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Focus concerns during Muay Thai drills

I'm quite fixated on the cognitive level of martial arts and as I'm doing beginner Muay Thai at present - I'll narrow the scope only to mindfulness practice on drills/demands of Muay Thai. I'm finding that when I'm completing the drills, I'm almost on autopilot. Not really there while plowing through the drills as my partner moves in tandem. I believe this is becoming a big hinderance on the learning processes for understanding and absorbing Muay Thai. In addition, as I feel fatigued - I become less focused at which I begin to overcompensate by exerting more power in my drills rather than focusing on my form and accuracy. Therefore, I am curious to see whether users have had any benefits from any mindfulness practices to help their level of focus in their chosen martial art(s) training.

Some (slightly) supportive research

  • Aikido and mindfulness. Loathes, Hakan and Kassab (2013) studied the relationship between Aikido training and mindfulness scores and highlighted that practising Aikido is correlated to higher mindfulness scores (and implicitly focus levels?).
  • Mindfulness on a postural balance task. A study by Hwa Kee et al (2012) showed that momentary mindful attention could benefit balance performance during movement control.


  1. What might be the most optimal martial arts to improve level of focus? (I'm aware that all martial arts will involve focus/attentional exercises but there must be differences in the philosophy of each martial arts that could potentially render it more focus-oriented than another)
  2. How could one use informal mindfulness practice to support present-moment Muay Thai drills when one loses focus?
  3. What pre-training mindfulness practices have other users found to be useful in preparing for a class? (My Muay Thai training seems to be quite mechanistic in the sense that there is no education on focus skills)


I'll allow for users to refer to their own general meditative practices if they don't categorically adopt mindfulness practices.

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up vote 10 down vote accepted

plowing through the drills as my partner moves in tandem

There's a good version of this and a poisonous version of this.

The good version is that your padholder is calling for combinations on the fly and you are responding mindlessly. That's super. That's mushin-no-shin.

The bad version is that you are a rock-'em-sock-'em robot. If both of you are stepping in exactly the same ways for each rep, if the combinations are so regular they could set a metronome, then you're doing robotic reps that will do nothing but ingrain a beginner's bad habits. You've lost timing and footwork, two of the most critical lessons to be learning during padwork.

The solution is to always, always, always walk around during padwork, and to constantly mess with any rhythms that form. Throw feints and inject defensive head movement, just like when shadowboxing, to keep the drill from becoming repetitive. Constantly evaluate your output and try to improve on each rep: "I need to get my elbow up on that left hook." or "Hip wasn't quite turned over on that round kick...this next rep I'll go slowly on the other strikes and really pour it onto that kick to get it right." All of that makes the padwork real. Real padwork means real focus and real results.


The meditative aspect of martial arts doesn't need to be wrapped in mysticism to be quite real. You say:

My Muay Thai training seems to be quite mechanistic in the sense that there is no education on focus skills.

...but the mechanistic aspects are plenty to develop mindfulness and focus. Matt Thornton of SBGi says of the "yoga" aspect of martial arts that "what we do is enough", meaning that it's the physical practice that makes one mindful: learning, drilling with intent, sparring with vigor and challenge, facing one's fears through competition.

Personally it's all quite straightforward for me. The pre-class practice is just getting ready for class: "chop wood, carry water". Make sure my gym bag isn't missing anything, my water bottle is filled, I leave on time, and I'm not hungry but not too full either. During class ensuring focus just means focusing. If I lose it, I just let the distracting thoughts arise and pass, and I get back to training. If there's any specific practice I use, it's self-talk to get back in the game and hit harder, work harder, push through the fatigue.

"Best martial art for focus"

The best martial art to improve levels of focus is either whatever art you like best, or, in my opinion, any hard-sparring art where you compete. Being smashed produces maximal mindfulness. Preparing for a match where the other guy is going to try to break your arm and choke you unconscious is tremendously focusing.

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+1 You definitely have a way of explaining things. I'll give you that. While it's relatively straightforward, it's not that easy for me. There's heaps of negative self-talk when I'm fatigued, e.g. "Oh I'm tired. I can't do this!" etc. Furthermore, I ruminate about whether this fatigue is overexerting my body. That said, I'm aware that this is completely a mental consideration rather than an issue about martial arts form and technique. Thanks again. – coeus Feb 26 '14 at 9:00

The first thing I'd say is make sure you're training isn't too focused on pad work. Pad work is designed for conditioning, you'll need to incorporate a good deal of shadow boxing, sparring and working on technique with your teacher or a more experienced fighter. But, since we're talking about pad work - there's two points I'd make

1) If you're working hard enough you are going to be getting pretty uncomfotable; muscles fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea etc. I find I start screwing up my face and making grunting noises as I hit the pads. My teacher pointed this out to me, and he told me simply to try to relax my face and breath normally. This is basically about staying positive in an uncomfortable situation (its the same in sparring - if you get kicked or punched you don't want to be getting pissed off about it).

2) You mentioned you stop focusing on technique - well thats what most people do when they're tired - but that is sort of the point. You are putting yourself in a position were you would want to stop focusing, this allows you to train yourself to keep you're technique even when you are tired.

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If you are a beginner in Muay Thai, the pad drills are key and should typically make up a good percentage of your gym time, along with western boxing exercises, footwork, skipping, etc. A gym should also include sparring drills and some light sparring, although most USA gyms will not include anything that increases liability risk with non-fighters.

I am not 100% sure what you mean by "mindfullness" and "focus" but sounds like a high expectation for a beginner in any martial art or sport. The mechanical repetition is building muscle memory which is something that all martial arts try to do to a greater or lesser extent.

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  1. What might be the most optimal martial arts to improve level of focus?

Any technical martial art (TKD, muay thai, judo, etc) in which the details of how a movement is performed are important. When working up a skill you would focus on improving a particular aspect of performing the movement, reflect on how well you are progressing, and consider new approaches for further improvement. It helps if there is an instructor or senior student that can not only perform the movements well but can also describe the details of a technique (at an appropriate level for the student), describe how it should feel, and why a particular detail is important.

  1. How could one use informal mindfulness practice to support present-moment Muay Thai drills when one loses focus?

Perhaps you could pick a single thing to focus on during the drill such as maintaining an optimal distance, improving balance after striking, or proper breathing. Keep in mind that at some levels of intensity/drills what you should be focusing on is reacting as quickly as possible to a target pad.

  1. What pre-training mindfulness practices have other users found to be useful in preparing for a class?

I like to take notes after class about what I did well and what I want to improve. I then review those notes just before the next class or talk to senior students/instructors about how to specifically improve.

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Absolutely the thing to focus you is impact! Get real with your training partners and simultaneously focus on your breath.Remember Mike Tyson's saying - everyone has a plan until they get hit in the head.Breathe,focus on each moment,self evaluate,keep moving.This then can be applied to any art you choose to practice.

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-1 Doesn't address all the questions that I raised. – coeus Mar 4 '14 at 21:02

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