Coaching the sport of boxing, a view from the inside.
Just as it takes a great deal of courage for anyone to climb into the boxing ring, so it takes a certain amount, for someone like me, to offer advice on the sport itself! Let’s face it I’m not exactly a household name, an Emanuel Steward or a Brendan Ingle. I’m very aware of that, but I do have the same passionate love of boxing and a belief in what I am about to say.
I’ve been thinking very carefully about boxing for the last thirty-seven years. As a boxer, turned trainer, if you want to make progress, thinking hard about boxing is exactly what you have to do, day after day and year after year, and I would like to share a few of those thoughts with you. After all, you have found your way here, so I can already take for granted your interest in boxing, easily our most challenging of sports.
I’d particularly like to share some observations on coaching, where I have some experience. Boxing coaching is intriguing, challenging, thought provoking, but above all else I’ve come to the conclusion that it is very definitely a skill in its own right. During my own coaching journey I’ve enjoyed working with the novice more than anything, it’s my favourite aspect. When an unboxed individual makes his first entrance into the gym it presents the greatest challenge to any coach. Nothing but a blank canvas is before you, trusting, receptive, optimistic perhaps, but full of fears and frailties, just waiting for you to reveal the alchemy of the magic that is boxing..
At the other end of the scale, working with the elite amateur or the consummate professional asks even more questions of your coaching ability. Working with advanced boxers can be a daunting prospect for any developing coach, and can give feelings of a lack of knowledge, or insufficient experience. I have personally faced that moment, but once I had taken a deep breath and applied myself, I began to comprehend that the more complicated the question, the simpler, the coaching answer became. Boxing is mostly a sport about problem solving and that’s a thinking man’s game.
I came to realise quite quickly that the more I thoroughly understood the basic ingredients of boxing, with emphasis on the word thoroughly, the easier it was to see the way forward for individual boxers, whatever their standard. Be advised though, that the conquest of those boxing fundamentals soon becomes a lifetime’s challenge. Armed with such knowledge however, I began to find a simple truth, the more competent the boxer, the easier it was to coach.
In the competent boxer, attention to the smallest detail becomes the task, building on natural strengths and individual flair that has already emerged in training and contest conditions. After a certain level of competency is reached by a boxer, you, as a coach, progress from the challenge of teaching boxing in its entirety to developing the emerging skills of the individual within that entirety. This is particularly true of professional boxers.
Over the years, I’ve assisted many individuals, been responsible for squad coaching sessions and worked alongside, in my opinion, some of the finest amateur and professional coaches around. (Funnily enough, in many cases, they don’t actually realise how good they are). Becoming an Inspector for the British Boxing Board of Control was one of the shrewdest moves I ever made. I made it in the full knowledge that I would both serve the sport I love, and gain the best, and quickest insight possible, into all aspects of the professional game.
How else can you be privy to the innermost thoughts of this country’s coaching elite and its governing body? Where else can you be closer to the action, observe the secret privacy of the boxer-coach relationship in the dressing room? In these circumstances I have often measured the advice I would give a boxer, against advice that I’ve actually heard given by top names. That’s how you better yourself, how you improve, how you challenge your own ability. No coaching course in the world can replace that experience. To this day, those trainers do not know what a service they have given to me.
When an opportunity came along to become a professional trainer, I took it knowing that I had the confidence, knowledge and judgement I felt was required. I had tested myself along side the best. Even after many years of experience I had opened my mind to yet another path of learning in my self imposed challenge to become a better coach. In my own way I had taken from those I most admired, but at the same time I didn’t want to be their clone.
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I needed to be my own man. Sport is still a competitive arena. Professional boxing coaches are competing within it. Do not forget either, that often I failed to agree with what I saw and heard. It is evident I’m afraid, that among the cream there are also some coaches who are content to rest on their laurels. Better to be at the cutting edge, if you can. Both to gain advantage or to be guarding against the sports pitfalls, to be for-warned of emerging and potentially damaging illegal developments, such as gene doping! It’s how a coach acts in the best interests of his boxing stable. How he stops his boxers from making mistakes.
