Boxing Psychology: How To Train Your Mind

December 7, 2021

What makes a great boxer? The ability to control one's mind. You are in control of your mind. So many athletes are going through mental struggles, but the psychological component in these struggles is essential. But not everyone knows how to use boxing psychology. 

Mental skills, just like any other physical or technical skill in boxing, need to be practiced. Repetition is critical to get better at anything in life, so you need to practice these mental skills in your training to master them on fight day in the ring.

Being a six-time Karate World Champion, it came with a lot of mental and physical training to be the best. I have now taken those mental skills learned through my Honors Degree in Sport Psychology, and my own experience as an athlete to help teach other athletes just like yourself who want to take their game to the next level.

Is Boxing Mostly Mental?

Coming from an elite sporting background, I believe that the mental side is as important as the physical side. I do not believe in the 50/50 rule or the 80/20 regarding mental vs. physical attributes that make an athlete great. 

I believe you have to be 100% in mentally, and it is 100% physical as well. Equally, they have to be worked on to be the best all-rounded boxer you can be.

Suppose you are lacking in mental strength and have an excellent physical base. Cognitive skills could be holding you back from achieving your ultimate best in boxing, vice versa if you are mentally a powerful athlete.

Yes it will take you far, but you need your physical skills to be good; otherwise, that could be the very thing that could be holding you back from achieving your best or reaching the top.

I am a big believer in saying, "you have to train the mental side of your sport just as much as the physical side." Don't neglect either, or it could be stopping you from a world-class performance.

How Do Boxers Train Mentally?

Is Boxing Mostly Mental

Goal Setting

Coming from a fighting background, I quickly realized that training to train with no intent or goal would soon lead me nowhere. I have always been goal-driven, and when I set my goals, I make sure to set smaller goals or an action plan to achieve that goal. My goals weren't always performance outcome orientated, but very much skill orientated. I needed to perfect my craft to be a sharp, fast and strong fighter.

There has been evidence that athletes who set goals have better focus and train with intent because they come into each training session with the mindset of bettering their skills to achieve their ultimate goal.

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It's essential to make sure you set both short-term and long-term goals. Often athletes who only set long-term goals fall of the bandwagon because they end up forgetting or not seeing the importance of working on their goal right away.

Whereas with short-term goals (weekly or daily), you stay focused daily, achieving these short-term goals is a stepping stone to achieving their bigger goals. For example:

  • Set three long term goals (5-10 years)
  • Set three goals you want to achieve in the next 3 years
  • Set three goals you want to accomplish in the next year
  • Set three goals you want to achieve in the next six months
  • Set two goals you want to achieve in the next two months
  • Set one goal you want to achieve in the next 30 days.

Now that you have set your goals, it’s time to make an action plan to achieve these goals.

What is important when setting goals:

  • Goals need to be specific – e.g., I need to do 50 jabs a day for the next 30 days.
  • Goals need to be measurable - e.g., I want to be able to throw 30 jabs in 30 seconds (you need to be able to measure your goal to track progress).
  • Goals need to be achievable - e.g., Setting goals that are way out of your league will only break your determination and motivation. You need to make sure that you can achieve your goals with hard work.
  • Goals need to be realistic - e.g., If you are a boxer, it won't be realistic to say I want to become an Olympic swimmer. They have absolutely nothing to do with each other. It would be best to make your goals realistic for what you can achieve.
  • Goals need to have a time frame of when you want to achieve them. If you don't have a time frame for achieving your goals, then your goals are just a wish. Putting a timeline to it means you need to know how much work must be done by a specific time to achieve your goal.

These are called your SMART goals, and when you follow this guideline, it can be very beneficial to set goals you can go out and achieve.

Visualization

How Do Boxers Train Mentally

When you see yourself in your mind, use all of your senses to achieve a specific skill or even imagine an emotion that goes with your performance. Visualization is often called mental imagery, but it's the same as visualization.

