Working with Fear – 6 Tips for Success

by Fran on December 9, 2011

Fear is a boxer's friend. But, as I hope that I've managed to reflect in the previous articles, there is a fine balance to controlling fear, and if fear runs away with you then things go wrong, badly wrong.

In the interest of offering some practical advice, I thought I'd put together a short article with 6 tips for controlling pre-fight nerves that may help you. This is the final article in the series on boxing psychology. If you haven't yet, make sure that you review the first article on facing fear in boxing.

Ok, here goes, 6 tips to deal with fear in boxing:

Tip #1 - Get the preparation right

The more prepared you are in gym time the easier to deal with are the emotions before the fight. If you've not put the training and roadwork in, then self-doubts will amplify your fear. There is no cheating yourself in these situations, you need to know that you can fight hard for the duration of the contest. Positive visualisation will be much easier with a solid and committed training regime behind you.

Tip #2 - Simply resign yourself

The word 'resignation' generally has negative connotations. You resign the game in chess and lose. You resign from a job and the pay packet and the perks go out of the window. But, when it comes to boxing then resigning yourself to the fact that you are absolutely, positively going to be in a fight will make you more able to put your fears into a context that you are happy to deal with. This context is winning, pure and simple. You are dealing with the fears because you are going to fight and you are going to win!

Tip #3 - Leave Hatred Behind

Avoid becoming embroiled in how much you hate your opponent. Feeling hatred toward someone is easier when fear takes hold. Fear gives you a reason, however irrational, to hate that person. Rather than focusing on hatred, focus on clinical precision, supreme skills and power, all positives in your quest to douse the inferno of fear. Hatred can result in rash actions and an ignorance of skill. Be calm, be collected, be a winner.

Tip #4 - And Breath...

Knots in the stomach are not very pleasant. A practical way to get momentary relief from the discomfort of knots in your stomach is to take a massive, deep breath. At the very top of the breath, the ache will disappear. Of course it will come flooding back when you breathe out, but at least it was good while it lasted.

Tip #5 - Stay frosty...literally

If, like me, you experience the dreaded 'yawns', get a good soaking with some ice cold water. Over the head, back and front. This will wake you with a jolt and instantly invigorates the senses.

Tip #6 - Keep your eye on the prize

Finally, focus on that win. Winning just makes all of the fears worth it. Fight off the negative and see your hand raised at the end. It's why boxer's do it all, to get that win.

Fact is, when you are heading for a fight fear is going to walk with you every step of the way. Just make sure that you take the positives and manage the negatives. Boxers deal in winning, no more, no less.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Brent March 8, 2013 at 5:40 am

I love boxing and obviously its a contact sport but I am not a violent, angry or hateful person – Yes, I want to win and if that means hitting someone more than they can hit me then great, but its sport at the end of the day to me . That’s whats great about amateur boxing – its about endurance, skills, determination, strategy and points. As much as I can see the skill and power in things like MMA and UFC its the sheer violence of it that puts me off!

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Fran March 9, 2013 at 9:36 am

Like you Brent, I get uneasy watching MMA and UFC. It’s that whole principle of smashing a person repeatedly in the head when they are already down and potentially unconscious. It’s really not for me, but I do understand why people like it and would never denigrate the participants, tough people one and all.

Interesting on the ‘violent and angry’ thing, when I first met my wife many many years ago, she was expecting to meet my pals from boxing and confronted with individuals who have barely controlled tempers and a broadly aggressive demeanor. Suffice to say she was very pleasantly surprised at being confronted with the exact opposite.

Thanks Brent, nice comment.

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Ivan December 29, 2011 at 8:16 am

Anger vs. fear: Ali would easily get angry with (and humiliate) lesser fighters, but there were no displays of anger against the likes Frazier, Shavers, Norton, Holmes, Spinks, even Foreman ( he seemed terrified until Foreman punched himself out). The reason? Anger and hatred can be beaten out your head, while fear is a basic instinct of self preservation. Even Tyson went out of character after Lewis dismantled him and spoke of love in the ring (I rooted for Tyson until the end and even after). He could not have been high after all he went through, he was dazed but sober. Anger is a luxury you can sometimes get away with, fear is a constant companion. One should not be ashamed of it if it’s under control.

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Ric December 18, 2011 at 7:33 pm

Re: Anger v. Fear. I disagree to the extent that boxing, like other martial arts is controlled mayhem. It is not just about controlling fear but turning it into a force. Notwithstanding the need to harness fear; and that “making fear your friend” is straight out of Cus D’Amato’s play book. Controlled anger can be used to a boxer’s advantage too. There is a story about how one of Muhammad Ali’s first coaches told him that ‘the kid in the other corner was the one who stole his bike”… If you watch Ali facing some of his opponent’s in the ring ie. Oscar Bonavena and Jerry Quarry, he was clearly angered or piqued by something the opponent said in the ring. With Bonavena it was his macho boasting and taunting of Ali. With Quarry it was something Jerry said during their introduction in the ring. Watch Ali, with murder in his eyes, on YouTube saying to Jerry Quarry, “what did you say?”…after which Ali proceeded give Quarry a merciless beating.

In the sport of Judo the malevolent mindset of a Japanese judo player is masked by a traditional display of humility and courtesy. Behind the mask he is thinking, ‘you don’t deserve to be on the mat with me.” This veiled contempt is all part of the self-talk the Japanese will use to psych himself up. This disdain is one step of away from anger and is used to fuel a pent up desire to crush their opponent.

