Facing the Fear – Jay’s Story

by Fran on December 5, 2011

In keeping with the the recent theme of controlling fear in boxing, whatever the source of that fear may be, I wanted to tell you a story about a young man that I worked with some time ago.  There is probably more than one or two elements of this story that you may find hard to believe, but I can promise you that every word is true.  Quite simply, it is probably the single most powerful memory that I have from my coaching career.

Jay first walked into our boxing gym at the age of about 15.  He was a tall, thin and very quiet young man.  I don’t recall any first impressions really, other than the fact that he was always in the background.  What became apparent quite quickly though was that Jay had real problems with his levels of self-confidence.  He wasn’t a particularly inclined to mix too much with the other boxers, preferring instead to quietly get on with his training.

Now, in my opinion the average length of time it would take to get a boxer prepared for their first fight, from knowing pretty much nothing to being a raw novice who knows enough defensive and offensive skills to feel a certain level of confidence in a fight situation, I would say we are looking at 6 to 12 months.  Some may not take as long, some may take longer.  In Jay’s case it took the best part of 2 years.  By any standards, this is quite a timeline to a first fight.

So why did it take this long?  Well, it was not that Jay wasn’t picking up the skills or developing the strength.  Whilst this didn’t exactly come quickly it was certainly evident when working the pads that he was gradually learning to throw technically correct shots with speed and power.  Being tall, Jay really did have some considerable advantages.  His body became more ‘cut’ and he gradually developed some quite serious power in both hands.  Given the right way forward, we may have had a little Tommy Hearns on our hands here!

Whilst the skills were developing, albeit at a steady pace, the confidence levels were still not great.  Where did the confidence problems show themselves?  During sparring.  When Jay sparred, you could almost see the words “too tentative” written across his forehead.  The nervousness that he displayed was what stood out rather than his skills.  I knew that his skills were there, but those skills were of precious little use if there was such overbearing caution during the minutes of a round of boxing.

Jay’s flinch response was all-consuming.  The eyes would shut, the arms would come up in a broadly defensive pose but it was really a case of hiding behind the defence rather than seeking to explode from behind the defence.  Whilst his edginess was as profound as this, we could not even begin to consider putting Jay into his first contest.  We were really beginning to wonder whether we would get there at all.

However, as with many things in life, persistence, patience and tenacity often pay dividends.  Gradually, Jay became less and less nervous.  He never climbed into a spar and oozed confidence, but he was managing his response to stress in a much more acceptable way for us as coaches.  So, after 2 years, we made Jay his first match.  We really didn’t know how he would react on fight night, but the time had come and sometimes you just have to roll the dice and hope for the best.

On the night of the fight, the preparations went pretty well.  Jay was quiet, but this is quite usual for a boxer in the minutes before climbing the steps.  Fighting is one hell of a nerve-racking experience, so as long as the warm up goes well and there is a sharpness to the work, I wasn’t about to worry about him not prattling on with small talk.

As with all amateur fights, there were to be two coaches working the corner.  Jay was good friends with my fellow coach Ash (she of punch pads fame), so Ash would be the primary coach and I was to ‘hand up’, getting the stool in, washing the mouthguard, handing the drinks to the primary coach and so on.

I always see the ‘handing up’ coach as the one who keeps quiet during the one-minute interval.  I think it important that the boxer has one voice to listen to otherwise it can feel slightly panicked, the corner should be a place of measured calm.  I would talk to Ash during the round so that we knew what the instructions would be for the subsequent interval.

As the boxers were being introduced, I did my usual of looking at the opponent, measuring up the height and strength.  This guy looked tall AND powerful.  Jay’s instructions from the outset was to use the straight shots to get control.  It looked for all the world though that this would be a very tough night for Jay.  It turned out to be tough alright, but not in the way you would expect.

The bell sounded and both boxers advanced to battle.  As with many amateur fights, it was a frenetic start.  Jay’s opponent really went for him in a big way.  From where Ash and I were sitting though, Jay responded in the right way, maintaining his composure and importantly looking to hit back (exploding from behind his defence, not cowering behind it).  I thought the round had gone pretty well.  I thought that Jay’s opponent had edged it, but I felt that it was close and was certainly something that we could build on.

The bell rang to end hostilities for round one.  Jay returned to the corner and Ash went to work.  We spotted that the opponent would be vulnerable to uppercuts and Ash provided Jay with this and one or two other gems of helpful advice.  After about 20 seconds or so, something went wrong.  Jay looked at Ash through reddened eyes and said in sudden panic “He’s too strong, I can’t go back out.”  His voice was breaking and he was utterly convinced that he would be destroyed in the next round.  He was adamant and repeated his concerns in no uncertain terms.

