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New to Sparring? Try These Tips!

Editor’s note: The following blog post was written by Easton Training Center’s Muay Thai Program Director and Head Coach, Sean Madden.

Congratulations on finally making it to the sparring stage in your Muay Thai journey! Like every level within Easton Muay Thai, this new one can be equally exciting and intimidating.

For many, when they hear the word “sparring,” they automatically conjure the image of two fighters slugging it out in the training room, bloodied and exhausted while trading strikes at full power. Don’t worry! Sparring will ALMOST never look like this, especially at the Easton academies. Heavier sparring has its time and place, but we almost always reserve this for our athletes with upcoming fights.

In this blog post, we will talk about the importance of sparring in your Muay Thai journey, and then I will share 3 tips with you that will help you to start off sparring on the right foot! 

Why is sparring important in Muay Thai?

Muay Thai, like boxing, kickboxing, and some forms of karate, is a combat sport at heart.

The origins of this ancient sport trace back to the times when the Thai and Burmese armies were trained in a variation of Muay Thai known as “Muay Boran,” which was a hand-to-hand combat art used by their militaries. 

Many “martial arts” are beautiful to watch and important to practice, but not all necessarily make combat sports. As such, these arts focus more on “katas” and repetition of techniques and movements; almost like choreography.

However, with combat sports, the goal is not only to display beautiful technique, but also ensure that the offensive and defense techniques are battle-tested.

This means that these techniques must be pressure-tested in live settings. And, in order for us to test them in the ring, we must first practice them live in the training room. Hence, sparring is a vital component of Muay Thai training! 

It’s important to remember that although everyone can practice Muay Thai, not everyone has to fight or compete in the sport.

This said, everyone who trains Muay Thai can and SHOULD spar to test their techniques — see what’s working and what isn’t.

Sparring as a teaching tool makes up one of our most valuable resources. Sparring allows us to get real-time feedback on our Muay Thai game and to better understand our strengths and weaknesses. We have many methodologies to improve our Muay Thai (shadowboxing, pad work, bag work, drills, etc.), but sparring is one of our most valuable teaching tools because the truth comes out.

If you are blocking incorrectly, it will be exposed. If you are crossing your feet, it will be exposed. If you are kicking incorrectly, it will be exposed. If you are doing things right, those will be highlighted too! 

Now that we know the importance of sparring in Muay Thai, let’s talk about some tips that can help you start to spar safely and productively! 

Tips for sparring

If you are new to sparring, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when you first start. That’s natural! Sparring is very different from pad hitting and even partner drilling, mostly because you don’t know what your partner will be attacking with. Here are three game-changing tips for your first few sparring sessions! The first and most important tip is:

1. Try to stay relaxed! 

The Thais frequently use the term, “sabai sabai!”

This translates to “relax, relax!” Learning to relax is one of the most important things you can do in your Muay Thai journey, but especially when it comes to sparring. Staying relaxed in sparring allows you to see better and react better. If you stay loose and calm, you are able to react much quicker than if you were tight and tense.

Staying relaxed also benefits your training partners. When you learn to relax, you will also learn to throw your attacks with more speed and less force, which is very important when sparring with teammates. If you are tense, your strikes may land much harder than you intend, which can result in an injury to yourself or your training partner.

Finally, learning to stay relaxed during sparring also helps conserve energy! Being in a state of tension for the entire time burns unnecessary amounts of your energy. You will often see beginners sparring and EXHAUSTED after a round or two, whereas the more experienced students are barely breaking a sweat. Part of this attributes to the fact that the more experienced students have learned how to RELAX during the rounds and use their energy at the right times. 

2. Make Defense a Priority 

When you first start sparring, there is so much to think about! Offense, defense, footwork, balance, counter attacks, timing, and so much more. If you think about all these at once, it’s easy for even the most experienced students to get overwhelmed and, ultimately, freeze.

My advice to sparring beginners? Focus on your defense first.

As much as everyone loves offense and attacking, defense is commonly the hardest thing to learn and overcome. It goes against natural human reaction to stand your ground and keep your eyes open to the strikes coming at your face. However, when you prioritize defense, you will learn to remain composed and stay in position to attack back.

Once you trust yourself to defend oncoming strikes, the offense becomes that much easier. Make your defense a priority! 

3. Leave Your Ego Out of It

My final tip as you start your sparring journey is an important one: leave your ego at the door! This holds true in all Muay Thai training, but especially when it comes to sparring.

Listen, YOU ARE GOING TO GET HIT. This isn’t an “if”, but a “‘when.” Getting hit is part of the sport and something we have to learn to deal with.

This tip is crucial for several reasons. First, when we involve the ego in sparring, we make it very easy for things to start to escalate. Your partner may hit you with a clean shot, but you felt it was harder than necessary. If your ego gets involved, you will instantly look to retaliate and possibly even escalate the exchange. This becomes a dangerous game and something we want to avoid at Easton.

If your partner hits you clean, don’t get upset at them. Remember, you were the one who forgot to block! (Re-read the section on defense!)

Second, as difficult as it can seem, we have to try to leave emotion out of training. The Thais have a term, “jai yen,” which means “cool heart.” This refers to a state that we strive to attain during training and in competition. If we start running hot and let our emotions dictate our training, it’s easy to get lost in these emotions and miss what’s happening right in front of us.

In sparring, we have to make split-second decisions based on our partner, but if we get emotional, we already put ourselves a step behind. By leaving the emotion out of it, we can fully focus on the task at hand, and thus see offense and defense opportunities more clearly. 

[So You Just Started Striking: Some Tips to Fill in the Gaps]

Settle in for the ride

Sparring in Muay Thai will often be difficult, challenging, and exhausting.

Early on, you may feel more like the nail than the hammer. Try to remind yourself of when you first started Muay Thai and how far you’ve come since then!

I promise you — six months from now, you’ll look back at your first sparring session and laugh.

What seemed like a daunting challenge at the time will become a distant memory. Now sparring will make up a regular part of your training routine and likely the one you look forward to the most!

Enjoy the process and try out these three tips. Just like everything else in Muay Thai, to get good at it we have to rep it out.

The more sparring rounds you do, the more natural everything will feel. Trust the process and keep training; you’ll be sparring like a pro before you know it! 

-Coach Sean Madden

Easton Muay Thai Program Director

Easton Muay Thai Head Coach

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