Coaches, Please Don't Get Lazy
To quickly recap, we’ve so far discussed some of the more surprising symptoms of concussions along with how we can better equip ourselves as fighters and coaches to protect against head trauma. If you’d like to play catch up, the link to the first post in this series is here, and here is the second post. You will find a quick (about 1 hour), free training on concussions in the first post. With this will come an option to make fliers personalized to your gym with all of the basic need to know facts to have on hand or to hand out to fighters/parents of fighters who are new to sparring in your gym. You will also be a certified Heads Up concussion specialist, certificate and all!
We left off with the fact that some of the tips and safety precautions we saw in the training videos are simply not practical in our sport. However, I want to re-emphasize that just because we can’t be the safety squirrels that earn ALL of the gold stars for our absolute safest policies doesn’t mean that we have to write it all off, either. There are practical things that we can do, and at the very least we can make sure that we know the symptoms of concussions to protect our fighters from repeats whenever possible.
So what happens when a fighter gets a concussion right before a fight or when he’s in the ring? That line between what’s a “good idea” and what actually has to happen in the boxing world is a tough one to call as a coach. I would also like to say that it’s extremely difficult to be able to turn on and off your sensors for when to “suck it up” and when to baby something. I think this is actually the biggest reason why we, as a boxing community, have such a hard time with keeping our boxers protected when it comes to concussions—and repeat concussions in particular. I’m just going to go ahead and say, point blank, what will probably get me in trouble for saying out loud at some point: in the middle of a fight, I’m not pulling a fighter for a “possible concussion”. There had better be serious, serious signs that the ring doctor and/or ref are saying are “too much” for that to be the reason that my fighter’s leaving the ring. There is a time, in our world, where you don’t baby anything. It’s time for do or die. It’s time for it to show how hard you push and what’s inside of you. And that time is now.
A lot of coaches ask me how I possibly expect a fighter to be able to pull that out from deep down if I haven’t been having them go like that the whole time that they’ve been at my gym. I tell them that it’s laziness if they think that the only way they can train a fighter to do or die during ring time is by making them risk actual death on the daily. Yes, it's harder. I have to get more creative, and I have to truly think through our practices before hand. But we push so far past mental and boundaries that almost every boxer that hasn’t actually started with me has quit because they say it’s “too much” and that “all of that isn’t even necessary”. The sets that everyone who did start out boxing with me do regularly would kill 90% of even pro boxers. Don’t think this is a sissy gym just because we use protective gear and don’t kill all of our brain cells for no reason. Learning to push past physical pain doesn’t have to actually risk injury or brain cell death. That’s a mental and emotional skill to block out all pain or frustration of making mistakes for a certain period of time for the sake of an important end goal.
However, I write our sets so that as you loose your coordination and strength you aren’t risking injury. For example, I’m not going to have you end your last set doing a 2 foot jump box for the very first time ever while wearing a weight vest and after we just did a 3 hour long practice. That’s asking for injury. No, we’re going to burn it out safely going from the most complicated and/or balance oriented movements to the least complicated/risky movements. We’re also going to burn it out so completely that if you started with resistance, you’re going to go so hard and long that you’re forced to take it down to just body weight, and then you’re going to keep going until you can’t even complete one, unassisted rep more of that body weight movement. We break down every single mental and emotional barrier that you have between you and that goal. The difference is that we aren’t also risking injury, let alone your brain, to be able to do it.
Another way I protect my boxers' brains is that I make sure all of my boxers have more than enough defensive skills before they’re getting hit. From day 1 we learn a defensive technique at the same time that we learn each punch. The same day you learn to throw a jab you learn to perry one, too. Let's say that you’re more advanced and we just came up with a new combo for you? You’d better believe we’re going to work through how you would defend against it. I spar all my new boxers first until they’ve become a little less sporadic to spar with another controlled fighter. That will not always be possible, I understand, but eventually I’ll have a bigger pool of controlled fighters that I can trust to spar beginners. I start with what I call a “wall drill” where they’re allowed to hit me and I’m not allowed to hit them back. Next we add my jab, and until I can increase the power, speed, and doubling and tripling up that jab they don’t get to move on to me being able to use more punches. Depending on the fighter’s defensive skills I might add the 2, or I might stick with punches only coming from the front hand. I stick with only the face until I know they’re ready to be able to defend both the face and body. After they’re actually, truly capable of blocking all the punches, then I start adding more power back in, and finally I can really actually spar them (and hand them off to others to spar) in full on sparring.
The two main arguments that I often hear from other coaches about how I step my boxers up in sparring is that 1) it takes too long and 2) you don't know how they'll do until they're just in there. The two go hand in hand. You're right. I've worked with someone for months, many times, slowly stepping them up, only to have to tell them at some point in the steps that they just don't have it. I've given them countless hours to get them to a point where they quit because they think the "problem" is that they're getting hit too hard...but they somehow want to compete? And you're not even all the way sparring yet? Yeah, not on my team you won't be competing. So coaches, I do understand how hard it is to not take the short cut of finding out up front if they can take a punch or not. I hope that thirty years from now I haven't stopped taking the time to give someone all the tools they needed before setting them up to get their block knocked off. Actually, I don't just "hope", I actively work against my own inner voice that gets so skeptical in order to be able to still see each new boxer who walks in as their own person who needs their own process. It comes back to laziness to try to skip to the last step of really knocking them around before they've learned enough.
