Monday, August 20, 2007

The Tao of Muay Thai

It is common knowledge that Muay Thai training is one of the toughest in the world of sport. Some sports physiologists even feel that it is too stressful for the nervous system to go through two sessions of anaerobic training a day like Muay Thai practitioners do.

I believe that it is not the physical alone that makes Muay Thai such a formidable art. Muay Thai’s prowess lies in the unique combination of physical strength and mental power. Most people and even the athletes themselves often overlook the mental training or psychological aspect of Muay Thai.

Muay Thai has a long history and is an integral part of Thai culture. Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam have influenced the rituals and traditions of Muay Thai. From the Mong Kon, Ram Muay and Wai Kru to the recitations before the fight, there is a very spiritual element to this sport. During my training and study of Muay Thai in Thailand, I noticed that many elements of these traditional practices actually mirrors closely with modern sports psychology, especially in the theory of optimum arousal and visualization.


Arousal is closely related to anxiety, attention and stress. One finding with respect to arousal is the Yerkes-Dodson law, which predicts an inverted U-shaped function between arousal and performance.

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A certain amount of arousal is necessary in order to perform at your best. But too much or too little would most certainly work against you. In sports, a player who is playing great is at the optimum arousal point and is said to be "in the zone."

Many inexperienced fighters may suffer from pre-fight jitters causing their anxiety to increase. Instead of bringing down their arousal level in order to control anxiety, they get even more aroused by psyching themselves up with some sort of aggressive ritual such as slapping their own faces and shouting out loud. These fighters usually allow anxiety to get the better of them resulting in silly mistakes and tiring easily.

I remember my first fight in Thailand. Physically, I was at my peak. I trained twice a day for almost six weeks. All the physical conditioning came to nothing when I allowed adrenalin to take over. By the end of the second round, I was too exhausted to even lift my hands up! Sure enough, I lost my fight.

I observed that many of the more experienced fighters seemed to be in a meditative state when they are fighting. They seemed to have so much time to react to almost anything that their opponents threw at them. Fighting in the ring seemed almost like a walk in the park.

Ring experience definitely contributes to their mastery but when I began paying more attention to the rituals and practices associated with the sport, I came to realize that mental training plays an equally important role as well.

Note: There are also fighters who need to have a higher arousal level to perform well. So this arousal level actually differs in every athlete. Ultimately, the athlete has to find his/her own “magic number” – optimum arousal level.


Meditation is often defined as “a state of relaxed concentration on the reality of the present moment.” Many Muay Thai fighters meditate regularly and some even go on temple retreats where they shave their heads and eyebrows and spend their days meditating and doing mundane chores. They hardly speak to each other and are discouraged from making eye contact. Apparently, these practices help them to cultivate their minds and spirits.

It is indeed a challenge to remain alert and relaxed during a fight. You are put in situation of real threat where you could be injured or knocked out anytime, yet you have to remain calm and composed. Meditation actually increases alpha wave activity in the brain, which is responsible for a calm and relaxed state of mind. This in turn helps one to bring down the heightened arousal levels during a fight to the optimum level.

Distance Running

Professional Muay Thai boxers typically run an average of twelve to fifteen kilometers everyday. Long distance running and other repetitive and rhythmic exercises such as swimming and rowing increases alpha-wave activity in the brain as well.

Wai Kru

A dance-like routine performed by the boxer before the fight, the Wai Kru’s movements are slow, focused and controlled. (Almost like a form of Taiji) It is performed to the almost meditative and trance-like sounding music from traditional Thai pipes and drums. Not only does the Wai Kru serves as a warm up, I believe it helps to control the boxer’s arousal levels and gives him some “private space and time” to focus before the fight begins.


Visualization involves the training of the right brain, which is closely linked to athletic ability, creativity and relaxation. The right hemisphere is also associated with emotional and subconscious learning. In other words, visualization helps to train the subconscious which has been repeatedly proven to be an effective and powerful strategy for athletes seeking to improve their sporting performances.

The power of visualization can be best illustrated by a famous and well-documented experiment conducted by an American psychologist, Dr. Alan Richardson.

Dr. Richardson divided a team of basketball players into three groups. They were tested on their accuracy in free throws, and each group’s results were recorded. The first group practiced free throws in the courts everyday. The second group skipped training altogether and the last group stayed in their rooms and mentally “saw” themselves taking free throws.

After a month, the three groups were tested again and the results were astonishing. The second group’s (They did not practice at all) results did not improve at all while the third group who had only practiced in their minds improved as much as the first group. (Practiced shooting everyday)

Shadow Boxing

Two keys to successful visualization are to practice regularly and to practice it as if it is in the “now.” Shadow boxing is actually a form of “active” visualization. When shadow boxing, we should behave as if we are in a real-time “now” event. Be focused and relaxed- exactly how you want to feel during a real fight. Imagine yourself actually sparring with a real opponent-you lean back to avoid a punch and counter with a combination of your own. You see an opening and throw a big elbow at your opponent!

Also, put lots of feelings and details into the practice. For example, actually feel your gloves knocking back an opponents head as you deliver a knockout punch and literally feel your opponent fall onto the canvas as you are sweeping him off his feet with a low kick!

Shadow sparring is an integral part of Muay Thai training but many boxers do not seem to take it seriously. It is more than just a way to warm up; it is an awesome form of mental training. Each time you practice, you are programming your subconscious and the images become clearer and more potent. Eventually, these images and actions will be internalized and you will react instinctively during a real fight.

In addition to shadow sparring, we should also practice “passive” visualization at least once a day. See your thoughts and actions being put into practice at night or when you wake up in the morning.


Many non-practitioners of the sport perceive Muay Thai to be purely aggressive and a no-brainer. We cannot blame them for having such perceptions as aggression is more blatantly displayed in this sport as compared to say Table Tennis for example.

However, I reckon most practitioners of the sport will agree with me that Muay Thai is not purely about aggression. It is about controlled aggression and patience. You hardly see any boxers chasing and brawling at his opponent when his initial strikes fail to find the target. He will most probably go back to his fighting stance and wait for another opportunity to strike.

I believe that the practice of Muay Thai helps to simultaneously refine one’s mind, body and spirit, which I personally refer to as The Tao of Muay Thai.

Written by Hansen Bay with Grace Yip, Sports Psychologist