Coaching the sport of boxing is definitely as much a challenge as boxing itself and requires no less commitment. As a boxer, if you have prepared thoroughly you are confident, and so it is with coaching. Not all great boxers make great boxing coaches. It’s not a right of passage. Top coaching requires the right interpersonal skills, teaching ability, problem solving skills, analytical skills, communication skills, psychology and a deep and thorough understanding of the sport and its rules. How it works, it’s ingredients, what makes it tick, action and reaction, strategy, bio mechanics, nutrition, fitness, prohibited substances and much more but, most importantly of all, safety. Oh! Yes, that six-letter word we all like to bandy about, safety.
It’s the number one word in boxing. After all, boxing is the most dangerous sport in the world, right? Wrong, most dangerous, no, absolutely not. Normal day-to-day life is far more dangerous and I should definitely know. In fact I feel positively qualified to say so. However, I’ll leave that for another article, another time. Let’s get back to safety and the sport of boxing. Let me ask you a question, your son or daughter wants to box. In principle you don’t object, it’s character building and it’s a tough world out there. They’ll get fit and perhaps be good enough to realise their ambitions. What kind of coach do you look for? What expectations are you entitled to hold? Coaches know all the moves? They know about fitness don’t they? They talk a good fight? But what’s their integrity like, what’s their overall priority?
Well, if it’s not safety, my advice is turn around and walk out of the gym. Safety has to be number one. Never ever lose sight of the fact that boxing is just a sport. Very few people make enough money to elevate it to the status of a lucrative living. Like many other sports it carries inherent risk but it is a wonderful sport, exciting and challenging, rewarding, especially on a personal level. There is simply no excuse however for not making safety the number one priority. As coaches or trainers we have a duty of care for those in our charge, a moral obligation to consider their welfare whilst they pursue their goals and dreams.
You must be consistent in your approach, have integrity, self-discipline, and everything you do should spring from the concept of safety. It’s important that the boxers in your care know this. You cannot go on a course to gain integrity and self discipline, you have to develop it. As a coach, you are placed by your boxer in a position of trust. It’s essential that you do not breach that trust. If integrity is your byword as a coach then that trust, that special boxer-coach bond, will grow and grow. That bond needs to exist. It also forms an essential element in the question of boxing safety.
Under contest pressures, or in the gym, trust is how you know as a coach that when your boxer tells you he doesn’t feel right, you listen and act upon it. You know, because of your trusting bond, that it isn’t just self-doubt or a momentary lack of confidence. You have to know what is normal in your boxer both physically and mentally. You have to know, and your boxer has to know, that you operate as a team, and that everything you do as a team, every action, every thought, every instruction, is underpinned by the word safety. If a serious injury or fatality does occur in boxing, you can rest assure that the world’s media and the sports’ opponents will be focussing on it like never before. Quite rightly so, as long as it’s proportionate and reasonable I welcome any contribution that helps to make boxing safer.
Of course, when it comes to safety every self-respecting coach knows about the human brain, don’t they? As boxing coaches surely we are expected to know about head injuries. It’s why people oppose the sport. As coaches we are all conversant with fainting, concussion, grand mal epilepsy, brain compression, sunstroke, diabetic coma and strokes, aren’t we? It’s helpful because it could all be part of evaluating the unconscious athlete, right? What’s that you say? You’re not a doctor! You do potentially face unconscious people though, this is boxing we are talking about. Should you not at least be trying to expand your knowledge in these areas?
Do we really need to know about hypovolemic shock, or perhaps neurogenic shock, metabolic shock? What about post traumatic amnesia or retrograde amnesia, subarachnoid space, the cerebral cortex, ocular injuries, facial injuries, nasal injuries, ear injuries, hand wrist and arm injuries? Is a basic first aid qualification enough? “Hang on a minute, we have doctors and such at ringside”, I hear you say. Of course we do, but they are not in the gym or out running the hills in the summer sun with your world champion elect. Is it not a simple truth that investing time in your knowledge and development, is also a good way of investing in safety? Or should we simply leave it to somebody else?
I recall all too well being ringside when, following a very sudden, complete and clinical one punch knockout, the boxer’s trainer leapt into the ring beating the paramedics to his charge and immediately began moving him into the recovery position. I know he meant well but was that in the boxer’s best interests? He arrived a split second, before the ringside paramedics and it could have been disastrous. What about neck damage? The cerebral cortex!
All the world’s many governing bodies make sure we are up to date about these matters, don’t they? Paperwork is distributed with up to date information on these issues isn’t it?
