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Author: Cassius Campbell 

Throughout the history of boxing, the most successful boxers have traditionally been groomed in, and recruited from, the harshest of environments. Their difficult upbringing, and associated social development, has typically honed the necessary physical and emotional acumen to survive, and even thrive, in a sport that is viewed by many as barbaric and inhumane.

There can be little doubt that boxing is both more compelling, and more intrinsically demanding, than any other sport. Like biblical gladiators, boxers prepare for battle. Their colourful silk robes and trunks belie a state of physical and psychological readiness as they enter the arena, prepared to put their lives on the line for the entertainment and gratification of others. This is no mean feat. It takes years to cultivate and perfect their technique, to learn how best to withstand the pressures of one-to-one combat. The ability both to receive accumulated blows to the head and body, and return these with interest to their opponent, whilst simultaneously displaying the skill and resilience to overcome the adversities of combat, and eventually, emerge victorious, requires a special kind of fortitude, a special kind of spirit.

In this sport, it is said that “only the strong survive”. However, this is a sport which also strengthens its adherents. For some, boxing constitutes the saving grace that allows them to ward off a possible life of criminality and incarceration.

Clearly, trying to measure the impact of life choices on human development is a complex process. As we navigate our way through the challenges of transition and change, the ability to overcome adversity, and to be resilient, as fostered in the boxing ring, are an important aspect of human capability. However, this begins even earlier. From the very beginning, childhood experience demands that we give things up (e.g. our mother’s breast; our dummy; our comfort blanket; our nursery; our primary school; and finally, even our secondary school). Time and again, we’re left to fend for ourselves without the familiar surroundings that we once relied upon for support. We may not always be able to choose the cards that we’re dealt in such moments, but what we can choose is how we play them.

Between the ages of 0 to 7, we pass through the primary stages of development. Our primary carers, be they father, mother, or close relative/guardian, hopefully provide for our basic needs.  Significant figures outside our family-of-origin may also replicate the parenting role.  This phase of development is crucial, as children who are in receipt of appropriate love, compassion, and boundary-setting at this juncture, will learn how to take risks, feel competent, and have consideration for others.

This outcome is in stark contrast to the familiar story we hear about boxers (i.e. growing up in care; enduring poverty; suffering parental absences, abandonment, and isolation; witnessing excessive violence; and having to cope with limited education). These trials and tribulations, moreover, are experienced within the context of a gender normative culture wherein the traditional rule of thumb is that “big boys don’t cry”. Displaying emotional fragility is viewed as weak or unmanly.  A boy who falls over in the school playground is encouraged to wipe away his tears, and suppress his emotions. Rather than crying when he feels sad or upset, he learns to bottle-up his feelings. This outcome is a dangerous one. If young boys aren’t allowed to articulate or demonstrate their emotions, what sort of men will they become? Always keeping their feelings locked-up, never speaking out about their experiences of fragility and loss, they lose a crucial aspect of their identity. This subtle mis-education, of course, continues long into adolescence and manhood.

Unfortunately, when we don’t experience empathy for our feelings during childhood, it can be difficult to show gentleness in our interactions with others in later life, or to be forthcoming with our emotions.  When boys are repeatedly taught to suppress their pain, this becomes second nature. They come to believe that they should be judged solely on their strength  of endurance. This self-same attitude was betrayed by WBO champion Billy Jo Saunders in a revealing statement that perhaps threw light on his own early developmental experiences. He said, “if I don’t beat Chris Eubank Jnr., I told my dad to beat me with a bicycle chain”. This attitude was voiced with the honesty and venom of someone whose whole persona had been built around being tough. Not just tough, but tough enough to voluntarily withstand a brutal punishment!

If he’d lost to Chris Eubank Jnr., surely that would have been punishment enough. To acknowledge, and come to terms with, the fact that his best just hadn’t been good enough on that particular day, would have been a painful pill to swallow. Sadly, the excessively self-punitive mode of expression that he adopted on this occasion ran the risk of perpetuating a negative cycle, influencing impressionable young boxers who might look up to him as a role model.

Between the ages of 7 and 14, we enter a developmental stage wherein we begin to firm-up our identity, developing meaningful relationships of trust and friendship, and affirming our unique and shared interests. If we consider the experiences of Mike Tyson (former Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World) at this age, he was continually at odds with the criminal justice system. Hanging out with dubious associates whom he believed to be his “family”, his was a life of petty theft and misdemeanour. Throughout this well-documented period, what stands out, is his survival instinct, his ability to adapt in spite of all the odds. This was fuelled by his drive and desire to be the most feared gangster in Brownsville.

