I did not naturally have a poker face for Muay Thai training. I hated the first time a fist hit my face. I actually have no memory of it, but I was punched in the face a few days ago and enjoyed it about as much as paying taxes or waiting on hold with AT&T, and thus can assume I loathed it equally the first time it happened. But periodic encounters with a closed fist are the main currency of my job description and chosen sport, and over the years I’ve learned to deal. I deal with a punch the same way I deal with road-raged Angelenos who cut me off for going only nine miles over the speed limit: I chalk it up as something I can’t control and should thus brush aside as natural.
Learning to reduce a stressful occurrence into something small, manageable, and ultimately irrelevant was not easy or fast. I’m sure the first time I was hit I floundered and flailed and did everything except find composure. Which was all the more reason to get myself in check. Sudden stress is a staple of Muay Thai, and to succeed at the sport requires its mastery.
What I’m really talking about is the pain face, that exterior sign that loudly proclaims your discomfort. The pain face does not only form during sparring: it creeps in during pad work, during conditioning, during any moment in training where our discomfort overpowers our ability to control our display of emotion. The eyes either wince or widen. The mouth purses, sometimes the draw drops. It can look like the panic of the hunted or the anger of the wounded. It tells your partner or opponent that you’ve lost your center. If you’ve lost control of your expressions, you probably have lost your center.
Remember that no matter how much you advance, you will always get hit in the face. Always. No one ever reaches a point where they become unhittable. True, the better you are the less you get hit. But hit you will be, now or later, for as long as you decide to spar. Even if you don’t spar, there will always be a combination that frustrates you, a partner that flusters you. But it does get easier. The more you brush it off, the stronger your brush gets.
Resist the pain face. Develop a poker face for Muay Thai. Even if your nerves are on fire, pretend you’re as cool as can be. Eventually you will be.
And here I’ll leave you with a little Marcus Aurelius, who sums it up nicely: “When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep on going back to it.”
Coach, Daniel Davis-Williams, CSCS