For a sport that has been often maligned as being for meatheads with extra thick skullbones, boxing, along with her sister disciplines, can actually be quite challenging, mentally. Oh sure, some fighting is pure animal brutality, but in a good match there is subtle strategy, a need for mental toughness, and a good bit of psychology. It’s chess with punches instead of pawns.
Fighting hand to hand is timeless. It began, presumably, when primitive primates developed fists to fight and feelings to hurt. And when two individuals face off in battle, whether in spirited competition or bitter dispute, every sense gets heightened and the peripheral world starts to fade back. Your mind will sharpen its focus so you’ll have the clarity needed to perform optimally. But beware, you can easily lose this focus, like if you’re suddenly thinking about the pain from a punch, feeling frustration from a knockdown, or being utterly annoyed at shorts that keep riding up! And once you lose composure you will find it most difficult to regain.
Our friend, Rebecca Hoffman, owner of Western Avenue Gym in Oklahoma relayed a story where she was struggling with sparring early on in her career because she was thinking and worrying too much. Her (edited) story goes “... When I used to spar everything moved so fast, it was as if the world had sped up, I couldn't process everything that was happening and I felt like I was purely trying to survive rather than actually do or achieve anything. The advice I was constantly given was 'relax, just relax.' Well I just kept on getting in there, the world would get faster and I'd just try to survive. One day I got tired of being so fearful and stressing out so much, and, with a shrug of my shoulders and an air of giving up, I said to myself 'fine, I'm just going to relax, I give up.' So I did. I relaxed, and guess what… the whole world slowed down. Right there and then, mid spar. I started to see openings, I could see what was coming at me. I could breathe.”
So good battle psyche begins and ends with feeling comfortable in your situation. To get there you need to be motivated and focused on your task and confident in yourself. It’s not enough to be naturally confident. To fight confident you need to be prepared - physically and mentally. This means many hours of training in the gym and plenty of time spent in the sparring ring. You need to have faced adversity and been given opportunities to make mistakes, suffer setbacks, and ultimately to learn from those experiences. When you’re prepared you know it and you feel it, and this will feed your whole attitude. A positive attitude goes a long way towards feeling comfortable, motivated, focused, and confident in and out of the ring.
Even for the vastly experienced and talented fighter, it may help to talk yourself into being confident before battle. Self-talk is a powerful way to tap into your subconscious mind to influence your attitude, so be sure to say positive things that reinforce how you want to feel. Self-talk is also a great way to reinforce strategies and techniques you want to use. If your trainer keeps on you in the gym to keep your guard up, use self-talk to build this up as part of your battle psyche. Just make yourself a playground chant to repeat, something like “I got this, strong jab, go to the body, guard up… I got this, strong jab, go to the body, guard up…”
Your imagination is another great tool for preparing your psyche for battle. When you’re in the thick of action things can happen unexpectedly, after all, this is combat, not choreography. It can be very difficult to know how to handle certain critical situations, especially for rookies. While you await your turn to fight, you can create mental video of scenarios using your imagination to visualize how to respond ahead of time. In the military they call this Emergency Conditioning. It’s becoming familiar with potential trouble by “experiencing it” with your imagination. This way, when trouble arises, your recognition of the moment can automatically trigger the proper response that you’ve already worked out in your mind.
Finally, you never know when you might get clocked and wind up with your behind resting on the canvas. It’s humiliating and frustrating, and that means you better have solid mental fortitude to stay focused or you will find yourself down there again soon enough. In fighting, just as in life, bad things happen to good people. Deal with it, sister! Develop fortitude, but also accept that emotions and anxiety are part of the sport, just don’t let them interfere with your performance or hijack your aspirations. Every loss is a lesson and every setback deserves a comeback. Let this be your mantra if you don’t have a better one already.
Physical strength is not enough when it comes to fighting. You also need to be strong mentally. Like the Henry Ford saying goes, “whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right”. How you think things will be greatly influences how they’ll actually be. Since you can’t fool yourself towards greatness, you’ll just have to put in the time and work towards it. In the meantime keep your chin up… no, wait, keep your chin DOWN… you know what we mean!