Fortunately, Tyson subsequently found a consistent primary figure in “Cus D’Mato”, who was able, at least to some extent, offer the missing experience of “good enough” parenting that he’d missed out on as a child. Maslow’s “hierarchy of need” highlights that development requires that a child’s physiological needs (i.e. for food, shelter and warmth) are satisfied, but also that they are provided with safety, love and affirmation, and positive sources of self-esteem. All these needs were delivered by D’Mato, but the burning desire within the child to take risks, and flirt with danger, was deeply ingrained, and even having a consistent role model couldn’t stamp this out.

All the primal energy, the frustration and anger that Tyson felt, was redirected into boxing, and his quest for fame, and fortune. Sadly, what was missing when he finally attained all he’d ever dreamed of was the emotional intelligence to effectively navigate his social life beyond the ring, outside the bounds of the tough boxing environment to which he’d become accustomed. The intrinsic imprinting of male aggression continues to haunt his steps, even in retirement.

Between the ages of 14 and 21, we typically enter a socialisation stage. During this stage, things begin to make more sense. We’re now ready to stamp our mark on the world, to implement a plan for our self-identity in the world, a plan that originally developed many years earlier in the context of our early influences and environment. This path we pursue at this juncture can be for the good or ill depending on the choices we perceive as being available to us.

For some, boxing is the only choice with which they’re left, the prospect of using their physical gifts in pursuit of glory, fame, and fortune. As they go about this task, ringing in their ears, whether consciously or unconsciously is the mantra,  “big boys don’t cry”. If something goes wrong, they just have to “suck it up, and get on with it”. If they speak out in sharing how they feel, they fear that they’ll be perceived as weak, incapable, or less of a “man”. Perception, of course, can be a powerful tool of deception, because what we perceive isn’t always true, and emotional self-expression certainly doesn’t lessen anyone’s human worth.

In a recent interview, Lenny Daws, a former British Champion, described the emotional struggle he’d endured following the tragic death of his daughter, and the huge challenge he’d faced in not being able to find the words to talk about what he was feeling. What was especially moving was his account of having been out on a training run, preparing to defend his title against Ashley Theophane, when he was overwhelmed by the emotional pressure of what had happened, and broke down in tears. But who was there to hold him? Who was there to support his emotional well-being?

One’s early experiences of childhood development will most definitely influence each boxer’s state of mind. Freud (1923) suggested that every individual’s “psychic apparatus” comprised three entities of the mind: the id, the ego, and the superego. The well-functioning individual is able to balance these three elements so as to establish a persona which is resilient, able to be compassionate, manage and utilise its anger, and overcome adversity, failure, and disappointment.

However, where individuals have grown up in adverse circumstances, without love and stability, and with limited emotional support, it can be hard to achieve this balance. One or other of the three elements often dominates the whole entity under conditions of stress, particularly the id. This pre-eminence can sometimes be beneficial, sometimes destructive.

Freud (1923) observed that “the id is the most basic part of the personality, and wants instant gratification for our wants and needs. If these needs or wants are not met, a person becomes tense or anxious”. Fuelled by the id, when a boxer is winning, their sense of invincibility will grow. Their aura of being immortal, indestructible, the “baddest” man on the planet, will become more pronounced, further reinforced by their team, their fans, and the media. However, when an opponent finally discovers the key to their mortality, and unlocks the door, plummeting them to the canvas, the existential crisis hits hard. There is an overwhelming sense of disappointment.

Marvis Frazer, a former Heavyweight contender, recalled his experience as a 13-year-old child, observing his father being bounced off the canvas by George Foreman. His id dominant, he wondered why his father had allowed this to happen. From an early age, he’d been told by everyone that his father was “Superman”. He intrinsically believed this to be true, and this sort of thing simply didn’t happen to “Superman”. The pain of recognizing that his father was human, the same as everyone else, was a tough one to bear. The fact that this had to be witnessed by thousands of people around the world made this normal developmental milestone even more intolerable.

Freud (1923) posited that “the ego deals with reality, trying to meet the desires of the id in a way that is socially acceptable in the world. This may mean delaying gratification, and helping to get rid of the tension the id feels if a desire is not met right away. The ego recognizes that other people have needs and wants too, and that being selfish is not always good for us in the long run”.

In the context of this grappling with reality, stories of boxers suffering from depression and low self-esteem should not be viewed as unusual. In fact, they should be expected. In a high-profile sport like boxing, where the protagonists are visibly on display, such that everyone can witness their success or failure, there is literally nowhere to hide. The boxer’s life is viewed through the lens of the people who come to witness their performance. They wait eagerly to celebrate their brilliance, or criticize their capitulation, judge and jury all rolled into one.

