Mastery Begins With Your Intent

My early morning run was feeling easier today, my pace was quicker than previous outings and my mind was sparking – thoughts, ideas where hitting me without conscious effort as I sprung along. At last I was beginning to feel myself again after a training hiatus. As I neared the end of the run I felt the urge to push harder, this felt good, injury had meant I hadn’t been able to work like this in quite a while.

As I began to turn up my pace and my focus returned to my movement and breathing. I needed to become present in the moment, focused — the familiar self-drive began to kick in. As I ran, my mind began to visualise, turning the increasing physical discomfort into an opponent, an opponent that was testing me, trying to defeat me. I responded by digging in.

As I pushed on it was getting harder. Should I ease up? “No, keep going” came an internal voice.  My body responded. “Who would know if I eased up just a little?” chipped in that little voice, “YOU would!” came a louder voice. I began to run faster, seeming to access a higher gear. After a committed final distance that seemed to draw out, I sprinted back onto my driveway, sucking air in through every orifice in an attempt to repay the oxygen debt.  My internal dialogue commended me, “That was a good run.”

This experience is nothing new for me, but it triggered a question. How many people ease up when that internal voice asks; who would know if I eased up just a little? Then I realised, it’s my intent that makes my training  productive or not, that I train my intent in every session.

Eckhart Tolle explains the transfer from ‘thought’ to ’emotion’ to palpable ‘energy’ is real and can be positive or negative. You can feel this in a fight and these psychological habits need to be trained — how you train is how you fight. If you give-in during training you can bet you’ll give-in under pressure in the ring.

Pushing yourself does not just relate the volume or intensity of training, but also the level of technical sophistication. A low intensity day can (and should) be technically challenging, that’s how you improve, striving for something just out of reach. Malcolm Gladwell explains that most top performers practice for a total of about 10,000 hours to obtain mastery. To get 10,000 hours of practice in 10 years, you’ll need to practice 3-hours a day, 7 days a week! And of course this is purposeful practice, training with intent.

Your intent, or purpose for each session must be clearly focused, and this purpose comes from your periodised strength and conditioning programme or technical Muay Thai coach — know what you are going for. For example, are you developing strength, power, aerobic fitness, anaerobic fitness or power endurance? Are you crafting your round kick, sharpening a combination or a defensive evasion? You should never just be spinning your wheels practising things you’re already good at. This doesn’t count as purposeful practice with the specific objective of progress.

Relentless hours of training without progressive purpose simply don’t count. For example, you may have spent nearly 10,000-hours driving your car, but this certainly doesn’t make you an expert. Most of your driving practice is mindless, thinking about other things, without focus, without progress.

Accumulating 10,000-hours of quality, purposeful practice is difficult — if it wasn’t everyone would be World class. Training 3-hours a day isn’t going to be practical for most of us, but take every opportunity to practice. Strength coach Dan John says, “If it’s important do it every day.” This advice speaks of quality movement patterns, intensity and volume not withstanding. Unloaded technical movements can be practised during warm ups, cooldowns and active rest periods — but keep them purposeful.

Matthew Syed explains that elite performers continually challenge themselves, they strive for the next progression and aren’t afraid of failing – it shows they’re pushing themselves hard enough. In fact, if you aren’t failing you’re not trying hard enough! But, be careful to avoid overtraining — remember you can push yourself with technical sophistication, not only with training intensity and volume.

If your not messing it up once in a while, you’re not pushing hard enough. In this way, the best fighters seek failure and then grow from it. They work outside of their comfort zone and desire feedback to find new areas in which to progress. The best fighters have accumulated more hours of purposeful practice and train their intent every day. Before your next training session, focus your intent, keep it sharp and feel the difference. Maintain this attitude over the long term and others will see the difference too.


  1. Lee September 3, 2013 at 2:41 am - Reply

    This is a really excellent post. I have a question though relating to training partners and coaches. I really feel this post because I visualize and practice mindfulness in the same manner that you describe. However, with the gym I go to there is not a select class only for fighters. It is an ‘advanced’ class, and honestly the majority of the people in it shouldn’t be there.

    But that isn’t my problem- I don’t really care what others do. My issue is that there are plenty of students who just move along and don’t challenge themselves, I encourage them but they don’t return the encouragement, they are lazy pad holders who don’t even try to challenge me. The target holding is sloppy, so even if I try and salvage the session by doing minimal, technical movements they are stunted by improper position and feedback of targets/pads. My trainer has taken to keeping the heavy bag put away permanently because we now have so many students and therefore a lack of space- but I loved working the heavy bag. When we go to spar, they do not listen to our trainer, sometimes people get hurt or if our trainer sees the mess in time he will punish the entire class.

