Dealing With Doubt

Below is a powerful video that all aspiring fighters should view. Within the clip, you will see footage of Mike Tyson as a young amateur boxer.

And while you may expect to see a compilation of knockouts from his early days, that is not what you will find. On the contrary, you will see a young and scared fighter who doubts himself and is about to withdraw from a tournament. You’ll then see one of Tyson’s early trainers (Teddy Atlas) help him overcome his fears. Teddy must convince Tyson to enter the ring as he’s all but abandoned the idea of fighting that day.

This side of Mike Tyson is likely unknown to most observers of his professional career. Tyson is remembered for his brutal and relentless attack inside the ring. It may seem ironic that such a strong and capable body could have ever doubted himself.

The reality though is that most fighters have experienced similar feelings. Many young fighters have sat quietly in the dressing room and contemplated slipping out the back door. Fear can come out of nowhere and literally eat away at an athlete. It may not creep up until the weigh-ins, but then suddenly strips a fighter of his confidence and negates the weeks of diligent training that took place before.

Unfortunately, fear is a topic that is rarely addressed. Many won’t admit dealing with fear. It is often viewed as weakness. No one wants to openly admit that they are scared. Fear is actually quite common however and can be used to propel a fighter forward if he is guided properly.

As to the subject of fear and its relevance to combat sports, there has never been a better spokesman than the legendary trainer and manager Cus D’Amato. Cus actually tutored Teddy Atlas and guided the careers of Hall of Fame fighters such as Floyd Patterson, Jose Torres, and of course Mike Tyson.

In the words of Tyson’s original mentor,

“Heroes and cowards feel exactly the same fear. Heroes just react to it differently. On the morning of a fight, a boxer wakes up and says, ‘How can I fight? I didn’t sleep at all last night.’ What he has to realize is, the other guy didn’t sleep either. Later, as the fighter walks toward the ring, his feet want to walk in the opposite direction. He’s asking himself how he got into this mess. He climbs the stairs into the ring, and it’s like going to the guillotine. Maybe he looks at the other fighter, and sees by the way he’s loosening up that his opponent is experienced, strong, very confident. Then when the opponent takes off his robe, he’s got big bulging muscles. What the fighter has to realize is that he’s got exactly the same effect on his opponent, only he doesn’t know it. And when the bell rings, instead of facing a monster built up by the imagination, he’s simply up against another fighter.”

In summary, fear isn’t something to be ashamed of as an athlete. Don’t pretend that it does not exist. Accept it and realize that you are not alone. Even the dominant Mike Tyson had difficulties dealing with fear. Imagine though if he was never encouraged to overcome his fears? The history books would have to be rewritten to exclude one of the most exciting fighters that the heavyweight division has ever seen.

As William Shakespeare once said, our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.

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  1. Once again I found your post to be very moving. I especially like “accept it and realize that you are not alone.” Simple but very powerful. Thank you for this Ross!

  2. Thanks a lot for sharing of yourself on this issue. So much of what drives adult decision making is fear, whether it be career or family or athletic pursuits and its important that light be shed on that dark corner.

    So much of how we limit ourselves as humans in based in the psychology of fear, I’m glad that you address this important aspect of traning head on.

  3. Great post I find that Geoff Thompson, is one of the best authors on dealing with fear and self improvement he has free articles and podcasts that can be found at

  4. Hey Ross,

    Thanks so much for posting this. Of all the great information you post, I think this is one of the most important and least discussed topics. Who would ever think that Tyson would have a dark moment like that after seeing his ferocity in the ring. I also thought it was really cool to see Teddy Atlas encouraging Tyson’s opponent immediately after the bout.

  5. As a young boy I encountered a situation in which I was so filled with fear that I failed to do the right thing. I spoke to my father about this and he gave me this piece of wisdom. “The only difference between heroes and cowards is the direction in which they run. Do not be ashamed to have fear, just learn to control it.”

  6. I know that feeling all too well. I have never felt it when fighting, nerves yes but not that fear when fighting. However, when I played football it was there. It always took the first couple of plays for the doubt to go away. For my opponents to not feel so big or fast or that I couldn’t do it. I’d always come of the field after the first series of play ready to murdelize whoever was in front of me after that. I know that fear and doubt all too well.

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