Amateur Boxing

Amateur Boxing – The Quest for the Vest

by Fran on June 24, 2012

I was never what you would consider a naturally talented amateur boxer. Now, you may be thinking “Here we go, a dose of false modesty.” But really, I wasn’t. In fact I can prove that I wasn’t naturally talented. You see in my opinion, naturally talented boxers tend to win and win often. In my first 25 fights I won only 12 of them. By any standards, that record qualifies as average at best.

Whilst natural talent my not have been bestowed upon me, what I did possess was a mix of factors that combined to produce a level of motivation and dedication to improvement that ensured that I had the best possible chance of achieving my goals. So what were my goals? Well, the rose emblem in the picture gives it away. I had an all-consuming desire to get an England vest. To represent my country in the boxing ring.

I achieved my goal and to this day, outside of my wonderful family, getting my England Under-19 vest is the single proudest achievement of my life. Even now, 20 years later, I get butterflies in my stomach looking at that rose and remembering the hard work and dedication that went into getting the vest upon which it is emblazoned. It was anything but an overnight success. And that is what this article about, it’s about motivation and how if you set your mind to it and despite your perceived limitations, you can reach any goal.

I want to talk about the things that I feel gave me the chance to enjoy that moment when the letter came to tell me I was going to represent my country. I was in my parent’s house on my own when the postman arrived. At just 19-years old, it was a rarity for me to receive a letter addressed personally to me. When I opened this letter my curiosity turned to unbridled joy after I read the first few lines. I began to jump about like a man possessed. “Dear Mr Sands, I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected to represent England in an upcoming tournament…”

The joy simply ran through me like an electric shock. I ran across the road to my Nan and Grandad’s house. As two of my most ardent supporters, our smiles and laughter were all-consuming. Even now I’m choking up thinking about it. It was just the most amazing experience. I was getting my England vest, all of the years hard work and dedication had been worth it. It may appear quite a modest achievement, and indeed it is when compared to the careers of others who represented their country at Olympics, won national and international honours and so on. But this was my vest and no-one could take it away from me.

Looking at my vest again now, I wanted to outline what I believe were the key factors that lead to what was an average boxer achieving international representation. I would certainly hope that it may give you as the reader something to think about in terms of setting your targets and going on to achieve them. Whether these goals are within competition as an amateur boxer, as a boxing coach or even getting yourself into decent shape. It’s primarily for those of us who are not ‘naturally talented’.

For me, there were 4 main elements to my success:

  1. Determination
  2. The Right Environment
  3. Right fights, right time
  4. Train hard, hard, hard!

Single-Mindedness and Determination

As my career developed as a young amateur boxer, so my determination to succeed grew ever stronger. This was not just a willingness to work hard (which I’ll cover in a moment), but more importantly it was a willingness to continue to improve my capabilities. This boiled down to improving my boxing skills. For that I needed to leave any kind of preconception about my capabilities at the door of the gym.

Learning is what life is all about, and I was determined to continually improve my boxing skills. How could I improve my footwork? How could I cut down on the number of shots I take whilst still landing my own? How can my body punching get better and how can this work within my overall boxing style? Are my basic straight punches working as they should be? What are the best methods for improving my punching speed?

Of course my coaches played a major part in this (more on that in a moment), but for a coach’s advice to work the boxer has to a) be open to receiving that advice and b) think about any potential problems with that advice. A boxer must understand the logic of why they do what they do. This gives them a fixed point of reference from which to work and ultimately improve. By looking for problems with a way of doing things in the boxing ring, or anywhere for that matter, you can establish the logic and therefore the commitment to set out and achieve the goal of getting better at that thing.

There has to be a balance though. One of the drawbacks to my single-minded determination to succeed in boxing resulted in my not achieving the kind of academic results that I should have. Whilst I ultimately have no regrets about this (I caught up on the education stakes in my mid-twenties) I am sure that it would have been better to have maintained the balance and achieved success in both the education and sporting arenas.

So, the single-mindedness and determination to achieve must go beyond simply working hard, it must encompass the openness required to improve the skills.

