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Life Lessons From The Boxing Ring

Ask anyone who has ever exhibited a serious commitment to a sport whether that passion has seeped into the rest of their life somehow or not, and they'll likely tell you yes. There are multiple life skills to be gained through sports in general, most commonly found around the idea of discipline - or specifically, self-discipline - that is typically required for training.

Boxing and fight sports, in particular, are among those that are often considered more than a sport - they're an art, a philosophy, a lifestyle. While sports like football (both kinds), basketball, and baseball, are among the most popular in pop culture, boxing and martial arts seem to have a very unique and special way of capturing people's hearts - whether they have ever been (or will ever be) a fighter in the physical sense or not. Because these sports offer us parallels to life: whether or not you are a fighter in the ring (or on a street), you can still be a fighter in a different and non-physical way. The common thread that unites them comes from inside us: a fighter's spirit is chiefly born in the heart and the mind.

Humans love tales of people - or any beings, really - overcoming adversity, rising above challenges and hardships, and finding triumph after suffering. It's the basis of one of the most beloved story templates that has existed throughout history: The Hero's Journey. From Stallone's Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed to Southpaw's Billy Hope, Warrior's Tommy and Brendan Conlon, The Fighter's Micky Ward, and Million Dollar Baby's Maggie, to one of my absolute favorites: Miles Teller's exceptional portrayal of Vinny "The Pazmanian Devil" Pazienza in Bleed For This - which is based on an incredible true story of perseverance - there is something about boxing that is extremely powerful in stories. Because it can inspire the fighter in all of us, whether we can embrace that in the physical sense or not.

Although I have never been a professional boxer, I can attest to the fact that this incredible sport - in its various forms - has taught me plenty about life, even beyond the ring. From Takewondo and Aikido to Muay Thai and Western Boxing, I've been doing a fight sport or martial art in some form throughout my life. I've fought in live amateur matches in boxing rings surrounded by screaming crowds, and I've taught boxing-inspired fitness classes as a coach that values authenticity in technique, even if you're just there for the conditioning. And through it all, boxing has taught me many lessons that aren't just useful in the ring, but in the rest of my life too.

Here are a few that continue to serve me well in various parts of my life year after year, and likely will until the end of my days.

Fighting in a boxing match / Photograph courtesy of Fighting Fit DXB at Nomad Media TV
Photograph courtesy of Fighting Fit DXB at Nomad Media TV

1. Nerves can be a good thing. Whether or not they make you act like a coward, however, depends on you and how you decide to channel them. I was nervous before all of my fights, sometimes even during sparring. At times they would be intense and enduring, and at others, fleeting. If you feel nervous before an important event, that’s a good thing — it shows you that you care. The key is in learning to manage it. You can take slow, measured, deep breaths (like my coach - and my meditation teachers - taught me to): that will help steady your nervous system, and calm yourself back into a place where you can think rationally, then channel it into fuel for your fire. Nervousness isn't the same thing as anxiety — the good kind is really just a form of anticipation. Whether you’re going in for a fight, a job interview, or a date, if you care about the outcome, it means you care enough to do your best. Let it drive you. Mental toughness is a huge factor in enabling you to win at anything in life, really — and remember, your opponent is probably just as nervous as you are.

2. Be as prepared as you can — but remember that it’s impossible to be 100% prepared for every situation, whether that’s in a fight or in life in general. You can plan out all of the drills, techniques, and combinations that you like; practice them until you can do them in your sleep; even analyze your opponent’s movement habits until you feel like you’ve stalked them more than a scorned lover stalks their ex's social media accounts — but you won't always be able to predict what their next move will be, nor how you’ll react to it. Instead, have a game plan, and a plan B and C, then be ready to adapt should the need strike. All you can do is practice to ensure your technique is as flawless as it can be - so when it's game time, you don’t have to think about the technicalities and can let your well-honed instincts take over. As Muhammad Ali once put it, “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses — behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”

3. Always keep a few tricks up your sleeve. Leading on from the previous point — while you can, of course, share these tricks with people you really trust to be on your side, and not leak this to your opponents or use it against you somehow (in this case that's your coach, but in life, that isn’t always as straightforward), if you’re ever stuck in a situation where you feel backed into a corner, metaphorical or otherwise, knowing that you’ve got a few secret wild cards in your back pocket will help your confidence immensely. It's part of the laws of power. Do magicians ever reveal their secrets, or the grand finale before the show? How important it is to keep the plot twist of a movie secret lest the spoilers ruin the pay-off of the reveal? After all, pokers don't share their hand unless they have to either.

