The psychology of boxing

Mental strength and toughness are the cornerstones of any athlete’s journey to success. However, whilst terms like resilience and fortitude are easily used, what they really come down to is something known as mind management.

Whereas physical improvements are fairly easy to quantify and track, a boxer’s mental strengths are less obvious. That’s where Sports Psychologist Dr. Stephen Lopopolo enters the picture, to first assess both mental strengths and weaknesses of the boxer, and subsequently to equip him with the tools he needs to improve his performance.

Dr. Lopolopo has experience of working with the Italian Boxing Federation and is currently writing a book about mental preparation which will be published in December this year.

How did your passion for psychology start?
Everyone is born with a “seed”; a talent, a gift or predisposition for something. My talent was for psychology but I only came to realize this fairly late in my life when I was 32 years old. I was very interested in the subject, started to read books about it then enrolled for a Master’s degree in psychology. I graduated from University five years later. I started to work as a Sports Psychologist in tennis, and I began working in boxing a few years later. I consider myself to be a lucky person to have a profession which is also my passion.

Why did you choose to apply your psychology to sports? Are you an athlete yourself?
When I was 16 years old I was a boxer myself. I really enjoyed the sport. My father was a boxing Silver Medalist at the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960 and the WBC World Champion in 1966. He passed onto me his passion for sports and it felt natural to work in a sports environment.

Tell us a bit of the history of sports psychology. When was mental preparation first recognized as being important in sports?
It started in the 1920’s in Russia. Russian athletes were extremely successful at the Olympic Games and were winning most of the medals; there were already getting very well trained mentally. Therefore, sport organizations started to recognize the importance of that side of things. The Americans were next to include psychology in their training programs. Michael Jordan always emphasized that he had a psychologist within his team of coaches. Mental training programs arrived to Europe late in the 1960’s. Today, sports psychologists are more and more in demand within teams, although I still sometimes get phone calls after competitions to help athletes after they lost, but this is often too late, the work needs to be done before.

You have also worked in tennis. Is there a difference in coaching tennis players and boxers?
The basis is the same. All athletes go through the same process. The difference between tennis and boxing is that a tennis court is much bigger than a ring. A boxer sees his opponents’ eyes right in front of him. So the way we train “focus” is different.

How would you describe your role?
I am responsible for bringing boxers to their mental peaks. I start my work with athletes by analyzing and understanding their mental state and skills. I check their self-esteem, their anxiety levels, attention, imagination, motivation, stress management abilities, goal setting. I work with boxers in groups but also individually. Not all boxers work with the same level of engagement. But these who are disciplined and believe in using mental tools show results later in the ring.

What techniques do you use for preparing a boxer mentally?
We start the training with “goal setting”. The goals must be measurable and achievable. We also set the time frame. We check the results after 30 days for example. You need to be very smart and focused in your goal setting process. I help boxers to understand this and to be really clear in their minds about where they want to go, and what exactly their goal is. If a boxer decides that his goal is increased speed for example, we outline a specific plan about how to achieve that. It encourages them to go ahead. Next is visualization of your goal, a boxer does visualization sessions every day. In their brains they get used to seeing themselves in the best possible condition. I give athletes specific guidelines and tapes to help them with visualization process. It is crucial that during the visualization they feel the moment with their emotions and five senses. When they visualize for example walking to the ring, they need to hear their own steps; they need to feel the lights and the crowd. They visualize the whole fight the way they want to fight it. But every emotion needs to come with it. I teach boxers how to stay in the present moment. If you connect to your mind your body will do what your mind wants.

How much time a boxers should spend daily on mental preparation?
First I give teach boxers the techniques and give them tools to work with. 15 minutes of visualization a day is enough. Psychology sessions need to be taken very seriously. In a few months they will see a change.

What is the brain’s role here?
You can train your brain the same as you train your muscles. The brain is like a computer if you know how to press the right buttons. When you close your eyes you have all sorts of thoughts coming in, but when you concentrate you can select your thoughts. When you do it on a regular basis the brain gets accustomed to this process, it memorizes the effects you want. When the effects then appear in real life it is because your brain already feels so comfortable with these results.

How do you recognize boxers who are mentally prepared for the competition?
They are very excited. They are looking forward to it and they want to test the mental tools in the final days before the competition. In my last group of ten boxers four responded very well to the training.

What are the most common difficulties that boxers encounter when they engage in mental training?
Some boxers have a naturally strong mental condition. But there are many who have difficulties in visualizing themselves at the top condition. They also don’t recognize their own hard work. This is a problem of self-confidence and self-esteem. I help them to reconstruct the self-esteem; to see themselves in a new way. We are conditioned by our past, by negative messages people told us in the past. Sometimes I need to “brain-wash” them to cut off the negative past in order to seed in their brains new and positive elements.

Do all boxers (athletes) have the same mental capacities? Can anyone achieve the top mental condition if trained correctly?
Yes, it is all about the training. If you train your brain you can see the results.

What are the top three mental skills of a successful boxer (athlete)?
Self-confidence, visialisation and focus (concentration).

What mental exercises can boxers practice themselves?
As an example, there is a technique called SPERA that a boxer can exercise a few days before the competition and a few minutes before going to the ring. This technique is to remind himself that he is in the best mental and physical condition.

S – Synchronization; during 3-5 minutes before going to the ring a boxer synchronizes his mind and body to be in the present moment. He concentrates on his breathing and affirms to himself “I am here”, he stays with his breath. There are no thoughts about the past and about the future. When he enters the fight he is completely in the moment.

P – Power; boxer focuses on his internal power

E – Energy; focus on balance of energy, good flow of energy

R – Rhythm; focus on good and balanced rhythm

A – Activation; focus on good, positive attitude

What advice would you give to a boxer that is very well prepared physically and mentally but is still losing the fights?
If I am with an athlete first I listen what he wants to say. He needs to hear his own voice to see where the problem is. Then I ask “how you can do better?” He finds the answer himself.

Shannon Miller, an Olympic Gold Medalist in gymnastics said: “In the Olympic games, everyone is talented. Everyone trains hard. Everyone does the work. What separates the gold medalists from the silver medalists is simply the mental game.”Do you agree with this statement? Please explain.
Yes, I completely agree. At the top level of the competition all athletes are elite, their bodies are trained for the maximum performance. It is mental conditioning which makes the difference in final results.