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Insights on #KovalevPascal, Boxer/Shrink

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By Dan Sapen

First, it is a pleasure to join Michael Woods and the readers and staff of NYFights.

I look forward to good old-fashioned fight talk and intelligent, sweet-science ideas and opinions.

My inaugural article is to be about what value Jean Pascal’s sports psychologist might offer on Saturday night, in Pascal’s daunting rematch against the man who beat him more thoroughly than in any of his two prior losses, ko-ing him in the first career breakdown of the solid Pascal chin.

Climbing back in the ring with a man against whom he had few moments of success before a painful technical domination and classic beatdown is a daunting task, and a good reason for Pascal to take any reasonable steps to re-establish his belief in his resiliency and capacity to overcome adversity, as losing after a brave effort that managed to contain very few moments of validation for his world-class ranking and self-belief had to be devastating in ways only a fighter really understands.

First, as a newcomer to NYFights, a little of my background and what I can bring to the topic, and to the site.

I’m a psychotherapist with nearly a quarter-century of experience providing old-and-new-fashioned therapy and analysis to a wide range of patients, including a number of athletes and performers – the latter two because I, too, have spend many years in and around both drama and music performance, specializing in jazz (see my book, Freud’s Lost Chord, for a look at psychology and the work of Miles and Coltrane)as well as boxing, with a fighter’s knowledge of competition, danger, pain, strengths and limitations beginning 34 years ago and as recently as yesterday morning.

As a compulsive thinker about anything that fascinated me, my interest in the mental and emotional aspects of gloved combat started with curiosity about my own reactions, how they were conditioned by early experience, and how the weather in my head in a given day affected what my body could accomplish with an opponent or sparring partner in front of me.

The make-up of fighters who would walk through flames and agony to emerge with a lowly club purse or a world championship belt, as much as a gifted athlete who came apart mentally or physically when his chin was touched, or the opponent wouldn’t budge after one’s best shot, were big questions.

Those who know me know that I, as a part-Ukrainian with control issues and fear of being humiliated in the ring – in my case, by doing things BADLY, became sympathetic to and interested in the case of Wladimir Klitschko, originally an audacious and graceful powerhouse with combinations and movement, who – with the help of Ross Puritty and Corrie Sanders, revealed himself to be easily overwhelmed by an aggressive opponent he couldn’t control, resulting in an anxiety attack and hyperventilating into submission in the ring – only to come back after woodshedding and counseling sessions with Manny Steward as a compulsively controlled “boring” control-oriented champion who would wait as long as it took for that mastery of jab and distance put his opponent right into the line of a fight ending lead with either hand – or endless clinches and pushes until distance could be established again. Light on entertainment, but a strategy that resulted in (eventual) dramatic KOs, a historically long championship reign in which he rarely lost a minute of a round, as well as some of the most dull fights in championship level boxing history. He also ate several good power punches in the years following his return to the ring. And, with the exception of one right hand by Davarryl Williamson at the beginning of his comeback, and three clubbing knockdowns, some landing behind the head of an exhausted Klitschko, he nevertheless got back up, nearly KO’d Peter, and won the fight anyway.

Klitschko has never been hurt since then, despite being hit by large, legit punchers – his chin is average, good enough, no longer made of glass now that he knows he is capable of keeping it together if buzzed. But not so much so that he’s willing to go toe to toe with anyone. Case in point. Tyson Fury didn’t have to hurt or outbox Wladimir. He just had to annoy him with enough unpredictable, uncontrollable movement and energy – slaps and twitches, none of which hurt except to abrade Wlad’s skin, and embarrass him – and his people knew that Wlad would both be unable to hypnotize Fury into staying still for the laser jab and right hand bomb or lead hook behind it, or fight Fury in an uncharacteristic busy, aggressive manner. Maybe Sam Peter and Tyson Fury aren’t close enough for comparison, and were at different points in their career when they fought Wlad, but not only did Wlad retool his boxing machinery and playbook when humiliated the first time around, he has also violently defeated in rematches two men who either hurt him (Peter) or bombed him out (Brewster), fighting two of his best fights when he needed to redeem himself.

