Boxing: the psychology behind a successful boxer

Successful boxers must desensitise themselves to the effects of inflicting injury and accept personal risks each time they compete

At a glance

Successful boxers must desensitise themselves to the effects of inflicting injury and accept personal risks each time they compete. Andy Lane explains how boxers prepare psychologically to face the demands of competition

Boxing is a unique sport. At face value, the aim is to inflict blows on your opponent and avoid injury yourself by landing more punches than you receive. A common perception therefore is that boxers need to psyche themselves up into a frenzied state, fuelled by anger with the intention of causing injury.

However, for those who have worked in boxing, this perception could not be further from the truth.
Boxers consider their sport to be a type of physical chess (1) – a battle that is as much psychological and tactical as it is physical. However, there is no getting away from the brutality of the sport; other sportsmen and women may ‘play’ matches but boxers ‘fight’ them. In a sport where there is only one winner, seeing an opponent struggling physiologically during a contest provides a huge source of motivation, and boxers look to exploit every weakness or frailty in their opponents (2).

Most people accept the notion that boxers need to be mentally tough to compete (3). While few boxers use sport psychologists, most recognise the importance of psychology to performance. The legendary trainer Cus D’Amato, who steered Floyd Patterson and Mike Tyson to world heavyweight titles, once said that ‘fights are won and lost in the head’ and this bears testament to the importance of psychological factors for performance (4).

Try to imagine how you would feel before a boxing contest; standing in the ring, in the middle of a large audience, the announcer calls your name, and then that of your opponent. Would you feel nervous, angry, confident? Ideally, you would be in control of your emotions and be able to get into the emotional state which you believe helps performance.

Psychology of fighting

Research indicates that successful fighters demonstrate positive emotional profiles before competition (5,6). Such studies typically assess emotions an hour before competition and then compare winners and losers by emotional profiles. The accuracy of these predictions of winners from pre-contest emotions is remarkably high. In one study, it was possible to predict winners with 95% accuracy (5). Autobiographical accounts identify emotional control, confidence and mental toughness in being able to give and receive punishment as important factors for success (7).

A key question typically posed to boxers is whether a boxer intends to injure his or her opponent. The answer is that boxers (like all competitors) aim to win, and injuring the opponent may be a necessary part of that process (7). A boxer therefore has to be prepared to inflict injury on their opponent and show no mercy in doing so – a mindset that is subtly different to intending to injure.

However, it is important to recognise the brutality of this psychology and to what seems an inherent contradiction. When a boxer sees that their opponent is hurt, this is seen as an indicator of goal attainment. Since the aim is to win the contest, this may well involve inflicting further damage. Contrast this with football for example where if a player is hurt, the unwritten rule is to stop play.

In boxing however, seeing an opponent wince after receiving a body punch acts in a motivating way, and boxers who allow their opponent time to recover are not likely to be successful.

Boxers must capitalise on the weaknesses of their opponents and any sign of weakness is an indicator that victory is possible. Boxers learn to hide when they feel hurt or tired, outwardly presenting a profile of being calm and confident. The boxer places all duty of care of the welfare of his opponent in the referee. Referees complete the pre-contest brief by saying, ‘protect yourself at all times’; these are not empty words.

Thought and concentration

Figure 1

Sparring is not fighting!

Boxers hone their skills during sparring sessions. Sparring is the closest a training session can be to a contest because it’s performed with an actual live opponent. Ostensibly, the purpose of sparring is to practice moves, test fitness levels, and to sharpen skills. However, it can result in fierce competition and sparring can be particularly intense in the early stages of learning how to box.

By contrast, seasoned boxers learn to save their best performances for competition, although there are some boxers whose best performances come in training regardless of experience levels. While all boxers know that there is no official winner of a sparring session, a multitude of factors can influence how intense the session will be. Like many athletes, boxers tend to be highly competitive and if a session feels one-sided they may react, possibly increasing effort, which can raise the intensity of a sparring session to competitive level.

It is important therefore that boxers also learn to regulate their emotions and thoughts during sparring. While the goal in competition is to win the contest, the goal in sparring should be to focus on the quality of your performance. By attending to your performance, you can develop the ability to perform to your fullest ability when it counts and in so doing, increase your chances of winning the contest.

The balance between thinking tactically and focusing closely on the ‘here and now’ is a difficult one to get right. If you focus too closely on the here and now, you miss opportunities that might have arisen, or worse, your opponent works out what you are doing and sets you up. By contrast, if you are planning what to do later in the round or the next round, you may leave yourself exposed both offensively and defensively. Sparring provides an ideal opportunity to practice controlling concentration. Here the boxer can learn to control the emotional impulses to ‘retaliate’ if he receives a hard punch. An even more important thought is to try to answer the question ‘why did I get caught and what can I do next to prevent this reoccurring?’