Have you ever visualized a successful fight or even training session in your mind before attempting it? If so, you’ve used mental imagery to enhance your performance. Mental imagery can be a powerful tool for achieving your goals, whatever your sport.

Here are six lessons on improving your performance through visualization. Visualizing any part of your boxing is bound to improve performance and lower anxiety. A better term is multi-sensory imagination or mental rehearsal.

  • Visual - Using your sense of sight to see pictures, images, and movies.
  • Auditory - Using your sense of hearing for listening to sound.
  • Kinesthetic - Using your sense of touch to feel tactile sensations and proprioceptive of the movement. This area also covers emotions, which we will talk more about later.
  • Olfactory - Using your sense of smell.
  • Gustatory - Using your sense of taste
  • Practice building up your abilities to imagine the different senses with vividness and hold them all within your mind without focusing on one specific thing. This all takes practice!

The best way to start practicing your visualization is doing it three times a week as a start. You can visualize before your training sessions, in the morning when you wake up, or after your training sessions to reflect on how your session went and what you can do better for the next session, or even reflect on a great session you had. 

Start with 3-5 minutes a day, finding a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. You can sit down or lay down, and sometimes you can even do it for like a few seconds just before you will go up and fight or train to rehearse the success of your fight.

If you watch some athletes in detail, they will close their eyes for a few seconds before their fight starts. 

During those few seconds, they visualize the outcome and emotion that goes with the success of the fight. They visualize a skill they might have been working on for a while to do some mental rehearsal just before the fight.

It is essential to remember that you need to train your mental imagery just like you would train your physical skills. Another important point I need to make. DO NOT start a new mental skill before a competition or big fight. You need to first perfect this skill during your daily training sessions to make sure that you know exactly how you would use this skill on fight day.

This is because you do not want to create extra stress or anxiety, or fight day by including a new skill. This could throw you off your game and can cost you the fight. We want to make sure you use this skill to your advantage and not disadvantage.

And remember, practice makes perfect. You might not be able to visualize a skill perfectly from the beginning. You might not be able to use all your senses visualizing from the beginning. That is all okay.

Be patient with yourself and do little bits at a time. Try to relax before you visualize by doing some breathing exercise or progressive relaxation. That way, you can tap into the mental side of your imagery.

Start small, don't try and visualize for an hour at a time. It won't be easy to keep your mind focused on the task at hand. Shorter and quality sessions will be much more valuable for you as an athlete.

Routine

How Does Mental Training Help Boxers

I have always believed in having a routine in my training. I would have a pre-training, during training, and post-training routines. The same goes for competition. Once I had mastered my routine to fit my needs and goals, it became a big part of my success.

A pre-performance routine is defined as a 'sequence of task relevant thoughts and actions which an athlete engages in systematically before his or her performance of a specific sport skill' (Moran 1996, p177).

Routines help athletes feel focused, less stressed, organized and help boost their confidence. Every athlete has a different set of routines they follow. Do not try and copy another person's routine because it needs to be individualized. Of course, you can look at how elite athletes do it but make sure you turn that routine into yours and something you can follow.

Like all of your other mental skills, Routines need to be practiced, especially in training. Do not change your routine the day before your competition because there is a big chance this might only cause anxiety instead of enhancing your performance on the day. Practice your routine way before your competitions so that come competition time, you have mastered your specific routine.

I will give you an example of a routine I used to follow before my training sessions.

Pre-Training Routine

Set out my gym clothes and write down my training program and goals for that day's session. Ensure I have my intra-workout ready and listen to some music to psyche me up before my training session.

During Training Routine

Always start my sessions off with a good warm-up, get my training station ready for where I will be working out, make sure I hydrate during my sessions and do some visualization just before each set of bag work to see in my head what I need to do and how I need to do it.

During training, I make sure I have no distractions whatsoever so that when I train, I train with the intent to get better each and every training session.

Post-Training Routine

Cool down with some stretching, some days, I will do a sauna and ice bath, and I make sure I get in a good meal or a protein shake post-training to set myself up for success for my sessions tomorrow.

