Xavier Biggs in my Corner

Listening to Your Coach: The Mind-Body Connection in Boxing

Seventeen young men, most of the court-ordered to be there, are standing with me in lose rows in their boxing stance, guard up. Coach “One Bad Jab” Massey calls the shots.

“Jab, jab, jab, squat. Jab, pivot…jab,” he calls, never raising voice overmuch, mixing up the timing of his commands, and watching us with an eagle eye. The shots are called slowly, with plenty of time in between for Coach Massey to walk among the rows with a boxing glove that is stuffed and taped to one end of a long shovel handle. These are standard tools in boxing gyms.

The trick here is that if he jabs that thing in your face you DO. NOT. FLINCH. You don’t duck, you don’t do anything. Unless he shouts “Squat!” to the group, and then you better get low or risk having your head popped by his glove-on-a-stick.

“I did NOT say ‘squat,'” Massey comments calmly to a young man who saw the glove coming and wrongly anticipated the coach’s command. “Give me 15 pushups.”

The young man drops and the rest continue. This isn’t an exercise in jabs, or squats, or even overcoming the flinch reflex. They are lessons in listening.

In fact, if you were to regularly watch the training sessions at Second Round, there would be plenty of days when you might think the coach was working harder at teaching the kids to listen than he is at making them sweat.

And you’d be right.

Why boxers need to develop an instinctive response to a coach’s voice

There’s a lot of mental work that goes on when you’re in the ring. But then there are times when you’re too fatigued to work your strategy, or you’re under so much heavy fire you just can’t think, all you can do is survive. That’s one of your coach’s most critical jobs — to call the shots when you can’t do it any more. But it doesn’t begin there.

1. Creating safety out of chaos

Second Round held a sparring night for all of the new boxers in the gym recently. Once everyone was geared up and gathered around the ring apron, Massey climbed into the ring and called for everyone’s attention.

Our kids are mostly there by court order. They have a lot of street tough in them. But even if they didn’t, most people come to a boxing gym expecting to “fight.” They have images of brawls, fistfights, and lots of anger and frustration coming out inside those ropes.

Which is a big mistake, and the first one Massey points out.

“What are we here to do?” he asks the kids, who are anxious and jittery, shuffling and bumping each other. But they think they know the answer.

“Fight!” they tell him, and it comes out like a cheer.

“No,” he responds, shaking his head. “We’re here to box.” He doesn’t elaborate, but his point will be illustrated soon, when they see how easily a more experienced boxer will evade their wild, messy, craziness in the ring, and return smart, quick, stinging punches as they flail around.

“I have three commands for you to remember tonight,” he continues. “You’ll hear them from your ref at the beginning of your match, and you’ll hear them during your rounds. If you forget everything else while you’re in this ring, I want you to remember these three words.” He pauses to make sure he has their attention.

“The three commands are ‘box,’ ‘break,’ and ‘stop.'” He fires off each word like a rifle shot, and they pop against the cinderblocks and echo back.

He explains, but I know the real understanding won’t come until much later in their training. Because as they brawl their messy way through those initial rounds, these three commands help put the first, rough boundaries on what they are trying to learn. They keep the kids safe in a very chaotic place.

If you can hear nothing else (and you can’t hear much) during the war of your first rounds, you hear those words, and respond. And that’s where a powerful relationship with a great coach begins.

2. Stopping a new boxer’s tendency to overthink

I’m a thinker. I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. And when I was a new boxer, my brain frequently held me back in the ring. When faced with a complicated situation I wanted to stop and carefully analyze all the multiple pieces that were going into my work. But my brain wasn’t boxing-smart. And often there were too many pieces to think of at once, and I ended up paralyzed and unable to move, or else I just looked a mess.

Over and over I would hear my coaches say, “You’re over-thinking it.” And I was. I found that often my body could respond more quickly and easily to my coach’s shot-calls than my brain could make sense of everything, stitch all the pieces logically together, and tell my body to execute the command.

Sometimes you have to cut out the middleman. Sometimes the middleman is your own brain. Use your coach’s brain instead, because it’s boxing-smart.

I was teaching proper form for a jab to a friend recently when I was reminded of this again. She wanted to “talk through” each part at length; it’s a complicated creature, the jab. We’d been going through the motions carefully for a while, but the whole shot wasn’t coming together for her.

Eventually I interrupted her verbal processing, which was getting us nowhere. “Stop thinking about it,” I told her. “Just pop it into my hand on my command.” And an instant later I called, “Jab!”

And damned if she didn’t throw the prettiest bee-sting jab you ever saw straight into my upraised palm.

Your body may be able to learn boxing faster than your brain does. You need both, but more than that, you need a coach to tell you when to shift gears.

