A Potted History of Sports Psychology and Boxing

By Terence Dooley

There was very little shock value in David Price’s decision to part company with long-time trainer and friend Franny Smith earlier this week following back-to-back defeats to America’s Tony Thompson in February and July of this year — Price was stopped in the second and fifth rounds respectively.  Defeats are often followed by changes to the backroom team, with the trainer being the first to go, yet Price’s decision might be more than an acknowledgement that, physically, something went wrong on both nights — it may also be a huge first step in dealing with the mental aftereffects of the two setbacks and a way of moving on with the rest of his career.

Certainly, Price has been at pains to stress that Smith played a huge part in getting him to the British and Commonwealth titles, and has insisted that the two are still friends.  However, he has also pointed out that the decision to move on will help him begin the process of change needed to become the heavyweight champion of the world.

Price’s first defeat to Thompson was seen as a fluke in some quarters, an equilibrium robbing shot to the ear that discombobulated the 6’ 8’’ Liverpudlian and lead to his first professional defeat.  The second loss was much more disturbing for fans and followers of the 2008 Olympic Super heavyweight bronze medalist as he performed relatively well early before unraveling dramatically in a similar manner to the way Wladimir Klitschko fell apart when losing to Lamont Brewster in 2004, the world heavyweight champion’s last professional defeat.

Despite flooring Thompson in the second round of fight two, Price failed to capitalize on his big moment and he faded under the canny pressure of Thompson.  Although he looked physically fit on the night, and can no doubt do a number of hard rounds in the gym, the defeat left questions over Price’s pre-fight preparation, fitness and confidence.

Was his core fitness good enough?  Did the presence of Lennox Lewis in the camp and at ringside create a “Too many cooks” scenario?  Could confidence problems prompted by the first fight, and the resulting anxiety and expansion of nervous energy pre-fight, have been the root of Price’s second defeat?

The first two questions can be cleared up during his next camp and fight.  The third question is one that might not be answered in his next fight or the one after — the psychological effects of the tussles with Thompson may not be answered until he once again meets someone who can withstand his bombs and come firing back.  Price’s physical problems can be fixed, and could have been addressed by Francis, yet the decision to move on to pastures new could be a sign that Price is starting to repair the mental damage caused by the two defeats.

Boxing is partly psychological, ripped and fit fighters have fallen apart before in fights in which they have not thrown a huge amount of punches or clocked up too much mileage.  Mental exhaustion — the strain on the brain that comes before a fight — is a constant threat to any fighter, even those who put in the spadework in the gym.  So how do you ensure that you are as mentally strong as you are physically strong?

In Price’s case, the decision to part with Smith could be the first major step in this direction.  For big name prospects, the first loss could be analogous to a bereavement as they may go through their own version of Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

The fighter might deny the defeat, either by stating it was a bad decision, lucky shot or premature stoppage, which was not an option for Price after the second defeat, or get angry about it, blaming themselves and those around them to deflect their acknowledgement of an underlying problem, or problems.  Acceptance comes with the acknowledgement that something went wrong, and unfortunately often results in the sacking of the trainer — although this could also be seen as a brutal act of denial.

Price, though, has always come across as a smart, levelheaded boxer and is not the type to rush into rash decisions.  His decision has taken time and is obviously part of a process that began when Marcus McDonnell waved off the second Thompson fight.  It will allow the 15-2 (13) contender to make the physical and technical changes needed to reach the next level in his career as well as removing some of the psychological demons that he picked up over the course of those seven rounds of action.

By drawing a line under the relationship with Smith, he has drawn a symbolic line under the defeats and should now move on with a new outlook and team.  However, this team could benefit from the addition of a sports psychologist, as Price’s mental scars will require just as much attention as the physical bumps and bruises.

Sports psychologists have long been used to unlock potential and help athletes avoid the psychological pitfalls of their sports.  Indeed, Pierre de Coubertin organised an Athletic Congress in 1894 where he received support for the organisation of the New Olympic Games, which began in Athens in 1896.  His article ‘La psychologie du sport’ (1900) saw one of the first, if not the first, applications of the term ‘sports psychology’.

Coubertin wrote that: ‘Sometimes the most physically gifted athletes are eliminated by others who, though less well off in that regard, used greater energy and force of will to achieve their victories’ and ‘mental properties play a major role, at times even a preponderant one’ (both from Norbert Müller (Ed.) (2000). Pierre de Coubertin: Olympism. Lausanne: International Olympic Committee, p.195).  He also maintained that one of the key tasks of the Olympics was to educate and that the Olympic Congresses should be used to advocate education in sports.

