Mental Training for Boxers
I have long held the opinion that prevailing in a solo sport like boxing demands a much sterner character than any team sport. In baseball or football, you can have a day when you aren’t all there and still win the game, because the other players pick up the slack.
In the ring, there is no team. Everything begins and ends with the boxer, who must be focused and mentally tough at all times. Zab Judah is the modern textbook example of a brilliantly talented boxer who simply can’t put it together mentally in the ring. He loses focus frequently, and at times his will to win is quite fickle. Add to the nature of solo sports the grueling physical demands of boxing, and it becomes clear that psychological conditioning is at least as important to a boxer’s success as physical training.
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Humans have a natural tendency to avoid injury, which in the ring produces an overcautious defensive mentality that causes a reluctance to let the hands go and/or push the action. Most novice boxers have at least a degree of glove shyness, and this psychological issue must be dealt with early on.
Usually regular sparring alone is enough to dispel glove shyness, since taking a few punches get a novice used to the idea of being hit. Once you’ve been in a handful of fights, you realize that not only are you not made of glass, but many punches fail to produce lasting hurt.
Some cases of glove shyness are more ingrained. This isn’t cowardice, but merely an inability to control a reflexive impulse. I have seen this dealt with in a variety of ways, but my favorite remains making the glove shy fighter kneel in the center ring, wearing headgear and with his hands behind his back, while the kids who are training at the gym get to tee off on him. The glove shy fighter can use head movement to avoid punches, but without his feet and his guard he takes a lot of light leather from the hands of a bunch of 11 year olds. A few sessions of that pushes glove shyness out of even the most wary fighter.
While many punches produce no lasting damage, that doesn’t mean that most punches do. Boxing is a grueling business, and anyone who pursues it, even as a hobby, needs a degree of mental toughness.
The training itself is the start of mental conditioning. Take the typical serious white collar boxer, who every weekday rises early in the morning for a three mile run, goes to work, and then hits the gym for a grueling 90-minute work-out. This fellow also eats right to keep his weight down, and avoids having anything more than the occasional glass of wine or pint of beer when he goes out. It is a lifestyle of hard work, exhaustion and moderate self-denial, which is hard to keep up year after year for what is essentially just a hobby. Pursuing it will create discipline if that discipline did not already exist.
Yet if boxing training alone produced disciplined fighters who can endure prolonged suffering, then every fighter would be a model of stoic gladiatorial prowess. Most people can adapt to boxing’s regime if it is their job and they have a staff of people making them do it, which is why I maintain the white collar boxer I described above is mentally tougher than a lot of boxing’s more famous screw-ups, like Mike Tyson. A fighter who makes himself go the extra mile or forgo the extra pleasure in life for his sport builds mental conditioning, so doing this periodically or regularly is essentially an exercise for the mind.
Any time a boxer can add a little more suffering to his training without compromising his health is something to be taken advantage of, because it builds fortitude. If your ribs were bruised a bit in sparring, stop sparring but keep training. Every move you make hurts, but you will heal and in the meantime you get used to the idea of working through pain. Keep up the roadwork in all weathers, even if it’s below freezing and wet outside. Put on the right clothes and get to it anyway. Making choices like these inures a fighter to pain and suffering.
Confidence breeds success. It is an axiom of both boxing and life that a person who expects to win can accomplish things that a person who harbors some doubts cannot. For pros in particular, building up confidence at the proper pace is an art form of career management.
Take a novice boxer who is just starting out with sparring. If he jumps in the ring with some asshole of a semi-pro who is just looking for a human punching bag, that novice is going to get beaten from pillar to post and will probably never return to the ring again. Yet if the novice boxes only novices like himself, he won’t progress past the basics. Learning skills and building confidence demands the balance of stern challenges. Tests need to be tough, and suffering the odd whipping in that context is a good learning experience. A truly confident fighter is prepared for defeat, even if he sincerely does not anticipate it. A rout serves only to crush the spirit.