By Dr. Tomi Wahlström |
A recent heavyweight boxing match between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. was a surprise to everyone. Since the upset, nearly everyone in the boxing scene has commented on the fight sharing their theories on what happened. There were rumors that Anthony Joshua was injured in training or that he did not take the fight seriously. Joshua himself cleared these rumors denying them. He said that he was ready and prepared, and had no injuries. He said that he did not underestimate Ruiz. However, this has not stopped the rumors and speculations. Fellow boxers such as Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder have been very vocal about how they feel that Joshua gave up mentally, expressing anger over the outcome and disappointment with Joshua.
Boxing is a tough sport physically but it is also a very tough sport mentally. Being a champion is difficult in many ways. The expectations can be extremely overwhelming and stressful. The business managers take the control out of the hands of the fighter, and complicate the sport. It is very easy for any boxer to become depressed and anxious in the middle of all this. Yet, boxers are expected to be tough. They cannot show weakness. They have to be fearless and strong. However, many of them come from humble origins and lack the coping skills needed for this. Boxing, in many ways, has been their coping mechanism. Many of them are not businessmen and educated in the complexities of the business world. They may not be as psychologically minded and skilled as would be needed for successful stress management.
There is a need to end the stigma of mental illness and allow athletes to speak openly about their stress. Suppressing stress leads to dangerous symptoms and can end careers. Athletes need psychological skills training in order to cope with the pressures and expectations of being on the top. Joshua stated after his loss that he was almost happy that it happened because now the stress is gone. Fighters need the mental calm to concentrate on training and to be prepared psychologically for fights. This cannot be done under pressure and in stressful circumstances. We may never truly know what caused Joshua to lose but it is very likely that there was a mental aspect to it. Stress is psychosomatic and leads to physical symptoms. Stress can lead to a loss of concentration and stamina needed to perform. It should not be underestimated. However, in order for this to change the entire culture of boxing needs to change. Even the toughest and strongest fighter will fall under pressure. Stress is a vicious killer that shows no mercy.
Dr. Tomi Wahlström is Vice President of Academic Affairs at the United States Sports Academy.