3. Getting you through rough rounds against superior opponents

Your coach helps you build your strategy as you prepare to face a tough opponent. And while you may start your bout with your plan firmly in place, sometimes you find yourself outmatched or getting eaten alive by your opponent’s strategy instead.

At some point you default to simply protecting yourself; you become all defense. You stop scoring, and you will lose the fight if you’re all on your own.

A good coach in your corner can turn that completely around for you, in many cases. But you have to be able to tune out the roar of the room, the sound of punches banging against your ears, and the random cheers and jeers of onlookers. You have to have one channel only open, the one between you and your coach.

When she or he calls the shots, you let your body respond. Your coach then has the control, and can guide you through the jagged reefs and safely into the harbor, if you can listen and respond.

As it is in boxing, so it is in life

I find myself saying this more and more these days. Good, clean boxing informs life, and vice-versa. Get a coach you can trust, just like you have mentors upon whom you can depend to guide and train you in the best possible ways.

Nobody owes you training, no matter how much you paid for your gym membership. The best training is earned. It comes in boxing as it does in life, when you develop a relationship with someone who is willing to teach, if you are willing to listen and work hard.

So who comes to mind as you read this?

I’ll bet you have some coaches, mentors, and trainers who absolutely changed the course of your life. I hope you’ll take the time to leave a comment and share your story. And even pass this on to a coach or teacher you’ve deeply valued…

My own fist bumps and grateful appreciation go out to Coach Bonnie “Queen B” Mann, and of course, Willie “One Bad Jab” Massey. Many thanks to both of you, as well as to several other incredible coaches who have worked with and influenced me — Terri “The Boss” Moss, Paul β€œThe Italian Hit Man” Marinaccio, and more. You guys have changed my life for the better!

Image: That’s me, being cornered by pro trainer Xavier “Bad Pads” Biggs during my very first fight.

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12 Responses to Listening to Your Coach: The Mind-Body Connection in Boxing

  1. Sarah October 13, 2012 at 4:46 pm #

    I found this post really interesting because I am a deaf boxer so I can’t hear my coach in the ring…or referees either. I always wondered kind of difference it would make if I could hear him. Right now, my coach gives me input before, between, and after rounds. I love him for the fact that he takes all of us seriously as boxers whatever level we are at. Even a forty-something mom like me. I never doubt he just wants to help me be a better boxer. I can’t thank him enough.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 13, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

      What a powerful testimony, Sarah! I think you are probably a stronger, more self-reliant boxer as result. I suspect you’ve developed other compensations as well; it would be very interesting to hear your stories… Did your deafness ever even factor in when you got started boxing? I’d love to hear if you are interested in sharing. You can post in comments or just email me at Lisa [at] The Glowing Edge [dot] com.

      And congrats on being in the ring at “forty-something”! Big fist bumps and high fives to you *and* your coach.

      PS: It occurs to me know that refs use a hand sign / indication for the command to begin boxing, and they do physically separate fighters in a clinch. And they manually indicate various instructions like “keep your head up” or “no hitting below the belt.” I bet there are areas of confusion if you can’t hear them, though…

  2. June Bug October 14, 2012 at 5:58 pm #


    Chickie, I touched upon some of this in my sample submission which ran over the 800 words. Imagine that??? Well, they said, no problem. I had artistic liberty. I will know later this week.

    I remember…telling you that you were over-thinking…:)-

    You would love our close range block and counter drills. They build so much muscle memory, and it shows in sparring. Brandon Garner is a fabulous teacher in every way. They offer a punch card so if you ever wanna come out and do 10 classes or a free one stop by. Tell him or write that you are entirely a boxer. He may have you work a little differently. We have more woman doing Muay Thai. They is a convert who has boxed before who now knows me and isn’t leary of my power. They also offer free trials. I am still happy to come over to your place, and I can change my style to suit a class or rock with you on my own. We generally go between 50-70%, but it adds up after 3X5 minute rounds. We have some guys who are great boxers who simply make slight adjustents for Thai. I have changed the way I try to brush block, and cover for hooks to the head and the body, as well as kicks. If you do some right you have learned that punching and kicking an elbow is painful, even with shin guards. We do not spar with head gear, at least most of us. I prefer it b/c headgear messes with my peripheral vision. It will only stop cuts and makes me feel slower.

    As far as voices go, it’s true. In the 8 grappling matches and numerous rolling and sparring I do in class I can easily pick out a voice. I get more nervous when I corner at a cage fight than when I compete. If I can get my coaches approval I would fight Muay Thai out of state. I don’t know if my body should do Vale Tudo, but you know I love judo and wrestling, even though my skills are at the beginner level there.