If a lesser fighter with a stronger mental outlook can prevail then what does that tell us about Thompson-Price II, in which a seasoned veteran who has fought at a higher level came into the fight already holding a win over his younger, inexperienced opponent?  It suggests that Price had it all to do before even stepping through the ropes at Liverpool’s Echo Arena.  The 30-year-old is intelligent enough to have known and appreciated that fact, which would have led to pre-fight tension — be it overtly manifested or sublimated.

Cus D’Amato also understood the strength of psychological states in the sport of boxing, especially amongst heavyweights.  D’Amato said that: “The young fighter always perceives his first-time opponent as being bigger, stronger and faster than he is”.  Although Price isn’t young and wasn’t taking on his first opponent when meeting Thompson, he was stepping up against someone who had hung at a higher level than him and Price must have suffered some massive pre-fight doubts as a result of this, especially after the dust settled on fight number one.

Following on from Coubertin, and bringing a fresh approach to the art of pugilism, Dorothy Hazeltine Yates worked with a group of boxers in the 1940s.  Yates taught her charges how to apply the ‘relaxation component’, a sequence of mental sets based on ‘Jacobsen’s progressive relaxation’ tension control method, a precursor of the technique of positive visualisation.

Yates gave the boxers a series of positive phrases that they had to repeat to themselves.  This was followed by a period of ‘quiet relaxation and thought’ (A.S. Kornspan, A. S. and M. J. MacCracken (2001). ‘Psychology applied to sport in the 1940s: The work of Dorothy Hazeltine Yates.’ Sport Psychologist, 15 (3) pp.342-345).

Remarkably, Yates produced results — two of the novice boxers she worked with netted tournament wins following her involvement.  Even more remarkably DeWitt Portal, the San Jose State ‘boxing mentor’, had brought her in to assist his fighters in a move that cause many raised eyebrows within the boxing community.

However, DeWitt himself was an early advocate of new approaches to the sport.  One of them was open scoring in boxing, he felt it would ‘give the audience a chance to see the vote’ (Sport. ‘It’s Portal Again: State Boxing Coach To Put New Idea Into Action on February 29.’ San Jose News. Febuary 19 1940. p.7), but we can forgive him for that particular brainwave given that he also ushered though other, more positive, developments.

Yates’s work with amateur boxers set a trend that has continued off and on throughout the following decades.  Michael Hawkins and Stephen Friel, Northern Ireland’s amateur boxing coaches, have included sports psychologist Gerry Hussey in their High Performance boxing team for years.

Hussey worked extensively with the fighters ahead of the European Union Championships in 2009 and Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010.  This approach paid dividends, the team picked up five medals in India, three golds, and Patrick Gallagher, a gold medallist at welterweight, told The Irish News that it helped him hone his focus.

“I found that helped big time,” he said when speaking to the newspaper about pre-fight pressure.  “We were told to concentrate on controlling the controlables and block out the crowd.  I was told always to focus on what I can do, not what I can't do or what I don't have any control over [February 3 2011].

It must be an Irish thing, Belfast’s John Breen has brought through a number of champions and the veteran trainer has often spoken about the mental travails of the sport of boxing.  “A boxer can be trained until he is in the peak of physical condition,” said Breen when speaking to The Mirror (Belfast edition) on February 25th 2011.  “If he can't handle the mental pressure then he may as well throw in the towel before the first bell.”

Ireland’s Andy Lee has also spoken about the positives that pre-fight positive visualisation can bring.  He has worked with Gerry Hussey and used the technique of positive visualisation to stiffen his resolve ahead of his brave, albeit losing, challenge to Julio Cesar Chavez Junior in June 2012 (L TKO 7).

It isn’t just all about the big names, either, as boxers without Price’s ample level of public exposure have turned to psychologists to find an edge.  Although it proved an unsuccessful gambit, Craig Docherty turned to sports psychologist Tom Lucas, who had worked with Celtic and Motherwell, before his European title fight with Boris Sinitsin in 2004, a majority decision defeat.

Docherty’s move did not pay off, but Lucas, who also worked with Scott Harrison ahead his aborted December 2006 showdown with Nicky Cook, did offer a telling piece of pre-fight advice when speaking to Ewing Grahame of The Mirror about the challenge facing Docherty.  He said: “Whether a person chucks it or goes that extra mile is all down to their attitude.  The brain will quit before the body,” [August 26 2004] — we have seen many examples of this in the sport of boxing.

