Sometimes after you get in the ring you want to debrief, talk with other boxers about how you did. So most nights after the team is finished sparring I’ll ask some of the newer boxers: “How did you do tonight?”
And I’ve found that many of them have trouble answering in a way that satisfies themselves. They’ll say, “I didn’t do as well as I wanted,” but they have trouble defining it further. Or else there are so many things that need improvement that they’re overwhelmed by it all. I find myself thinking, and often saying, the same things.
First, remember that it takes years to get any good at boxing. You can’t get in the ring for the first few months and do anything worth remembering. Really. Because you did pretty much everything wrong: your guard was down, your shots were sloppy, you telegraphed your every move, your feet were slow, you looked away, you had no cardio, and overall you looked about as sturdy as a newborn kitten in the path of a bulldozer. It was probably embarrassing to everyone who watched, but everybody starts there, period.
A lot of kids come in and think it will go like it did when they first picked up a skateboard, or a basketball, or a frisbee. They messed around with it for a day or so and pretty quickly they could get in the game. Not so with boxing, which demands a baseline bit of skill but a fair amount of cardio and a wheelbarrow of guts just to get through your first rounds. And that’s after you’ve convinced a coach or trainer that you’ve paid enough dues in sweat to be allowed into the ring.
The best way to know if your boxing is improving is to set small, clear, achievable goals. Here are a few examples.
Tonight, I want to (pick two or three):
- Keep my gloves up
- Move my head more
- Not square up with my opponent
- Make it through 3 rounds without sucking for air
- Throw more shots than I take
- Maintain control of the ring
- Not look away from my opponent
- Throw a solid double jab
- Move my feet more
- Not get locked against the ropes
- Throw both head and body shots
- Get some power behind my right cross
- Work on my inside game
- Regularly slip or block punches
- Throw three excellent left hooks in every round
- Work on my uppercut
- Keep my balance between my lead and rear foot
- Commit to and fully extend my punches
- Utilize my pivot
- Finish each round strong
- Score shots heavily in the last 30 seconds of each round
- Land ___ shots per round (you’ll need a punch counter ringside)
- Work on my _______ (jab-hook-pivot, right cross – left hook, etc.) combination.
Sometimes I even tell my opponent what, specifically, I’m going to work on. Yes, they’ll then be on the lookout for my left hook, but at least they understand that I’m going to throw a boatload of them, and I may even ask them to stop mid-round so that I can go through some slow-motion in order to tweak my form, or ask them why a particular move keeps falling short of power.
Sometimes your trainer will pick for you. Recently I was in the ring with a guy who was my same height, but every single time he threw his jab, he brought his glove back to his shoulder rather than his cheek or chin. So I had easy pickings on a right cross to his face, and was taking them on an intermittent but regular basis. But between rounds, my trainer told me to take every single one of those shots in the coming round. I wasn’t to let his jab return — ever — without shooting my right cross into his face. “And put a little more power behind it,” he told me.
Midway through the next round my opponent realized, without anyone having to tell him, that he needed to work on one specific thing, which was getting his glove back in the correct position after a jab. He knew very clearly at the end of the night what had improved in his boxing!
And I’ve been in his position plenty of times. If you don’t pick a goal, your opponent or trainer may pick one for you, and you’ll discover it the hard way!
Sparring is your absolute best opportunity to learn and improve your boxing, so you want to focus on and optimize that time as well as you can. Choose a goal (or two) and make them your priority.
You can even keep track of your goals in a notebook. I know I’m going to be in the ring every single Friday night, so sometimes I’ll write my goals on a post-it and stick it on my computer at work so I’ll be thinking about it in advance. Then, when I’m in the ring, I know what to work on. And I’ll also know, coming out of the ring, just how I did that night.
You can’t work on everything all the time. But you can box on a baseline, and focus hard on a few choice skills or techniques, so that you’ll be able to see clear improvement over time.
Stay strong. Train hard. And box smart.
Photo of me sparring with Coby by Ken Hall Photography