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Learning to Develop Your Fight IQ in Sparring

One of the most common phrases you hear repeated by trainers in Thailand during sparring is “Chai Samong (ใช้สมอง)! They usually scream this as you are being pummelled by some foreigner who is blasting punches.

Chai Samong (ใช้สมอง) essentially means USE YOUR HEAD in Thai.

Most people do not realize that Muay Thai is a thinking sport. The violent nature of Muay Thai can mask the subtle nuanced skills that fighters possess which separate the good from the average.

The process of learning Muay Thai is similar to learning to write. Before you start writing, you first learn your ABCs (Fundamentals). Once you learn the alphabet, you can combine those letters into words (Striking), put words in sentences (Sparring), and combine sentences into paragraphs that bring a story to life (Fighting). The end result is the sum of all the different parts.

As a beginner, you should only focus on executing techniques correctly. Learning how to consistently throw strikes with good technique will create a good foundation for your entire Muay Thai game. After you have developed good fundamentals, you can start to develop timing by sparring, which will teach you when and where to throw strikes.

Learning to Think in Muay Thai

At the lower levels of Muay Thai, there is not much strategy that takes place. Fighters throw punches and kicks without much thought. Given the inherent risks involved in sparring, it is nerve-racking when someone throws punches at you. As a beginner, it is hard to think about anything other than the immediate danger in front of you.

When someone is trying to hurt you, it takes a concentrated effort to think beyond the needs of the moment. Therefore, in order to THINK in Muay Thai, you need to consciously think in sparring.

Reading Your Opponent

If you want to learn how to read your opponent, you need to practice it in sparring. When I say read your opponent, I mean looking for specific cues to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent.

If you do not concentrate on your opponent, you might not notice that your sparring partner is standing with his or her right leg forward (a Southpaw). If you do not recognize there is a Southpaw standing in front of you, you will not adjust your game to counter the tactics that southpaws typically use.

Southpaw fighters need to be dealt with differently than Orthodox fighters. Similarly, if you are facing a much taller fighter, you will approach them differently than a short fighter. And if you face a Kickboxer, they have a different fighting style than a traditional Muay Thai fighter.

Reading your opponent is the first step in learning how to think strategically and figuring out how to counter your opponent.

Understanding Your Strengths

Another important aspect of Chai Samong is to know your own strengths and weaknesses. How can you take advantage of your opponent’s weaknesses if you do not know your own game?

As a beginner, you might not have any strengths or advantages. This is why learning how to think comes with experience. When you start off, your main focus should be improving your basics and sparring as much as possible.

As you improve and develop your sparring skills, you will start to notice specific situations in sparring that you prefer and techniques that can land more often than not.

If you can not identify any strengths or weaknesses in your game, it simply means you need more development. Get more experience and spar with more people to build tools you can use to beat your opponents.

Countering Your Opponent

Once you can identify both the strengths and weaknesses of your own game and your opponents, you can then apply this information to your advantage.

If you know that someone is more technical than you, then countering might mean rushing forward and trying to turn the fight into a scrap. Many technical fighters do not like being pressured with heavy punches. Pressure can often cause skilled fighters to back up in fear, which can turn the tide of a fight.

Learning how to counter an opponent comes from experience in sparring and the ring. You need to go against different fighters, so you can gain experience facing different fighting styles, and understand the rhythm and pace of each style.

Unfortunately, knowledge alone is not enough to learn how to counter an opponent. You need to develop the requisite skill and technique to execute those counters.

How to Develop Your Fight IQ

Now that you understand the importance of developing a good fight IQ, it is important to focus on developing your IQ in training.

To develop your fight IQ, you need to practice THINKING while you are sparring. I know this sounds easy, and it is easy when you are working basic drills with a partner. However, the moment you turn up the power and speed, using your brain is much harder than you think.

As Mike Tyson said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The moment you get hit hard, your thinking brain will want to turn off and switch to autopilot.

