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.
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.