes of Very Loose Shadow
Sakmongkol came after my shadow very early on. He hates how I move: it’s meaningless, one-dimensional, and tense. So for 10 minutes at the end of training he wanted me to just shadow very loose – like, really relaxed. He showed me and said, “just talk, talk.” meaning you can carry on a conversation while you do it. It actually feels really good. It’s a cool-down, but it’s also teaching how to do movements in a relaxed state, allowing it to be kind of mindless and automatic. No matter how tired I am after training, I can always do 10-20 minutes like this.