Give Yourself a Goal Before Sparring

One of the ways to improve your skills in sparring is to give yourself a specific goal for each sparring session.

One session you might tell yourself that you are going to focus on landing your left jab as much as possible for an entire round. Having a game plan beforehand will force you to think about when you can land that technique and help you improve the timing.

Goal setting can prevent days where you go through the motions without a purpose. Knowing what you should be doing at all times leads to faster development. 

The best way to learn how to think is through technical sparring with a controlled opponent. If you spar with a hard-hitting opponent, you will not have time to think because you will be focused on surviving the sparring session.

Ask Questions About Your Opponent

The moment you see your sparring partner standing in front of you, ask yourself a series of questions that can reveal basic information about him or her.

  • Are the Southpaw or Orthodox?
  • Are they short or tall?
  • Are the fast and quick or are they slow with more power?
  • Is your opponent more or less experience than you?
  • What is your opponent’s fighting style? Are they aggressive, passive or do they like to counter after your attack?
  • Does your opponent have a Muay Thai, Kickboxing, or MMA background?

Asking the right questions can help you formulate a strategy to beat your opponent. Even if you do not have the skillset to win right now, it is better to go into a sparring session with an idea of how to counter your opponent, than with no plan at all.

Talk to Yourself During Sparring

Self-talk is very important when you are trying to develop your fight IQ. As you are sparring, try to focus on a few key areas that you want to work on.

If you notice your opponent has a good high kick, tell yourself to keep your hands up and be aware of that kick. If you see an opening every time your opponent rushes forward, tell yourself to take advantage of that opening next time.

Self-talk is a great way to activate your brain while you are sparring and to develop a habit of using your head. As you get better, you will not have to think because your body will react from habit. However, in the beginning, talking to yourself is a great way to activate those muscles in your brain.

Doing Without Thinking

The end goal of all of this practice is to develop an automated system in your brain that processes information unconsciously.

Think about the first time you learned how to drive a car. The first few times you drove it was probably very intimidating. You had to focus on many different things at once, which made it difficult to think about anything other than the road in front of you.

As you became more comfortable behind the wheel over time, you developed an ability to go into autopilot and drive without thinking. If a light turned red, you automatically applied the brakes to stop.

The same is true for Muay Thai IQ. The best fighters do not have to think about anything they do in the ring, they just do. They have been trained so effectively throughout their years, that their brains automatically know exactly how to counter any style.

The best fighters have developed instincts that allow them to attack and defend without thinking, leaving their thinking brains time to focus on ring strategy.  The ability to focus on strategy, without worrying about attacking and defending, allows them to focus on the big picture. They keep a mental tally of who is winning the fight, and know exactly what they need to do to outscore their opponent. 

As you develop more skills, your brain will incorporate your strategies and counters into your game effortlessly. This is why you practice techniques over and over in training, so they become second nature. The same is true for developing your fight IQ.

If you ask some of the best Thai fighters in Thailand how they are able to counter certain fighters, they probably could not tell you specific details of what they do or why. They do not think, they just do.

These Thai fighters have fought hundreds of opponents over the years with many different styles, so they naturally learn what works and what doesn’t through trial and error.

Unfortunately, you do not have the luxury of having hundreds of fights against the best fighters in the world, so you need to develop your fight IQ in sparring.

Final Thoughts

If you want to become a high-level fighter it is important that you learn to use your head (Chai Samong ใช้สมอง). This is an essential concept that is always drilled home whenever you are sparring or clinching.

When you look at some of the greatest fighters of all time like Saenchai, Samart, and Somrak, they were all fighters who had a very high fight IQ. None of these fighters had any physical advantages, but they learned to outsmart their opponents

The difference between average and good fighters often comes down to fight IQ. At the highest levels, all fighters have mastered the same techniques and hit hard. It is how a fighter uses those techniques that determine how well they fight.

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