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A Brain Cramp is More Painful Than a Muscle Cramp

There have, understandably, been many changes to the gym due to safe management measures for the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a lucky situation to be in at all, to be able to train when some other countries are experiencing a second or third wave of infections and implementing lockdown measures again. But it remains that things are very different from 6 months ago. The biggest change for me personally is that there are no longer nightly fighter trainings.



Man, I miss those evenings. Trying to keep abreast with the rest during the runs, listening in on their conversations about mukbang and on the rare occasion, contributing a single syllable, skipping in the corner, getting wrecked during padwork together, huffing and puffing on the bags, losing count of the kicks, clinching, 5/5/5 conditioning, and selecting chill music to cool down too. CLINCHING, what a foreign concept it seems to be now. Damn, I am getting nostalgic thinking about those aggressive and sweaty hugs and soul-shaking knees. Although I do enjoy my fill of padwork here and there through the week (thank you to the forever-18 “intern” and the trainers when I get to join classes), it is not at the same frequency or intensity of purpose. Which is alright, I guess; it is off season after all, because local competitions do not seem likely in the near future and international flights for recreation are still grounded.



So you can imagine: I’m happy for the rest, but also missing the grind (and feeling terribly guilty for not working harder). That is, until the Supreme Leader took me for training a fortnight ago. It was a simple training; there wasn’t much to do, physically. It was 20 minutes of skipping, followed by 40 minutes of explanation and demonstrations. That’s all. But it was enough to make my brain very tired and start it whirring again.


He went through something at the root of all movements: ranging. It is the basis for striking, the ability to gauge distance and get within range of your opponent. And as with everything, it requires a lot of behind-the-scenes practice. A small tweak will take hundreds of man-hours to perfect. He took a tiny step backwards and explained the benefits of keeping a further distance (more time to react and more space to set things up). Then, he told me to kick from that distance. I hesitated. It was, at most, a 5cm difference, but it felt like an insurmountable crevasse. I tried my best and launched as far as I could and missed totally. The Supreme Leader laughed. He knew this would happen and explained the refinements that I should do, the mechanics behind the movement, the minute adjustments that I should take note of. I tried again. This time, the kick went a bit further, but it still missed. He nodded encouragingly. This went on for the rest of class: a constant feedback loop of kicking, landing or missing, receiving pointers on how to make the kick land better, and trying to work those in on the next kick.


I would like to say that I managed to get what the Supreme Leader was trying to impart that day and am now able to execute it perfectly and effortlessly. I did *not*. Far from it. There were a few times when he nodded excitedly and approved, but I didn’t know how I had achieved it, and the very next kick, I had lost it again. It was a frustrating process, but heartening too. I felt my brain being massaged into a slightly different mold. And having the Supreme Leader give me immediate feedback and suggesting tweaks based on my progression helped a lot too. It was a way of opening the mind, even though the body and muscles take their time to catch up. There were moments when hope faded from my eyes and I was resigned to being a blunt bulldozer, but the Supreme Leader would rein me back in with another shade of meaning, laying out the nuances in a genial tone. And when I did pull it off, he celebrated and encouraged another try.


Which reminded me of how I had been when teaching the children in the Muay Thai class.”This must have been how my trainers feel,” I thought as I see the little ones standing in a row in front of me, their T-shirts askew and shorts too big. So young, so full of potential and enthusiasm and the best intentions to pay attention, but somehow always falling a bit short in the execution. But the latter is okay! It makes me happy that there are other people as keen to learn Muay Thai as I am and who simply want to learn because it seems fun. The basal and childlike excitement to learn, one can never get angry at that, even though as a student myself, I sometimes worried that my coaches would be annoyed at me failing to understand. Teaching is a consistent effort undertaken for the learner’s incremental betterment. And since the mental shift may come or should come before the physical shift, physical skills are not the only barometer for improvement.


This, I felt most keenly, when trying to explain what the Supreme Leader had taught me to the other fighters, other adults with their own fully-formed ideas and reflexes. You would think there’s a thin veil between what has been learnt and what can be taught, and that the former would automatically translate to the latter. But NO, learning and teaching are two radically different realms. For learning, one only needs to listen, process, and execute. For teaching, one must listen to how the learner listens, process how they process, absorb how they have meshed the brain info with the body info, and grade their execution according to how near to/far off they are to what you had been intending for them to learn. That is the largest difference: as a learner, one can just be entirely concerned with processing in one’s own way, while as a teacher, one must consider the learner’s cognitive and physical absorption and modify the lesson accordingly.


So I struggled to explain the distancing principle and how to kick further to Nabeel, and he did his best in comprehending it. When I reported back to the Supreme Leader, he replied: “it isn’t as effective for him, because he will naturally find the most efficient way of doing things”. It was another level of teacher-dom I hadn’t known existed: the sharing of different techniques according to the styles of the individual, the ability to imagine the methods in which and frequency at which the individual may use the technique in future. At once, I felt very hapless and very thankful that I have great coaches along the years who have managed to do all of the above and more, quietly, ceaselessly, and caringly.


It is a long way for me in learning and even more so in teaching. Until recently, I have not deeply considered what the coaches intended in their padwork (the speed kicks, the continual stalking, the head slaps, the stepping back) and the reasons behind doing so. I have always done things diligently, dutifully according to what the coaches had set out, but only now realised the faith is because they have been paring down movement and Muay Thai to its bones, logical, clean, and fuss-free. Only now, in the lull, am I able to set aside my ego aside, step away from the hectic rush to Be The Best I Can Be, and breathe and see more clearly how the threads of learning have come about.


Even now, as I sit and think, it is a wild and tangled spool in my head. But I am glad to have something to work on in a world where so much has stood still. And even gladder still to have coaches with clear minds and unclouded hearts, always willing to dig deep and give as we dig deep and receive. Kkap. (and chwuey rei!)

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