Successful boxers must desensitise themselves to the effects of inflicting injury and accept personal risks each time they compete
Boxing is a unique sport. At face value, the aim is to inflict blows on your opponent and avoid injury yourself by landing more punches than you receive. A common perception therefore is that boxers need to psyche themselves up into a frenzied state, fuelled by anger with the intention of causing injury.
However, for those who have worked in boxing, this perception could not be further from the truth. Boxers consider their sport to be a type of physical chess (1) - a battle that is as much psychological and tactical as it is physical. However, there is no getting away from the brutality of the sport; other sportsmen and women may 'play' matches but boxers 'fight' them. In a sport where there is only one winner, seeing an opponent struggling physiologically during a contest provides a huge source of motivation, and boxers look to exploit every weakness or frailty in their opponents (2).
Most people accept the notion that boxers need to be mentally tough to compete (3). While few boxers use sport psychologists, most recognise the importance of psychology to performance. The legendary trainer Cus D'Amato, who steered Floyd Patterson and Mike Tyson to world heavyweight titles, once said that 'fights are won and lost in the head' and this bears testament to the importance of psychological factors for performance (4).
Try to imagine how you would feel before a boxing contest; standing in the ring, in the middle of a large audience, the announcer calls your name, and then that of your opponent. Would you feel nervous, angry, confident? Ideally, you would be in control of your emotions and be able to get into the emotional state which you believe helps performance.
Research indicates that successful fighters demonstrate positive emotional profiles before competition (5,6). Such studies typically assess emotions an hour before competition and then compare winners and losers by emotional profiles. The accuracy of these predictions of winners from pre-contest emotions is remarkably high. In one study, it was possible to predict winners with 95% accuracy (5). Autobiographical accounts identify emotional control, confidence and mental toughness in being able to give and receive punishment as important factors for success (7).
A key question typically posed to boxers is whether a boxer intends to injure his or her opponent. The answer is that boxers (like all competitors) aim to win, and injuring the opponent may be a necessary part of that process (7). A boxer therefore has to be prepared to inflict injury on their opponent and show no mercy in doing so - a mindset that is subtly different to intending to injure.
However, it is important to recognise the brutality of this psychology and to what seems an inherent contradiction. When a boxer sees that their opponent is hurt, this is seen as an indicator of goal attainment. Since the aim is to win the contest, this may well involve inflicting further damage. Contrast this with football for example where if a player is hurt, the unwritten rule is to stop play.
In boxing however, seeing an opponent wince after receiving a body punch acts in a motivating way, and boxers who allow their opponent time to recover are not likely to be successful.
Boxers must capitalise on the weaknesses of their opponents and any sign of weakness is an indicator that victory is possible. Boxers learn to hide when they feel hurt or tired, outwardly presenting a profile of being calm and confident. The boxer places all duty of care of the welfare of his opponent in the referee. Referees complete the pre-contest brief by saying, 'protect yourself at all times'; these are not empty words.