And fighters, to those who have worked for months towards competing and had a coach tell you that you don't have it? You're welcome to go to another gym and get a second opinion, but don't stand in front of us and tell us that you've "sacrificed so much". If you think that at this point you have, then you're proving our point that you don't have it, because the sport of boxing is basically just 3-12 rounds to find out which one of the two of you in the ring was willing to sacrifice more for this win. You don't even know what sacrifice means yet. Fighters, if you get frustrated or "bored" because your coaches keep telling you that they aren't ready to spar yet, then you'd better re-think your sport. There are far more hours spent alone with a bag, on a run alone at 5 am, shadow boxing in the dead of the night, or standing in front of a mirror doing the same movement 100,000 times then there are actually standing there with someone sparring or in a fight. If you don't have that kind of discipline or love for this sport to be able to do that then this isn't for you.
This isn't just the best way to be able to help protect a developing fighter's brain, it's a great way to make sure my fighters are NEVER comfortable being dominated and on the ropes. You know the second a fighter starts to move how comfortable he is with being the lesser fighter. I want my fighters to always be so uncomfortable with that slippery slope that they take back the dominance at all costs at the very first sign of losing control of the ring. It is THEIR ring, not their opponent's. This is THEIR show, not the other guy. That other guy is only here for my fighter to be able to show off his hard earned skills.
This method of stepping a fighter up slowly has incredible benefits for my more advanced fighters as well. Put a male pro boxer in that wall drill scenario with a greener female boxer who's husband she's a little mad at looks a hell of a lot like that male pro. Yeah, that pro had better have his defense skills ON POINT!
It's an important fact to know that most fighters actually receive the most brain damage during sparring. They spar harder and longer (and when they’re making the most mistakes because they’re so tired) than they will actually be in that ring for fights. It’s incredibly important that as coaches we’re vigilantly protecting our fighters’ brains during sparring times. That means things like step up progressions and not just relying on the old school method of “they’ll learn or they’ll quit”. Along with these progressions, we also always make sure that on sparring days we warm up quickly and then immediately do our sparring first thing when we're fresh. They can make all their very stupid, just-because-they’re-too-tired mistakes on a bag or some pads that aren’t punching them back later in the practice. I am carefully overseeing all sparring, and I never announce how many rounds we're going. They know that I expect them to give me everything each round. If you give me everything and are too run down to safely continue for the day, then you're moved over to bags, drills, conditioning, etc. That is true weather you've given me 3 or 20 rounds. Now, they also are aware that if they can only give me 3 rounds and I know they should be up to around 7 or 8 that they'd better believe their ass is about to be smoked with conditioning between now and the next sparring day. Me stopping your sparring because that's all you could give me is for your safety, and also is pretty much a golden ticket to conditioning hell for the next week.
The hardest question that I think we have to face as coaches who are trying to also keep our fighters protected is when a fighter is sparring hard just before a fight, and then they get a concussion. This is the hardest call as a coach in my book. At the end of the day, is a fight worth death? Brain death? Well…obviously the "right" answer is no….however, that’s also what we all signed up for. The first question I ask myself is how important this fight is for the fighter. I think we all know what I mean, but for those who don’t, I’m asking if this is just a record building little fight where I (or his manager) set up the opponent and it’s a pretty guaranteed win? Or is this his big shot to move up an important level?
I have only been in one situation so far where someone I was coaching had the shot of a lifetime, career making fight opportunity and he sparred so hard that he got knocked out cold and his front two teeth nice and loose. We had to have a very serious discussion about what to do next. We talked about all of the preventative measures we would have to take next if he wanted to still take this fight in four weeks (notice that I said “if HE wanted…”. Make sure that your fighters know that you will back their decision. It’s their brain, their life, their children/wife/parents/etc., not yours.). We talked through the exact risks he was taking and what kind of everyday consequences those risks would have if they played out. We talked about all of his options. By the end of that conversation, that fighter decided to take the risks. However, because he continually refused to follow my instructions in ways that created more concussions later in the training for that fight, I had to no longer help condition him for that fight. I add this last part in because it is very important for you, as a coach, to understand that while I’m saying back your fighter, there are also times that it is okay for you to choose for his death to not be on your hands. I know there will be some that feel like I just completely violated bro code. I know that. I stand by my decision, and so should you.
We are the last line of defense. Stand your ground. It’s sort of like protecting your children. You back your child’s dreams to the end of the earth, as far as they want to take it—and even then, you push them to go just barely further then that and see what happens. But as you’re standing in their corner, and they turn to you, you know when to make that call of throwing in the towel. That’s why they’ve trusted you with that sacred job after all. They’ve trusted you that you would never throw it in when they had anything left, but that you would know the exact moment that it had gone too far. If you aren’t prepared to make the hard calls—both ways: to push them when everyone else screams for you to stop as well as to throw that towel in at the right time, even when they’re tryibng to convince you that they’re fine—then you do not belong in that corner. The bottom line? If your fighter can’t trust that you will have the guts to stand up against any pressure they or anyone else tries to put on you to make the right decision then please do not call yourself coach.