Late last year I have started learning Thai boxing, inspired by Wim Demeere’s Boxing for self-defense, is it effective? and wanting to get a real fighting experience. I wanted to get down to the basics, no fancy techniques, just learn good punching, kicking, and footwork, timing, angle, distancing. I have had about 20 normal lessons and 10 (extremely useful) private lessons.

It has given me all that I expected, though I am not there just yet. I can punch and kick much better, hold my guard up (most of the time), move somewhat, protect myself to some extent, and handle some beating. I am far from being able to use the full force of my body, especially in kicks. Balance is an issue, especially when I move while performing multiple techniques. I know I have to work on my footwork (precision, speed, versatility), on my defense, on combining multiple attacks, and on tactical thinking (using footwork, feints, and previous attacks to set up the next one(s)).

Yesterday I had the opportunity to spar with two rather experienced Thai boxers for a few rounds. I got a solid beating, though they were very gentle with me. It was a great learning experience. Some noteworthy points:

Mindset is something I need to work on, namely on my fear and intent. Once you have been hit few times and know the opponent is better, the fear of pain affects you. You fear to start an attack (expecting it to be stopped and followed by a punishing counterattack), you fear getting too close by following up with another attack. Once my attack is stopped, I fear the counteraction and want to get out. Instead, I should honor the Tai Chi adage “technique broken, intent unbroken” and continue with other attacks, giving the partner no time to react. It is even worse when I get into an inferior position and come under an overwhelming barrage of attacks. I have then the tendency to collapse my defenses, to turn away and try to get out. Instead, I should either attack into the attack, or at least do a proper, controlled retreat. And it works - not thinking about pain, about the fear, switching on an aggressive mode. I just need to work on this more. Wim has a great post about conquering the fear of fighting with good tips and useful resources. Some of the experiences he had are a copy of mine (and everybody else’s, I imagine). And his other post, How to Be More Aggressive in Sparring is a gold mine of good advice.

Both my opponents used kicks quite a lot, more than I expected. Especially one of them was able to kick on one side and immediately on the other, targeting equally body and legs. His well-timed push kick has efficiently stopped my attack a few times. And his kicks were powerful, though they did not harm me much, rather made me wary. I wonder how much stronger could he actually kick if he wanted to. I imagine it could be quite bad for me. Even the cumulative effects of his leg kicks as they were would surely slow me down soon. And a well-placed rib kick by the other one has stunned me somewhat, giving him very good opening, if he wanted to finish the fight quickly. I am glad they respected my limited skilled and avoided head kicks, though I anyway run into one lower kick with my face. Not recommended.

I have realized that I can notice openings and have an idea how to use them, but it comes too late. I need to train myself to skip the cognitive processes and connect the perception of an opening right to an appropriate reaction. That will take some training.

Another thing I need to work out is finding ways of engaging the partner (relatively) safely, without exposing myself immediately for a counterattack. Right now I feel that when I need to close the gap to attack, the other guy has enough time to see what is coming, prepare to evade or block it, and punch me in exchange. (Though I have also seen that following immediately with other attacks may work.) I need to become conscious of his body movement, so that I can time my approach and attack into the least convenient time and spot for him. I also need to perfect my footwork so that I land with a perfect balance, ready for anything, and practice serious but not over-committed attacks. And I need to learn to feint with my attacks and body movement. (I imagine that the highly recommended The Liar The Cheat and The Thief: Deception and the Art of Sword Play by Maija Soderholm would be very useful here; I am not fencing but the lessons are universal and timeless.)

And the last one - I have noticed that the exchanges were relatively short, the fighters disengaging regularly. I guess it is an artifact of sparring and the limited space of a ring. I don’t think it works like that in a self-defense situation. So that is something to “train against”.