This post was revisited during the process of writing Toxic Gym Culture in Muay Thai & Other Martial Arts. As a result, parts of this post have been edited since its original publication.
“Looking back, I realised that much of that post was coloured by the fact that I was in a toxic gym at the time. Rereading it reveals the cult-like mentality I had back then. The idea of others choosing not to stay loyal to one gym was offensive to me, because it had been constantly drummed into me that it was wrong.
The fact that I even cared where or how other people trained was a symptom of the environment I was in. There, loyalty came first, above all else. It would take years for me to realise that this wasn’t healthy”.
Anyone who’s been at a gym for long enough will have met a gym hopper.
You might have one fighter friend whose Facebook pictures always feature shots of them in different gyms, or another who trains at a different gym every time they go to Thailand. They might flutter from gym to gym, training here and there, and fighting for whichever gym they happen to be at during that particular time. Many people might not have a problem with gym hoppers at all, but I sometimes find myself feeling uncomfortable with the concept. Personally, I wouldn’t even feel comfortable wearing shorts carrying the name of any brand or gym other than my own. Perhaps that’s a little over-the-top to some, but to me, it would feel disrespectful to do so. My gym supports me, so I do the same for them by buying and wearing their gear. That’s the way I’ve been taught.
I’ve ranted about this to a few people, with mixed reactions. Some have agreed, and some have said that it shouldn’t be a problem, as fighters just want to build their names on their own and should be allowed to take whatever they can from the different people they train with. To each their own, I guess. I know that it shouldn’t really bother me, since I’m a fighter and not a trainer or gym owner, and how others train doesn’t affect me at all. The reason for my admittedly irrational annoyance at this issue seems to be rooted in the fact that I believe that many gym hoppers are overlooking an important value of Muay Thai: loyalty.
We use the names of our gyms in lieu of our surnames when we fight (at least in Thailand), to proudly acknowledge and represent who made us and where we come from (or who sponsors us). While Muay Thai isn’t a team sport, and you’re on your own in the ring, it takes a village to make a fighter. So, why do so many fighters insist that they’re independent? From many, the impression I seem to get is that the idea of ‘belonging’ to a gym or trainer seems to be offensive to their pride. Although I realise that this is not the case for all gym hoppers, it’s something I’m beginning to notice in a specific type of fighter.
Sometimes, these fighters consistently turn up late to training, refusing to fall in line with the gym’s schedule. When they do show up, they expect padwork or a certain type of treatment, and complain when they don’t get it. “I’m a paying customer, I should get padwork”, I’ve heard some say. But it doesn’t always work like that, especially in Thailand.
Gym hopping isn’t inherently bad. Of course, people have a right to take their business anywhere they choose. But when you’re a fighter, you’re not just a customer. It’s much more complicated than that. The lines become blurred even further if you’re sponsored by your gym.
If your gym is providing subsidised training, accommodation, or food, you have an obligation to stay at that gym and to follow their rules (and may be tied to a contract). Even if you’re not sponsored, the relationship between a fighter and a trainer can be an emotional one. Trainers make huge investments of work, time and emotion to build their fighters, and for them to walk away from that can often feel heartbreaking.
I’ve noticed a cycle. This usually begins with a fighter being genuinely and wholeheartedly loyal to their gym, and fully invested. This period may last a few months, even years. However, I often see cases where the fighter then becomes less active in training for one reason or another, and is then distracted by opportunities elsewhere. They’ll be tempted by aspects of other gyms, and then compare those with that of their own. They’ll start to find holes in the training offered by their own gym. Perhaps they’re not getting enough clinching, or there aren’t enough sparring partners for them, or they’re simply bored with the routine. Then, they decide they’d be better off elsewhere, and make their move. Many of them go on to brag about how superior the training is at their new gyms, as a back-handed insult to the previous one, before often moving on to another one shortly thereafter.
I’m referring to a specific type of person here, not just anyone who likes to train at different gyms. This type of fighter feels entitled to a certain type of treatment everywhere they go, and never seems to be satisfied. Sometimes, after moving around and trying out different options, they later want to return to their original gym. The chances are that if you are one of these people, your gym may not welcome you back with open arms. That’s not to say that there would be any animosity, but a trainer will be much more willing to invest their time into building you if they know that you’re fully dedicated to learning from them. Otherwise, they may feel that it’s not quite worth it.
If the gym you’re training at isn’t right for you, you have every right to seek training elsewhere. However, it’s worth giving it a good amount of consideration before you do so. While there may be genuine reasons to move on to another gym, some fighters find themselves feeling like they don’t need their gym anymore, simply because of an inflated ego.
There have been various occasions on which people have tried to convince me to train at gyms other than my own, telling me that their gym is much better. But different gyms are good for different people, at different times. There have also been times when I’ve felt less than optimistic about my own training, which is almost unavoidable when you do it every day. Despite that feeling, I can’t imagine wanting to train anywhere other than where I am right now, and where I’ve been from the start. To me, it simply comes down to loyalty. But I’m not talking about blind loyalty here. Of course, it has to go both ways, and if a fighter is not getting adequate training or is being treated unjustly, they ought to reevaluate their options. However, if they do, it’s important to try and maintain a positive relationship with their original gym where possible. Otherwise, issues can arise, which can start to affect their fighting career.
One of the great things about Muay Thai is the family atmosphere that you’re immersed in at the gym, and these feelings are intensified during fights. It’s nice to feel part of something, and the bonds that form between the people in and around the gym are hard to forget. This is a huge part of my fighting experience. On top of the fact that it would feel wrong for me to train with anyone else, I simply don’t know if I would want to. For me, fighting is a hugely emotional process, and it’s not something I would want to go through without a trainer who understood me or with whom I have a close relationship.
As a fighter, you can’t build success on your own, and it’s important to acknowledge those who’ve helped you to get to where you are. It’s not about who seems to be offering the best deal at a certain time, but who has built you, trained you and supported you, and will continue to do so. I find that most experiences are what you make of them. If you put yourself into something with your whole heart, others will, too.