The Right Environment

For me, the environment for amateur boxers consists of three groups of people:

  • Family and friends
  • Fellow boxers
  • Coaches

I was very fortunate when it came to family and friends. My parents were supportive whilst not being over-bearing and piling pressure on me, something that I have seen happen over the decades of my involvement in amateur boxing. My mum only ever went to watch one of my 60 fights. She really didn’t like the experience (even though I won convincingly) and chose to support from the background.

My Dad went to watch many of my fights, but he never exerted any pressure at all. I guess he knew that boxing was a tough business emotionally (check out the fear in boxing articles), and always offered quiet support. My Grandad and my Uncles too were amazingly supportive. My Grandad brought an air of calm with his presence. I was always happy around my Grandad and seeing him there on fight nights was reassuring.

The trick was that they helped and supported me, but they did not allow their expectations place undue pressure on their young family member.

Whilst boxing may be an individual sport, the importance of fellow boxers I believe cannot be over-stated. In my boxing club, the same one in which all of our videos are recorded, I had a number of fellow boxers who pushed me and motivated me to success. Whether it be competitive spars, watching the hard work and effort they put into everything or indeed watching them compete, I gained massive knowledge and motivation from their presence.

One boxer in particular, my friend and fellow-coach John Jones, was what I would call a naturally talented boxer. In fact, probably the best I’ve been around. John was successful. International boxer, national finalist, endlessly slick and a devastatingly hard puncher. When I saw what John was achieving, I wanted some of that. I watched him, tried to emulate aspects of his boxing style, tried to work as hard as him.

In fact this improvement-by-peers went beyond the walls of the boxing club. As an amateur boxer develops, they move through what is known as the ‘Squad System.’ This is the situation where you not only box as a representative of your boxing club, you also box as a representative of your city then your region. It’s literally the stepping-stones to international representation.

I forged friendships and respect during the squad system that last to this day. I trained alongside guys from other gyms, and in some case actual opponents, and we learned from each other. I am still convinced to this day that a boxer can learn as much from his peers as he can from his coaches.

Speaking of boxing coaches, I was really quite lucky during my amateur boxing career. As well as being in the fortunate position of being brought along by some very experienced coaches at my club, once I made it into the squad system I was exposed to yet more coaches. The coaching in my gym gave me the basis, the back-bone, of what I needed. The coaching within the squad system added in some different approaches that were all geared toward assessing and developing potential as an international-level boxer.

As well as the all-important time in the gym, the coach was there on fight night. I have written a post on The Corner Man so I’m not going to elaborate on the importance of the coach on fight night. Suffice it to say that the right strategic and tactical approach on fight night genuinely can be the difference between victory and defeat. Fights are there to be won, and the boxer needs the input of the coach at all stages of preparation and fighting.

The Right Fights at the Right Time

We should always remember that boxers should box, the more often the better. They should fight the right opponent at the right time in their career. This means that the fights that are made for that boxer should test them the right amount without leaving them out on a limb. This is important during the early stages of the career because later on the boxer has no real control of who they fight. Once they enter a national championships they literally fight all-comers.

Again, in this respect I was lucky. The Club Secretary (the man who made the matches) was very shrewd and maintained a close eye on any potential opponents, always looking for the right match. Whilst I did lose many of my early contests, I was by-and-large competitive. That is to say I was not ‘blown away’ by my opponents. They were tough, competitive boxing matches and I learned a hell of a lot from them.

Having the right fights at the right time was important, but just as important was being active. On average I boxed at least monthly, and when in championships this was at least twice monthly and often as much as every week during periods. Fighters need to fight. Sparring is good, fighting is better.

Train Hard, Hard Hard!

This one kind of goes without saying. As a boxer we learn to take defeat (well us average guys do anyway). You take defeat in the right way. You try to identify the reasons for the defeat and put in place measures to make improvements. This is usually a joint effort between the boxer and the coach. But, the worst possible way to be defeated is by simply not being fit enough.

Early in my boxing career, I lost one or two fights simply because I had not trained hard enough. Against an opponent who was less skilled, losing because of your lack of fitness is the ultimate sin. It can and does happen, but I reached a point where I vowed never to lose because of a lack of hard work.

Working hard in the gym, in the ring and during my road work. To use a Michael Phelps approach “Put lots in the bank during training, because the day will come when you need to make a withdrawal.” Training hard, harder than the imaginary opponent, is non-negotiable. Being defeated by a better boxer is part of the game and will make you a better boxer. Getting whupped because the opponent is simply fitter is unforgivable.

