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Understanding Temperament (Mike Tyson and Cus D’Amato)

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In my last entry, I mentioned that I’ve learned many valuable lessons in the gym that wouldn’t make sense on paper. I say this as both an athlete and perhaps more importantly as a trainer. There are times when it makes sense to go against the grain and do things that others may not understand. Success as a trainer depends on much more than your understanding of anatomy and kinesiology. The ideal solution to individual needs cannot always be calculated scientifically or determined mathematically. Often times, the temperament of the athlete will dictate the ideal approach.

As a boxing trainer, I look up to the legendary Cus D’Amato as perhaps the greatest example of this concept. Cus is most known for his work with Mike Tyson, but he was also instrumental in the development of other Hall of Fame fighters such as Jose Torres and Floyd Patterson. Cus was truly a student of the game and understood the inner workings of a fighter’s mind. He was the polar opposite of the clipboard trainers who have become so common today. Cus had brilliant insights into the sport and a deep understanding about the psychology of fear and discipline.

When Cus developed an athlete, he wasn’t focused solely on physical attributes. He did as much for the mind as he did for the body. There is no better example of physical and mental development than that of a young Mike Tyson. Tyson came to Cus D’Amato as a youngster who lacked discipline and was mentally unstable. He was far from the dominant force that he became as a young heavyweight.

Mike Tyson did not become the youngest heavyweight champion by accident. Everything that Cus did with Tyson was done for a reason. There was a method to his madness. Ironically, many of today’s keyboard gurus who have never trained anyone often criticize the workouts and regimen that Tyson performed. For instance, the internet is filled with discussions about Tyson’s routine as a youngster. Many question why he trained 7 days a week, or why he performed hundreds of repetitions of calisthenics. Others ask why he ran at such an early hour in the morning. Countless pencil pushers have stated that such frequent and intense work could lead to overtraining and was everything but optimal.

Cus D’Amato knew better however. He knew what he had in Tyson. Yes, he was naturally strong, but Tyson was also mentally fragile. You can see an example of this in the video below. You’ll see how he was plagued by fear and insecurities.

Cus knew of Tyson’s deficiencies and tailored the training accordingly. He had to turn Tyson into a conditioning machine for reasons that go far beyond the physical. For example, Cus stated the following in regards to a fighter’s development:

I get them in excellent condition… Knowing how the mind is and the tricks it plays on a person and how an individual will always look to avoid a confrontation with something that is intimidating, I remove all possible excuses they’re going to have before they get in there. By getting them in excellent condition, they can’t say when they get tired that they’re not in shape.

Cus also knew of the trouble that Tyson had been in as a youngster. Mike Tyson was far from a saint when he was taken in by Cus D’Amato. Tyson had been in and out of trouble his entire life. As a result, it is no surprise that Cus kept Tyson busy throughout the day. The last thing that you want a troubled teen to do is wander off on his own. Instead, you keep him busy even if it means having him do more work than it makes sense to do. Cus wasn’t just building Tyson’s body. He was developing mental toughness in someone who didn’t have it. He was developing discipline in a fighter who was young and reckless.

It was the discipline and knowledge that Cus gave Tyson that led to his success as a young pro. Sure, there will always be debates about the specifics of Tyson’s training and perhaps even exaggerated tales, but there is no denying that he worked extremely hard for several hours each day. And Tyson’s Spartan-like regimen continued as a young pro as is evident in the video below.

As for the success of Cus D’Amato’s methods, it is undeniable how Tyson’s career slowly fell apart when Cus died and after the firing of Kevin Rooney (who had been tutored by Cus). Once Tyson lost the discipline that Cus worked so carefully to construct, the physical force that Tyson was slowly came crashing down.

In summary, the development of an athlete often entails much more than the regimen you see on paper. To be a successful trainer, you must communicate with your athletes. You need to know what makes them tick. You need to know what distracts them and what has hampered them before. Don’t just focus on physical development, but also understand the significance of the athlete’s temperament. Analyze each athlete as the unique individual that he or she is. What works for one may not work for another.

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Boxing is a sport of self-control. You must understand fear so you can manipulate it. Fear is like fire. You can make it work for you: it can warm you in the winter, cook your food when you’re hungry, give you light when you are in the dark, and produce energy. Let it go out of control and it can hurt you, even kill you. Fear is a friend of exceptional people. – Cus D’Amato

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10 comments

10 Comments so far

  1. Eric March 6th, 2014 10:10 am

    Tyson and Patterson both were loaded with insecurities. Remember reading that Floyd showed up with a “getaway” disguise to wear before the Liston fight. Completely opposite in the ring, however, except for maybe the peek-a-boo type of style they acquired from being trained by Cus D’Amato. I do question the “numbers” that are thrown around regarding Tyson’s daily routine of dips, pushups, pull-ups and situps. You have to wonder how much strength you would have left in the arms and shoulders after working the bags, sparring, etc., to perform an outrageous amount of not only pushups, but dips and pullups too. Personally, I can’t see the reason why a fighter would even bother knocking out a 1,000 or so standard pushups a day. Angelo Dundee has stated that while he was with Ali, that Ali never performed pushups, much less pullups and dips. Ali preferred woodchopping to add upper body strength and stamina. Woodchopping would seem more sport specific than pushups or pullups IMO, but each individual is indeed different.