It is important for boxers to remember that there are no winners and losers from a sparring session, and also to recognise that when winning a sparring contest becomes the goal, it can influence emotion. If sparring regularly becomes a highly charged emotional affair, the boxer might fail to properly develop the tactical aspects of his/her performance. Thus, he or she may look good in the ring when sparring, but struggle in actual competition because of over-arousal.

Shadow and punch bag boxing

Shadow boxing involves practicing moves against opponents, sometimes in a ring and sometimes in front of a mirror. The goal is to improve the quality of performance by focusing and concentrating on what you’re doing without having to think about what your opponent is doing. Shadow boxing can also be very effective at developing tactical skills; by shadow boxing against an imaginary opponent, it’s possible to practice specific movements. However, boxers should develop clear strategies on what the opponent could do, and how to respond, using imagery to rehearse these plans, which are then executed in shadow boxing. Once these movements have been well rehearsed, the boxer can attempt them in sparring.

The punch bag is the classic method of boxing training and punch bags are now found widely in many health and fitness centres. Punching the bag is an excellent method for developing boxing-specific fitness, conditioning upper body muscles as well as the heart and lungs. Like shadow boxing, there’s no opponent and so imagery can be an effective way to enhance the quality of a specific session. Punch bag work provides an excellent method of learning the extent to which you can throw combinations of hard punches in a round. As the number and power of the punches you can throw in each round increases, the confidence to compete at a high-intensity is enhanced. High-intensity punch-bag sessions in which the boxer complete repeats series of combination punches cannot only develop coordination skills, but also develop the confidence to be able to compete under pressure.

Running

Running can be used as the exercise to develop concentration skills during intense exercise. Running is preferred to boxing-specific exercise as it is easier to assess how fast the athlete is working. This is a practice I used when working with a boxer preparing for a world championship contest (8). The session involves performing repetitions of 800 metres (or a distance that equates to 3 minutes of hard running) with 1-minute recoveries and completing five ‘concentration grid’ performance tests in the recovery period. A concentration grid is a 10 x 10 square of 100 numbers randomly positioned and where the starting number is also random (9). The idea is to find a sequence of numbers, which requires a narrow external concentration style – the same concentration style required when listening to the coach giving feedback.

Studies show that physiological cues dominate concentration during intense exercise. After a hard round of boxing, a boxer might not be able to concentrate on what his coach is saying because physiological cues prevail. For example, suppose that after a boxer has just completed a hard-fought round, the coach wants to communicate two points to the boxer; 1) to keep his left hand up as he attacks; and 2) to throw the last punch in all exchanges. If the boxer is concentrating on trying to get his breath back, this information being given by the coach might become merely ‘background noise’. Consequently, the boxer is not making full use of the information given from the coach.

Concentration training (along with running) can also enhance performance. We investigated the influence of concentration training on concentration performance after performing near maximal 800 metres repetitions (8). The results can be seen in table 1. Following an initial session, which produced the baseline measures, we practised using ‘centring’ immediately after the end of a round as a strategy to aid physiological recovery. Centring diverts attention to the centre of the body and can be done as a strategy to get control of attention. After practising centring, our boxer was able to attain a state of relaxed concentration in just 10 seconds, leaving 50 seconds available for feedback. After a few weeks, we repeated the 800 repetitions with concentration grids completed in the recovery period.

Table 1 reveals his improved concentration grid scores after the training. Another important result was that he reported feeling confident in being able to switch his concentration.

Table 1

Conclusion

Boxing involves managing discomfort and boxers need to able to desensitise themselves from this process. Emotional and attentional control are crucial to success. From the outset, boxers need to develop a mindset that enables desensitisation to the effects of boxing if they are to succeed. Sparring should be used as an opportunity to learn emotional and attentional control and boxers should use imagery as part of their training, for example when shadow-boxing or doing bag work. Conditioning sessions such as running can be run in conjunction with concentration training.

Andy Lane is Professor of Sport and Learning at the University of Wolverhampton and editor of the ‘Sport and Exercise Scientist’, published by the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES)

References

1. Athletic Insight. Retrieved September 2008, from http://www.athleticinsight.com/Vol6Iss2/Professionalboxing.htm
2. Athletic Insight, 3, volume 8. http://www.athleticinsight.com/Vol8Iss3/Reflections.htm
3. Application of Sport Psychology for Optimal Performance in Martial Arts. In Dosil, J, The Sport Psychologist’s Handbook, Wiley & Sons, 2006, p353-374
4. The Winning Mind. Wellingborough, Northants,
Thornsons, 1989
5. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 81, 275-286, 1995
6. Journal of Sports Sciences, 17, 61-62, 1999
7. The Hitman: My Story. Ebury Press, UK, 2007
8. Applied sport psychology: A case-based approach. Chichester, UK: Wiley. Lane, A M, in press
9. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Champaign, IL Human Kinetics, 2003

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