The End Results

So, what where the results of all of these factors in my boxing career? Well, I succeeded in my “quest for the vest.” But, here’s the funny thing. I mentioned that in my first 25 fights I won only 12 of them. That I was a hard worker rather than a naturally talented athlete. Of my final 25 fights, I won 20 of them and this whilst boxing against a much higher caliber of opponent. That’s a very different success rate than in my earlier career.

So, if you are active in amateur boxing and you feel that you might be coming second in more than your fair share of boxing matches, don’t give up hope. We can all improve. It’s the nature of the beast.

If you are not active in amateur boxing, but have other goals that you would like to achieve, then put the right ingredients together in the right amounts and you will get there.  It’s just a matter of time.

Please share any comments below, It would be great to get your views.



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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan 01010101010 November 5, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Great Job Fran

Very heart warming and informative article, it sounds like you are the definition of a fighter at heart and the definition of a boxer intellectually!


Fran November 5, 2013 at 10:26 pm

Thank you, very kind.


Anonymous November 5, 2013 at 5:47 am

I’m 17, and I’ve been boxing for 3 years. I got my first fight in December. I want to also represent England. Do you think its too late for me to represent under 19?


Fran November 5, 2013 at 10:26 pm

You should aim to represent your country at whatever level, U-19 or otherwise. Work hard and focus on your goals.


dannniel November 4, 2013 at 10:59 pm

well said Fran,

All the things you have commented are all true and relevant in all parts of life. I know my gym when the lads start competing I sit them down and get them to write down there short, medium and long term goals. I then get them to sign it and they pin them up, that way when they start losing their way they can look back on them and they remember what they are doing it for. Goals are always important. We do this each year as sometimes goals change or they might achieve their goals and they look further to see what else they want


Fran November 5, 2013 at 10:24 pm

Excellent way of building that driver there Danniel. Providing a sound structure for constant improvement. Thanks.


matt August 3, 2012 at 11:47 am

Tht would be great, mate. I think I would really benefit from that, I’ve already learned a lot from your videos and online tips, I could learn lots more with a bit of one-on-one.

Have you been watching the olympic boxing? I’ve been glued to it, trying to look at all the technical aspects. What is your impression of it overall so far? Good level of talent?

That analysis you did on Khan vs Kindelan was 1st class.


Fran August 6, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Sorry for the delay Matt.

We’ll see how things go eh.

The Olympic Boxing has had me mesmerised mate. If I had the time and a reliable source of videos I would be doing an “as it happens” analysis, but I’ll definitely be doing a catch up analysis over the coming weeks. The skills on display are outstanding across the board and very worthy of the stage. Really looking forward to these final stages and don’t really want it to end!


Matt July 30, 2012 at 9:51 am

That sounds good that, mate. I train at the moment on a Tuesday and Thursday so convenient for me. Plus I think it’s good how the competitive and non-competetive training is separated. What kind of training do you do for non-fighters? Are there set class times on a Tues/Thursday or anything?


Fran July 31, 2012 at 7:49 pm

No set classes Matt, you get full use of the equipment and so on. There are plenty of guys who use the gym so there’s always relationships to build and future sparring opportunities to take advantage of. WHo knows, maybe I’ll be there the odd night and can take you on pads for a round or two.


Matt July 28, 2012 at 10:02 am

I am mate, yeah. Only live near Maghull. I only realised it was Sefton ABC when I saw a logo in one of your vids! Is it open to casual boxers like myself? I’ve never wanted to compete but I love learning the sweet science from a hobby/self-defence point of view.


Fran July 29, 2012 at 7:39 pm

You can go on a Tuesday and Thursday (open from 5.00pm onwards) and on a Sunday morning (from 10.00am until about 12.00). The other nights we have to keep for the boxing team, that is those who aim to fight.

May see you there one night eh.


Matt July 27, 2012 at 8:18 pm

Hi Fran

Do you coach at Sefton ABC?


Fran July 27, 2012 at 11:09 pm

Certainly do Matt. You nearby?