    Working with young people to discipline their aggression and change their focus is valuable. It happens in many sports, but for poor inner city children, or those I taught TKD, Wing-Chun, or Hapkido to they learned what my first and best master said, “Eye focus, mind focus and body focus.”

    In my submission article I talk about mentors. The two men who saved my journey really put it on me, but in a jovial smiling way. One had juvenile diabetes and an insulin pump as well, yet he fought a lot in VA. For WKA, the other a Gracie Barra black belt from the same school Kenny Florian trained at in Boston. As you know, if I had not met them I would have been demoralized at the very least against a more skilled and savy opponent.

    As you know, I admire you very much. I appreciate your ethic and your work. I’d like to think that I influenced you as much as you continue to influence me. I attempt to surround myself with the best talent, at Lifetime, and my Coaches and training partners in hopes it will rub off on me.

    I don’t think I could have taken up boxing in my 40’s and gone as far as you. Usually the best MMA or BJJ fighters start early. I only know a handful of guys and have some internet connections to the best BJJ woman in the US on the internet that are in their 40’s and give guys in their 20’s a lot of trouble. You are in that crowd. Much respect, and watch out, because I may be coming to a ring near you soon because of NC stupid boxing commision. LOL


    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 15, 2012 at 8:16 am #

      Hi, June Bug! I knew you were waiting to hear about a sports writing job, so best of luck. (Btw, I went into your post, above, and made the edits you wanted, no worries on that count.)

      Of course you had influence on me, too. In addition to helping round out my stand up skills with some BJJ and kickboxing, you got me paying attention to weightlifting as a part of my training, and you also taught me not to be worried when fighting someone with an insulin pump, because it didn’t mean they couldn’t kick my ass. πŸ™‚

      So glad your training is going well. Please do let me know if you get a fight somewhere nearby and I’m totally THERE.

  3. Laura October 16, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

    Today is Thai Teacher’s Day, so it cannot pass without a comment of gratitude to my endlessly patient and frighteningly talented coach. I have so much to learn, and he never seems to lose faith that I will.
    I don’t have much athletic experience (OK, OK, NO athletic experience) but I know what a rare thing a good teacher is.

    Hey Sara, glad you posted your comment – you will come to my mind when I need some fortitude.

    • June L.Elliott October 16, 2012 at 3:40 pm #

      I want you to know that your technique and power will grow with your self-confidence over a period of years. You have been told by your coach that Muay Thai is the style of the 8 deadly weapons he probably retricts some of those, as well as the San Shou that is naturally in the style when sparring, but like most athletics or conditioning it never gets easier. If it gets easier, then something is wrong. So don’t lose heart if you have a hard time. It usually means you are growing. Like boxing, Thai appears to be easy, but so does running, biking, swimming and lifting weights. Everytime you are challenged and walk away with your tail between your legs it is usually because you are hitting a new level of difficulty. It’s like reaching the top of a hill, then leveling off a while and doing it over and over again. I give you tremendous credit for starting Muay Thai as your first sport.

      @ Sarah, before I repeat what everyone is saying here I’d like to let you know that most athletes rely on rhythm and timing. In fact once you can feel that in your feet and combine it with you muscle memory you will be less distracted. I don’t know about being deaf. I know about having multiple physical and mental difficulties. I have had ADHD my entire life, but only found out in my late twenties. Although I like hearing a great voice during my matches and in practices, if you have an unskilled corner he is usually telling the opponent what you are about to try to do, or giving you instructions that are not appropriate from your vantage point. – Take care buddy

  4. Lisa Creech Bledsoe October 17, 2012 at 9:46 am #

    @ Laura — I love it that you have NO athletic experience, and now you’re doing some martial arts (muay thai?). I had basketball in elementary and high school, then… Nothing. Nada. For the next 30 years.

    And now I’m a boxer (in my 40s!).

    Which just goes to show that you CAN pull it off. Anyone can. Which is freaking awesome, in my book. πŸ™‚

  5. June L.Elliott October 17, 2012 at 8:30 pm #

    I have a nice basketball and will shoot around with you @ Lifetime Lisa. πŸ™‚

  6. Maja Elise May 21, 2015 at 3:44 am #

    my favourite sensei. I trust him in the dojo like no one else. I too am a thinker and keep overthinking everything I do in karate, but he’s there to remind me to stop thinking and just do. sometimes he lets me think for a minute, he’s very patient, but if I take too long he’ll get me started somehow.

