A Fighter’s Comfort Zone

As an athlete, it is natural to believe that you control your own destiny. We’ve all been told that hard work will allow us to accomplish anything we desire. Hard work is supposed to solve all problems and conquer all obstacles. Unfortunately, the success of an athlete requires more than individual effort. Speaking as a boxing coach, there is only so much that a fighter can do on his own. And while my examples for this entry are related to boxing, the general message is relevant to athletes from all sports.

Comfort zone

A Conditioning Example

One of the most common questions that I receive from young fighters is how to deal with pre-fight anxiety. The specifics are almost always the same. The athlete does not understand why he fatigues prematurely on fight night after working so hard in the gym. Others share frustration over their inability to pull the trigger. In other words, there were opportunities to land punches but the fighter couldn’t let his hands go. He froze under the bright lights.

These athletes write to me desperately seeking solutions to their problems. Many ask what else they can do in the gym or at home on their own. For example, they ask how to run and what other exercises to perform. Many request sample routines. They want precise details in terms of sets and reps. In their eyes, the solution to the problem is to perform more work than they did in the past.

And while such ambition is commendable, the solution to these problems usually has nothing to do with supplemental exercise. Often times, the best training aid for a fighter is not a new routine or tool, but instead another fighter. Young fighters learn by doing. The best way to become a better boxer is by spending more time boxing. This is particularly true for those boxers who are only accustomed to sparring with coaches or friendly training partners.

When sparring a friend or coach, there is a certain level of comfort that exists regardless of how hard you are working. For instance, it is safe to assume that your coach is not going to intentionally hurt you. While he certainly wants to teach you, he is also there to protect you. As a result, you are able to spar hard without the anxiety that exists on fight night.

Everything changes when you are up against another fighter. Chances are that you don’t know anything about your opponent, other than his intent to win. Consequently, you are entering an environment that you have not experienced in the gym. The comfort that you’ve become familiar with is nowhere to be found. The nerves and anxiety that develop from this uncertainty lead to fatigue.

Running more or exercising harder will not solve the problem. What you need instead is to become more comfortable operating outside of your comfort zone. One example for a boxer is to spar against fighters from other gyms. The best sparring you receive usually comes from someone you hardly know. Neither of you know what to expect in terms of style, temperament, and pace. There is no comfort or familiarity. It is also useful to box against more experienced fighters who will not always take it easy on you. When in against such fighters, you aren’t sure what to expect. There is always the chance that the more experienced fighter will open up and catch you with a big shot.

The best fighters in the world certainly earned their share of bumps and bruises on the way up. If it was easy, everyone would do it.


Powerlifting coach Louie Simmons once shared the following words to emphasize the importance of variety,

“Think about it, if you read only one book, no matter how many times you read it, you will only learn so much.”

The same idea applies to boxing. If you always box the same sparring partners, there is only so much you can learn. The time will come when it is necessary for you to box other fighters with different styles. This means sparring with fighters from other gyms and traveling elsewhere to compete in tournaments where you aren’t always up against the same local athletes.

Unfortunately, not everyone is eager to hear this advice. Whenever I suggest traveling to spar or compete, I am met with resistance. Athletes often tell me that it is inconvenient to spar elsewhere. That’s when I remind them that I did not suggest otherwise. I know firsthand that it is not always convenient to travel. Inconvenience does not change the truth however. There have been many nights when I’ve driven fighters well over an hour each way just to spar. These fighters didn’t need more running. They needed better sparring. We had to travel to find it.

Relevance To Other Sports

Despite the boxing emphasis within this entry, the primary message has relevance far beyond any boxing ring. To become better at a sport, you need to practice the sport. Supplemental exercise is useful, but it should never take precedence over the actual sport. And while such a message may appear obvious, it does not receive nearly as much attention as it should. Most articles that are written about athletic development come from strength and conditioning coaches who are not involved in skill related activities. It’s no surprise that such activities receive secondary attention.

Yet regardless of what is written, improving at exercise does not guarantee that you’ll improve at your sport. Great athletes practice their craft more than anything else. There are elements to almost any sport that cannot be replicated without competing against other skilled athletes. You can’t do everything on your own. Therefore, while exercising harder or better may prove useful, such work will never serve as a replacement for skill.

Unfortunately, I am noting more and more athletes who are highly invested in strength and conditioning , yet perform such work at the expense of their skill development. I urge you to avoid making this mistake. Never allow supplemental exercise to interfere with sport training. It may not always be fun to compete or practice against others who are more talented, but that’s how you learn. You need to become accustomed to performing in environments where you lack comfort and control.

Once again, if it were easy, everyone would do it.


  1. Hi, Ross —

    If you have time, would love to hear your expert opinion on a video posted yesterday about Robert “The Ghost” Guerrero [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltRLt-qeJv0].