David Price, a former British Champion, is a prime example of the downside of this dance with the Devil. He’s a big, strong specimen of a man, and a technically gifted athlete. At the beginning of his career, he created a wave of public adulation and positive self-affirmation. However, in the eyes of some fans, he subsequently failed to live-up to challenges posed in the ring, and was derided as mentally fragile after well-publicised losses. Perhaps this was true, but more than likely, there were underlying reasons for this fragility grounded in his childhood experiences. At some point in his primary social and emotional developmental, his needs probably went unmet. More than likely, because of his huge stature, he was historically viewed as capable, and probably succeeded in most things because of his physical gifts, rather than his emotional capacity to cope with life’s demands.

Consistently being asked to compete in challenging bouts for which he was physically prepared, but emotionally and mentally unprepared, ultimately had a price. In his match-up with Christian Hammer, he found himself fatigued and overwhelmed, and suffered an emotional meltdown in front of thousands of viewers. He now has to live with the public shame at having failed to fulfil the potential others perceived him as possessing, and of never fully realizing the dreams he had for himself.

This is an important issue as far as mental health and well-being is concerned. The public shaming potentially leaves a boxer very exposed, and this in the context of an already difficult situation wherein they’re attempting to balance out their psychic apparatus so as to achieve their aims. In a worst case scenario, this might be experienced as the harsh messages of a poverty-stricken upbringing being re-told. The boxer is forced to confront the reality that they’re simply not “good enough” to win the gladiatorial competition, and hence, they suffer a bloodied nose in the context of the very sport in which they hoped to prove their worth.

The pain of such public failure is a heavy cross to bear. For this reason, it’s essential that the BBBC, trainers, coaches and promoters alike come together in seeking to protect the mental and emotional well-being of boxers. The continued professional development of coaches in understanding their own psychic apparatus, and that of the boxers in their care, is a key component of success. If coaches don’t have this understanding, how can they make crucial decisions in times of personal crisis for their fighters, both inside and outside the ring?

Most fighters tend to be emotionally fragile, but good at camouflaging this vulnerability, which is felt to be a necessity in order to compete effectively in one of the most challenging sports in the world. Nothing about boxing is easy. The training is hard. The sparring is hard. The competition itself is hard. So, as a boxer, there might be a feeling that they’ve got to be hard too.

Is this “hardness” a necessity? The answer is both “yes” and “no”. Boxers have to be mentally, physically, and emotionally prepared to partake in the challenge of a sport in which they’ll be fully tested by an opponent who enters the ring on an equal footing, reliant solely on their natural skill and resilience.

However, this capacity is not necessarily just about being hardened as an individual. It’s about being physically, mentally, and emotionally supported by others. Isn’t it time, therefore, that we gave something back to the boxers, both past and present, who’ve provided us with so many thrills and spills? Whether their careers are way behind them, or they’re taking the first tentative steps towards boxing stardom, they need our support. In this context, it’s reassuring to know that the BBBC has signed-up to a mental health charter with MIND.

However, more still needs to be done. The more public support we provide to those competitive sportsmen and women who suffer from mental ill-health, the less stigmatising it will be for boxers to come forward and seek confidential counselling.

Freud (1923) explained that “the superego develops last, and is based on morals and judgments about right and wrong. Even though the superego and the ego may reach the same decision about something, the superego’s reason for that decision is more based on moral values, while the ego’s decision is based more on what others will think, or what the consequences of an action could be”.

Barry McGuigan is someone in the sport who exhibits this superego functioning, openly displaying compassion for the fighters in demonstrating his moral compass. In the 1980s, when Robbie Reagan lost a tough title fight, and cried uncontrollably on national TV, Barry held him firmly, and said, “it will be alright, son; it will be alright”. Barry didn’t care about what other people thought. He was more concerned about the emotional well-being of the fighter in front of him.

More trainers, coaches, referees, and promoters need to be taking this strong moral stance. Of course, there are already pockets of really good practice within the boxing community. However, in the heat of the moment, it’s sometimes questionable how consistent is the capacity of coaches to balance the “psychic apparatus” of their fighters, to use the super-ego to override the id and ego, and reach a place of moral circumspection where men can be allowed to cry, and still be looked upon as “men”.

Mental Health Charity Statistics

  • Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45
  • 1% of men’s preferred choice of suicide is hanging
  • 3 in 10 children of primary school age suffer with their mental health
  • 1,659 young people under 35 took their own lives in 2015
  • 1 child in 15 will self-harm
  • In a recent poll, 68% of sports coaches had no training in mental health awareness

To mention the few that we owe so much.

Beki Moyo, Darren Sutherland, Earl Henderson, Rudi Pika

Billy Smith, Dean Powell, Mike Towel, Scott Westgarth 

About the Author:

Cassius Campbell has been involved in boxing since the 1970’s, he is a former amateur boxer and professional sparring partner, England ABA coach, BBB of C coach and current personal trainer. Cassius has over 20 years’ experience as a person centred, existential and psychoanalytic counsellor. He a lead counsellor at Roehampton University, alongside his on-line counselling practice and work as a lead trainer for the Fatherhood Institute.

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