Terry June 28, 2012 at 9:06 am

Hello Fran,I really enjoyed this article.It must have been a great thrill to box for your country,what a great effort.I don’t spend alot of time on the internet but always manage to check in to the site on weekends to see what is happening.You’ve created a terrific resource here mate and you should be very proud. My son will be leaving next Thursday for South America and then on to London as I mentioned a while back and he still says that he is keen to make the trip to Liverpool to check out your gym.I know that sometimes when travelling your plans don’t pan out but he still intends to make the trip at the moment.I told him today that I would go onto your site and leave a note and hopefully you’d be able to get back to me with the details of the gym.Anyway Fran if that suits you mate that would be great.Regards Terry.


Fran July 1, 2012 at 9:01 pm

Great to hear from you.

I’ll email you my details, including the gym address and my phone number. Be glad to show your boy around the gym if he wanders around this neck of the woods.


tom June 28, 2012 at 7:57 am

There is something very special about landing punches in order to win a contest. I remember very well being sort of offended when I first received a solid blow and it felt weird to do the same to others. But in the end of the day, going through it again and again made me feel much more confident and relaxed person.

Isn’t it rather the social bias surrounding many champions than the nature of the sport what makes champions’ lives turbulent?

If you play rock’n’roll, you are not necessarily a cocain user, are you?:)


Ivan July 1, 2012 at 5:45 am

If you mention stimulants, then you know professional boxing is plagued by drug abuse more than any other sport. The list of champions on the pipe is endless, starting with Joe Louis and not ending with Tyson.
This is a learner’s site, the point is not to expose boxing for what it’s become. If it wasn’t for the Hispanic fan base, the industry would have gone down with Tyson.

The purpose of the site is to enrich the knowledge and perception of the sport by beginners. First you say you are a beginning boxer, then you make statements with authority as if you know the score. Make up your mind what role you are playing, but don’t spoil it for everyone by mentioning drugs on this site. No amateur boxer I know has ever been involved with illegal substances and those who have stepped on the wrong side of the law could no longer compete for various reasons.


tom July 1, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Hi Ivan, some misunderstanding here, I suppose. I only doubt your statement which suggests it’s the nature of modern boxing which is to be blamed for some champions’ misbehavior.
Yes, I fully agree with your opinion on drugs. All my gym mates (some quite successful competitors) are hardworking clean living folks. That’s also why I might have undestood you wrong, because I have no experience with anyone having been “spoiled” by boxing. But I know many who have gone astray because of the difficult social circumstances.
That’s all I tried to say. Thanks for understanding.


Fran July 1, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Hey Tom, taking on the subsequent comments of both Ivan and yourself, I just wanted to make one point. Boxing is a very accessible sport, usually most accessible in the tougher areas of any given city. To come out on top requires any number of competing and complementing factors. One of my big criticisms of professional boxing is that there is no systemic processes that are designed to help fighters control and manage their lives, particularly their emotional and financial affairs. Maybe it’s the individual nature of the business, but hell, lots of people involved in the progression of a fighter get paid very, very well and they don’t take punches.

The business needs to help it’s fighters more than it does because whilst the majority of boxers may come from tough backgrounds and may have minimal investment made in their young lives, when they make so much money for others then surely there’s a strong moral argument for the business to take more responsibility for their ‘whole life well being’.

A very interesting direction for these comments to take, thank so much Tom and Ivan.


Ivan June 27, 2012 at 7:15 pm

Hi Fran,
as they say it’s 99% work and one percent talent, but I guess if you substitute the 1% with work too, it still adds up to 100%.
There is also the spirit over matter, mind over body postulate in martial arts and sometimes I wonder whether this might actually be true. If you set your mind to a goal, the body will listen in the end.
On the other hand, if you had certain success in boxing, you must have had some talent, you just did not know it. It takes a different period of time and circumstances for each individual’s potential to unfold.

I’d like to add something else to the prerequisites for participating in boxing, and that is the reconciliation to the fact that you’ll hurt people (if not the urge). You can’t enter the house of pain and act like a virgin, the only way to win is to hurt your opponent or be hurt whether you think of it this way or not. Once upon a time when fights took as long as necessary, there was a way to win without throwing a punch and see your opponent collapse due to fatigue. Modern rules have made boxing “the hurt business”, so we should not be too judgmental to the champions and their turbulent personal lives. If they were decent, normal folks with strong moral principles, they wouldn’t be boxers, let alone champions. Stand up gentlemen practicing the noble art of self defense are fictional characters, real life is much more exciting.


