Last Friday, Master Toddy approached me at the end of training to ask if I wanted to go to Hua Hin with him that day as it was my day off work. Hua Hin is a beach town a couple of hours away, and since I never get a chance to go to the beach, I was more than happy to go. So, I got ready straight away and we set off from the gym in Master Toddy’s van.
While we were on the road, I got a call from my manager at work. Since the coup had been announced the previous evening, we were unsure what would happen with our work situation. It turned out that she had called to inform me that there was no need for me to come into work for the whole weekend, as the Ministry of Education had called for all schools to close, which was music to my ears. I only ever have one day off each week, so the idea a weekend, let alone a long weekend, made me very excited. However, 45 minutes later, I received another call to say that I did, in fact, have to work. The Ministry of Education had changed their minds and said that since we teach adults, we had to remain open. Gah. To have only 45 minutes of joy before my weekend plans were snatched away from me was quite disappointing. I knew that it was too good the be true. Still, I was happy to be going on a day trip, since it’s not something that I do very often at all.
On the way to Hua Hin, we stopped off in Petchaburi. Master Toddy has his own plot of land there, with a house, a fruit farm and a lake for fishing. He heads there to escape from Bangkok (and from the gym) every weekend, but I had never been there before. I understood straight away upon arrival why he was so fond of it. It was incredibly peaceful, a far cry from Bangkok! At least, it was for a moment. Almost immediately after I got out of the car, Master Toddy instructed me to get changed into my training gear, which I had brought with me under the premise that I would be running on the beach. I had already done a morning of training and expected to spend most of the day relaxing, but did as I was told. After I emerged with my gear on, he directed me to a plot of banana trees and told me to pick one that I liked. Then, I realised what was going on; Master Toddy had lured me into kicking down a banana tree with the temptation of a beach day.
Of course, I’ve heard of Thai fighters kicking down banana trees, but didn’t think that anyone actually did it in real life. I had assumed that it was reserved for movies only. Most of us have seen Jean-Claude Van Damme doing it in ‘Kickboxer‘, there’s a video of Buakaw destroying a banana tree on Youtube, and contenders on the Thai Fight Kad Chuek TV show had to do it for a challenge (although I couldn’t find the video for that one), but other than that, I’ve never seen it done. Even if it was something that was purely just for show, I was pretty eager to try it out for myself. I picked out a fairly modest-looking one, as I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of its hardness, while trying not to pick one that was too small. Master Toddy wasted no time in getting me started. He said very little and immediately shooed me over to the tree to get on with it while he waited on the other side of the road. Rather than coming with me and instructing me, he wanted to leave me to it so that I had no choice but to work it out for myself.
The general expectation of kicking banana trees is that it’s good for shin conditioning. I found that this is actually not entirely the case. Banana trees have rather soft bark which yields to pressure. While this doesn’t make it a particularly effective tool for shin conditioning, it makes it excellent for sharpening techniques and showing the effectiveness of strikes. After every kick I landed, I could see the immediate effect that it had on the tree. The first kick that I threw didn’t make much of a dent, so I knew that I needed to adjust my technique; turn my hips more, lock my leg, change the angle at which my shin came down or whip my hips faster. Each time I adjusted, I could see the difference. Although the tree obviously lacked the movement that a bag would have given, it was extremely responsive and communicative in that way. It told me exactly what I was doing wrong and how I needed to sharpen up. It’s quite easy to nonchalantly kick a bag without paying as much attention to your technique as you ought to. Quite often, I’ll be doing some bagwork and wondering why my kick isn’t coming as well as it usually does, then Master Toddy will give me the tiniest little reminder of something that I need to tweak and it will come straight back. I need that sometimes. With the tree, I didn’t because I was constantly reminded of what I was or wasn’t doing correctly with every mark I made on it. As I worked on the tree, a small crowd collected around Master Toddy across the road as people on motorbikes stopped to watch what we were doing. It must have looked rather funny to them.
Regrettably, I didn’t count how many kicks it took me to chop the tree as I was too focused on the chopping itself, and although it didn’t take long, I was definitely relieved once I had done it. That relief was short-lived, because no sooner had the tree hit the ground than Master Toddy instructed Nut (one of the trainers who was also our driver for the day) to hold it back up again. This time, he wanted me to punch and elbow it down. This was actually even more satisfying than kicking it. You can’t punch a tree down without feeling like a bad ass (I realise that a banana tree is technically a herb, but don’t take this away from me). After I’d successfully demolished that tree, Master Toddy told me to grab the one next to it and knee it down. This one was the easiest by far. In fact, it only took two or three strikes to break it down.
After uploading some photos to the Under the Ropes Facebook page, I received both positive and negative comments. Many thought it was awesome, but there were some bewildered users who asked questions like ‘why kick trees when you have perfectly good bags at the gym?‘ and ‘banana trees are soft and anyone can destroy them, what’s the point?’ As I mentioned earlier, the very fact that banana trees are not ‘woody’ or hard makes them excellent for kicking, because it shows the effect of every strike. That’s something that you don’t get from a bag. Those who thought that my act of tree destruction was awesome were probably those who have seen the videos of Buakaw, JCVD or Thai Fight contenders doing the same and see it as some sort of elite test of toughness. While it may appear to be so, that isn’t entirely the case. It’s not about the sole act of breaking the tree, but the speed, accuracy and technique with which you do it. Besides, I found that the purpose of breaking the tree isn’t just for the sake of looking like a bad ass for doing it, but for the perspective on your technique that it gives you. I wasn’t trying to prove anything by doing it.
So, contrary to popular belief, kicking banana trees isn’t going to give you Terminator shins (unless, perhaps, you kicked really old ones). If you’re looking to get shins of steel, you should probably look elsewhere. For most of us, the most sensible and viable option for shin conditioning is a heavy bag. However, a banana tree does give some very helpful feedback and allows you to see the actual effect of your kicks in more detail. I’m not suggesting that anyone should incorporate it into their regular training and go around kicking every banana tree they come across, but I definitely got more out of it than I thought I would. While it may seem incredibly cheesy and perhaps a bit redundant, it’s worth a try.
See below for a gallery of pictures (click to enlarge)