4. If you ever feel backed into a corner, make a lateral move. Don't just give up and stand there taking it forever otherwise you’ll get pounded — you’ll have nowhere else to go. Take note of the situation, react as quickly and calmly as you can, then take a sideways step to get out as fast as you can. Sure, you can try to fight your way out and maybe even succeed, but it’s a lot harder to do it that way — not to mention it wastes a lot more energy. You'll just be exhausted when you need to fight your next round. It makes more sense to opt for a lateral move that’ll get you out of that corner as quickly, smoothly, and painlessly as you can, so that you can have a fresh perspective from which to launch your next move.

5. To fight with grace, keep your conflicts internal. If you’re going to mouth off about your opponents before you face off, and talk big when you don’t quite know what you’re in for yet, the only thing you’ll win is feeling like a prize idiot if you get smacked down in front of those crowds that you worked so hard to show off in front of. The more public you make your drama, the more lights will shine on you if you’re centre stage when you fall.

6. Your emotions are best served when you’re in control of them. While a good amount of friendly rage can be healthy in fuelling the aggression that you can need for a fight, it needs to be controlled or channeled properly in order for you to be able to win. When you’re stoked with unbridled rage and emotion, you’ll wind up expending so much more energy than you need to and feel drained, when that energy could be better used. It can also cloud your judgment, so you might not be able to think as quickly or as rationally. The mistakes of misled passion can wind up costing you more than you anticipated at the time. It’s a sport not a street fight after all, so you’re probably better off leaving your emotions outside of the ring.

7. Respect - and don't underestimate - your competition. Whether that’s a person standing opposite you waiting to punch you in the face, or someone going up against you to seize something else that you really want, if you don’t respect the fact that your rivals might have their own skills, abilities, and qualities that may or may not be better than yours but are certainly different, then you’re more likely to underestimate them. Which means they stand a better chance of beating you in a nasty surprise move that’ll leave you feeling like you’ve had the rug pulled out from under your feet.

8. Don’t only look at what’s directly in front of you all the time — sure, that might be your main focus, but don’t lose your wider perspective while doing so. Try and maintain a greater field of peripheral vision as much as you can, so you can always see the bigger picture. This will help you operate with a more effective strategy, rather than only reacting to what’s happening right now. And in that same vein, always stick then move: if you linger around for too long after you’ve landed a good punch, your opponent will come to their senses and get you back while you stand there gloating or basking in that. As soon as you’ve landed it and made sure that it was effective, then step aside and keep moving. Outside of the ring, this is a key facet of effective leadership: being able to keep an eye on the big picture while simultaneously working on a more nuclear level.

9. Work smarter, not just harder. Working hard is great, sure — and if you can land heavier punches, then absolutely do so. But just trying to continually push forward to bash someone senseless isn’t going to get you as far as if you move around a little more cleverly, to result in more effective moves. Don't waste unnecessary energy that could be better used elsewhere, help you keep you going for longer, or to have that last gasp of power still in you when you might need it the most. In real-life work environments, this is akin to not letting yourself reach a state of burnout.

10. Don’t just react — take action. One of the first things my coach taught me was that whoever lands the first punch in the ring is most likely to win, not because of some strange science but simply due to the fact that it’ll show your opponent who’s boss, that you mean business, and that you’re not afraid. While you'll of course want to react quickly and powerfully if you're being attacked, it's also important to remain pro-active. This is how to seize - or create - more opportunities and empower yourself by increasing your chances of success.

11. You might not be able to control the situation, but you can control how you react to it. This is one of my favourite philosophies for life in general: stoicism. In the same way that you can’t control the weather, sometimes things just take a turn wherein no matter how hard you might try, you won’t be able to change the situation. Assess it to be sure you can't act with worth right now, then once you’re certain that is the case, stop trying to fight it — the only thing you’ll be able to change is your reaction.

12. Stay balanced. Aside from the fact that a lot of boxing — and yes, life itself — is actually about having good footwork and knowing when and where to take the next step (and how lightly or heavily you should tread), having a good stance that keeps you balanced makes for a solid foundation that will stay strong no matter what tries to bowl you over.