This is a testament to learning, to triumph of will, knowledge, self-forgiveness, and careful study, over fear, pain, and public humiliation bordering on a tail-between-legs slinking out of the fight game into, perhaps a teaching position at a Kiev High School.

In my more limited way, as a college boy who redeemed his manhood and self-belief in the eyes of Dad after a childhood being terrorized by a brutal older sister, I became a dedicated boxer; I grew under the watchful eye of local multi-talented skater, hockey player, cyclist, former professional sparring partner and trainer/mentor Tony Marchese in Poughkeepsie, NY. He is to this day a man whose teaching about living life well instructs me–Tony is up in his 80s and skates competitively, bikes up to fifty miles a day, and manages a roller derby team, in addition to doing world-class tattoos and portraits up in Marlboro, NY.

In my first article, remembering the days when I started intellectualizing about boxing, I need to give a shout-out with the weekly or more often sparring help of soon-to-be novelist and stamina-machine Matt Bloom (see his fine novel Blue Paradise, about a boxer in a moral dilemma) and frustrating lengthy southpaw Adam Serchuk, righteous guys and ring-mates. I learned, with their help, the athletic and psychological components of the sport, and of myself, long before I got my Ph.D and license to practice.

I was known as a walk-you-down counterpuncher with power and speed in both hands; Matt had natural movement and fluidity and a fine jab, and taught me about how to keep my own nature, my composure, and technique in the face of frustration; Adam, unpredictability and how to fight a southpaw. Tony, by getting me my first three-rounder against an experienced and powerful brawler from Floyd Patterson’s gym, and convincing me, despite my terror, that if I stuck to my speed and double jab, using quick right counters and not worrying about power, the guy wouldn’t land solidly and I would not need to be afraid of him.

Dance with who brung ya.

It worked, in three hellish rounds that turned out just fine. It was faith in Tony, not myself, that got me there. He was a fine psychologist, as a trainer.

I now train, for fun, conditioning, and sparring when my lungs and time allow, at the Huntington Academy of Boxing around the corner from my home in Long Island, having had the privilege of training with and becoming good friends with the much-loved Commish, Randy Gordon, late and great referee and all-around-helluva guy Wayne Kelly and his son, Ryan, Kathy “Wildcat” Collins, who came this close to beating Christy Martin at MSG for her only loss and held the world women’s junior welterweight championship, and her husband, boxing gentleman Frankie G,who did more for women’s boxing than perhaps anyone, and now develops a stable of gifted young fighters.

I am now trained by Anthony “Showtime” Karperis, a gifted slick junior welterweight who, in his twenties, knows what makes me tick and how to keep me in my zone as well as any shrink.

At 52, still athletic but with buggy lungs, I still tighten up and go into either wait-mode or kill-mode when I lose the feeling of control that only true relaxation in the ring can bring – and which, ironically are two modes that guarantee control will be lost. We beat ourselves, sometimes, before our opponent gets to do a thing.

Which brings me to Pascal, his sports psychologist, and the Kovalev rematch.

What do Sports Psychologists do?

Here is what the American Psychological Association’s Website has to say:

“Some athletes seek help from a sport psychologist or other exercise and sport psychology professional when they have a problem.

They might become anxious or lose focus during competition, for example. They might have trouble communicating with teammates, controlling their temper or even just motivating themselves to exercise. Or they might choke at key moments during a game.

But athletes don’t just consult sports psychologists when they’re having difficulties. Sport psychologists can also help athletes:

Enhance performance: Various mental strategies, such as visualization, self-talk and relaxation techniques, can help athletes overcome obstacles and achieve their full potential.

Cope with the pressures of competition: Sport psychologists can help athletes at all levels deal with pressure from parents, coaches or even their own expectations.

Recover from injuries: After an injury, athletes may need help tolerating pain, adhering to their physical therapy regimens or adjusting to being sidelined.

