Most logical people wouldn’t consider walking into a fitness gym for the very first time and lifting every weight in the joint or grabbing a surf board and finding the biggest wave to conquer off the beaches of Waikiki. These types of activities achieve the best, most long-lasting results when you build up to them, gaining physical ability, building confidence and expertise gradually along the way. First you learn how to feel the ocean, then you study the techniques involved in mounting your board and then you tackle your first small wave before heading on to the next challenge. There are countless hours and practice that go into catching that monster wave. Jumping right in can be disastrous, even deadly.
Just like the art of “hanging ten”, boxing should be approached with patience and a series of methodical steps that best prepare a fighter for what he or she will face in the ring. It’s not only about building skill. It’s also about building “heart”…a word that has come to mean determination, will or “stones.” It’s worth considering that the human heart isn’t just an intangible chamber for emotional fortitude, but it is formed of tissue and muscle so it can be built just like a bicep or abdominal muscles. It can be strengthened, toughened and developed. Heart is not just an adjective to describe the Arturo Gattis of the world, but it can be created.
Most people have heard the term “muscle memory,” as it relates to exercise. It basically means that, through repetition, when a movement is repeated over and over, a long-term muscle “memory” is created for that task. This repetitive routine eventually allows the movement to be performed without conscious effort. This movement then becomes so ingrained in the brain that it greatly decreases the need for attention. Ultimately, the fighter doesn’t have to have “think through” what they are doing. They simply act instinctively.
Without getting too far into the technical/physiological aspects of muscle memory, consider that, just like you develop strength, conditioning, proper technique and a greater overall understanding of the sport, a fighter also develops heart through the training process. Throwing him or her into a difficult sparring session or tough match too quickly, without adequate time to develop the heart to handle it, is creating neurological patterns that correlate to success or failure, muscle memory that is good or bad, and will be repeated based on those initial experiences.
Having heart isn’t something that a fighter is born with, but like lifting dumbbells that you increase in weight over time, it is something that gets stronger and will adapt to greater demands when it is tested gradually. Muscles are strengthened and grow larger when they are pushed, allowed time to repair, adapt and then be challenged again. The heart is a muscle so why would it be developed and built stronger any differently? Just like the physical prowess you need to develop in training, emotional demands on the heart should progress and grow over time too. Many potentially great fighters may be lost to discouragement when they’ve been thrown in too fast, too soon. Sure, there’s something to be said for “testing” a fighters’ tenacity and mental toughness, but the results of not having the answers in the ring (by not having been brought-along and trained properly first) come at a much greater price than missing a three point shot in basketball. The stakes are higher and the injuries go much deeper, emotionally.
A good coach, knows how far to push, when to pull back and how to pace a fighter’s progression. A bad one throws a fighter into sparring early on and makes matches where his fighter is clearly out-skilled just to see “how tough he is” and if he can take it.
Being patient in the development of a fighter takes time. In some cases it might mean wasted time. Let’s face it, some people just don’t have what it takes to hit and get hit, but, in some cases, that superstar may just need some time to build confidence. He may need, step-by-step, to develop that emotional and physical muscle that is referred to as heart. That little extra time in the gym to build it, stretch it and watch it grow may be worth the sacrifice when the time comes that that fighter needs to flex it and he comes up big.