Ash looked at me, and both of us thought in the same second “This was definitely not in the gameplan.”  Jay had reached a breaking point, he had gone to the very edge of what his emotions could bear.  Fear had taken hold and to his mind the only option was to get out of there in any way he could.  If you think about this in conventional terms, Jay’s reaction is a perfectly rational one.  Hell, who wants to get beaten up?  Not me, that’s for sure.

Our problem is that we can’t think in conventional terms.  We are boxers.  We think in terms of winning fights, no more, no less.  The fact is that as a coach, I had to consider the options.  I considered pulling Jay out, but did not for one second believe that I would.  This was one of those rare moments in life that would profoundly influence the rest of his life.  If I allowed Jay to quit here, it would eat at him for years to come, and I did not want to play any part in that.  In fact, I would rather pull him out during the round than allow a capitulation on the stool.  It was unthinkable.

So, I broke my ‘handing up’ rule of not speaking and used words to the effect of “Jay, you are in a fight.  You will go back out there and you will fight, there will be no other way.”  I added that if the guy is strong, then fight on the back foot, let him advance and bomb him with long range work, cancel out his strength by boxing him.  It was the easiest decision I’d ever made as a coach.  On this occasion it was my job not to open a door, but to shut the door with a resounding slam.  The question was, how would Jay respond?

Well, Jay did not let us down.  He stood up, accepted his mouth guard and walked back to face the ogre in the opposite corner.  This for me was one of the finest acts of courage that I’d ever witnessed in a boxing ring.  Here was a young man who had been consumed by fear and was able to gather enough inner strength to stand up and be counted.  For me he was the most awesome fighter of the night.

Now, many may question why someone could get in such a state, after all it’s only a boxing match, right?  Well, those who have actually taken part in fight would I’m sure understand this scenario.  Not necessarily would they see themselves being overtaken by emotions in such a way, but they could certainly understand how it could happen.  It is a fine line between having ‘fear as your friend’, in the words of Mike Tyson, and having fear destroy you from the inside out.

After the fight I told Jay that it was one of the proudest moments of my coaching career.  To see a young man go to the edge of the abyss and control his fear enough to go back out to face a dangerous opponent, an opponent who he felt could hurt him bad.  This will live with me for many years to come.  On that night, Jay had become a man.  The result was inconsequential.  The battle had been fought inside Jay and he could hold his head high knowing that he was now a boxer, a fighter in every sense of the word.  I could not have been happier.

I suppose you do really need to know that result don’t you?  It would be cruel not to complete the picture, and if you’re still reading an article of this length then I can only assume that you would hold at least a passing interest in knowing the outcome.  Well, Jay went out into the 2nd round and after forcing 2 standing counts watched the referee step in and halt the fight in the dying seconds of the round.  He won, and he won in emphatic fashion.  He was as joyous as any boxer I had ever seen, and why not, he had a lot to be very proud of.

There you have it.  Fear and fighting go hand in hand.  Even when a boxer feels like panic is setting in, he or she can always find a way back, can always find a way to keep control in the eye of the storm and ultimately become the victor.  This is a great sport, and all over the world every day young people like Jay are proving themselves in the crucible of the boxing ring.  We are boxers, we think in terms of winning fights, no more, no less.  And the first fight that we must always win is with our own emotions.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Danny Jones January 30, 2017 at 12:39 pm

First of all I would like to say, what an incredible story of great coaching and courage. Very inspiring!

I came across the site as I have been looking for techniques on handling fear, as I have frequent anxiety attacks and OCD. I started out boxing a few months ago to help deal with this, and the training certainly does help wonders. But now the time has come where I am nearly ready to box, I can already feel the nerves of that first bout.

I can certainly relate to Jay, and reading this made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and I will certainly refer back to this when I finally do take the step into the ring.

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Adam January 30, 2017 at 1:02 pm

Good luck mate!

Keep us updated 😁

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Fran January 30, 2017 at 7:38 pm

Welcome to the site then Danny. Look mate, when the time comes you will have to deal with nerves, that’s the reality. The outcome and feeling of achievement regardless of the result will be worth it – you’ll be a member of a pretty exclusive club 😉

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Adam November 21, 2016 at 11:29 pm

Have you had fighters just generally
Scared of preforming infront of a crowd?

The idea of loosing infront loads of people
Sounds terrifying but I imagine winning
Must feel amazing.

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Fran November 22, 2016 at 7:45 pm

Yes Adam, it’s all part of the challenge of fighting. Mostly in my experience the fear is actually a fear of loss as opposed to a fear of getting hurt.

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Alexandra February 26, 2015 at 12:46 pm

Hi Fran,

thanks a lot for sharing this story – which is also a profound example of the vital role of the coach(es) in the evolution and transformation of a young boxer.