Keep up an exercise program: Even those who want to exercise regularly may find themselves unable to fulfill their goal. Sport psychologists can help these individuals increase their motivation and tackle any related concerns.

Enjoy sports: Sports organizations for young people may hire a sport psychologist to educate coaches about how to help kids enjoy sports and how to promote healthy self-esteem in participants.

Sports psychology can even help people off the playing field: The same strategies that sport psychologists teach athletes — relaxation techniques, mental rehearsals and cognitive restructuring, for example — are also useful in the workplace and other settings.

In Pascal’s case, we are looking at a top professional who, nevertheless, was rendered mostly ineffectual and then knocked out. And not by a single shocking punch, but by a systematic beating that left him conscious but aware that he could no longer control his movement and defend himself. This breeds a terrible feeling of helplessness that can be even more traumatic for a fighter than a non-fighter because to be beaten into submission, as opposed to taking a consciousness-ending bomb, drives home the awareness that one can be made completely helpless by an opponent who – as in the case of this fight – is fresh and unbothered on the other side of the ring, waiting to be interviewed.

Pascal would presumably not need help maintaining his love of the game, nor his self-esteem, except in one key way – he goes in the ring perhaps feeling like the smaller, weaker man. It is hard to know what is in Jean’s mind, except to infer from his publicity related behavior, and generalizing from what we might know about the psychology of a KO victim going back for another try. Fighters often go through a sour grapes mentality after a loss, convincing themselves (and anyone who listens) that: a) the fight was stopped too soon, and b) besides, I really thought I was winning, and c) anyway I wan’t focused on the fight because my niece has eczema.

Anything that diminishes the legitimacy or importance of the loss and preserves his self-image is likely to come out in bitter-sounding, dismissive excuses, which we all know are the reactions of a fighter who can’t handle not being the best.

Self-talk and relaxation is often a significant factor. Easily frustrated people, or those who self-criticize too much, can be heard berating themselves after being ineffective in a task. Any task is easier to do well when one has an alert but relaxed attitude with the equivalent relaxed readiness of body and senses.

For Pascal, the psychologist doesn’t have to worry about the conditioning. However, “Enhance Performance,” as above, is possibly relevant.

No matter how over-confident Pascal is, consciously believing the loss was just a bad night, a fluke, on some level, he has to be haunted by the thought that he has no new magic and really faces Kovalev in the rematch under pretty much the same conditions.

How can this be changed?

Positive visualization, which any of us could use in the guise of choosing a peaceful and satisfying scene and bask in the mental image while breathing in a controlled way, then, to apply it to the performance of an athlete, say, Pascal, introducing likely images of the battle, picturing them performed perfectly, with the desired effect on Kovalev. In this way, he manages both the practical task of rehearsing his tactics and strategy, increasing his optimism by visualizing a well-done maneuver, slipping a punch in a new way and then countering and hurting Kovalev; visualizing his hand raised after the reading of the cards, or his joyous circuit of the ring after the ref waves off the fight, Kovalev on the canvas or draped over the ropes.

For a boxer, visualizing positive results from his well-learned tactics and techniques, especially something recently learned, something Kovalev might not expect Pascal to do, can be very valuable – this exercise, again both rehearses the details of the move, a kind of mental practice, while convincing himself that he is NOT without weapons or surprises against an opponent who may be dangerous but who also has flaws that can be exploited. Through talk therapy, as well, a fighter whose therapist understands the sport sufficiently (ski racing poses very different challenges and personality challenge, for example) can potentially come to learn and accept more completely a realistic image of who he is and what his NATURE as man and fighter really are, getting rid of self-deceptions and misleading self-deceptions, everything from accepting that his build is suited to a pressure style, that he is most effective and comfortable as a surprise attacker with a good chin, but not a good long-haul tactician who can move the opponent in different directions with differently timed jabs, gradually expanding his arsenal until the opponent becomes discouraged and predictable as he finds himself caught more and more by punches he didn’t see or couldn’t time.

