What made Michael Jordan unquestionably one of the greatest basketball players ever is that, aside from an unwavering will to win when the game was on the line, he always wanted the ball. His supreme confidence and extreme competitiveness allowed him to rise to the occasion. More often than not, his single- mindedness paid off. He understood how to embrace the anxiety that comes with pressure, how to exploit it and feed off of it. If you want to succeed in boxing, one of the first things you need to do is perfect the art of performing under pressure.
Our bodies were naturally wired for performance. They were made to hunt, gather and live under extreme conditions. As far removed as you may feel from your caveman ancestors, there’s no escaping the generic blueprint you still work from today. Then and now, you were born to fight.
In the heat of the battle, in those pressure-cooker situations, your body is built to funnel all of its reserves to only those select activities and emotions that are crucial to survival; necessary for winning. If you let your body do what it does best, without trying to over-analyze it or work against it, it will channel all that is vital to your success and work towards helping you achieve it. Don’t fight the feelings of being under pressure, but instead allow yourself to be under the gun and welcome the physical response that comes with it. That means not trying to keep the butterfly wings in your belly from flapping, but use them to propel you onward and upward.
The key to performing to your potential, not “choking” or freezing-up is focusing on the activity, not the outcome. How many times have you effortlessly wadded up a ball of paper and sunk it in the wastebasket for an easy two points? Then, when someone challenges you to match their toss or do it from the three point zone, every muscle tightens, your breathing becomes labored and all you can think about is “I hope I don’t miss.” It’s right then when you are acting against your natural inclination to simply perform. You started thinking. You started analyzing and you started worrying about whether you would make it or not, instead of zeroing-in on the target and letting it fly…just like you’ve done a thousand times before.
Since the classic 1990 fight between Chavez Sr. versus Meldrick Taylor has been a hot topic recently (on the heels of the Chavez Jr. and Sergio Martinez fight), let’s use it as an example. Chavez was clearly losing that fight. Going into the last round he needed a knockout to win. Do you think he tensed-up, began worrying about losing and started the round by throwing all he had with every punch? Nope. Instead, he hunkered down, focused on tightening-up his technique, became more intent on delivering every punch as efficiently as possible and zeroed-in on his target. He stayed the course and continued to do what he had for the previous 11 rounds, only with a little more resolve. He intently walked Meldrick Taylor down with the sole focus of landing meaningful punches. A perfectly timed, well-executed right cross ended the fight. Chavez didn’t fight desperate or over-anxious. He just fought determined. The knockout came, not because he was focused on the outcome, but because he focused on execution. He relied on his skill set and trusted his instincts.
Like anything in boxing, developing that type of confident mindset takes practice. Make it a goal, every time you walk in the gym or step into the ring to focus solely on the task in front of you. Embrace the nervous energy. Acknowledge the head games you play with yourself. Taste the fear and then let all of the nonsense give way to focusing on doing what you want to do. Don’t focus on how you feel or what you don’t want to happen, but simply focus on what has to be done. Don’t think about how you just missed a punch. Instead, try to fine-tune your technique with every combination. Don’t get mad at yourself because you just took a clean shot. Instead, improve your defense each time you get hit. Concentrate on what you are doing, put forth your best effort and let the results be what they are. You’ll learn more, perform better and feel better about the activity overall just by living in the moment.
The adrenaline rush you feel when you walk into the gym or step in the ring is part of the thrill of boxing. If you always remember that’s one of the reasons you compete, and don’t let that emotionally-charged moment become your adversary, the paralyzing bright lights of expectation can instead become a spotlight for your best performance ever.