When I was 20 years old, while attending Northeastern University, I spent time training as an amateur boxer at the inner-city YMCA. There were two camps at the Y. One was led by my trainer, friend, and mentor, Aaron Sherrad, a retired Boston cop. He did a huge service to the community by bringing in under-privileged kids from the neighborhood and helping them develop, not just as fighters, but as ‘quality human beings.’
The other camp was called simply, “The Russian’s camp.” I knew the other trainer merely as Ivan, but Aaron would throw “The Terrible” on the end of it. Aaron was always upset with the way Ivan would just throw ‘newbie’ kids in the ring before they were ready to fight. Using them as meat (basically punching bags with eyes) to warm up his ‘contenders’ (the handful of his fighters he thought showed promise).
When it came to the two camps, ‘never the twain shall meet’ was the lay of the land. We didn’t train with them, nor them with us, until one Saturday when Aaron had agreed to have an ‘exhibition’ match between our fighters and Ivan’s. Knowing of Aaron’s strong dislike of Ivan, I remember really wanting to make him proud. Show this guy’s fighter up. Embarrass Ivan’s camp and show them once and for all that Aaron was the superior trainer.
I had a good reputation as a light heavy weight in the gym. Won a good number of fights. When our camp would have our training bouts, my confidence, and punches were ‘on-time’ and consistent. I felt loose, yet focused on the fight in front of me.
When I got into the ring that Saturday, I remember Aaron saying, “show these guys how we do things!” I was filled with the normal anxiety, but also confidence and the trust that my trainer had in me. The bell rang, and within seconds of trading punches with the fighter in front of me, I realized something was wrong. My timing was off with my punches. My legs felt like they were stuck in quicksand (I’ve never been a ‘float like a butterfly’ sort of guy, but this was something different).
Why was this happening? The fighter seemed good, but not great. I ate right and got good sleep the night before. I had been in a good amount of fights, so I was familiar with a bit of anxiousness before a fight. But it always heightened my focus and performance once I stepped into the ring. That was just it. I hadn’t fully stepped into the ring…
I was mentally only “half there.”
My mind felt like it was cut in two. I had one eyeball watching the fighter in front of me throwing his shots at will (which I was more than adequately blocking with my face), while my “mind’s eye” was fixated on Aaron’s expression, wondering how he thought I was doing.
I didn’t want to disappoint my mentor. So, while my body was taking a beating, my mind was taking a worse one. I had become self-conscious, stuck in negative future outcomes, breathing real life into the very fears and worries that I didn’t want to transpire.
While the punches came in, my anxiety of failure had my mind in the past, thinking back on all the wonderful lessons in and out of the ring my mentor had taught me, and here I was having him look like a fool. After a few more jabs, my mind took off into the future, imagining Aaron over the next few days having to lower his head in the gym when Ivan or his fighters walked by because of my performance. The only part of me that was fully present in the ring, was my body, which, in absence of my mind’s attention, was barely staying above sea-level, and headed for deep water if something didn’t change soon. Saved by the bell, I brought my ‘well tenderized’ body, and mind, back over to my corner…
Aaron stepped into the ring. Threw cold water on my face, bringing my full attention back into the here and now…
“Turn your head off, it’s a just a round. It doesn’t matter what happened before or how this ends up, just be here now. Throw you combinations. Breathe. Come back and see me in 3 minutes, and we’ll go from there. One punch at a time.”
I had become so focused on what may happen in the future, I had taken myself out of my ‘mental/emotional’ game. I had become self-conscious, and here was my mentor with every reason in the world to be disappointed, minimizing my mistakes, lifting me back onto my feet, and bringing me back to the present task at hand. He knew that my thoughts and emotions governed my body. As long as my emotions were filling my thoughts with fears of what might transpire, my mind would create a blue-print that would get my body to turn those fears into reality.
I would like to say I made an extraordinary comeback, throw in some solid “Rocky” theme music, and leave you with a colorful mental image of me standing in the middle of the ring, having my wonderful trainer and friend holding my hand up in victory. Truth be told, that first round proved damaging, and took its toll on my performance for the rest of the fight. Although I did go the full five rounds, it wasn’t pretty, and if it had gone to the score cards (just a gym exhibition match, so no cards, just opinions), I would have lost just about every round.
But I know this: if I hadn’t had my mentor who taught me the importance of staying present with the situation I was in, regardless of how difficult it was, I am sure my thoughts would have only made my physical performance worse. I would have never made it past the second round. It may have been one of the hardest fights I ever had, but it was unquestionably the most valuable.