I made this routine my own, and I stuck with it religiously, which helped me be more relaxed on fight day. I knew I would follow my routine and tell myself this was just another heavy training session.

Getting In The Zone

Is Boxing Good For Depression

In the simplest terms, the "zone" (or "flow" as some Sport Psychologists call it) is generally described as "the pinnacle of achievement for an athlete." It characterizes "a state in which an athlete performs to the best of his or her ability" (Young & Pain 1999).

Some athletes have been in the zone at least once in their athletic career, but not many people know how to KEEP themselves in the zone or get themselves back to being in the zone. Again, once you figure this out, you need to continue practicing this skill until it becomes automatic.

Back in my karate days, I remember there were some competitions I would be all over the show and distracted by anything and everything, and I could not figure out why. Then I had days where I would be in the zone.

I would feel invincible, and those were also the times I would win my fights and, more notably, when I won the World Championships. I beat the girl from Japan who was the reigning champion and the favorite to take the gold.

When I started that fight (Kumite as we all it in karate), I just felt so confident, and it felt like everything was moving in slow motion. I could see her every move, and I ended up winning with a roundhouse kick to her head.

Everyone was shocked and couldn't believe this young South African girl could have beaten the Japanese current world champion. But I did and remembered that day like it was yesterday. This is an excellent example of me being fully in the zone.

Now, what did I do to get myself in the zone back then? Firstly, I always made sure I had my music on and started shadow boxing. This was my pre-training/competition routine I knew worked for me. I told myself I am simply the best; this came from the Tina Turner song called simply the best.

My father got me to listen to that song and eye of the tiger on repeat. Having this ritual before my fights got me feeling focused and confident to take on whatever was in front of me. Till today I used that similar routine for whatever sport I am competing in.

I found what worked for me and I carried on doing it. On the days I would feel a bit more nervous, I would include some breathing techniques between my sparring. This got my mind relaxed and focused and brought my attention to the task at hand.

Being in the zone is one of the most potent psychology tools you can have to succeed in your sport. Practice makes perfect, so continue figuring out what works for you, write it down and continue doing it until you have mastered your skill.

Self-Talk

Self-talk is also referred to as inner chatter and the things we tell ourselves, not necessarily always out loud. Still, sometimes just the thoughts we have can play a massive role in how we see ourselves regarding self-confidence or even breaking ourselves down. If used correctly, it's a potent but powerful tool if used negatively.

Self-talk for boxers is a great way to boost your confidence. Saying short sentences or words will help psych you up before your fight or training. I used to have little sayings that I would write and put on my mirror, and when I woke up in the morning, I would read them out loud.

As silly as that sounds, it works. It's a lot like the saying, "fake it till you make it." You have to say it so much until you fully believe those words. 

These sentences or words can be anything from "I am strong." "I am the best," "I am the fastest boxer you have ever seen," "nothing can take me down." 

Just remember, they have to be positive. When you start to tell yourself negative words, these stick with us and break your confidence, ultimately leading to you not reaching your full potential.

The first thing I always tell athletes is to be aware of what they say to themselves. When you negatively talk to yourself, write this down. By writing it down, you can then find a solution for how you want to replace the negative thinking with something positive or rephrase how you say something.

Writing it down helps make it permanent and enables you to remember that you are working on yourself, just like you would be working on your physical skills daily.

Self-Belief

Does Boxing Increase Aggression

Believing in oneself and your abilities is knowing that you have done the work and are ready to perform at your best. Self-belief, in my opinion, is the most important "skill" you need to master. Without self-belief, you won't get very far. Everyone else in the world can believe in you, but if you don't believe in yourself, you will not succeed.

Now, the question is, how do I start believing in myself if I have doubted myself and my abilities for this long? So many of us, even the best in the world have doubted ourselves in some form or another. We need to be self-aware of this and change that belief.

You need to start small. Find out what has been the trigger for you not to believe in your abilities. Maybe it's something a parent, friend, or coach has said to you which has made you doubt your abilities entirely.