Regular coaching seminars representing continued professional development are held aren’t they? Yes? No? Well, before you go praising or criticising anyone let me tell you the facts as I see them, “You have been licensed ( I hope) as a boxing trainer”. That means trust has been put in you. Trust by the relevant governing body. Trust to treat your position as a custodian of this ancient and noble sport with professional respect. Trust and integrity go hand in hand, they need consistency and they are inseparable.
A responsibility is placed upon you by the whole world of boxing to be relentless in pursuit of safety and disciplined in your application of the rules. No rulebook in existence is good enough to cover everything, that’s why they are “living documents”, always subject to change. Look within the rules of professional boxing and you will find the very spirit of boxing, its best interests. If everything you do as a coach is done in the true spirit of boxing you will do it a very great service and help it endure for years to come. When granted your professional licence you are trusted to help take your own development forward. You should not expect to be spoon-fed, that of course, is being extremely unprofessional.
You must strive to keep up to date and ahead of the game, and you must be relentless in your quest to look after the welfare of your boxers. Is it not a fact that, in a personal coaching sense, you do, after all, have only yourself to consider? In your own close boxing environment, only you really know your shortcomings. No governing body in the world can read your mind. You should sit down and examine your own continued professional development. Always strive to extend your knowledge, improve and continually review your coaching methods, but always, without exception, under the umbrella of safety.
New or old, experienced or inexperienced, famous or not famous, amateur or professional, do not make the mistake of thinking and believing that by obtaining your amateur or professional license or qualification, you have “made it!” You have been recognised only as having attained a certain level, demonstrated a basic competency. Your personal coaching development should continue to move on from that point, driven by yourself, aided by others. Keep thinking about what you are doing and why, keep challenging yourself to improve, and you will become a better coach. Remember, the distinction between amateur and professional boxing instruction is not status based. You can be just as professional in your approach to the amateur arm of boxing as you can be amateurish in your approach to professional boxing. I have seen examples of both.
The aim of all governing bodies should be to sustain the sport, encourage its growth and constantly review, refine and evolve its commitment to the safety of it’s participants and it’s spectators. As a coach within that sport you cannot afford to stagnate. Doing so will only hold back our cherished boxing and hold you back as a custodian of it. Remember, boxing never really belongs to a governing body, it belongs to you, and the whole world of boxing enthusiasts. You have a responsibility towards it.
People who constitute governing bodies are actually very few in number but do a great service for many. As an enthusiast you should both appreciate and desire that someone with the same love of boxing as you, is willing to sacrifice so much of their personal life to maintain the vibrancy, safety and integrity of the sport.
The sport of boxing, at all levels, is only as safe as you proactively help to make it. The content of the rule book, the spirit of the sport and it’s foundation, has to find it’s way into practise, and it can only do that efficiently through your application. I reiterate that no rulebook can cover everything. It will not of itself endow you with growing skills. Only you can do that. Leaving it closed in the draw is akin to throwing away your first aid box.
There are many facets to the sport of boxing, many ingredients and many of us involved within it. Boxing is ours. Everything we do, think, write or legislate should adhere to a standard ensuring that the sport itself remains safe, fit and healthy. The fundamental essence of that standard should be the key word, safety. Make it your key word and you will do much to ensure it’s future.
On that basis commit yourself to your own programme of continued professional development, all of you, boxer, trainer, coach or official. Sow the seeds of progressive learning and not only will you grow in competency, you will positively blossom, helping to ensure that the great sport of boxing itself remains in full bloom, right from our amateur nursery beds to the world title magnificence of Madison Square Garden.
Always, without exception, lay your boxing foundation on the principles of safety. From that essential platform springs the challenge of teaching, developing boxing excellence, and therein lies the truly thrilling and great mystery of our quite unique sport. Yes, I have opinions on the techniques of boxing, the building blocks, the foundations of boxing mastery. In fact, if you trained with me you would be totally familiar with the importance of footwork for example. You would understand why it is so important to everything you do, but that’s another article, another reason, to make www.theselfdefenceexpert.com your premier website.
I would like to dedicate this article, and it’s message, to the late Graham Bingham, Boxing Board of Control Inspector. Graham was my travelling companion and is sadly missed. His every boxing action, his every boxing thought, and every boxing word he ever uttered were always, without exception, in the true spirit of the sport he so dearly loved.
This article is the Copyright of Neil William Holland.