In Pascal’s case, if I were the psychologist, I would show him several fights of his, or lots of excerpts, and have him write one or two word phrases he believes a fresh observer would use to describe the style, strengths and weaknesses. In this way, we free his performance from being stuck to an ego that needs to believe he is faster than he is, that he is a master boxer who sets up power shots with a laser like jab–Not Pascal at all!–and help instead meet himself as though he were an expert seeing himself as a fighter for the first time, and then training to get the most out of that set of characteristics as possible.

Some of us know as being real, and it is one of the hardest things to do, when we are usually driven, in boxing, by the illusion that being in maximal shape with just the right kind and number of sparring rounds will get you there – that only works if the training and sparring and technical preparation serve to bring out the true Pascal. Dance with who brung ya to the party….

A psychologist may work hard on de-toxifying the memories of having been knocked out, addressing both a primal human terror of being destroyed by an unbreakable enemy and the actual memories of this enemy (Kovalev) dominating and breaking down oneself (Pascal).

We often re-write, or help patients re-write, a kind of life-scrip in which the story changes because the characters learn to see events in a new way – such as a loss being nothing but a glitch coming on a bad day, something that can be prepared for next time with a reasonable expectation of a better outcome. Such a technique would target and re-frame negative thoughts, or even unrealistically positive ones, thoughts that would make it harder for Pascal to face what he actually has in the ring in front of him.

Pascal cannot, for example, fight realistically if he is made to believe that what already happened to him is impossible.

He CAN improve his punch resistance marginally by lowering the anxiety that occurs in those can’t focus moments after a bomb has hit. This attitude is all-important – if Pascal believes that he is now magically elevated and no longer vulnerable, or that Kovalev is really “nothing” (really?), then he will be quickly disillusioned by the punches and movement of the real opponent, not the tamed one in his head.

However, “detoxifying” the negative thoughts that come after loss, real thoughts of real self-doubt that the public doesn’t usually get to see except in tell-tale behavior (too much trash talk is the best indicator – you just can tell that so and so is not having fun hyping the fight, but is using bluster to give the impression that he is full of contempt for the opponent who already humiliated him.)

Cognitive behavioral techniques, supplementing the deeper ones in which a psychologist helps the fighter identify the drives to destroy and dominate, the fear of being destroyed and humiliated in addition to disappointing those who love and who may judge and want to punish him, are essential for sticking with nourishing and self-affirming thoughts and contribute to a fighters belief that he can face any adversity – and that since he can predict what this one will be like, he will have good answers for every challenge.

Fighters are a special breed of human, but they are human. Fighters know that they are going to get hurt, maybe superficially, maybe seriously; they are likely to bleed and look beat up after many of their fights; despite all the training, they will feel like their limbs weigh a ton and that body shots will feel, well, awful in the third round and nauseating combined with ‘where are my legs?’ in the 10th.

Their noses hurt most of the time, until what’s left of the nerves in the cartilage just goes numb.
Now, that is an ordinary day in the office.

Imagine a world class fighter like Pascal, someone who knows he takes a punch and has beaten almost everyone he’s every fought, knowing that his opponent is a little different – already having been knocked out by that opponent, knowing that Kovalev has unusual natural power and the ability to deliver it in deceptively clever ways – he knows that he is in for a world of pain even if he, somehow, figures out the way to an upset. Fighters may be more OK with pain that the average person, but, a few strange cases aside, the day and the hour approaches when gut warfare against someone who broke you before is to take place.

A sports psychologist will work to normalize that pain; to remind Pascal that pain can be good, can mean you’re alive and that there is an exciting challenge in front of you; also, that on the other side of pain is glory, redemption, and lots of money; that, meanwhile, pain is temporary, a sign to be ignored, since a well-trained Pascal needs to believe that he has an ANSWER to any attack that brings pain, an answer that brings more pain to Kovalev.

There are other mental distractions – the expectations or fears on the part of a fighter’s loved ones and fans; the fact that international reputation as much as one’s own Mom crying in front of the TV are things that can distract even an experienced fighter from the task of focusing on this little bubble of reality in which the punches are thrown and taken, and the moves are made. A fighter who can’t focus, whether it is because of his own pain, shame, worry, or self-consciousness, or because of pressures originating in other relationships, in the media, in thought of the future AFTER the fight – is in trouble, because it is the mastery of these few seconds that determines what happens next – and which sometimes amounts to a count of ten as one tries to figure out why he is suddenly lying down.

