What Muay Thai Teaches You About Feedback

When someone’s leg is flying at you, it’s important to feel like you can trust them. At the Muay Thai gym in Oakland I trained at for over a year, I learned that feedback is all-important. When partnered up with someone new, this process starts all over again. You’re reminded that rapport is something you have to build.

What I’m talking about here comes out of sparring. Sparring is not competitive fighting, or at least not the kind I have done. You are not trying to score points, or defeat your opponent. You are trying to practice the craft, improve your skill and fluidity, learn from your opponent and bear with them as they learn.

In sparring, you want to know the rhythm of force you’ve established is a comfortable one, not too aggressive or too soft: a steady equilibrium where you’re trading blows just about equally hard, not acting impulsively or emotionally, and in general being a good sport. This is a subtle thing, where communication is key — and where feedback becomes all important.

Conflict can be friendly

Trading punches and kicks is intense, full-contact stuff. But the interesting thing a good gym demonstrates is that conflict can take place in a setting that is supportive, safe, and even friendly. There are small gestures during sparring that take on a great importance. You might pause after a kick lands hard, for instance, or it seems like someone banged their knee, and make eye contact or say “ok?”

You tap gloves when the timer starts and ends the three-minute session. At any moment, you can step out of the session without judgment or blame. This creation of safe boundaries for the conflict to exist in takes what otherwise would be a terribly threatening situation in real life — having someone come at you punching and kicking — and makes it instead a challenging, but overall fun and engaging activity.

Feedback can be deceptive

A simple concept, but difficult to employ effectively or defend against when well executed, is the feint: the feigned move. It’s intentional noise in the feedback signal. You might start with a jab, then halt and throw a right; lift a leg for a kick, then drop it before swiftly completing the move to find the opening in your opponent’s defense as they move to block the feigned attack.

In turn, you must be alert to your sparring partner trying the same thing. Is that jab a real jab? Having the right amount of doubt keeps you from reacting automatically, or too quickly, waiting just long enough to make sure your observations are correct before countering.

What hurts the most is unintentional

The worst moments of pain you’re likely to have sparring probably won’t come from your opponent landing a beautiful kick just the way they wanted. It’ll come from some accidental shit where you both try to block with your knees at the same time and slam them together.

Those moments where you get your signals crossed, where feedback you’re giving or receiving is muddy or unclear, where noise and chaos — because of speed, confusion, or exhaustion — enter in, those are the dangerous moments in sparring.

(This is another point of distinction from true competitive fighting, of course. There, the lesson would need to be altered: the most dangerous moments are when you are confused about your opponent’s intention, as in the case of deceptive feedback.)

Competition blurs into collaboration

The person you’re sparring with is usually one of the same people who you’ve held heavy leather pads for as they practiced a combination, and who then returned the favor to you, passively bearing the brunt of your fists, feet and knees.

They’ve seen you sweating, panting, humbled as you try to keep up with the trainer’s commands to perform dozens of kick, block and strike combinations. You’ve seen this person pushing against their limits too, in a state of total concentration and struggle.

So while you are in a sense competing, in another you’re propping each other up — sharing the common goal of both being at your best, both moving forward in this game and bringing your best to it. This brings me to the next point, which is:

Fierce competition can be the best teacher

This isn’t a takeaway that I rush to, and the reason is this: in America we have a cheap version of this lesson that has become a harmful cliché. There are many areas of life where competition does not automatically yield the best results. That’s not what I’m generalizing.

I’ve learned that a sparring partner that you have to admit is clearly a stronger or faster fighter than yourself really does push you to up your game.

Maybe it teaches you to emulate some of what they do so well. Maybe what it teaches you is to find your unique asset in that match: if they’re stronger, you can compensate by being faster.

Some version of this — finding what fits your style and is uniquely effective — is the end result, and why this scenario is so valuable in its difficulty. The value is in the difficulty.

Taking this out of the ring

I don’t think I need to totally spell out how really learning the above things applies to the workplace or other areas of life outside the gym. These also aren’t things that are ‘learned’ once — they’re more like habits of thinking that can be cultivated over time, with varied success.

Two simple things have been most helpful to me. One is remembering that it’s usually how someone’s punch landed wrong, rather than how they intended to throw it, that hurts. People don’t usually set out to hurt each other. They want to move their view, agenda, or position forward as best they can. When a painful collision of views happens, it’s easy to take things personally. It’s harder to see through that and pinpoint where a spirited exchange, or discourse, slid into something more contentious because of some kind of semantic distortion — a misinterpreted signal, the lack of a common language to describe something, or two defensive moves colliding instead of a fluid back-and-forth of energy.

The other is the simple act of checking in — and its raised importance when getting into areas that may be difficult. In kickboxing there’s a clearly delineated frame: the ring itself, the buzzer of the timer. You tap gloves, make eye contact, and just as clearly signal a “time out.” How do you “tap gloves” in a meeting with coworkers — or a spouse — before getting into a dialogue that you know will involve conflict? How do you maintain that verbal sparring is firm, but respectful? How do you continue to check in and bring it back to grounding things in a basic fundamental trust, or even better, the mutual understanding of a shared struggle?

I have not come anywhere close to being an expert, either at Muay Thai or the art of communication. But I’m pleased that one taught me a few things about the other.