    our sparring matches are very different from yours. so far I’ve only ever competed in shobu ippon sparring. in theory that’s supposed to be no contact to the face and skin touch to the body. in theory. that never happens, which I think is fine cause there’s nothing as refreshing as getting punched in the face. we don’t have coaches the same way you do either. stein doesn’t usually call out to me to tell me to do stuff (he did once, but so quietly that I didn’t hear him. although I did obey anyways, so maybe I did and I just didn’t notice), but he does coach me before the match (not to mention being my sensei and mentor all the time) while I wait for my turn, he sparrs with me so I’ll get in the flow of things and so on, and after the match we review. (he tapes it, so I can watch and learn later)

    this is a bit off the topic, but I can’t resist mentioning it. I wrote above how I’ve only competed in shobu ippon? the kind of gloves we use for that (at least in nktf) look like this http://www.fighter.no/Shop/Product/Budo-Nord-tekstil-h%C3%A5ndbeskytter-Jr/14305-000-
    they offer nearly no protection and so learning how to punch in a way that doesn’t hurt you and strencthening your wrists is important. control is also extremely important. we don’t want unnecessary injuries. (they still happen)
    but there’s also this think called wkf sparring. we train that sometimes for those who wish to compete in that (I will eventually) and I remember my first time using wkf equipment while sparring with stein. it was magical. christmas had pretty much come early for him because those gloves actually have some padding. he was so excited not to have to hold back as much as usual when sparring me (about 40 kg heavier than me and if I stand up and put my arms straight in the air I’ve got his height. he’ll always have to hold back with me unless he wants to pretty much kill me). but seriously. getting him while he was wearing those gloves was magical. i didn’t feel a think compared to usual. it could have been a pillow fight :p

  7. Anthony January 28, 2022 at 1:55 pm #

    Hi my name is Anthony , I have a client that is interested in boxing as an exercise , could you please send me information on the your services and how to contact Willie Massey , Thank you so much .

  8. Sheanerd February 2, 2023 at 10:51 pm #

    Hey Lisa. I found your blog by chance and unsure if you’re still writing or responding but I found your entry to be so helpful. I started amateur boxing late, at 37. I just turned 39 and love boxing. I’ve had a few fights and found my previous coach not fully invested in my development and switched gyms about 5 months back. Similar to you, my brain does go into overthinking and I’ll definitely take your tip to use my coach’s brain instead in those moments. That’s boxing smart. πŸ™‚

    My new coach has quite a different approach to training and I’m learning to flow with it as I train. We have less interclub sparring sessions and I have only sparred in the ring twice since I’ve been at this gym. My coach debriefed me later about wanting to help work on some bad habits I’ve developed previously from not being corrected at my old gym. And said it doesn’t matter if in my next fight winning or losing, more importantly, I must look good.

    I get what “looking good” means, looking like I’ve done all that I could and had good technique/form. We tried a few things and finally landed now on me switching my stance from orthodox to southpaw. I have grown to love my new stance and I feel like I’m developing well and better day by day. I’ve only done the switch about 6 weeks ago.

    Novice titles coming up and I have not been nominated. Which is fine, as I understand, I’m in a new gym, new coach, new stance, there is lots more to learn and develop so happy to not rush into competing.

    Last night, the boys did some hard sparring rounds at the gym and though the smaller boys got to do some rounds with each other, the coach didn’t call for me to jump in with them. I’m the only girl on the team, about 53kg. And I was a bit disappointed so I asked the coach why he didn’t get me to do some rounds with them. His answer was not 100% clear and something along the lines of he was hoping I would cheer the other boys on and that I didn’t need to jump in with the smaller boys because they weren’t competing. He reassured me that it wasn’t a preferential decision but i couldn’t help but walk away wondering why.

    Wasn’t super clear to me and I’m a little upset. He’s told me before that I am 100% effort and hard work but my execution just isn’t nailing it. It’s hard to hear and I know he comes from a good place. But now I can’t help but wonder if he’s not letting me spar because he thinks I don’t “look good”? I’m quite a switched on self motivated individual and will don’t require reminders to have consistency in my training but how I’m feeling is making me less motivated to train now. Especially knowing I haven’t been nominated in the upcoming novice comps as well.

    What’s your take on it?

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe February 3, 2023 at 5:21 pm #

      What in the world does “look good” mean? I would ask a LOT more questions. For example, telling you your “execution isn’t nailing it” means nothing. Get all the specifics you can, so that you know exactly what skills your coach thinks you’re strong in and where your rough edges are. I’ve also never heard of a coach changing someone from orthodox to southpaw. Are you already ambidextrous? And the whole “you just stand ringside and cheer on the boys” sounds like 100% BS to me. Why would some team members get sparring work (regardless of whether they plan to compete) while others do not? What’s the specific criteria here? If it were me, I would be looking for other gyms and coaches. But more than anything else, I found that **I** had to look out for my own best interests. Many coaches won’t be a good match, but some will be. It’s up to you to find the right mix, and you may eliminate multiple trainers/gyms, or make a good mix from multiple trainers/gyms. Best of luck to you!

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