Muay Thai Guy’s Angela Chang Reflects on the Relationship Between Student and Trainer
The gym is filled with the snap of gloves connecting with leather pads.
Shins thud on heavy bags. The sweaty and fatigued give their undivided attention to each punch, kick, knee and elbow. Trainers shout combinations, tweak techniques, and command more speed and power from their students.
The timer lets out a high-pitched ring, and all activity stops. All of the grunting and yelling are replaced with feet shuffling towards a source of water.
I gulp some water down myself and pour a bit down the back of my head. The air feels heavy, and it can’t reach my lungs fast enough. My shoulders and legs ache from giving and taking the hits.
I reflect for a few moments on hitting pads. It never gets easier. It was hard when I started training, and was throwing simple combinations. And, years later, it’s still hard to fit those combinations like pawns into my trainer’s plans for my fights.
And, I like fights. Those combinations always changed in speed and duration, but power would never be sacrificed. For rounds my trainer would tell me to turn my hip more, swing my arm higher, bring my strikes back faster, move in and out more gracefully—all part of the journey to be more technical, see more, hit harder and faster. Become a better fighter.
As I got better, the training became harder. I saw that it was for my benefit, and for the greater purpose. But it was still difficult. Especially on days like today, when my body and mind are drained by the end of the training week.
The timer trills again, and my trainer tells me to hurry up. I am fortunate enough to have a trainer with a lot of experience here in Thailand, as well as a few back home. On days like today, my trainers are what anchor me to the present moment.
It is so easy to just give up on yourself and coast through training, but a good trainer would never allow that. When I feel like that last kick was all I had left, my trainer, whoever it is at that given moment and place, will pull me back to the present and ask for more. He will yell for more everything—more speed, more power, more focus, and, most importantly, more heart. Especially if he sees that I am tired.
Having heart is your most important pillar to become a better Muay Thai practitioner and fighter. And any good trainer will respect heart over talent. Most trainers just want to see someone try as hard as they can, to do the best that they can. Why waste time on someone who does everything half-assed?
As difficult as pad work is, it flows well for me. My trainer knows the timing and power of my kicks, punches, knees and elbows. So he knows exactly what he needs to do to catch my strikes in time. He also knows when to time his own kicks so I learn how to block faster with my legs. And because he knows my timing, he knows when I am slowing down due to fatigue, and he can tell when I have not rested enough between sessions.
Someone once told me that fighting is like a dance, and I think the same applies to the dynamic between trainer and student. Sometimes when I watch videos of the elite Muay Thai fighters hitting pads, I am amazed at how fluid everything is, and how throwing a combination can easily turn into clinching with the trainer. Neither person gets injured because they know the others’ timing.
This relationship and dynamic between a student and trainer is truly unlike any other.
Most of the time, nothing is said. The trainer holds and the student knows what to do. The trainer knows how to adapt to the student’s style, and the student knows the expectations of the trainer. They “click.” Not only does the trainer know how to prepare a fighter physically, but also how to motivate the fighter and get him or her into the proper mental game.
The trainer knows just how much to push the fighter. Don’t push enough, and they won’t get better. Push too much, and the training will be counterproductive.
Even when few words are exchanged, the relationship is a strong one. Even when the yelling and the student being made to feel like they’re not good enough, the relationship grows stronger. During a fight, a familiar, confident voice tells the student what to do, as exactly they practiced for hours upon hours. And this requires a strong relationship.
I can speak from personal experience that my trainers have impacted my life more than other people. My trainers watch me struggle, see me cry, break me down, and help me realize my strength lies in how I build myself back up.
I rarely share negative moments and feelings with others in other environments, and I never cry when people are watching. But my trainers have seen more than one side of me. My trainers are my coaches, my friends, and sometimes paternal figures to me. Because of them, Muay Thai has been more of a mental and spiritual journal than a physical one. I feel forever indebted to them because of what they invest in me, and what they do because they believe in me.
- Plant-based fighter, foodie, and aspiring physical therapist. Angela is currently living in Bangkok and training full time.