13. It’s good to learn how to take a hit. Yes, it will be unpleasant, it will sting, and it can hurt quite a lot depending on how hard the blow is — but whether that’s a physical blow or an emotional, mental, financial, or metaphorical kind of hit, learning how to handle let-downs, rejections, and similar scenarios are an important part of building character that will teach you how to come back stronger and armed with knowledge that can help you bounce back stronger each time it ever happens again. It’ll also hopefully to teach you how to find it within yourself to actually do that, rather than just sitting around crying about it and/or giving up. 14. Listen to your corner. No matter how independent, strong, confident, skilled, or self-sufficient you are, support is important. It’s what will give you that last push you need to keep going, or stand back up again, when you’re feeling weak, or broken, or doubting yourself. It will help you see things from a different perspective, and help to keep you grounded when you might otherwise lose that ability on your own, be that due to fear or focus. Think of it as the hand that’s reached out to help get you back on your feet again when you’ve fallen — sure, you might be able to stand up on your own, but whether it’s the placebo effect of knowing that it’s there for you to lean on, or if you just need that little extra level to grasp on to, it’ll help you to pull yourself back up. 15. Remember that no matter how many people are there to help you, once you step into a fight, you’re ultimately there alone. Even if you have a solid relationship with your coach, your team, and your cheer squad, much like life, boxing can be quite a lonely sport no matter what kinds of crowds you might have around you. You have to be prepared to fight your battles yourself — other people can help you, support you, prepare you, cheer for you, but at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to put the gloves on and get in there and stan 16. It’s ok to fall — what’s important is that you get up again. And as quickly as you can, lest you get beaten down more, or knocked out!. As Rocky Balboa put it, “Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” The man may be a fictional character, but he certainly knows his s***. 17. Forget about the crowds. They’re always going to be fickle with who is winning and losing at that moment in time. All that matters is what’s happening with you, right there in that ring — and the only thing you need to listen to is the words from your corner, and what’s coming from your heart. 18. Heart matters. You don’t need to be the biggest, the best, the most skilled, the richest, or the one who has been doing the longest. Passion is a huge part of everything, and much like Rocky Balboa always insisted, the fighter with their heart driving them is much more likely to win because when it’s genuine, it doesn’t give out. Remember that, and the fact that your core is the most vulnerable — it can be easy to forget about it, but a strong core is what will keep you solid through every other move, and if you don’t build that, that’s where they’ll be able to knock the wind out of you. At the end of the day, winners are usually the ones who want it the most, because they’re the ones that never give up. 19. Sometimes it might be just one round, and other times it might be 20. You will never know until you’re there, and it’s actually happening. But it’s those last ten seconds that can make all the difference — whether it’s in the ring, up a mountain, in a race, in your career, or in life in general, the one who is willing to go the extra mile and last just that tiny bit longer than the rest is much more likely to be the last one standing. 20. When fighting the good fight feels fruitless or like a frustratingly harder road (especially when your opponents all seem to be using cheap tricks to get ahead while you feel like you’re left eating their dust), you can choose to fight dirty, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to win in the end. Fight clean, no matter what, because there will always be someone watching — and if they’re any sort of referee worth their salt, they’ll deduct points for those dirty moves. Maintain your form, stick to your principles, and always keep your hands up! 21. Champions are not born — they’re made. Everyone has to start from somewhere. One of my favourite things about boxing gyms is that they’re usually gritty, without all of the fancy bells and whistles, and people are just there for the bread and butter of the sport: To train, to learn, and to grow, no matter what level you’re at. And everyone, no matter how good or bad they are, has to constantly challenge themselves and put some muscle into that hustle in order to improve. The big lights and fancy matches with silky hooded robes, peppy announcers and smart-mouthed commentators, badass walk-in songs and dramatic fight names are just the endgame — but the daily life is spent inside that simple, sweaty gym, putting in the hours. Persevere, be committed, be patient, and be disciplined. And always stay humble 22. To be successful, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices. There will be blood, sweat, and tears, and probably a lot of it. There might be bruises, and injuries, and at times, it’s going to get ugly. But things that are worth having don’t often come easy, and it’s up to you to decide if they’re worth fighting for or not, be that winning a boxing match, a business deal, first place in a race, or the person of your 23. If you go in with the right attitude, it doesn’t really matter who is crowned the winner at the end — if you’re in it for the right reasons, with the right motivation, and go in and give it your all knowing that you did your absolute best, you’ll always come out feeling like a winner no matter what the end result is. And if you don’t, you’re the one who will always have to live with the knowledge that you could have done better — after all, you can’t lie to yourself after all, no matter how hard you try! — and that’s what will eat you up from the inside out in the long run, not whose hand is raised up by the referee at the end.


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