Professor Martin Milton
Four boxers speak – about aggression, rewards, highs and lows, isolation, stress and the fight
Boxing is a fascinating sport and it has recently hit the headlines with a string of suicides. While it has spawned writings in the form of biographies, sociological texts and a myriad of medical critiques, it seems to be a sport that has not been studied by psychologists/psychotherapists to any great degree. This is surprising considering that therapists may well have a contribution to make to the individual boxer’s wellbeing and performance. Traditionally, authors who write about boxing use the medium of auto/biography and present a ‘heroic’/’tragic’ tale (De La Hoya and Springer, 2008; Magri, 2007; McGuigan 2011, etc). More recently emotion and distress have been a focus – see ‘trade publications’ such as Boxing News (eg Dixon, 2011), biographies written by academics ( eg Beattie, 1996) and in autobiographies (Calzaghe and Doogan, 2007; Graham and Wilkins, 2011). This stance allows a wider audience to realise that, alongside the psychological, health and social benefits that boxing affords, some boxers, at some times, experience periods of vulnerability which may manifest as drug misuse, depression and suicide.
Academic literature exists to some degree in Sociology (Miller et al, 1991; Wacquant, 2004; Woodward 2004, 2007) and also in the medical domain looking at neurological damage (Committee on Sports Medicine, 1984; Di Russo and Spinelli, 2010; Zetterberg et al, 2009) and on banning the sport (Annas, 1983). The limited psychological literature looks at neuropsychological deficits (Drew et al, 1986; Rashka, 1995). This paper reports on a small-scale study exploring the phenomenology of being a boxer.
Method and participants
Thematic analysis was undertaken in line with Braun and Clarke’s six-phase procedure (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Participants were recruited for a phenomenological and relatively unstructured, taped interview (either face to face or by telephone) by a snowballing strategy (Lee, 1993). Relevant insiders passed on information about the study and boxers self-recruited. Four male professional boxers (aged between 23 and 42) participated. The experience level varied from one novice to one who was a former world champion.
The key themes identified in this study are outlined below:
Three participants did not want to be anonymised in the report. As they all had a chance to review the findings and the reporting thereof, and at least two of the participants discussed similar experiences on television or in written form, these names were used. A pseudonym was given to the other participant.
Strong ‘Raw’ material
Warren, George and Ricky on aggression
Some boxers may be innately aggressive, but many are not. Warren feels he wasn’t aggressive at all and had to develop this. He says ‘I have never been an aggressive person [… ], I am not an aggressive person at all’. George sees himself differently, recognising some aggressivity. He said ‘to grow up, you had to learn to stick up for yourself, it’s always been in my blood’. And Wayne said ‘you’re a nice guy outside of the ring and when you go into the ring it’s like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. Whatever the raw material, to box you need to engage with the capacity to be aggressive.
Long, hard slog
Boxing takes extraordinary effort. Warren says ‘everything is hard work, […]you have to be mentally strong to get fit, and to go through the pain barriers to get there, so I wouldn’t say that there’s any effortless part about it‘. He reminds us that this is a constant: ‘living the life of a boxer comes down [to] keeping yourself in peak condition all the time’. Such an extended commitment is stressful and limits parts of a boxer’s life. Ricky says it ‘becomes stressful […] you’ve got to train twice a day, 6 days a week, you don’t get much time to yourself, and you have to work on top of that. You never really get no time to yourself’.
Adrenaline rush: rewards and highs
Despite this level of commitment, boxing is immensely rewarding. George said ‘It’s the biggest adrenaline rush you get’ and Ricky agreed saying ‘there’s no better feeling than that’.
‘I love the sport, […] it’s like having a woman for me, I am in love with the sport, […] a lot of people go ‘Just walk away from it’. For me it’s like a drug, once you take it, you want to keep going back to it.’
Warren’s said ‘It’s a bit narrow-minded at some points as well. Tunnel vision’ and he noted that this is sport specific. ‘I am only that obsessive with my boxing’. Ricky remembers when he couldn’t box due to injury; ‘It was just so frustrating. All I wanted to do was get back in the gym […] there’s just something in the sport that just draws me to it’.
Combining personal and social highs
Boxing is a very personal experience and also a powerful interpersonal one. George says ‘playing football, you get back in the changing room, the whole team celebrates, but when you box and you win its you, it’s not being selfish, it’s just, it’s the satisfaction, that you done this for yourself’. Ricky describes something similar: ‘when your hand gets raised and you win a fight, or you have a good training session or you have a good spar, you come out it gives you a little buzz about yourself’.
