Boxing and Mental Health
Combat sports and martial arts are primarily associated with physical fitness, but could there also be benefits to our mental strength? Jon Sutton investigates.
After dual success at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium in recent years, Anthony Joshua took on Andy Ruiz on Sat 1 June at New York’s Madison Square Garden, in what was expected to be a one-sided demolition by the London man. Instead, however, it was the 6’6” frame of Joshua that came crashing down to earth. The tremors of negativity could be felt right across the Atlantic, where fight fans had spent the 16 years since Lennox Lewis’ retirement longing for another homegrown hero to unify the top division.
Subsequently, social media was a frenzy of blame games and told-you-sos, and British heavyweight hopes had hit a new low. But in the post-fight press conference, the man himself was practical, positive and confident, as he told journalists, “I’m a soldier. Thick and thin, good and bad, always look forward, never back. That’s my mindset.” Showing similar mental toughness last year, Tyson Fury, following in the footsteps of fighters such as Ricky Hatton and Frank Bruno, bounced back from his suicidal behaviour after bravely admitting his battles with clinical depression.
This is a story that is repeated throughout the pages of boxing history. So what it is that Joshua, Fury and many other fighters find within themselves that helps them to overcome such devastating blows to their careers, their reputations and their health?
Welsh boxing champ Kieran Gething is a young man who has suffered very personal tragedy on his way to success, having lost his father in the same year he fought for a Welsh title. Kieran told Buzz:
“Boxing teaches you to suffer physical pain but it’s also mental. The winter mornings when you want to stay in bed, the sessions after work when you want to see your family, the years of graft in the amateurs with no money to show for it. Boxing teaches you to be tough on the inside.”
Kieran, like Fury and Joshua, has developed the superhuman mental strength necessary to become a champion – and to navigate life’s toughest obstacles – almost entirely through his dedication to boxing. The pain, it seems, has driven the pride. The anger has fed the ambition; the hard times have created the hunger for success.
Further to this, as Buzz was recently told by former world boxing champion (and current world boxing guru) Barry Jones, boxing teaches you discipline that can be applied far beyond the sport itself. “It gives you a structure that will set you up for the rest of your life. The importance of routine, self-control and willingness to keep on learning are lessons from boxing that I’ve taken into all other parts of my life.”
But whilst it seems evident that professional fighters can develop such extreme mental strength through their chosen discipline, can the same be said for the average person who chooses combat sport not as a career path but as a means of personal growth? Droves of people across the UK have headed to white collar boxing gyms in recent years, each testing their skill, their nerve and their chin, in a bid to answer just that question.
High-profile celebrities, too, have sought out the fighting life in order to escape the horrors of mental health failure. In a recent article on the topic, Prince Harry told the Guardian that after his mother’s death, he had felt “very close to a complete breakdown,” going on to say: “During those years I took up boxing, because it’s a really good way of letting out aggression.” Singer Ellie Goulding spoke in the same article about her use of boxing to overcome anxiety: “It wasn’t about any change in my outward appearance, it was about feeling myself get better and stronger.”
So what do the doctors say? Whilst staying realistic about the dangers involved in taking repeated hits to the head, most maintain a similar belief that combat sports can provide the outlet and the focus necessary to cope with mental health problems. Psychologist Felicity Gibbons told the netdoctor.co.uk website, “Boxing instils a sense of achievement, building confidence and self-esteem. Classes provide a controlled and safe environment to release any frustration, stress and anger.”
A 2009 study in China dug much deeper into this theory when researchers looked into the benefits of hexagram boxing (a non-contact form of tai chi based on martial arts kicks and punches) on patients with chronic schizophrenia. The results were astounding. The patients were able to go without their schizophrenia medication, relying purely on the natural benefits of this aggressive, but controlled, form of exercise whilst fully controlling their symptoms. The study (from researchgate.net) concluded: “Boxing training can improve effectively the cognition and negative symptoms of chronic schizophrenics.”
Whether you take your lifestyle advice from celebrities or doctors, it seems we could all benefit from the increased camaraderie, the physical exertion and the overall sense of personal achievement found in the boxing gym. But further to these staple benefits found in other sports, boxing also teaches us how to deal with failure, loss and the harsh realities of life. If you find yourself needing to let off some steam this summer, perhaps it’s time to consider swapping pints for punches.
Welsh Boxing Champion Nathan Thorley [pictured above]:
My toughest time in boxing was losing in the Commonwealth Games semi-final. It wasn’t that I got beaten up or anything, just losing in such a big tournament hit me hard mentally. For a few months I was feeling down. I started going out drinking to be social, but it turned into every weekend and I wasn’t getting back to the gym. I was thinking of hanging the gloves up but something inside me said “No! It’s what you’re best at, it’s all you know, stick at it and work hard and it will pay off!”
I have an extremely strong family unit around me who made me see sense. My dad has been there since day one. He said “don’t throw it all away, you’ve worked so hard for it!” My girlfriend Bianca was also there to kick my ass back into the gym, pushing me every step of the way! Before I knew it I was back in the gym making my pro debut in March 2015.
Radio presenter and first-time white collar boxer, Giorgia Rescigno (aka Jo Jo Jayne):
It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. But raising money for charity helped me through the seven weeks of training – and so did the feeling I was part of a group of people all going through the same thing. Regardless of how hard it was, I actually started to love the training. I was continuously learning new skills and pushing myself mentally and physically. It was very empowering.
As fight night approached there was never a temptation to pull out. It was having that fight night as an end goal that had kept me focused and motivated to turn up every week! I had to put all my hard work into practice.
Welsh Champion Kieran Gething:
The lowest point of my career was in the amateurs in 2014. My father died and I was devastated, but I knew I had to pull myself back up. I pushed hard in the gym that year and boxed my way to the ABA final. Considering the year I’d had, I felt fantastic in that fight. But the judges disagreed. I had to take the loss on the chin and I learned a lot about boxing and about life in the process.
You have to keep on fighting no matter how hard it gets. So the following year I came back even stronger. I stopped two of my opponents, beat two British champions and finally got my hands on the Welsh title.
Former World Champion Barry Jones:
Boxing is littered with stories of triumph through adversity and it is still one of the most working-class sports around. The vast majority of us come from environments where things really don’t come easy. So, in my youth, boxing was so important because it gave me an opportunity to express myself and it gave me a sense of worth and self-belief. And not just when I was winning but also through my losses, as it helped me prove to myself that winning or losing wasn’t always that important, it was how you conducted yourself through success and how you dusted yourself off and came back stronger from a defeat.
Writer-turned-fighter at 40, Josh Rosenblatt:
I started fighting for the simple reason that it was the exact opposite of everything I’d ever done. After 33 years as a sensualist and a coward – who found physical exercise ridiculous and violent confrontation repulsive – I was bored. All of a sudden, I wanted the physical life, the strenuous life, the painful life. I wanted to sweat and breathe heavily and fail miserably. I wanted to hurt and to cause hurt. And most importantly, I wanted to get over my lifelong fear of doing both. Fighting for me was entirely about transformation.