Lucas had also warned Docherty about the pressures of fighting in front of rabid home support, often assumed to be a huge advantage, when telling Jim Black of The Express that: "He must avoid getting carried away and that won't be easy because the fans will be so up for it and the atmosphere will be electric.  The problem is that any sportsman can become emotionally drained and that ends up impacting on his physical strength as well…I have told him to focus on the ropes and take his mind beyond what is happening all around him.  That's why a lot of boxers wear a hood [a clear reference to Bernard Hopkins, one of the masters of pre-fight mental games].  It's like a horse being fitted with blinkers so they can't see out of the sides of their eyes and become distracted [October 15 2004].”

The union of boxing and psychology has had other public successes since those formative days of Coubertin and Yates, most notably when Steve Collins used ‘health adviser and motivator’ Tony Quinn to help him out-fox Chris Eubank in 1995.  Collins revealed before the fight that he had used hypnotism to give him an extra edge.  It worked; Eubank was visibly shaken by Collins’s claims and dropped two decisions to the Irishman.

However, the use of sports psychology is still viewed with suspicion.  British title winners such as Brian Rose and Paul Smith have employed the services of Emma James, a Psychological Sports Performance Specialist, but in the wider boxing world using an expert to gain a psychological edge is still seen as a last throw of the dice or a bit of colourful pre-fight shamanic gamesmanship rather than a valuable supplement to physical training. 

Ironically Audley Harrison, one of Price’s previous opponents often talks about the mental side of boxing yet the 2000 Olympic gold medallist has frozen in big fights despite a strong understanding of this side of the sport.  Fighters react differently to punches and to defeats, Harrison, despite his understanding of what can go wrong, has never managed to strike the right balance and it the brutal bottom-line could be that, for some, confidence can never be recouped beyond a certain point.

Still, Price has Frank Maloney in his corner and the diminutive promoter is not averse to bringing in a bit of science.  Maloney advocated that use of sports psychologists as far back as 2000, telling the Belfast News Letter that: “[W]e will make available to boxers and trainers qualified dieticians, sports physios and sports psychologists,” [December 21 2000] in a bid to ensure that fighters enter the ring in the best possible physical and mental shape.

For every Docherty there is a Collins, for every Lee there is an amateur team that has used sports psychology successfully.  The British 2012 GB Boxing Team employed the services of Peter Lindsay for the men and Chris Marshall for the women, and the two worked on positive visualisation and getting into the ring whilst shutting out the vocal crowd support and antecedent pressure of expectation.

Indeed, Andy Murray, the Scottish tennis star, may come from a more genteel sport, but he is a boxing fan and recognised the mental aspect of both sports during Wimbledon 2011.  “Tennis is a lot more gentlemanly than boxing, but in any individual sport the psychology plays a big part,” said Murray when speaking to Matthew Dunn of The Scottish Express about David Haye’s friendship and support.

“Tennis is a lot more gentlemanly than boxing, but in any individual sport the psychology plays a big part, especially at the top level.  You need to be sure you're strong in the mind.  I'm heading into the final rounds at Wimbledon now and, like a heavyweight title fight, this is the time to step it up.  Things will only get more difficult, and I need to be on top of my game and my mind.  The mental side of the game is something that I've tried to improve, and it also comes a little easier as you get older.  The most important thing is to stay calm when you're in the crunch time of a match and being really tested physically and mentally.”

Murray may have crashed out of the tournament in the past, but he stayed strong and ended Britain’s wait for a male Wimbledon winner this summer, which just goes to show that if you stay mentally tough then the top-level results can turn in your favour given time and commitment.

Maybe Price’s move to a new trainer will be just that.  It could also be followed by the decision to look into the mental aspects of the sport and bring in a sports psychologist.  Or he could just decide to split the difference and draft in Adam Booth, who keeps a keen eye on the mental side of the sport and worked with Price during his brief time with the Hayemaker team.  All will be revealed in the coming months.

Whatever the outcome, Price should strive to give himself every advantage.  He has the physical goods and the experience will come with rounds.  He might just need an extra helping hand to come to terms with the Thompson fights, as his mentor Lennox Lewis did following his loss to Oliver McCall and subsequent struggle to regain his heavyweight title.

Please send news and views to [email protected] or Twitter @Terryboxing.

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User Comments and Feedback (Register For Free To Comment) Comment by PAC-BOY on 09-01-2013

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Comment by Ravens Fan on 09-01-2013

I saw the word Pot in the headline and just assumed it was another article about Junior smoking weed.

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