Training is intimately connected with others. Warren says:
‘It’s kind of very selfish, for that time you are in training, it’s all about you, […]. I have got a team around me, I mean 6 people. I’ve got a nutritionist, I’ve got a conditioner, I’ve got a coach, I’ve got an assistant coach, I’ve also got a guy who helps out with certain sessions and comes to the track and takes me doing sprints. So I’ve got up to 6 people working with me, around that one person’.
Ricky knows that the fight is ultimately about the boxer and other people’s response to him. He says:
‘You have 150 or 200 people there, your own supporters there and everyone is cheering you on, you know you have got good support, everyone is behind you, it’s just, it gives you a really nice feeling, just feel good about yourself’.
Loneliness: the flipside
Alongside the boxers’ experiences of great social and interpersonal highs is a deep sense of loneliness. Warren said ‘a boxer’s world is a lonely world at times’ and elaborated by saying:
‘You go away, training camps, you are in the gym, […] sometimes I won’t see my girlfriend for a week, just because I am tired and I know I am a bit stressed and moody, so I will tell her, No I don’t want to see you this week. And that can be quite lonely. But I don’t want to be around people at that point sometimes’.
This loneliness is sometimes a great problem. Warren pondered the plight of a boxer who committed suicide and thought that loneliness played a part. He said the boxer was ‘living in London, knowing nobody in London, […] some people think his girlfriend dumped him for being away too much, and that kind of tipped him over the edge’. Whether this is ‘true’ or not isn’t the point. More relevant is Warren’s view that training is so lonely and difficult that people might be incredibly distressed. Warren felt that loneliness is compounded by male machismo:
‘Guys are macho […], they will walk into the gym and pretend everything is alright, they won’t say anything, they will get in, they will work hard and they’ll go and they will hide the problem away from everyone because they are too macho to admit they’ve got a problem sometimes’.
Wayne said ‘men don’t cry, especially if you’re a fighter’. Machismo, the denial of vulnerability and difficulties seeking support plague many men in Western masculinity (Woodward, 2007). This is exacerbated in boxing which prioritises the importance of being tough and not being read by others (Wacquant, 2004; Woodward, 2007).
Such commitment means that there are few distractions from sport specific stresses. While relationships could be a balance to stressful events, this isn’t necessarily possible for a boxer. Warren says ‘My girlfriend might say “Can we go out for dinner?” and I say “No darling, I got to make weight, we can’t go out for dinner, sorry”’.
In the run up to a fight ‘making the weight’ takes on huge significance. Its effects are physical, personal and affect social, personal and professional relationships. Boxers need to come down to a weight where they are as light and as strong as they can be. This can be significantly lower than ‘walking around’ weight. Warren says ‘I fight at 10 stone and I can walk around at anything up to 12 and a half stone’. If a boxer doesn’t make weight he would be disadvantaging himself. Ricky said:
‘If I was to box at 11st, my opponent the 11st person would have boiled down from maybe 12st, so he would be a naturally bigger person, so obviously he would be naturally stronger, he hits harder, things like that, so most boxers all get down to as light as they can get’.
As the weight drop can be significant the boxer enters an extended period of psychological and dietary deprivation. The management of food intake may coincide with other deprivations – home comforts while away on training camp, absence from one’s family etc. When this is combined with the uncertainty of whether the fight will or won’t go ahead, you have several potent ingredients to fuel both psychological and physical tension.
Making weight is recognised as being particularly difficult. Ricky said: ‘It gets really hard when you are dieting, most boxers boil down to their [fighting] weight’ and George felt that ‘what we have to do, to put our bodies through, to get down to the weight limit, […] it’s absolutely crazy, you know’.
This can all affect mood negatively. As Ricky points out:
‘You just end up becoming snappy […]so when I am at home, and with my girlfriend I always become more snappyish if you like. And you get into arguments more because you feel so stressed because you feel weak and that’.
Ricky isn’t alone in thinking this. Warren says:
‘Aggression comes with losing weight […]I get to a certain point in my training camp, where I become naturally aggressive, lean mean, I’ve got hardly any body fat on me, […] I am fit, fit and strong, and I have got excess energy to burn. I am fit. Even though I am working hard in the gym I have got extra energy like, I am pacing about, I feel like I need to have an extra run, and all this extra energy actually makes me aggressive in the build up to these fights’.