Finally, to emphasize my point, I know cancer survivors who will readily state that is was controlled anger that, over anything else, helped them survive. That is, once they got past the initial shock, fear and grief they got angry. It was then that they took control of their treatment. Dr. Bernie Siegel, M.D. refers to these patients as E Cap (Exceptional Cancer Patients) who above all other types of patients he describes have the highest rate of survival.

Likewise, when cave men let out their first primal yell before clubbing or spearing a wild animal they took control of their fear and channeled anger through their will to survive.

I just saying….

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Fran December 19, 2011 at 9:06 pm

Really good comment Ric. With more than a few opponents Ali demonstrated that same level of sadism. I cannot disagree, it’s a good bet that Ali held pure and simple hatred for those guys. The Ernie Terrell ‘What’s my name?’ incident adds further weight to your point. Boxing in fact is littered with these incidents, where one guy will purposely keep an opponent on their feet rather than ‘put them out of their misery’ simply to dish out a more thorough beating. Julio Cesar Chavez’s brutalization of Edwin Rosario springs to mind.

What caught my eye is the word ‘controlled’ (I especially like the ‘controlled mayhem’ description, that’s certainly true for a lot of the first rounds that we coaches see). Experienced fighters will get angry, but they won’t lose control. For many of the more inexperienced boxers, maintaining that level of control when blind anger engulfs them is nigh on impossible. Contempt, anger and cruelty will play a part in every boxer’s career. Ideally though, these will always be tempered with control.

Great comment Ric, a true refection of the thought that you put into your coaching.

There’s no question though, the use of controlled anger is something that is absolutely necessary.

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Ivan December 10, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Good point about the hatred. It is used very often as a motivational tool by coaches or even as a marketing tool by promoters for many big fights, especially rematches. If fear is your friend, anger is your enemy, not only in boxing. Anger can waste the energy that controlled fear brings to a person and completely mess up the strategy. If I had to choose, I would choose fear over hatred and anger.

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Fran December 10, 2011 at 8:20 pm

Me too Ivan, simple and great observation. Thanks mate.

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Karl December 10, 2011 at 2:56 am

With only one ‘official’ match – I’m no expert in fighting, but I have sparred quite a few rounds so…

1) Yes, preparation is key. If I’m not prepared, I allow myself to sink into survival mode. I’m not going out to claim the round as my rightful property, instead, I simply want to fend off any devastating attacks. When you’re in top shape you have a natural sort of confidence and you want to see how the sports car is going to perform when you stomp on the gas and crank over the wheel while swooshing in and out of those tight turns. When you see how well the ‘car’ handles you’re anxiety disappears and you start to feel the thrill of it all. This is a great place to fight from, and you’ll never get there if you think the tires are going to blow off if you try to take it above 50mph.

3) Perhaps it’s different for people when they’ve had 10 or 20 matches, and the competition gets harder and harder, but I’ve never felt any emotion that comes close to hatred. I’m sure it changes when your fights are with people outside of your own club. The most negative emotion I’ve ever felt is a sort of mild contempt. That’s only happened a few times and it’s usually with people who are coming in to spare for the very first time, but they approach it in a way that doesn’t show respect for the sport or their sparring partners.

I remember one guy who was some sort of Prince Naseem knockoff, who had obviously watched a lot of Tyson video because he come right at you with that peek-a-boo style rocking his head back and forth like a metronome in an attempt at being evasive. Thing was, this fellow was about 130 pounds and half of that was hair gel. He didn’t get the fact that even if he did bob and weave his way inside he would find himself on the doorstep of an inevitably bigger\stronger opponent. Result = boom/splat (repeat, repeat, repeat).

7) One thing that works for me is breaking off the anxiety into smaller, more manageable chunks. If it’s the night before and you find your mind is racing ahead to the next day you need to stop and refocus on the immediate part of the routine. There is (or should be) a fixed routine that leads up to a fight. This routine starts a few days before. You need to stay focused on this routine and keep your mind fully occupied with it, banish all thoughts that aren’t constructive to the task at hand. That doesn’t mean to keep yourself so busy that your brain doesn’t have a chance to think straight. You should be able to control your thoughts even when the task at hand is to sit quietly and relax.

Personally, I think very few boxers actually practice this. Boxing is a Western martial art, and Western arts don’t value the mental training as thoroughly as Eastern Arts do. In Eastern combat arts the quality you are looking for is called Fudōshin. Developing a strong mind is no different then developing a strong jab. It’s something that comes natural to some people and is a struggle for others, but in both cases you can’t reach your ultimate potential without diligent practice.

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Fran December 10, 2011 at 8:12 pm

Karl

I really like the sports car analogy, it fits perfectly. There’s a saying that I often hear soldiers use “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail”. Confidence is a massive factor in making fear work for you, and, in my experience real confidence is borne of real preparation.

With regards to your Naseem knockoff, God, I wanna come over and join that queue to spar with that guy! Mild contempt is a useful way of describing it. Does it come down to the perceived threat level? I suppose that the words ‘anger’ and ‘hatred’ are interchangeable, with an excess of either leading to the big crime; a loss of control.

I really like the final point that you make Karl. Strength in the mind is something that absolutely must develop. I feel a bout of research coming, starting with Fudōshin! I like the idea of seeing if we can draw some of the undoubted benefits available in the eastern martial arts.

Great contribution Karl, as usual!

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