In every sport, there is an outer and inner game. Master the inner game to dominate the outer game. . .
MUAY THAI: AGAIN! THIS TIME – WITH FEELING!
When I started training Muay Thai, kicking was my biggest obstacle. My hips were tight and uncoordinated. I threw thousands of kicks, read articles on proper kicking technique, and performed plenty of hip mobility exercises. Still, I could not kick properly.
When I moved to Thailand, my trainers made fun of me ruthlessly. In my first few fights, they insisted, “No body kicks! Only punch and elbow and knee and low kick!” I could describe exactly how to kick well, but couldn’t do it myself. It was endlessly frustrating.
My breakthrough came after five months in Thailand. I’d started reading a book called The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey. This is one of the original sport psychology bibles. I’d also switched to a new gym: Diamond Muay Thai. My trainer, Mon, had a unique ability to connect with foreigners and change their habits of thinking to unlock their technique. Together, Mon and The Inner Game transformed the relationship between my body and mind, bringing my game to the next level.
SELF 1 & SELF 2: THE CONSTANT STRUGGLE
The Inner Game argues that there are two selves. “Self 1” is the rational, verbal ego-mind. It watches and judges, telling me to turn over my kicks, get high on my toes and try harder. It was also the voice that berated me as I struggled to learn to kick. In essence, it is the boss, barking out orders to do this or that, better and faster.
But who is Self 1 always ordering around? Gallwey argues that it is “Self 2,” our body’s natural intelligence. Self 2 is a genius: it has the ability to coordinate myriad bodily processes to execute unbelievably complex tasks, like catching a ball or slipping a punch. Self 1 uses verbal instruction to try and control Self 2, instead of stepping out of the way and allowing Self 2’s natural coordination and athleticism to develop.
Gallwey combines this high-level framework with practical advice to unlock Self 2’s potential. Rather than judging and “fixing” technique, I realized I needed to bring simple awareness to exactly what my body was doing. In the case of tennis, Gallwey writes that strokes tend to work themselves out when the player brings awareness to the position of racket in relation to the ball. Technical instruction like “bring your racket back early” interrupts the player’s ability to notice what he or she was actually doing. Since Self 2 is visual and kinesthetic in nature, visualizing perfect technique and paying attention to how it was supposed to feel in the body was more effective than verbal instruction.
SELF 2: A MOMENT OF CLARITY
I read The Inner Game most nights and tried to put it into practice during the day’s training. I visualized myself kicking the bag and pads with excellent technique, and then asked my body to “let me be balanced” or “let me be powerful.” I immediately started feeling more fluidity and explosiveness in my striking.
But my biggest breakthrough came one morning while training with Mon. Before we hit pads, he took me outside the gym. Pebbles lined the road, of which he picked a few up and handed to me.
“Throw,” he commanded, and I pitched the pebble as far as I could. “Not to be thinking – just let the body do.”
Mon had a Yoda-like way of speaking and I wasn’t sure what he meant, but threw a few more pebbles. I didn’t think about how I was throwing or where I was throwing. I just let it happen. “Kicking and punching same as the throwing,” he continued. “Let the body do.”
We walked back into the gym and got in the ring. Mon held for a series of punch and elbow combinations, and I held onto the feeling of looseness and fluidity I’d had while throwing in my mind. My punches were strong and crisp, and I felt a powerful sense of flow. Then Mon held for a roundhouse kick. I hesitated for a moment, then kicked the pad. The kick was weak and tentative. Mon held again and the same thing happened. He shook his head, and I waited for him to correct me. Was I not twisting on my back leg? That was my usual problem. Or perhaps not quite turning the kick over enough? Mon put the pads down and we talked by the side of the ring.
“Punch and elbow are good. Take the same feeling as the punch when you kick.” He put the pads back on, and held for a one-two. I felt confidence flow back as my punches snapped into the pads. Then he held for a kick. I held that same feeling of confidence in my mind and cracked a roundhouse kick that thudded into the pads. Mon smiled and held again. The same thing happened!
When our pad rounds were over, I worked the heavy bag. I threw kick after kick, summoning the same feeling of confidence and joy. I felt myself starting to smile as the kicks smacked home again and again. The Thai boys lazily kicking the bags next to me stopped to watch as my shin thudded into the leather with a sound like a gunshot. I finally had it.
“DON’T THINK – FEEL!“
Gallwey helped me discover what Bruce Lee called “emotional content.” Over the coming weeks, I worked on imbuing every element of my training with that same confidence and joy. I was having more fun than ever before, and kinks in my technique began to work themselves out on their own.
Mon helped me feel for myself what Gallwey wrote: that our body, Self 2, “is a tremendously sophisticated and competent collection of potentialities… (with) an inner intelligence that is staggering.” The next time you train, try the following techniques for tapping into this inner intelligence:
- Ask Instead of Demand: Try rephrasing your self talk. Ask your body “Let me be balanced” or “let me be relaxed.”
- Visualize: If you’re struggling to learn a technique, watch someone do it perfectly and fix it in your mind. Then imagine yourself doing it perfectly before you execute the technique in real life.
- Use Emotion and Kinesthetic Awareness: Think about what it feels like, physically and emotionally, when you execute a technique properly. Try and summon that emotion BEFORE you throw.
- Jacob is a teacher and competes in Muay Thai and Boxing. He spent eight months training and competing in Thailand and is fascinated by the mental side of training. Check out his musings at medium.com/thoughts-from-the-arena.