Boxing Psychology – Facing the Fear

by Fran on November 30, 2011

“Fear (noun) an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm” – Oxford English Dictionary

Fear is part and parcel of life, whether we like it or not.  In fact, we can go a step further and say that life depends upon fear.  Without fear, our ancestors would have never survived long enough to procreate.  Rather than fear your average sabre-toothed tiger and therefore treat it with the kind of caution that prudence would dictate, our ancestors would have wandered up to such a beast and been promptly eaten.

The same is true now.  Without the emotion of fear we would all put ourselves in many more dangerous situations than we could justifiably expect to escape unscathed.  We would walk down that dark alley on a short cut home.  We would decide to go for a dip in the sea during a category 5 storm.  We would pass negative comment on the shoes of our beloved in the minutes before leaving for a big night out.

When bad things do happen, fear allows us to perform some pretty major feats of strength, power and endurance.  Fear causes adrenalin to hammer through the veins giving fuel to the ability of ‘fight or flight’.  Fear sharpens the senses allowing almost an other-world capability of predicting impending doom.  And, if it’s ‘fight’, then fear allows you to fight like a wildcat if necessary.  This is all very relevant to a boxer.

When it comes to many types of sport, fear then takes on a new title.  It morphs into the words ‘pressure’, or ‘tension’, or sometimes even ‘stress’.  In boxing though, and other full-contact combat sports, it stays as plain old fear.  The big question in the first instance is what is the source of this fear?  Is it fear of being physically hurt?  Is it a fear of hurting others?  Is it a fear of performance?  Is it a fear of loss?

In many ways, it matters not what we fear or why we fear it.  What actually matters is how we deal with and respond to fear.  It matters that we maintain a level of fear that in conventional terms is absolutely sensible.  After all, it’s not every day that you take on an opponent who has trained very hard in order to knock you out absolutely cold.  A fight is actually quite a serious event. Likewise, a boxer doesn’t take up the sport in order to consistently experience the feeling of losing.  It is perfectly normal to fear losing just as it is perfectly normal to fear having the crap beaten out of you.

The trick is to maintain a level of fear that provides the benefits of the emotion without allowing that same fear to become all-consuming.  As Mike Tyson said (following the philosophy of Cus D’Amato), “Fear is your friend”.  Let fear get out of control though and it quickly becomes a deadly enemy.

This is the first of a series of articles that focus on fear, or to put it in really professional terms, “boxing psychology”.  I’ll talk about my own experiences and hopefully provide some practical advice on coping with fear and responding to it in the right way.  Either now or at any point in the series of articles, I’d love to have your contribution to the discussions, so do leave your comments.

Go to the next article now, it’s called Facing Fear in Boxing – From the Mists of Time and it’s rundown of fight fears from a fighter’s perspective, that fighter being me.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Magnus August 12, 2015 at 7:13 pm

Dear Fran,
I love your subtle sense of humour and, of course, professional pieces of advice on boxing. Keep up the good work!
Best wishes from Sweden

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Fran August 12, 2015 at 9:14 pm

Thank you Magnus, that’s very kind of you.

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Rodrigo September 9, 2013 at 3:19 am

Canelo is goin to drop Tyson!!!

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Karl December 2, 2011 at 5:44 am

Fear is so typical in boxing. For me, it’s actually one of the things that appeals. Not that I like being scared. I’m not saying that. What I mean is that boxing has a primal side, it’s a stage that abhors bullshit, and those arenas are rare.

Actually Fran, in my opinion, a good (though amusing and slightly ridiculous) example of fear can be found in the video attached to your article “Confident? Sure, He’s Confident!”. Now I know you weren’t being serious with that article Fran, but I actually didn’t see any confidence at all. From the start I immediately thought “this guy is scared”. He’s trying to deny that emotion. The dancing, the walking over and getting nose to nose with his opponent before the fight has even started, all that stuff is just a way to distract from the fact that he’s about to get into a fight.

His facade is fragile and it begins to break at 1:54. He attempts to stare down his adversary, who is relaxed and serious, but when the opponent glances at the ref you’ll notice how our would be killer follows him quickly with a snappy eyes-right. From then on he doesn’t look back but keeps his gaze fixed on the man who will save him if there is trouble and not on the one that’s going to be dishing it out. The opponent is already the ring general, and he knows it, giving his teammate a relaxed tap with the glove.

I’m not judging this kid harshly. I’m actually on his side and I hope he’s learned a life lesson, which is, acknowledge your fear. Fear in boxing is not just fear of the fight. Personally, I can’t double skip worth a damn. The rope gets tangled up in my feet and I feel like an idiot for trying it. I fear looking like an idiot so I don’t practice it enough to get good at it. If we go out for a group jog there are days when I catch myself deliberately NOT jogging beside the youngest and fittest because again, I fear that I’ll come up short in comparison to the 20 year olds. I think this sort of thing is much more serious then the fear involved in a fight. In training you have lots of opportunity to avoid the conflict between the heroic vision you have of yourself and the reality of your very real and definite limits.

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Fran December 2, 2011 at 8:52 pm

Very good point Karl. I think fear of bad performance and therefore potential loss is a bigger factor than fear of getting hit, and I’ll go into this in subsequent articles. After all, we are a breed that has someone attempting to hit us for prolonged periods for at least 2 or 3 times a week during our sparring sessions. True on fight night there is a great deal more venom involved in the shots being thrown, but in real terms we are dealing with the same level risk. The dread of loss can lead to a real performance paralysis.