Sustainability: stress, preparation and fallout
Boxing requires a long-term focus and boxers cannot easily ‘switch off’. The boxer will continually look at himself thinking about condition, skills, weight and readiness. Warren describes thinking ‘Have I done enough? Am I fit enough? Did I work hard enough? Am I ready for this?’ This is not to say that commitment and activity cannot vary. As the fight approaches a gear change happens in ’ramping up’ the readiness to fight. Ricky says ‘in the last 8 weeks I have had to lose over 2 stone (28lbs) to get down to the weight’ and George notes that ‘two weeks before the fight, […] that’s when I start, becoming not wanting to talk to people’. This point is recognised as important by Ricky too. ‘The last two weeks […] it’s just, just a lot, just a lot of stress, trying to keep it all’. Warren mentioned a similar time frame saying that it is stressful ‘holding it all back for like 3 weeks before the fight’.
The ‘leaking’ of stress
Stress results in greater aggressiveness for the boxer. ‘I get to a certain point where I become naturally aggressive, lean mean, […] and all this extra energy actually makes me aggressive in the build-up to these fights’. (Warren). The training and deprivation seems to combine and lead to psychological and physical tension alongside prolonged thinking about the fight and engaging in aggressive ideation. In that way ‘the training that you do makes you more aggressive’ (Warren). This leads to aggressive/stressful reactions that leak out. Warren admits that ‘I can be really snappy. Its holding it all back and its bursting to get out on fight night’. He described the fact that the ‘leakage’ happens on the roads too. ‘When I have been driving somebody cuts you up, they do something silly and you are having to count to 10 because you want to get out and bash his head in’. Of course being a boxer also demands control of that same aggression. As Warren says ‘you’ve got to really control yourself, because you are, you are a weapon at that point’.
The culmination: fight night
Boxing focuses on one point in time – fight night. Where successful the boxer has made a transition from a non-aggressive state, through a state of ever increasing aggression and nervousness. ‘It’s the switch from the passive guy that everybody would be shocked if you raised your voice, to somebody else you know. The animal in the ring that […] won’t give up’ (Warren). As the fight approaches ‘there’s a lot of built up aggression in there from all the training and all the work you have put in’ (Warren) so that ‘half an hour before the fight, you’re in the changing room, getting everything ready, the nerves are kicking in’ (George). Warren says that ‘it’s just bursting to get out by the time you get in the ring’, in fact ‘you are hyped up and […] in the ring you want to smash this guy […] You can’t go into the ring and not want to hurt that person, otherwise you are gonna get beat, he is gonna hurt you’ (Warren).
The transformation is experienced as one of utter focus. George said:
‘You don’t even hear the crowd, not only you don’t hear them, you don’t even know they are there, ‘cos all you are thinking of is the man in front of ya, and all you can hear is the bell, the referee, that is literally the gods honest truth. Every boxer will tell you that, you can’t hear nothing apart from the referee and […] it’s like it is all blocked out of your head. You just concentrate on one thing’.
The fight is the pinnacle of an intentional, committed, dedicated process. At the end, another transformation occurs. ‘As soon as you boxed you are fine, back to your normal self […] pretty much straight away’ (Ricky). The reversion to type is so quick: ‘the first thing I have wanted to do is to go over there naturally, and pick [the opponent] up and make sure they’re alright’ (Warren).
Issues for therapists: thoughts on stress-busting
While this paper outlines an experience of training, fighting and the stresses that come with it, those interviewed also commented on what would be helpful in moderating the effect of the stress. The key factor was an appreciation, and need, of support from someone who understands the sport. Ricky says ‘I probably would go to the gym, talk to my trainer, talk to my close boxing friends […] the guys that I train with, we are pretty close. We can talk to each other about pretty much anything’.
Warren also feels that support would have to recognise the severity of its expression. He says:
‘You are not just Joe Bloggs and you are upset. You know if you are saying that, you are in deep trouble as a boxer. Cos a boxer wouldn’t just got around and say something like that. They are too macho, most of them’.
Conclusion: maintaining wellbeing
Despite the mythology and visceral reactions that surround boxing, it is evident that the practitioners of the sport are as varied – yet as vulnerable – as the rest of us. They also have a rare passion and investment in their sport. It is hoped that therapists will be available to help with the very private distress and if they are, that they will take a broad focus when formulating their work with boxers. The sport- specific processes must be considered alongside personal and social issues. The ability to focus on one’s sport for such a long period of time is psychologically difficult and even more so if the boxer is affected by the everyday problems that affect us all – bereavements, redundancies, relationship breakups and the like. In addition the sport they are committed to throws some very specific and sustained challenges at them which can be very stressful and have all kinds of consequences that affect the boxers’ performance and their wider psychological wellbeing.
Professor Martin Milton is a BPS registered psychologist specialising in psychotherapy, a chartered counselling psychologist and a registered psychotherapist. He is based at the School of Psychotherapy and Psychology at the Regent’s University London and in practice at www.swlondonpsychology.co.uk
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Images: Martin Milton