    The part that surprised me the most: “My initial assessment of Rob and his movement was like, ‘There’s no fucking way … that this guy is a six-time world champion. There’s no way,'”

    Guerrero suffered from a weak core, had no awareness of when his body was in flexion or extension, performed “atrocious” squats, and couldn’t do a pull-up.

    “I’m surprised that he’s not, like, walking around with a cane,” Chontosh says.

    Warmest Regards,

  2. A very good point Ross. Thanks for sharing your articles. Reading the above, makes me push and pull more reps.

  3. Great article. While strength training and conditioning are valuable tools to have in your tool box, the only way you’re going to become a better boxer is to box/spar. As you stated the same goes with any sport whether it’s baseball, football, wrestling, or whatever. When George Foreman was making his comeback back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Big George would sometimes spar 12 minutes at a time without a break or rest periods. It seems that fighters of the past would often base their condition on how many rounds they sparred at camp. I never heard fighters talk about improving their times in the 40 etc. Other than sparring I will say it seems a lot the old school fighters thought that next to sparring, roadwork was the key. Archie Moore, Rocky Marciano, Ali, Frazier, and many others have stated how important roadwork was for a fighter.

  4. @Carlo,
    I’ve seen the vid also and find it quite interesting. But one must not forget that this yet another vid to hype Crossfit.

    My point is – put gloves on Mr. Froning (winner of last three X-fit Games) and you can probably say the same thing: “There’s no way that this guy is a three times champion”. An L-situp doesnt necessarily have to be in the arsenal of a boxer. Same goes with Oly-lifting, etc.

    Nevertheless – as boxing and all other fighting sports involve every fitness aspect (strength, endurance, stamina and speed) it is an interesting “project”.

    I’ll guess we’ll find out in the next couple of fights of “the ghost”.

  5. I’m old enough to remember those old “Superstars” competitions from the Seventies and Eighties. For those who don’t know about these competitions, they featured different athletes from different sports competing in various competitions like bowling, hitting a baseball, tennis, weightlifing, sprints, bicycling, etc. Some of the earlier competitions featured heavyweight boxers, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and Jerry Quarry. Norton and Quarry did pretty decent, but nothing to write home about. Joe Frazier did gawd awful. Frazier could barely complete 50 yards in the swimming pool, gassed out in the bicycling event after jumping to the lead, and lifted only a very moderate weight in the weightlifting event. I believe Frazier put about 170lbs over his head, while Quarry and Norton lifted somewhere in the 210-220lb range. While Quarry and Norton appeared to be much better all-around athletes, neither could compete in the ring with Joe. Norton used to be Frazier’s sparring partner and it was said that Joe regularly got the best of Kenny in the gym.

  6. @Eric,

    Here’s another one:
    Just imagine the great “hitman” Hearns doing any kind of Crossfit WOD in his heyday. He would look awful – that’s for sure.
    Nevertheless he was probably one oft the most devastating welterweights in boxing history.

    Nevertheless – as I said – its an interesting project. We’ll see how it develops.

  7. @Sven, Frazier wasn’t a great athlete, just a great fighter. Tyson, who was built similar to Frazier was the same. Tyson has stated he wasn’t a good athlete in other sports. Saw a clip one time of Tyson playing basketball and he looked pretty bad. Norton on the other hand was an all around athlete in high school who excelled at several sports, and Norton only started boxing after he was in the Marine Corps. To be fair to Frazier, it was quite obvious that Frazier had never lifted a weight in his life, and when he took the weight from the rack at shoulder height, he almost assumed his fighting stance. He didn’t use his powerful legs at all, but for someone who has never touched a weight, it is quite a feat to jerk 170lbs overhead, no matter how big they are. The average 200lb man who has never touched a weight would probably have difficulty putting 120lbs overhead for the first time. Interestingly, bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, who competed in the same competition as Norton, did quite well. Ferrigno came in 3rd place overall(if I remember right)and did extremely well in hitting baseball, cycling, but lost in weightlifting to shot putter Brian Oldfield. Ferrigno did so well that he had offers to tryout for a couple Canadian pro football teams. Ferrigno, certainly helped put the rest rumors of weight training making one “musclebound.”

  8. @Sven, I can do one better. Imagine Mark Breland doing cross-fit. Breland’s legs made Hearn’s pins look like Tom Platz. Breland was an outstanding amatuer boxer who won the gold medal in the ’84 Olympic games. He was part of that legendary team which included Whitaker, Holyfield, Meldrick Taylor, Tyrell Biggs, etc. Breland, like Hearns was as tall as a heavyweight but boxed as a welterweight, and like Hearns had a powerful punch. Breland would capture a world title as a pro but never lived up to the hype or became the superstar that many predicted he would become. If any boxer ever needed to hit the weight room, it was Mark Breland. His frail body was what many conclude held him back as a professional.

  9. Wow this just pumped me up…..i have seen videos which would pull up your adreline rush but this kind of writing could do that never in my life.Thanks for motivating us with such an brilliant Article.

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