Onto our dancing boy. It’s an interesting point that you make. I’m always interested in that word ‘fearless’. Throughout my life in boxing, all of the ‘fearless’ guys that I met tended to be the ones who got their arse kicked more often that they kicked it. Maybe we can exchange the word ‘fearless’ with something more suited, like maybe dumb? Maybe Uzzy was terrified and you’re right, there was definitely some compensating going on. Still bloody funny though!

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Dave Waterman December 1, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Excellent post Fran and one I can comment upon with authority. I had a mate who was tutored by the recently departed Mickey Carney of Fitzroy Lodge, Mickey was an absolute legend in London and beyond, laid to rest today. RIP Mick.

Well, my pal and student of Mick, had a decent amateur career and then fought as a professional light-middleweight. He had moderate success until the fear started to leave him. In his final bout against one Richie Woodhall, my mate Chris Hayden told me that he felt no fear coming to the ring and was subsequently knocked out in the third round. He never fought again.

In my own, less illustrious engagements, I remember in the army being scared to my boots by a taller, rangier opponent at light welterweight and using that fear to knock him out of the ring in the first round. To balance that I remember boxing twenty years later on a white collar show against a whirlwind of a man twenty years my junior who hammered me before I heard the end of the round. In that last fight I felt no fear, just concern what my children were going to have for tea that night (the tale of receiving my £200 purse and then finding my girlfriend had parked my car illegally and received a hefty parking fine is another sad story!).

Fear can be your friend (my illustrious first round knock out). Ignore or dismiss it and it will work against you (me own getting knocked out in round one!).

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Fran December 1, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Sad news Dave, top club Fitzroy Lodge and it’s always a blow when such a vibrant and important man passes. Hopefully a bell will be ringing 10 times in London Town for Mr Carney, RIP.

I don’t want to get into too much now, other than a knowing smile over the kids/girlfriend/purse/car park thing, as the upcoming articles certainly touch upon what you say with regards fear and it’s importance. It’s amazing what you can actually achieve when you are literally shaking like a leaf (I nearly used other words there). The boxer’s mind is a complicated entity, and in many ways can be pretty fragile despite all of the bluster and intimidation. Hopefully you and others will add many dimensions to the ‘fear’ debate.

Thanks Dave

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Mo December 1, 2011 at 7:09 pm

This should be a good read cant wait for more!

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Dave December 1, 2011 at 4:21 am

Cheers Fran. I come from a boxing family and my son (12 yrs old) is going into his first competitive boxing bout Feb 2012. I always talk to my son about this aspect of fear in the game, the natural feeling itself, the negative effects of being overwhelmed by fear but as well as the pros of being able to control fear thru honest regular training, no shortcuts, doing the hard yards and that being at his best fitness, breathing, along with sound defence/offence technical skills will have a positive impact in his mind as well. How this will go a long way to keep fear in perspective, in his control and to his advantage.
One main reason why I discuss this (soooo much) with my son is because a lot of people who coach/teach boxing tell there fighters “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid” when it’s your most natural feeling. I’ve been a boxer, I know how it feels and my dad was a boxer, however you’d swear my dad had absolutely no fear – I was so confused when I was a young boxer why I had this struggle with fear (and why I was missing all my father’s genes, lol!), not that I’d EVER tell my dad that I had a struggle with fear back then (that’s another fear in itself).
Anyway sorry for taking up so much space – looking forward to what you have with further articles on this matter.

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Fran December 1, 2011 at 9:25 pm

Dave. Firstly don’t ever apologise for ‘taking up space’, especially not when you make such a valued contribution. There is so much in your comment that rings true. I don’t want to go into too much depth here because this will unfold in the next few articles. All I would say is that your approach of educating your boy about the feelings that he will experience on fight night is very commendable, a hint of realism that will help him understand that fear will always be there when stepping in the ring. It is only when the bout is over do you put it into context. A phrase I said to myself on more than one occasion in the minutes before doing the walk, “What the hell am I doing this for???” It all became clear though following a win.

Thanks for taking the time to make your comment Dave.

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Peter December 1, 2011 at 12:34 am

Great article Fran, looking forward to the follow up.

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Scott Hamilton November 30, 2011 at 11:24 pm

An excellent article Fran & thanks for writing it! Some related quotes below…

“Fear is your best friend or your worst enemy. It’s like fire. If you can control it, it can cook for you; it can heat your house. If you can’t control it, it will burn everything around you and destroy you. If you can control your fear, it makes you more alert, like a deer coming across the lawn.” Mike Tyson

“I’m scared every time I go into the ring, but it’s how you handle it. What you have to do is plant your feet, bite down on your mouthpiece and say, ‘Let’s go.’” Mike Tyson

“The only thing we have to fear is fear it’self – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified, terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” FDR

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Courage is not the lack of fear but the ability to face it.”

“Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.”

Some good quotes ah?…Look forward to reading subsequent articles on this topic & others Fran.

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Fran December 1, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Good quotes indeed Scott, I particularly like the “fear pass over and through me” thing. This is one of the most important aspects I think, and I do cover something similar in relation to accepting what is happening, or resigning yourself to it. Great comment mate.

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