Once, while in Thailand preparing for a title fight, I inadvertently insulted my trainer. Kru Nut paused in the middle of the pad round to explain to me in halting English how he wanted me to fight. He linked the technique and principles that we had been practicing over the last few weeks into an overall fight strategy. I listened hard. Then I made a mistake.
In sport psychology, I was taught to listen and reflect what I’d heard back to the speaker. “So what you’re saying is that you want me to go forward and knee, but you don’t want me to rush; you want good timing.”
The reflection strategy demonstrates that you are listening, and it gives the speaker a chance to correct anything you might have misunderstood. It is probably a good communication strategy. The only problem is, it isn’t a universally appreciated one.
Kru Nut threw the pads down. “Nut not speak English!” he yelled “But you! You listen!” Contrary to what I had intended, Kru Nut thought that I was correcting his English— a language in which he had never received any formal instruction. He possibly also thought that I was questioning his fight strategy.
Any more words from me at this point would surely only add insult to injury. I said sorry, then I bowed my head, and I wai-ed. Something I had often observed Thai fighter do when being reprimanded by their trainers.
This must have been the right thing to do as Kru Nut, who is not above refusing to train students, picked up the pads. I am happy to say, the rupture in rapport was temporary, and we worked well together for the rest of the fight preparation.
The last thing foreign students want to do is to disrespect their trainer or Thai culture, but sometimes we inadvertently do. I don’t speak Thai, and my experience here is limited to two gyms but one thing I observed was that Thai fighters from young kids all the way up to celebrated Lumpinee fighters are deferential towards their trainers. What the trainer says appears to be accepted without debate or discussion.
I spoke with two Thai people about what it is like dealing with farang. Fern, who works in the hospitality industry, and Ploy, who married a trainer. Both of whom learned English as part of their post secondary education.
Fern explained that Thai people generally understand that foreigners don’t know Thai culture and are ok with making concessions for small, inadvertent transgressions. But there are certain things in which Thais have trouble forgiving. As Fern explains, “It’s offensive to touch people on the head, especially someone who is the same age or older than you.” One’s head is considered sacred in Thailand, this is a definite no-no regardless of your awareness level.
Ploy, has good insight into the the unique culture of a Thai gym where the demands of training typically put people in close physical contact. “In training, it’s okay for male and females to clinch together,” she explains, “but outside of training, farang should be aware that physical contact between a male and a female generally connotes a sexual relationship.”
When taking instruction from a Thai trainer, it’s best to listen respectfully. According to both Ploy and Fern, it is acceptable to ask for clarification, for example “how far should I step before I kick?” However, disagreement or challenging the trainer denotes a lack of belief and trust. The trainer will quickly lose interest in you and your Muay Thai goals; just because you are paying for training doesn’t mean the trainer is going to give away his best techniques to you.
In addition to their own fight career, these trainers have raised, polished, and cornered hundreds of fighters. Their methods have been tried and tested, so it’s best to get on board for the ride.
With respect to general good manners, and appreciation, Fern and Ploy confirmed the following. Sharing is appreciated: inviting the trainers to a meal or a beer or offering them a fridge-cold energy drink on a hot day always goes down well. Tipping your trainer from your fight purse is without a doubt the best way to show your appreciation. If you’re not a fighter, it’s still important to tip out your trainer before heading home.
By the same token, it’s an ugly mistake to think that money buys entitlement; just because you have paid for a month of training does not mean that you can demand that the trainer to hold pads for you, or worse still, tell the trainer how to hold pads.
A frustrating transgression is when farang insist on fighting even when the trainer has advised them that they are not ready. Not only does the student indicate extreme disrespect for the trainer’s judgment, but they inevitably fight poorly and cause the gym to lose face, and losing face is a big deal in Thailand.
A common mistake for farang who are early in their fight careers is to assume that the fight is all about them. A lot of effort goes into preparing them for the fight, in addition to the resources and connections needed to secure a proper match-up. Each gym has its unique, signature style – as well as being part of a regional circuit – and when you step into the ring, you are representing the gym. Thai fighters will immediately wai their trainers and gym owners following a victory in the ring, additionally compensating them financially. As a farang, I would advise doing the same.
Muay Thai is deeply embedded in Thai culture and rich in tradition. I cannot claim to truly know the depth of this, however, the more time training and fighting in Thailand, the more I become aware of it.
I am beginning to see that you cannot take the Thai out of Muay Thai— indeed, why would anyone want to? It is the cultural aspects as much as any technical skill that makes Muay Thai such a special lifestyle, philosophy and practice to be part of. To step into the gym each day is to step into a sacred place, and sacred places deserve respect and reverence.
Names have been changed.