Just how important is the mental side of the sport?

There are countless factors in the world today that cause stress, worry or doubt.

Personally, I believe each of those “issues” are normal emotions that humans experience every single day. That said, we all deal with our emotions and thoughts differently. Some reach a state where they are unable to cope, through no fault of their own and this needs to be understood.

That also applies to boxers.

We hold these individuals on a pedestal. What they put their bodies through is unparalleled and worthy of the upmost respect. What about their minds? To a degree, the physical punishment they endure is a direct offshoot of what they can mentally tolerate.

In a world where footballers exaggerate contact and feign injury, boxing is built on hiding any hint of weakness – mental or physical.

Under no circumstances, does one show they are hurt.

In the current climate we are encouraged to talk. To share our problems and not bottle emotions inside like previous generations. The idea of a stiff upper lip is considered archaic. Yet, boxing is not a reflection of real life. There are many aspects that can be translated successfully from one to the other- honour, respect, dedication – but it is important to remember most rules of real life do not apply to the sweet science.

Tyson Fury is probably the most high profile example in the sport, where a tough man admitted suffering to the extent where he considered suicide. This is a man who was supposedly on top of the world, yet reached a point where he wanted to end his life. And being brutally honest, the majority of boxing fans seemingly doubt his version of events. The very nature of boxing encourages cynicism and derision. His absence from the ring – due to apparently symptomless suffering – appears to be a very convenient excuse during a time where he was dogged by PED accusations and alleged doping bans.

Another high profile example is that of Ryan Garcia. A young American fighter who doesn’t fit the old school mould of what a tough man “should” be. Popular on Instagram, armies of teenage fans and boy-band good looks. Garcia recently withdrew from a bout citing depression and anxiety.

“As many of you guys know, I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for some time now. I pushed through so many times but I need some time off and I’m choosing to finally get some help with mental health.”

This sort of conversation will ultimately help the sport come into the 21st century, but, right now, they spark controversy.

And these brave steps will not be willingly followed by many boxers out there.

Martin Theobald of NewAgeBoxing – a podcast that has often tried to raise mental health awareness – replied to our initial tweet with a brutally honest example of how a particular boxer would view an opponent looking after their mental wellbeing.

Interestingly, the word “taboo” cropped up in every interview conducted.

Psychologists themselves acknowledge that their vocation remains “misunderstood”.  We spoke to a particular individual in this field who explained the role and how it can work in boxing, which “is probably the worst sport” for resisting new approaches.

“It is about helping people reach their potential. Within the UK you have a perspective of a coach as someone standing at the side giving instruction.  When you come to performance psychology it is about helping people to optimize their own potential.  You’re not training them, you’re just there to be a tool in their toolbox.  Helping them when they need it, at that critical moment – which may be stepping into the ring to box.”

And is boxing receptive to this style of coaching?

“I think it is misunderstood.  I think boxing is one of the last bastions of any sport where you’ve still got a misunderstanding of what psychological performance coaching is.  Because people don’t understand it, they’ll make it up.  We all fill in the gaps hundreds of times a day.  A lot of the time, people don’t know what it is so there is a lot of push-back.  There could be a misplaced trust what you are going to do to the athlete.”

But why should psychological help be any different to the physical specialists that form part of a camp?

“You’ve got strength and conditioning coaches, the main coach, nutritionists, rehab, physios but nobody really talks about the mental development of the individual or the psychology.  It is taboo, it’s under the table or I might whisper it in cold dark corners but hope that no-one hears me.

A lot of boxing coaches have the mentality that you either have “it” or you don’t, just man up and you have all these types of phraseology, which are ingrained within boxing.  I do believe there will be a cultural, almost generational shift that will happen.  There are people coming through who are embracing psychological help and neuroscience.  They get that it is all part of the package.  If your brain isn’t optimised your fists aren’t going to be! Your feet aren’t going to be optimised, it really is as simple as that!”

A current professional boxer further cemented the taboo nature of perceived mental weaknesses.  They also admitted to feeling nerves but wouldn’t be likely to do so publicly.

“I can tell you from experience that almost any fighter will be nervous and out of their comfort zone in the build up to a fight but it’s almost a given that you can’t show that, no matter how nervous you are, you just absolutely can’t show it.  That’s just part and parcel of boxing.”

If we consider mental health and mental strength to be like their physical counterparts, strength can be built and trained but health is a little more out of our hands.  Anyone can be struck with health issues at any time, and this is important to remember.

Boxing, however, is the most unforgiving sport in a number of ways.

“Especially in the build up to a fight you always see people trying to do “mind games”.  If someone shows a weakness, you can perceive that they’re not comfortable in their training camp.  Some people can play on that and make it worse for them.  When you see high level fighters like Canelo and Tyson Fury they’ll play mind games, changing the gloves multiple times or the size of the ring, more recently.  They’re not actually bothered about the ring or the gloves.  They’re just trying to show they’re in control. That could play into the mental health of opponents.”

“In terms of it being a visible thing, mental health in boxing, it’s definitely not as visible as it is in other sports.”

To contrast that, there are countless examples of where boxing, as a competitive physical activity, has helped dragged many out of the darkness.  Particularly, during recent troubling times, having a goal has helped many to gain focus and improve their mental well-being.

“For me, it gives me a reason to do a lot of physical training. 

I’ve actually had people I don’t know message me on social media and say they’ve been struggling mentally.  They’ve got into boxing and because they’ve done it late, they’ve got into white collar level boxing or amateur boxing.  At times I’ve suggested they take up white collar and they’ve said it’s the best thing they’ve ever done.  It gives them a focus to direct their energy into something.  Even at that level you have to train.  You have to be committed to your end goal and it leaves less time for drinking, drugs or be at home arguing.  They replace bad habits with something positive, which is physical training.

I’m not saying it is the answer to everyone’s mental health but if you direct that energy into something physical, it will have a positive impact.  Mentally as well as physically.  You’re going to start eating better, you’ll want to get the best out of your training, you’ll be more hydrated, you’ll find out you need to sleep properly to do that training.  All of those things together make a foundation for a better mental health anyway.  

I see people from that level who say boxing has saved their lives and I never really understood, at first.  Now I do definitely do.”

When it comes to mental health and well-being, boxing may be struggling in the dark ages. Hopefully, through discussion, education and sharing – we can shine a bit of light.

Mental Health – Boxing’s Biggest Battle
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