Perhaps you started questioning our abilities after a loss or an injury. So now you have to take a step back and rebuild your confidence.

Surround yourself with like-minded and positive people who will pull you up to their level instead of pulling you down. We don't often realize it, but we become who we surround ourselves with. As hard as it is, if we keep surrounding ourselves with people who break us down, then sooner or later, we are going to have that exact mindset.

Set realistic goals. Setting challenging goals that you can achieve is an excellent way to build your confidence. Starting with short-term goals and goals, you can see your progress daily. This way, you can see yourself physically improving week after week.

Acknowledge when you have reached these goals or achieved something you have been working hard for. Often, we downgrade our achievements and just put it down as luck. This is not luck; it's hard work that you have put in to achieve your dreams. Reward yourself for it; pat yourself on the back. Be proud and say, "I did this" because of my hard work.

Last but not least, be kind to yourself. We are often our own biggest critics, which causes us to not believe in ourselves. If you had a bad day, reflect on it and move on. That bad day does not define who you are. You are a hard worker, and you have to believe it. Remember, no one else can believe it for you; it has to come from you.

Does Boxing Increase Aggression?

Boxing, in my experience, cannot increase aggression. Aggression is a personality trait that some people can tap into, and others aren't aggressive at all. If, however you have aggression problems, boxing can help you deal with that aggression by channeling that aggression into your training and, as a result, using training as an outlet.

Is Boxing Good For Depression?

Any type of training can be good for depression, especially boxing, as it raises endorphins (happy hormones) when you do physical activity, especially aerobic work. For people suffering from depression, having a training routine and a group of people to train with can help the person feel like they belong and give them a community of people who will support them in their journey.

Does Boxing Increase Confidence?

Does Boxing Increase Confidence

Boxing increases confidence by pushing you out of your comfort zones. When we learn a new skill, we often feel good and empowered, which builds our confidence in anything we do.

Of course, in the beginning, it might feel daunting, but once you have walked through that door, you have already accomplished the most significant step. The better you get at boxing, the more confident you feel. The work you put in will pay off.

So yes, in my experience, boxing can increase confidence. If however, you are a pro fighter and you lose some matches, that can break anyone's confidence. But it is up to you to get up and dust it off, and move forward. Start back up, set some new goals, talk to your coach and reflect on what happened. Start with small goals to build back your confidence.

How Does Mental Training Help Boxers?

Boxers who have mental training under their belt can deal with tough situations better. You have the tools to break through mental/physical barriers. You can cope when things get tough and when a setback happens, you can bounce back a lot quicker than someone with no mental training.

You have a mental understanding of how important the mind is for sport, particularly boxing. Mental training can take your boxing to the next level. You learn valuable mental skills like visualization (mental imagery), self-talk, dealing with pressure, goal setting, and building confidence.

You also learn that boxing psychology needs to be trained just like the physical aspect of your sport. Just like your physical skills, you have to practice your mental skills during your training sessions to get better at mental skills. If you decide to compete, you can use what you have learned both mentally and physically to your advantage on fight day.

Boxers with mental training learn how to have a good training routine that can help their performance and help their recovery to come to practice the next day feeling fresh and recovered. This routine will help you feel relaxed in stressful situations. It can even help build the confidence of a boxer before a fight.

Boxing psychology, in my opinion, gives any athlete a great advantage, especially when it comes to handling pressure during tough times. And the best part is, the mental skill training you do with your boxing can be used for anything in your life.

References

Young, J.A., & Pain, M.D (1999) "The Zone: Evidence of a Universal Phenomenon for Athletes Across Sports." Athletic Insight Vol. 1 Issue 3, pp.:21-30

Moran, A. P. (2016). The psychology of concentration in sport performers: A cognitive analysis. Psychology Press.

About the author 

Mona de Lacey

Mona is a 6x Karate World Champion, CrossFit Games athlete, Commonwealth Bronze Medalist in the sport of Olympic Weightlifting, and holds and honors degree in the field of Sport Psychology.


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