    In the past month alone I have taken the brunt of the damage as the smallest person in my class, I’ve suffered a ruptured eardrum and rotator cuff injury due to less experienced classmates. There is only one or two other training partners I love working with, and it can be difficult to get our schedules to line up. Even when we do show up at the same time, my trainer splits everyone up and forces the more experienced people to work with less experienced people for more than half the class. I am starting to feel like not going anymore, or applying myself despite my love for Muay Thai. I keep getting stupid freak injuries from the less mindful partners despite the fact that I love to do my own practice mindfully, and I absolutely love to be challenged. I can only blame myself for failures to learn or improve myself, and that is one of the reasons I haven’t told anyone at my gym about this frustration.

    I am nervous to explain this all to my trainer, because he may interpret it as me trying to tell him how to run his class. The truth is as I am a small and not an elegant looking fighter, I doubt he has ever been very interested in me. He is small too, so his fascination lies with the taller, more technical looking women and men. Maybe I need to switch gyms but it is slim pickings in my city, so if switching gyms isn’t and option (I can look into it) what advice might you have?

    • DonHeatrick September 4, 2013 at 9:53 pm - Reply

      Hi Lee,
      Uninspiring training partners is a major problem in Muay Thai. Although it’s a solo sport, the reality is we’re heavily dependent on a support team to get anywhere. Most fighters work with specific partners that they know and trust to give them a good session and not injure them with terrible pad holding. Although rotating partners every now and then can work well, it isn’t something I encourage regularly for this reason.

      It sounds like your instructor is struggling with an influx of inexperienced students and hasn’t enough different class ability levels to satisfy everyone. This is a difficult problem if your instructor rents training space or has a full timetable in his own facility. It does sound like it needs addressing or he will forever lose his more experienced students – he’s a victim of his own success (attracting beginners).

      It also sounds like most of the students are ‘fighting’ rather than ‘sparring’, again a consequence of inexperienced students who are not yet competing and feeling the urge to prove themselves against their team mates!

      It appears that trying to arrange training with your preferred partners is the best option – and perhaps explaining to your coach that you’re picking up too many injuries training with beginners and ask if it would be ok to stick with your selected partners rather than mixing up like everyone else?

      It’s unfortunate if your coach is not interested in less ‘elegant’ fighters. I’m drawn to those who are committed and passionate about their training, regardless of their elegance or apparent talent. Attitude is my number 1 factor – and talent is only a matter of putting in enough purposeful practice ;). If possible, private training sessions with your instructor may help you out; and also change your relationship with your instructor – helping him see you are serious about improving. If your instructor doesn’t provide the opportunity to train purposefully, then I’m afraid it’s time to look for other training opportunities elsewhere.

      I hope this helps, and please let me know how you get on.

      Best regards,

      • Lee September 6, 2013 at 7:22 am - Reply

        Hi Don, thank you so much for your advice. I actually got the opportunity to talk to my trainer today, and I took your suggestion and mentioned private lessons. He was surprised I asked, but stated he was really pleased for the opportunity. It took some pressure but he finally admitted his reluctance to get excited about my training was due to the lack of opponents I have. I fight at 110 and lower, I’ve already fought the only other hopeful in the country and won. He mentioned I’d have to go out of country and while he’s been looking for fights, he’s been discouraged by a lack of opponents. I had no idea he’d been looking for over a year.

        You nailed it when you say he’s been a victim of his own success in attracting beginners. We discussed planning for training partners, and luckily because I am the smallest fighter here it gave me a good excuse to be picky tonight. I ended up having the best session in MONTHS. I haven’t felt this good in a long while.

        Thanks so much for taking the time to read both my lengthy question and respond with this in depth encouragement. I really appreciate it, I am a huge fan of your blog and grateful for the knowledge you provide for us strangers on the web! I learn as much here as in the gym!

        • DonHeatrick September 6, 2013 at 7:35 am - Reply

          That’s excellent news Lee! Well done for having the courage to speak to your instructor openly and honestly, by doing so he has responded openly and honestly too. If you can communicate like this without ego, everyone mutually benefits.

          Keep up the hard work, and hopefully you’ll get some opponent’s soon – it looks like your instructor may have an international contender on his hands ;)

          Kind regards,

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