  2. JR March 6th, 2014 10:59 am

    I identify with Tyson because like him I have psychological fragility due to early childhood traumas. A wise mentor can make or break anyone. I think that’s how it works for top level football teams as I know a guy who ayed and his brother too and he brother is an announcer for a top college team (they won championship in last 5years). He says that a good coach understands his players and knows what it takes to motivate encourage and inspire his people. I see how this guy dominates strength and conditioning well into his late 40s and handles people with an admirable grace in business transactions.

    My main point-
    More should be written and ideas given on how to lead handle and inspire oneself and others psychologically as this transposes to every area of life-athletics, business, community,etc.

    As always Ross I admire the blog and your intelligent and practical fashion you reason with. It’s ways refreshing for me to and a highlight of my day to stop by and read. God bless you my friend.

  3. sean fagan March 6th, 2014 2:58 pm

    outstanding article Ross, really loved this article – seems to me, like Cus, you also got a deep understanding of the psychological challenges of a boxer’s mind. Great stuff Ross.

  4. Tim March 6th, 2014 7:01 pm

    Thanks, Ross. It’s always great to see the greats training. The affect Cus had on a young Mike was obviously HUGE, and has been well documented. I realize that your article was about Cus, but I don’t want us to forget about Teddy Atlas. Nearly every time I see a video of a young Tyson in training, Teddy is right there by his side. In this particular video of Mike, Teddy seems acutely aware of his young boxer’s psychological needs, and seems to respond magnificently.

  5. DoomRater March 7th, 2014 8:38 am

    And to think all it took to prove your point was two videos highlighting Cus himself. Maybe some of those pencil pushers could take a lesson from how you do your research and listen to the wisdom of trainers of this caliber.

  6. C# March 7th, 2014 9:47 am

    Wow. Fantastic article. About 30 things just clicked for me.

  7. dmitry March 7th, 2014 4:29 pm

    it is an honor to read this entry. I cannot stop my self to write down a little comments for both cus and mike.

    : 15 fights at the year 1985 = win
    : but it was sad that cus passed away

    as always thank you ross.

  8. Brian March 8th, 2014 6:04 am

    Your blog is very good Ross. I love how an abused poor kid from the ghetto and a “washed up” but famous trainer came together to make history. Mike and Cus would make a great movie. A poor kid who needed a solid mentor and Father figure and an old man who needed one last spark of inspiration to soar into the Sunset of his life. It’s all remarkable.

    It’s really cool how you link and dig into the old school knowledge like the Sandow strength site. Old school boxing stories and knowledge shared with us like Bert Sugars insights, the 180″s bare knuckle chutes who brawled for hours, Sugar Ray Robinson, etc. would all make good future posts. I think as a trainer athlete and author you’re wisely trying to integrate the best knowledge and show your readership how to maximize their potential through learning about he process from others.
    You might want to check out Richard Bandlers books- he created Nlp. I read in a book of his how guys who were imprisoned mimicked aging the keyboards and came out playing an actual piano with virtuosity. A premise of Bandlers thought is the best of the best have their brains at a certain place and mentally map out the World- what their actual potential is, their own limitations, how others perceive them, beliefs about their talent and limitations, etc. Bandler was teaching we could all attain a higher level by learning to replicate successful people’s thought processes and this wod aid in making success a reality. If we knew the inner workings of a virtuosos guitar player like Jimi Hendrix, Joe Satriani, Al Dimeola, or Mark Tremonti we could faster replicate and arrive at where they are at is the argument. The point is to improve our thought processes and me tap core internal beliefs to make us all happier, and more successful by living on a higher plane of existence as to how we view our true potential.

  9. Monday 3/10/14 - Small Wins March 9th, 2014 4:34 pm

    [...] Tater Fries Love Your Body Challenge Check Out These Hot New Nutrition Facts Understanding Temperament (Mike Tyson and Cus D’Amato) So You Wanna Get To Regionals? Let’s Think About That For A [...]

  10. Liam Tarrant June 2nd, 2014 3:58 pm

    Another one of your great articles! These are elements of the game that only someone with first-hand experience could explain!

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