A good sports psychologist will help with focus, with maintaining awarenss of only what matters, with using goals and incentives just enough to motivate a fighter while protecting him against thinking BEYOND the fight; a psychologist will know the fighter’s insecurities and self-sabotaging tendencies in order to teach him how to focus where it counts, reject discouraging thought patterns and repeat motivational ones.

But, in the end, while I believe in the power of self-awareness, and of freeing oneself from taking seriously those old voices, no longer relevant, that tell us what we can and can’t reasonably expect ourselves to accomplish, the biggest battle of all is knowing with as much certainty and confidence as possible what our true character is, our profile as a man and as a boxer. This requires that we know our whole range of emotions, including fears and private shame, as much as our power and righteous striving to meet 100% of our potential. It would take a gifted psychologist, one who also knows the fine points of the sport as well as he knows his client’s technique and personality profile – his quirks, fine points, and no-fly zones of each fighter, the “intangibles” that determine so much of a fight’s, or a career’s, outcome. As the “boxing shrink”, Dr. Dan, I’ve developed a hybrid of good old-fashioned “speak-freely and don’t censor yourself” with in-ring and in-training exercises designed to help a fighter know himself as he might be known by a top trainer, being honest and self-directed in assessing his own strengths, weaknesses, potentials, and even ways in which his personality dictates what he likes to do in the ring, and what he tries to avoid. I then have the fighter practice training and sparring with his awareness focused on the few seconds before and after any given moment – what he is responding to and what he’d like to achieve. Everything relevant happens within those few seconds…missed a sloppy hook, got countered but got out? Is your next move revenge, or is it setting up your next sequence, or responding alertly to his? In this way anxiety, blame, worry, and grandiose “I’m gonna KTFO this mofo” are taken out of the fighters head and replaced with an intense awareness of the challenge and opportunity of the moment.

This technique has worked for fighters, and has been modified easily to apply to actors, musicians, and athletes in different sports. It is a way of being “in the moment” that truly gets close to 100% of what a fighter is capable of in each particular situation.

I don’t know what technique’s Pascal’s psychologist might be applying, but I hope for his sake they include something similar in spirit to mine. Otherwise, Pascal’s natural and learned styles and characteristics are likely to assert themselves whenever he begins to feel uncomfortable, and this explains why most re-matches are like the first fight, only more so. It is only among the greats that we are truly surprised. I do not think Pascal’s psychological help will amount to much more than fancy cheerleading. As stated elsewhere, I expect Pascal to look spunky and energized for a little while, only for the fight to turn back into something of a rerun. Kovalev by TKO or KO in the second half of the fight, as nothing Pascal tries accomplishes much.

Dr. Daniel Sapen, Ph.D., began boxing in 1982, and went on to receive his doctorate in Psychology from The Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University. Dr. Dan has worked with the elderly and dying, those with eating disorders, gifted and troubled children, general folks looking for personal and family guidance, as well as artists, performers, and athletes, particularly boxers and other martial artists.

He is available for private consultations at either of his two Long Island offices, in Huntington and Hauppauge, NY and also available for consults at training sites if desired. Call him at 631-470-0749 to discuss your situation, time, and fees, and any special considerations.

Dr. Dan, Boxing Shrink, for maximizing the joys and conquering the challenges of life, love, and career.

Editor/publisher Michael Woods became addicted to boxing in 1990, when Buster Douglas shocked the world with his demolition of the fearsome Mike Tyson. The Brooklyn-based journalist Woods has covered the sport since then, for ESPN The Magazine, ESPN.com, ESPN New York, RING, and he was editor of TheSweetScience.com from 2007-2015. Woods is also an accomplished blow by blow and color man, having done work for Top Rank, DiBella Entertainment, EPIX, and numerous other organizations.

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