I had been sparring intensely for 12-rounds. The final bell went, and dripping with sweat, I collapsed to the floor. “That was a really tough opponent” I thought as I began to reflect on the experience. Yet, I felt I had done really well. I had to change my game plan up several times within those rounds. I had to move.
As a boxer, and coach for two decades, I have learned that moving in sparring is the best way to change up the game, because, at its essence, movement is change itself. Move too much though, and you could quite easily gas yourself out– move too slow and you are easier to hit. Movement and the energy it consumes, is a fine balancing act.
In reflection, I realized that it is how I adapted and managed the changing movement between myself and my opponent that brought to life crucial aspects of the game that often go unnoticed. Moving wasn’t just about the physical aspect of moving one’s body. Movement also encompasses your thoughts, breath and nervous system. The body then, inside and out, is at its heart one big moving energy system.
Peak performance in sparring, as in any work, is not just about throwing a harder punch to win. Understanding the ebb and flow of movement, and the ability to manage ones energy through that movement, especially in stressful experiences, is crucial to success. Coming out of my sparring experience that day, the idea of movement and energy captured my attention.
The trick in moving, is to be able to keep light enough to move fast, but sturdy enough to keep your balance when you need it. It’s a fine juggling act. I have learned this same lesson in business, that being fixated on keeping in one place, and trying to force something to come right, even when it clearly won’t, is a really bad use of energy. In other words, throwing more punches at an opponent who has great defense won’t win a fight. You have to be able to move, to change, and be adaptable to win that fight.
As I got more tired in the subsequent rounds, I could feel my legs getting heavier, and my movement began to slow down. When that happened, I realized I was spending more time defending, than counter attacking. Not only was I physically defending, but found myself defending against unruly thoughts, and out of sync breathing, hell bent on swallowing me whole.
The ability to respond to a threat, real or imagined in life is the same. We race around so fast to deal with a difficult situation (and think throwing more punches at it will do the trick), that by the time it comes to executing our counter (i.e., fixing the problem) we find that we are too tired to give it our full attention. The outcome is always less than desirable.
As soon as I felt my legs getting heavier, I knew that I had expended too much energy. In boxing, heavy legs mean you are now a stationary target. Not only do you find it harder to get out of the way of incoming attacks, but because you can’t move, your counterattacking becomes inefficient. Not to mention that for your opponent, a stationary target is easier to hit.
I did two things immediately to resolve the situation:
STRATEGY #1: REMEMBER TO BREATHE, AND SLOW IT DOWN
Slowing down your breath immediately slows down your thinking mind. Part of racing around in those rounds, was an attempt to keep one step ahead of my opponent. While it worked in the beginning, it failed in the end as I gassed myself out. Not only did my movement increase in speed, but the amount of thoughts I was having sped up, and so did my breathing. Basically I used up more energy than I actually had in reserve.
Slow and steady truly does win the race. By slowing down my breath, and being conscious of keeping it rhythmic, I was able to see more clearly where I could take breaks, where doing nothing was a good strategy, and where getting active again was necessary. Realizing that there were moments where you were expending so much energy when you really didn’t have to — was an eye opener.
I found it works in life too, when you find yourself racing around dealing with something difficult, some kind of stress, focusing on the breath in this way, keeps things in perspective. It slows you down physically, but it also slows your thinking down — you find that you become more consistent in your approach and deal with the difficulty you are facing with more clarity.
STRATEGY #2: BOXING ONE’S THOUGHTS
I am sure you have experienced this too, but when you are stressed out, and you are dealing with something that is making you even more stressed out, your thoughts jump from one place to the next. It can really drain your mental and physical energy.
While breathing helps you slow your thinking mind down — compartmentalizing your thoughts further into what I call a hierarchy of actions — aids in that too. What this means is that you want to scan your thoughts as it relates to the situation you find yourself in, and then put those thoughts into a hierarchy of importance. You then attend to the thoughts and its required action only if it has some bearing on the situation you find yourself in right now, in the moment.
For example, a situation has just arisen at the office and you have to get there quickly. While you are getting your things together, you are running a scenario in your head about the situation you have to engage in when you get to the office, what you have to do, what you need to say, etc.
Imagine for a moment that you are at home, and you can’t find the car keys. While you trying to find them, you are still running all the scenarios of what you are going to do when you get to the office, which makes you more stressed out and flustered at not being able to find the keys. As this continues, you find yourself getting more and more emotional, your anger boils up, and things go from bad to worse (this is normally when you stub your toe on that corner table).
It is in moments like these that you want to box your thoughts. Ask yourself, “What is important right now?” Finding the keys– right!
Focus only on that, and forget everything else until you find them. Then once you do, what is relevant next? Getting in your car, and driving safely to work (a lot of accident happen when a person’s mind is elsewhere when driving). Box out your future thoughts, forget everything else, only attend to what you can control right now in the moment and repeat the cycle.
In sparring, I have realized that the best way to deal with a difficult opponent is to only attend to what will positively affect the situation in that very moment. What will happen next is really out of my control until it happens. If my movement is becoming heavy, fix that first. Worry about scoring punches later. Too many times in life we try to control every eventuality, and forget to focus on what we can fix in the moment. There is always something you can fix right now, no matter how small or insignificant you think it may be.
Sometimes, the smallest things that you fix now (or don’t) will have the greatest impact on what will happen later. If we use the example from above, even if you found your keys in a frenzied state, you are then likely to take that ‘frenzy’ with you on the road. Because you are not being attentive while driving, allowing your emotions and thoughts to spin you out of control, you may never arrive at the office in the first place. Rather instead you many find yourself in a fatal car accident (and that’s a whole lot worse than the problem at the office).
Most people don’t realize that the struggles that seem to consume our lives are almost never one-time events that magically appear on their own. Often, it is a culmination of small events that lead to what we suddenly realize is a big problem. I have learned this lesson the hard way in boxing and while sparring. If you just ignore small things that are hampering your game in the moment — either hoping they will self-correct or go away — it often culminates into a series of problems that become so overwhelming later on, that you can no longer attend to all of them. The end result, you get hurt.
Fixing what is directly in your control, and doing it as issues appear, will often get you back on track and on the road to success. Slowing down your breathing, focusing the consistency and rhythm of your breaths, coupled with compartmentalizing thought patterns into what can be dealt with right now, are just two strategies that not only enable a person to turn the tide against a really good opponent in the ring, but in life and work too.
Dr. Rodney King has taught personal threat management all over the world. His clients include special force military operators, law enforcement officers, and close protection teams. He completed is PhD, with a research focus in the role mindfulness plays in peak leadership performance.
Rodney is regularly asked to present on the role of mindfulness in peak performance environments. As such, Rodney was a speaker at the Disruptive Passenger Global Security Event in London (2019) where he presented on the role of mindfulness in overcoming Amygdala Hijacking in an aviation security context.
Rodney served in the South African Military’s VIP protection unit, and as a platoon sergeant was the lead unarmed combatives trainer for his unit.