Mental Toughness in the Ring

So I’ve been doing some consultancy work in boxing for a while now, and it’s safe to say that it’s a sport that’s unlike any of the sports that I’ve worked in before.  It’s a brutal sport, there’s no getting away from it.  The aim is to punch your opponent until he/she can’t punch you back any more.  

However, it’s also a sport that requires not only immense physical strength and stamina, but also discipline and control, and the ability to think tactically and strategically while under pressure.  So in some ways, I suppose it’s not that dissimilar to other sports after all. 

People will tell you that boxing is 80% mental.  …or maybe 90% mental. …. or 95% mental…. The bottom line is, nobody would question that boxers have to be mentally tough ….  but what exactly is mental toughness, and how can Sport Psychology help boxers develop it?

Mental Toughness Defined:

Athletes, coaches and sport psychologists have defined Mental Toughness¹ as having the psychological edge that enables you to:

  • Cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer.
  • Be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.

How Can Sport Psychology Help Boxers?

So in order to be a boxer, in order to take up the sport, it’s likely that you’ve already got some of the qualities of a typically “mentally tough” athlete.  If you’re successful, it’s highly likely that you’ve got a lot of those qualities.  One of the obstacles that I’ve come across as a practitioner (and this goes beyond boxing) is the idea that I’m going to try to make athletes do something radically different, that I’ll mess with their heads, or that they’re already tough enough, so what the hell can a psychologist do to help.

Well a psychologist can work with athletes to enhance the skills/qualities that they already have, to guide and empower the athlete to make changes where they feel appropriate and, perhaps, to equip them with the skills and techniques to be able to do so.  Mental Toughness encompasses a number of different qualities and attributes.  I’ve just picked out a few ways that sport psych might be able to help boxers develop their mental toughness….

1. Coping with Demands

The best athletes in the world experience nerves before competition. Nerves can take different forms, like the physical sensations of “butterflies” in the stomach or the nagging thoughts and doubts that can crop up at any time; minutes, hours, weeks before a fight.

It’s how athletes handle and interpret those nerves that can make the difference between being good and being great. For example, you could think of having butterflies as being a sign that you’re really nervous, or you could think of them as a sign that your body is ready for competition.

Being able to recognise these nerves (both when they’re useful and when they’re not) and know what to do with them, help make the mentally tough boxer.

Key Techniques

  • Short Term: Relaxation, Centering, Countering Negative Thinking
  • Long Term Development: Applied Relaxation, Developing a “Quiet Mind”

2. Concentration/Focus

Nobody “loses” concentration. It doesn’t go anywhere. It’s just that we sometimes concentrate on the wrong things at the wrong times. Studies show that when athletes are physically tired (for example, in between rounds), they are more likely to concentrate on getting their breath back and so might miss out on important instructions being given by a coach.

Professor Andy Lane suggests that boxers also need to develop a fairly unique mind-set whereby they can produce maximal effort, yet also remain able to think calmly and tactically. Developing concentration skills and the ability to “switch” focus from the here and now (needed during rounds) to what’s coming next (needed in-between rounds) is therefore an important mental skill for boxers².

Key Techniques

  • Short Term: Concentration Styles, Imagery/Mental Rehearsal, Centering
  • Long Term Development: Concentration Training, Concentration under Fatigue

3. Discipline

What makes one athlete get up and go for their run, while another stays in bed for an extra half an hour? What makes one athlete stick to their diet, while another has just that one day off? What makes one athlete push themselves for that extra minute on the treadmill, while another steps off?

Discipline is obviously important both inside and outside of the ring, and the mentally tough athlete is the one who can motivate themselves to do what it takes to gain that vital edge over their opponent.

Key Techniques

  • Short Term: Performance Profiling, Goal Setting
  • Long Term Development: Mindfulness

Coach Involvement

For most of the psychological skills and techniques discussed above, the coach/trainer can play a vital role.  Coaches should be involved from the outset.  Communication between the coach and the athlete can be enhanced if the coach is involved in the profiling and goal setting process, and the coach should also play an important part in reinforcing the use of relaxation, imagery and concentration skills in the sparring/training environment.

The Mental Edge

Athletes are constantly looking for the even the smallest edge over their opponents. When two athletes are matched in terms of skills and physical attributes, it’s the athlete who is more confident, who can use pressure to their advantage, who has been disciplined in their training, and can concentrate on the right things at the right times –  the athlete who has the mental edge – that will, more often than not, come out on top.

So…. what are doing to find your mental edge?

¹Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2002). What is this thing called mental toughness? An investigation of elite sport performers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14, 205-218.

²Lane, A. (2009). Consultancy in the ring: Psychological support to a World Champion professional boxer. In B. Hemmings & T. Holder (eds.), Applied Sport Psychology: A Case-Based Approach. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

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