Having been in my first fight (albeit MMA) last week, I understand how fear can get to you in such a situation: My opponent was by far more experienced and strong than we had suspected, and I was horrified when I saw her in the opposite corner. Before I could do much, she had knocked me to the ground 3 times . The referee eventually stopped the fight and I lost.

But for me, overcoming the pain, the fear and the intense urge to give up in the face of such an onslaught – THAT was an experience so powerful, beautiful and profound that I feel like a different person now. I am very thankful for this experience.

I would like to add that my own trust towards my coach was probably the one thing that helped me most in the ring. I am sure this is a sentiment many a fighter shares, so a big THANKYOU to all you committed corner men and -women out there!

Best wishes,
Alexandra

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Fran February 27, 2015 at 9:00 pm

Hi Alexandra

Hats off to you – you have my absolute and total respect. The fighters who experience the most fear for me demonstrate the most control and bravery. Well done for facing it out and having a go, genuinely it will make you stronger and a more complete fighter in the long run.

Stay in touch Alexandra, I look forward to hearing about your progression 🙂

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Alexandra March 3, 2015 at 5:41 pm

Thanks so much for this, Fran! I will keep you posted.

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alexander January 21, 2015 at 12:35 am

Hi Fran, liked jay’s story, well done for airing it, A question of fear at heart of boxing, but possibly more so of temperament, by definition, a “persons nature as it controls his or her behaviour”. Can’t help oneself.

I came into boxing as a boy, after a couple of ‘hothead altercations’ with ‘primary school bullies’. Can’t say I won, and well I remember the encircling ‘school boy mob crying out’ for blood. Didn’t like that. But I soon learned, in the gym, through ‘hard sparring’, how to keep my cool and control my anger. And with that confidence, I can’t remember getting into such fracas again, being able to ‘face down’ the bullies, and walk away from most ‘street rumbles’.

Moreover, I grew to love the skilful side of boxing, slipping, countering, and throwing a long jab hook, over the top, which could make my opponents legs buckle. But I never had the urge to follow up for the kill, always the good guy, never ‘losing the head’, and preferring to make my opponent miss or look stupid, and win on points. The art of self defence and respect as I see it.

However, when I grew up into the ‘amateur seniors’, and entered the competitive arena, it wasn’t long before I got caught with a ‘haymaker to the temple’. Vascular trauma. I remember it coming. But when I came too, flat on my back, like a light switched on, with a referee standing over me, arm raised at the count of one, I could not but wonder where I had been for the last few seconds, very weird. A new experience.

And at that I sat bolt upright, looked at the ref, then at the baying crowd, too much like the school play ground mob, and it wasn’t hard to see and hear they wanted my opponent, who was jigging around like a raging bull, to finish me off. Clearly the ‘mob’ was pumping up his adrenalin. While mine was doing the opposite, it, was telling me to keep calm, out of distance, and don’t go ‘toe to toe’.

So I got up, gesturing at a screaming ‘elderly gentleman’ at ringside, and the referee warned me not to. But I did get through the rest of that round, and the next two, feeling very tired, shock I suppose, but unscathed. Although every time the ‘raging bull’ charged at me, the crowd, mob, roared, and when I backed off, slipping this or that way, or ‘closed him down, by leaning on, or holding, they booed. And when I threw my favoured long hook, the referee, kept saying i was slapping.

This was a pretty dire experience, and the worst part for me, wasn’t fear, but the ‘baying mob’. I felt I had done OK in the circumstances, but that’s not what they wanted. But stuff them says I. And when one of my corner men, suggested afterwards that I was lacking heart. I answered, aye right, certainly for this stuff.

And once that season was over, I gradually dropped out of the competitive boxing scene, and just stuck to the recreational boxing, with training, bag work and open sparring. I loved it then, and now, some sixty years on, I still do. So my advice to up and coming Boxers, is know thyself, enjoy the sport, and don’t confuse fear, with your natural temperament. Don’t all want to be ‘bruisers’.

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Fran January 22, 2015 at 9:59 pm

Hello Alexander

Great insights there and a fantastic personal tale that evokes genuine emotion. I often get parents bringing youngsters in to help them deal with the fact that they are bullied at school. The interesting thing, as you point out, is that it’s not about teaching a kid to be able to beat the daylights out of the bully. Of course being a skilled boxer increases the likelihood of a kid being able to do that, but it misses the point. Our sport is about building self-confidence, self-assurance and a sense of belonging – these 3 aspects enable a kid to stand up to bullying in the right way. They need impress no-one but themselves. I really like the way you have brought that point out.

I am always eager to ensure that boxers I work with value the skill of making the opponent miss as much as landing their own shot. That, as you say, is the art. The recent change back to subjective scoring I sense is changing the sport back to the days of strength, aggression and volume of punches getting the nod in those close fights were a back foot fighter may have landed the cleaner shots and demonstrated the more polished skills. Take one to land one and all that. We shall see.