Fran July 1, 2012 at 8:51 pm

Ivan. I really like that concept in your first paragraph. That principle of seeing talent as being displayed at different rates, dependant I suppose upon an number of internal and external factors. That’s some food for thought.

Whether boxing has always been a hurt business could be a point of discussion and it is certainly an interesting observation to make around the length of the fights a century ago. I am also a bit nervous claiming that all fighters are not at least decent, if not normal, but the evidence contrary to that seems to be stacking up. A counter argument is that if you’re opponent is already on his way to the canvas after being hit then you looking to land one more (as all boxers should) is more an act of compassion to you both. It will make it more sure that this particular fight goes on no longer and both combatants are spared subsequent punishment. Cruel to be kind I guess, but maybe I struggle to dispense with that ‘noble art’ thing.

As always, very grateful for your comment.


Ivan July 2, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Being a former boxer myself, I am not the right person to criticize boxing mentality. I did not mean to label all boxers as bad people, I was trying to make a point that certain concessions with common virtues and values are necessary if a boxer wants peace of mind. If the biblical (or Koran) commandments are to be followed strictly, then there is a problem. On the other hand when once you enter the ring you are entitled to defend yourself, you have equal opportunities with the opponent and may the best man win.


Fran July 3, 2012 at 8:31 pm

I certainly can’t disagree on that point Ivan. Fact is, as a boxer we have all faced opponents who we know and like. But, it’s a boxing ring and both boxers understand the game. If you can land one more shot as the opponent is on the way down, then you land that punch, whether you are friends or not. We get nice people and we get not so nice people. Art imitating life.


Paul Smith June 27, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Awesome article Fran.

I am moved by this account of your life as a young man with a goal you were able to achieve. You poignantly touched upon many personal experiences and life lessons and now I can understand why you are such a good boxing coach.

It sounds like your family were able to raise a champion of a man and you have every right to be extremely proud of your boxing exploits and life accomplishments.

When it comes to someone not giving up, you are so right, and I can only think of this saying I was once told — ‘Tough Times Don’t Last, but Tough People Do’ — and there is no doubt that boxing is tough.

Thanks Coach.


Fran June 28, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Cheers Paul. I like that saying, that’s gone into the memory bank!

They were nice times and that is what makes me want to continually get better at coaching, so that I can watch the youngsters enjoy that same feeling that I had. It’s always a buzz for me, make a real fuss of them.

Thanks again Paul, I appreciate your on-going involvement with the site.


Dave June 27, 2012 at 4:17 am

Matt said exactly what I was going to say… “I Love this site”!!!


Fran June 27, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Thanks Dave. It’s great to have such engaged and enthusiastic users of the site.


Matt June 26, 2012 at 6:58 pm

Brilliant piece – thanks for sharing and continuing to encourage and inspire others in such a down to earth and engaging fashion. You must have made your family extremely proud. Clearly you’re a very modest man but I’m sure I’m not the only follower of the site who’d get a real kick out of seeing some footage of the young Fran Sands in action. How about it? Again, well done Fran – this sort of writing is why people love the site.


Fran June 27, 2012 at 12:22 pm


Thanks very much Matt. I’m glad that what I’ve written acts as a source of encouragement, we all need that to get to where we want to be.

I do have some footage on VHS. Maybe it’s time to dust off the old thing and get it converted.

Thanks mate, your comment is really appreciated.


asad June 26, 2012 at 12:44 am

an interesting article


Fran June 27, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Thanks Asad.


Jay June 25, 2012 at 1:39 pm

…Appreciate the article, Fran. Thank you so much. Please do continue sharing your thoughts and insight on the great sport of boxing. much respect.


Fran June 25, 2012 at 9:30 pm

No problem Jay, thank you for commenting and I’m glad the site helps.


tom June 25, 2012 at 8:32 am

In the name of any beginning boxer, thank you Mr. Sands.


Fran June 25, 2012 at 9:30 pm

You’re welcome Tom. Thanks


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