Muaythai is a fundamental part of Thai culture, followed and loved by both adults and children.
All the greatest champions, some of them are also very famous in the West, had started practising from an early age of 6 or 7 years old, fighting in order to help their family financially and with the hope of a better future than now: some have to work in the fields, as a bricklayer or move to tourists places to work for the ‘farang’ or tourists.
This situation happened above all in the past, when the level of poverty of the country was much higher. Families who had a lot of children, moved them to a Muaythai camp in their area to check if some of them had talent and heart in the ring. When the owner of the camp was noticed by the child and he liked it, the family was relieved of the burden of raising him because they could leave him in Muay Thai camp and be confident that he would have a better future. In this way, they could support better the other children, having to incur less expenses, as the child and future ‘Nak Muay’ ( work as a fighter which we will explain later) would be cared by the gym entirely, food and accommodation, exactly as if the child would have been adopted. For this reason, the fighters take the surname of the camp to which they belong and they represent in the ring.
Today, the fact of the children fighting for the need to earn money is decreasing in many areas of Thailand, but it is still present in the poorest regions of Northeast of Thailand ( in Thai language อีสาน is pronounced Isaan) and partly also in the deep south.
Tailand: profesionals from an early age
In Thailand, Muay Thai is a job, that it is why those who practice it are called “Nak Muay” or professional fighter of this sport. The little athletes train twice a day and, in the morning, are forced to wake up very early because they have to finish the first session in time and then go to the school.
They train just like adults: running, clinch, sparring…The best one also works with the coach (Kru) who holds the hitters ( pads) and teaches him but above all they have to do a lot of work in the bags, watching and imitating the older and experienced peers; it requires dedication and commitment, just like a job and they will do it willingly because they know they are privileged compared to others with less promising future. At school, children who practice Muay Thai are given a “privileged” treatment, precisely because Muay Thai is the national sport and often teachers are passionate, fans and the majority bet on competitions. Then knowing well a boy is often a competitive advantage in order to bet because you could know if he is trained well, if he is in good physical way o has some ailments and it could make the difference. As fans, teachers too, exactly as in Europe with the football, have a soft spot for the guys who are superstars in the ring and this also sometimes affects the school evaluation on these little “stars”.
About the fights, children go into the ring immediately without using protection. This fact, discussed in Europe, certainly has many pros but also some cons.
This habit of fighting in this way gives him the opportunity to enter the world of real fights, for example, by learning to understand when it is better to defend or attack or how to manage the fight according to the opponent. Also technically, an obvious example is the importance of blocking the kick and controlling the arms in the clinch, it become an automatism which will be fundamental when, and if, they will compete in the big stadiums of Bangkok where they could earn money and become a celebrity.
Their experience is absolutely incomparable to that of children in other countries. Just like football in Europe, where you start as a child and where your parents are aware that if you become a champion, your life will change for the better, at least from an economic and social point of view. The criticisms which arrive from the western part of the world to thai people are in the other side of the same hypocrisy, if you think that in Thailand, football is considered a rich sport that now many aspire to, for example in Pattaya, Phuket and Bangkok, however very dangerous.
On the other side of the coin, obviously, there are blows, especially in the head
which are received during the matches and that, in the age of development could damage the athlete’s brain growth. Who can say that this does not happen in other sport too, even if the goal is not combat but still there is hand-to-hand work and a lot of physicality and adrenaline
However, the fact remains that children’s fights are fascinating and as any other sport, starting as a child is the key to acquiring an excellent base for the future.
Europe: Muaythai as an educational game
For Europe, children practice Muaythai in a completely different way.
First of all, it is fair to point that near 11 or 12 years old, children do not practice the real Muaythai.
The European child-centric vision has led adults to adapt to the needs of the children who want to practice a couple of times a week only to discharge the emerge accumulated during the school routine.
The lessons are designed through paths, circuits and games with specific technical works. It will be very difficult to see children of 7/8 years old doing 4 rounds of pads, clinch, etc. In short, a training so different to the work which the Thai peers do.
Secondly, it is important to mention that in Europe, Muaythai is a hobby; nobody practices it because it is poor and needs money to eat, but only for passion.
This leads us to another matter: the fighting.
Needless to say, even in this point of view, we are very far from the Thai philosophy which approve the children fight immediately without protections.
Based on age, young fighters have different protections: we start with 16oz gloves, body protection, shin guards and helmet with grid for the little ones, slowly going to reduce the amount of protection as the age increases, reminding us that children are forced to do “light contact”, it means that the hits are without force. This idea makes impossible to debut in the “PRO” level up to 16 or 18 years old, depending on the country.
Certainly, this behaviour has the goal of taking care the health of the child which it is very important but with the “ soft armour”, they will not learn to understand the importance of blockages or the pain caused by a kick on the arm and this will condition them in the future because when they will have to remove the shin guards to fight, the majority will abandon this great sport because they are scared. I show you an interesting video about the topic published by our blog in 2015: ‘Martial arts for children’.
Which is the best; Europe or Thailand?
In conclusion, we can say that there are two completely different visions: one very protective and another capable of making strong fighters from an early age.
Which is the right one? The correct answer is: it depends on what are you looking for, if a sport as a hobby or the real.
Today, compared to 20 years ago, there are a lot of Nak Muay ‘farang’ or non thai, who have success against Thailand champions, There are modern camps in Thailand which are manager in a mixed way by ‘farang’ and thai people, Then, they mix the experience and the search for the continuous improvement to find advances methods which help the fighters who start competing in adulthood and filling up this lack of experience, It is true that miracles do not exist, however, for example, a camp which has ‘ farang’ athletes and they are dominated the Lumpinee Stadium is the 7 Muay Thai gym, situated in Rayong. There works the first Italian fighter who is included in the top 10 in the first division of this stadium and others who are following his steps.