Have you ever seen that boxer who works the mitts like a world champion? He throws fast and furious combinations, moves like Floyd Mayweather and cracks like he has dynamite in both fists…and then…he gets in the ring. And it all goes away. What happens to that fighter that he loses his confidence, all certainty fades and his self-assured delivery completely disappears?
Most likely, the fighter is suffering from performance anxiety. This is not uncommon, especially in athletics, where the stakes seem high and all eyes are on the competitors. When it comes to boxing, you’re also dealing with extreme conditions of danger and one of the highest forms of raw combat, so it’s not surprising that boxers and coaches deal with performance anxiety regularly.
Performance anxiety is natural. It is rooted in your inherent concern over whether people like you or not, whether they accept you. Believe it or not, social acceptance is also a learned behavior that has been passed down by your ancestors. The need to feel “approved of” is based on a ancestral social hierarchy that rewards position in a society. So, the bottom-line is, it’s natural to feel anxiety about looking good, performing well and making a good impression. The question is…how do you deal with it and keep it from actually doing you more harm than good?
The first step is to focus on what you want to do. Have a game plan to focus on. Having a strategy will help occupy your thoughts and center-in on what you want to accomplish instead of thinking about possible negative outcomes. By concentrating on the positive possibilities you are, by nature, more likely to attract those desired circumstances. Having a road map to follow will not only help you get where you’re wanting to go more quickly, it will also help you from getting lost along the way.
Next, control your inner dialogue. Instead of mentally criticizing your performance as you go, allow yourself enough room to make mistakes and be imperfect so that you can perform. Taking some of the pressure off will help you to relax. Then, once you relax, you will find that you are able to process information more effectively. You will be in a better mental state to see the openings and devise strategical counters. You will be able to think more clearly, react more quickly and feel less tentative.
Don’t focus exclusively on winning or losing. In the gym, most fighters, most of the time, are not thinking about a desired outcome, other than getting a good workout in and improving. That’s why they’re able to perform at a level that is closer to their real potential. Legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, never talked about winning and losing, but focused on putting in the effort to win. His record as a head coach included ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period (seven in a row), his teams won a record 88 consecutive games and he was named national coach of the year six times. A record like that demonstrates the value of focusing on improving more than on winning.
Always remember, things seldom turn out as bad as you fear. Our minds have a way of playing out situations and imagining all sorts of vivid scenarios. Use your imagination to visualize your success and produce mental pictures that inspire you, instead of allowing it to conjure up the worst case scenario, because 70 percent of the things we worry about, never happen or simply cannot be changed.
Finally, put it in perspective. Yes, boxing is important. Yes, it means a lot to you. It might even feel like it is your whole world. But don’t let it totally define you as a human being. Contemplate your connection to humanity. Boxing is just one part of a bigger picture. Once those few minutes in the ring are over and they can fly by pretty fast, you go back to living life. Your world may revolve around boxing, but there is life beyond the fight. When you keep that in mind, you can fight with a greater awareness, maturity and sense of well being.
Every fighter faces performance anxiety at some point, it’s just a matter of how much of it they experience and if they can overcome it. Most fighters know what they can do. They understand what they are capable of. They have the physical ability and mental capacity, but putting it into action is the challenge. The main thing to remember is that positive action is always better than negative inaction. Don’t let fear or anxiety keep you from stepping through the ropes and feeling a personal sense of pride that you did. Giving it your all is always better than giving up or giving in.