No matter who you ask in boxing, they will likely tell you that the sport is as much about mental toughness as it is physical ability. Teddy Atlas has always said that, “Boxing is 75 percent mental and 25 percent physical.” Former Jr. Welterweight champion, Devon Alexander says similarly "I think boxing is definitely 80 percent mental and the rest physical." Many boxing experts, coaches and trainers believe that it's more of a 90/10 split, but no matter how far you tip the scales the point is...what's in your head matters - a lot!
The problem is, with most fighters and everyday people, handling the physical world and outside influences seems quite a bit easier than controlling their own thoughts. Thoughts run rampant, minds wander, people jump to conclusions and let their internal dialogue spew an endless amount of chatter and, all too often, it's negative. Stop it already!
Easier said than done? Sort of, but as far as that goes, so is working out. It’s easier to say you’re going to kill it in the gym, but pushing your body to its limit takes some real effort. The trick is in figuring out how to make your mind work for you, rather than in opposition to you.
A coach teaches you how to throw a jab and how to block punches. He instills fundamental boxing techniques, but then it's up to you to execute those in the ring. The same goes for mental training. Learn a few techniques and then put them into practice. Here's an approach that's easy to remember and apply because it works in phases, just like the progression of a fight.
Don't let your workout start with negative thoughts about being tired, dreading sparring or wondering if you'll be able to get through the rounds. Instead, spend your time on the way to the gym, the opening minutes of your warm up or the minutes during shadowboxing, deciding what you really want to accomplish. Don't let self doubt and identifying your shortcomings dictate your inner dialogue. Instead, fill your head with a goal, a reason to be there. Focus solely on your driving force and purpose, either your desire for that day or a farther reaching goal, but think ONLY ABOUT THAT. If you're not going to let your body do just whatever it wants that day, don't let your mind do its own thing either. Dictate its direction. Give it a reason to concentrate and get results.
The Opening Rounds:
Let yourself live in the moment and focus on the right now. Too many times fighters get caught up in the what-if game. If you're there in the gym, there must be something about it that you enjoy so let yourself experience it without a bunch of fears or an overriding need to prove yourself. Running a myriad of potential scenarios through your head clouds your thoughts and muddies the waters. Renowned motivational speaker and author, Earl Nightingale (who was also known as the "Dean of Personal Development”) once estimated that the time people spend worrying about things is largely wasted. He speculated that the average person spends 40% of their time and thoughts worrying about things that never happen, 30% of their time focused on things that can’t be changed, 12% of their time on their health, 10% on miscellaneous worries, with only 8% of their remaining thought and attention going to real, legitimate concerns. That’s a lot of wasted mental energy!!! Remember, the only moment you can do anything about is the one that's happening right now, so let yesterday's sparring session go and don't worry about the next round. Focusing on the very moment you're in will improve your concentration and increase your reaction time.
The Middle Rounds: Recognize that your only enemy may not just be the guy standing in front of you. If your negative thoughts are getting stronger and self-destructive dialogue is getting louder, don't try to ignore it, but see it as a part of your battle, a positive part. If you doubt yourself, then that means you want to improve. If it hurts, then you're getting stronger. If you're making mistakes, then you're learning. This is the time to show your true competitive nature and make everything you're experiencing work for you and make you better. Let go of the negative connotations associated with pain, making mistakes and even falling down. As long as you work through it, learn from it and get back up, each one has a positive flip side.
The Championship Rounds: In traditional boxing terms, the "championship rounds" have typically referred to those final rounds (historically, the thirteenth through fifteenth rounds) that separate the two fighters, in relation to endurance, overall mental toughness and physical capacity. It means the same thing here. Whether you're on your last leg of a workout or finishing up a tough sparring session, these are those final moments when you start to question yourself. If this is when you begin considering the thought of physically or mentally giving in, this is when you need to ask yourself if you've really done all you can? Have you really tapped into all of your physical and mental reserves or are you just tired? Once your mind starts wandering to thoughts of defeat, take a moment to catch your breath, turn your thoughts to your original WARM UP goal and get back to living in the moment. Champions know why they're there and never stop believing they can turn things around when things aren’t going their way.
Post Fight Recap: When the workout is over or sparring session is complete, take some time to reflect on your progress. Don't compare yourself to the best guy in the gym or judge yourself strictly on one or two moments, but think back on when you first started boxing and look how far you've come. If you made those improvements once, you can make that many more going forward. Plus, more importantly, be sure to not only critic your mistakes, but also acknowledge what you've done right. Look at the areas you are succeeding. Those are the positives that make you feel good and that your mind and body will intuitively seek out more of. Don't just beat yourself up all of the time, figuring if you're hard on yourself that it will toughen you up. Improvement comes out of being objective, but sometimes you can be critical to the degree where it is counter-productive. Celebrate even the small wins and they will help lead you to bigger ones.
There are many approaches to thinking positive, building mental toughness and executing strategy that works. Like a good fight plan, once you've figured it out, put it to work and stick with it. Don't abandon it unless it stops working. Otherwise, flex your mental muscle as often as you can and get your grey matter working up a sweat.