Great comment. Interesting and profound angle on temperament, I need to think that one through 🙂

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Tommy Ferrigan May 25, 2014 at 10:11 am

Great story tell me more

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Fred March 3, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Having read all your articles on fear and psychology this was the one that brought it all home for me. I can only imagine how special that night must’ve been for Jay and how he felt after beating his fear.

I’m training for a white collar fight night in April and your articles have definitely been the perfect supplement to the physical training. My fear started out with a fear of being hurt and morphed to a fear of not being fit enough to outlast an opponent. At my last training session, while doing some body sparring, I suddenly realised that my sparring partner was just as tired as I was, and I had been sparring two rounds longer than he had! (I should add that he definitely isn’t unfit) I’d always been so obsessed with how tired I was that I never noticed any of my sparring partners get tired. Realising that they also get tired gave me much more confidence in my own ability and I cannot wait until my next sparring session. I love this sport!

Thanks for the great articles!

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Fran March 4, 2013 at 8:06 pm

Thanks Fred. It was a great night for Jay and shows the kind of self-esteem that the sport can build.

It sounds to me that you are working very hard for your April bout. I’m sure that you’ll really enjoy it. Stick with the basics, maintain your discipline and control the ring. You’ll do fine. Be sure to let me know how it goes.

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Wendy Eriksson February 18, 2013 at 2:00 am

Fran, thank you for this great article. It’s one of the best stories to be recounted to me, and I’ve been around fighting for a few years. I guess it hits home, because I’ve been there myself………my own instances have been with Martial Arts gradings and Horse events rather than in the ring (I’m relatively new to boxing), but the essence is the same. It is the same when climbing onto a horse you are afraid of, it is the same when you are getting back on after a fall, and it is the same when you are going for a high level grading where you know you’ll be shown no quarter. To hear about this young fella and how he morphed from a lad into a warrior, and to be invited to share in that defining moment when he crossed the line – truly inspirational. Thanks. I won’t forget this story.

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Fran February 18, 2013 at 10:00 pm

Thanks Wendy

Still inspires me to this day, a magical moment so thanks very much for your comment. Fear is fear, and I can think of few things that would scare me more than hammering around on a horse. I live very close to Aintree racecourse, home of the Grand National. They way horses and riders tackle those huge fences never ceases to amaze me. I’m sure there’s lots of fear management going on there!

Thanks Wendy, great comment.

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Matt September 27, 2012 at 7:14 pm

This is a great article, Fran, and I can relate very much to it. I have been training for a few years now, and have had a medical problem with anxiety all of my life. Its a daily struggle, and unfortunately interferes with my ability to be able to box effectively. Sometimes I feel confident, others terrified. Because I have thoroughly studied the sport I have a good technical acument and although I’ve never fought I spar all the time and yet the experience of getting hit and going through it after all this time does not make it any easier the next time I train.

I have found that, like Jay, although I do not necessarily ‘flinch’, I can become too tense and know what I need to do but because I am so anxious my legs will not move freely!

Sometimes it is not the fear of getting hit but the fear of making a defensive mistake. In order to eliminate possible mistakes I over-think the whole thing, it becomes too complicated and I become too hesitant, not being able to ‘pull the trigger’.

I’m not too bad with people my own size (150lbs), but when I spar a slow, untechnical bomber who is about 3 stone heavier than me I completely freeze. I do not know whether to do a Ray Leonard vs Roberto Duran II, where he just danced for rounds on end, or to stop the goliath gaining confidence and momentum by periodically stepping in and throwing jabs and feints, if only to disrupt their rhythm.

Can you offer any insight to any of this in terms of its relation to boxing?

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Fran December 10, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Appreciate that Ivan, thank you.

Yeah, I agree. Usually if the fight don’t get rid of the fear, then you’re screwed. I guess that was what made what Jay did all the more remarkable. It has to be said, that one minute can be a double-edged sword. Sure you get a much needed rest, but you also get some time to think about what’s going to come storming out of the other corner for another serving of the same!

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Simon December 6, 2011 at 10:33 am

Fantastic article Fran, keep up the good work

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Fran December 6, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Cheers Simon

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Peter December 5, 2011 at 11:55 pm

Fran,
You had me hanging on ever word, excited to read the next line. Great story, great story telling.
One more thing, excellent leadership on your part
Peter

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Fran December 6, 2011 at 12:10 pm

That’s brilliant, thanks Peter. As I said in the article, being a coach is about opening doors, in this instance all I had to do was close the door, Jay did the rest!

Thanks mate

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Scott Hamilton December 5, 2011 at 10:46 pm

Love this story Fran…

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Fran December 6, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Cheers Scottie, I still get a bit blown away when I recall it.

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