“No problem.”

Photo By Brian Tietz.This is a phrase I heard early on in my muay thai training. It was echoed frequently during my travels in Thailand, where I spent the month of May continuing my martial arts education at the largest training camp in the country.

I hadn’t always been a martial arts enthusiast. In fact, it was only four weeks before I was scheduled to leave for Thailand that I even took my first class. Muay thai is a bit different than standard martial arts; known as the “art of eight weapons,” it involves the use of elbows, fists, knees, shins and feet, and is viewed as one of the most effective full-contact fighting styles in the world. But because I was visiting Thailand—its birth country—and because it embodied a rich cultural history, intense physical training and sharp mental acumen, I decided to begin my training as a challenge to myself. I didn’t fully know what I was getting into, but I was ready to give it a try.

Prepping for Thailand

In a serendipitous turn of events, I learned that my neighbors Gene and Heather Simco, owners of NYMAG Mixed Martial Arts Gym in Naples, happen to employ internationally renowned muay thai fighter Cosmo Alexandre and a top U.S. fighter, Keith Rummel.

Both instructors have trained in Thailand and quickly became my U.S.-based muay thai mentors. Right away, I started private training for one hour five days a week and took part in group sessions.

Cosmo and Keith began my intensive crash course centered mostly around conditioning via running and jumping rope, basic techniques and pad work. It was during a Saturday training session with Cosmo on the pads that I first heard that soon-to-be familiar phrase: “No problem.”

I was breathless, my heart beating out of my chest, drenched in sweat, and I couldn’t seem to land my kicks on either side correctly. As I became more frustrated, Cosmo continued to repeat the phrase with perfect ease and patience. I think I even saw a hint of a smile at times. This persisted, and I found myself repeating him: “No … problem!”

How could one of the world’s top muay thai fighters possibly be telling me that my lack of execution was not a problem? This moment hit home for me; as a perfectionist in all aspects of my life, I realize this sometimes limits my ability to succeed.

At some point in this exchange, I realized that I had not found muay thai and my mentors. Rather, they had found me—and at just the right time. This is the kind of extreme kindness, graciousness and humility I’ve seen in Cosmo Alexandre, Keith Rummel and so many of the muay thai fighters I have come into contact with both here and abroad. Cosmo has certainly helped me to drop my own performance expectations and to just enjoy the process of learning a tough but exhilarating sport.

As I worked with Cosmo on his commutes from the East coast and with Keith on a daily basis, I knew I liked the high intensity of the exercise. I often felt like I wanted to vomit the entire day afterward, but I still loved it.

Photo By Brian Tietz.

In the homeland

My four weeks of training passed by quickly, and before I knew it, I found myself in hot, sticky Thailand. Amidst expansive green rice fields, saffron robed monks, stunning coastlines dotted with goliath rock formations, street vendors cooking fresh noodles to order “Thai spicy” and a serious devotion to the favorite national sport of muay thai, I found myself a bit intimidated. As a beginner and American woman, I knew this was going to be a test not only of my physical skills but my ability to adapt to a new environment in which I was likely to be somewhat of an anomaly.

I ultimately did the majority of my training at Tiger Muay Thai. Located in Chalong in the province of Phuket, Tiger is the largest camp in the country. The training staff, made up of Thai males with some of the best fighting records in the sport, instructs pupils from around the world of all levels who come to learn the art of muay thai, as well as many current fighters with successful records in the ring.

From the first moment of training at Tiger, I felt right at home, even with a head trainer (Mr. Dang Chuaikaitum) who encouraged his staff to hit students in the abs with pads during crunches and threatened to utilize a rattan stick if maximum effort wasn’t put forth.

For almost two weeks, I practiced muay thai during two outdoor ringside sessions; two-and-a-half hours in the morning and the afternoon.

These sessions mirrored my U.S. training to some degree in that they typically consisted of a warmup, shadowboxing, sparring, pad work with the trainer, bag work, then a final conditioning element to finish. The only differences were the stifling heat and humidity (which made summer conditions in Southwest Florida look mild) and the extended time period.

Training six hours a day, I eventually added two private sessions with my trainers of choice, Pong (Mr. Saman Kunoram) and Boo (Mr. Nitiluk Haji), for some extra tutelage. All I recall doing in between training was eating and sleeping. But I was completely in love with the experience. I knew this was a place I would return to and a sport I would continue.

Photo By Brian Tietz.Not just a sport

My work with Pong and Boo in private sessions was grueling, often beginning with shadow boxing before moving to combinations using the pads. It was when working with these two trainers in this foreign land that I again came across the phrase that had become my nemesis: “No problem.”

It started in my first session with Boo when he asked to see my fighting stance. In a muay thai fight, a traditional form of music dominated by the oboe is played throughout. So, in fighting stance you are expected to continually move in a specific rhythm that accompanies that of the music. I’m not Thai, and I’m certainly not rhythmic. As I awkwardly bounced about, frustrated that I couldn’t seem to get the rhythm, I heard Boo calmly repeat my most dreaded phrase.

My automatic response came quickly. It was a problem.

Boo was quick to remind me: Muay Thai should be relaxing and like a dance, he said. I recall wondering what type of dance would require the partner to repeatedly strike the other and how on earth this seasoned muay thai champion could claim that such a violent martial art was to be a form of relaxation.

The strangeness continued when I stepped into the ring with Pong. Once again, I was asked to display the traditional fighting stance. After Pong tweaked this to his liking, he started taking me through a series of punch combinations using the pads. I didn’t know it, but my arms were tensed and stiff as I continually struck as per his commands—or so I thought.

At one point he halted the drill and looked at me solemnly. If I was stiff, trying too hard and tense, he explained, I was making it more difficult to successfully attack my opponent.

It suddenly hit me that both Boo and Pong were on to something. These weren’t seasoned fighters who had gone mad but rather professionals able to see clearly that a student needed to drop her need for perfection, anxiety and expectations in order to relax, focus and learn. When I promptly apologized for my tension, he simply shrugged and said without blinking an eye, “No problem.” Then we carried on for the remainder of the hour.

As I continue to embrace my new sport, I’m also working hard to relax and enjoy the journey. I’m not sure exactly where this path will lead, but I like what it offers, both athletically and personally.

Recently a friend asked if I thought I would ever be able to master muay thai to my satisfaction.

My answer? “No problem.”