A Boxing Education
Does an athlete learn to box or does a person that’s naturally proficient in a combat situation simply become an elite athlete, through a structured exercise programme, in a combat sport such as boxing? How then does a coach teach an athlete to box?
A knowledgeable coach understands that different types of learning need to be employed when structuring an athlete development course in order for the learning to be as successful as possible.
For example, practical workouts, alongside theory, personal reflection and evaluation. Also using a wide range of relevant principles of learning encourages athlete participation and interest.
In general, the characteristics of different types of learning involve memory, understanding and doing. The act of ‘doing’ or performing a skill or technique helps the learner to understand and therefore aids memory retention.
Two principles of learning that are particularly important in coaching practice are active learning and repetition which both involve doing and understanding.
Key features of activities employed in active learning are that they require boxers to move physically and constructively e.g. to represent patterns or steps in relation to their opponent or the flow of movements.
Each athlete has a preference for how they receive and process information on an individual level.
Visual learners prefer to see information, auditory learners like to hear information and kinaesthetic learners, i.e. those involved in sports, learn best when physically involved (touching, doing, feeling) with their learning.
Kinaesthetic learners benefit the most from active-learning which is why a greater emphasis should be placed on active learning in the gym, pairing athletes together to take part in partner-work.
Everyone can contribute effectively, regardless of literacy levels, and realise that hard work equals hard thinking.
Follow-up work benefits from both the degree of involvement and the clarity of thinking generated by the activity.
Continual references can be made back to the athletes' actions and reactions during activity, using questions such as ‘Do you remember when …?’ and ‘How did it feel………?’ to focus the athlete’s thinking.
The power of involvement in decision-making and role-play can also be surprising as the boxers develop a given situation when taking part in partner-work.
A host of anecdotal evidence suggests that athletes remember far more when they have taken part in active learning.
Active learning provides a most effective first layer of learning when beginning a topic or when first learning to interact with an opponent.
Boxers take vital steps in building their framework of knowledge and in developing conceptual understanding.
Over 25 years personal experience of using these activities suggests that they are not luxuries but essentials because they accelerate learning in the early stages of a boxer’s development.
They enable boxers of all abilities (most obviously novice boxers) to overcome initial obstacles they might otherwise be afraid to attempt.
Repetition is likewise a basic requisite when learning psychomotor skills such as those utilised by a boxer.
It has often been said that practice makes perfect, however practice alone does not make perfect; it is, however, a pre-requisite of perfection.
The legendary Cus D’Amato insisted that boxing is best learned through repetition.
However, simply devoting time to the learning of skills without differentiating between appropriate and inappropriate actions will not produce significant changes to the level of acquisition of these skills.
The mental assimilation of motor skills is essentially the essence of learning boxing technique. A valid interpretation of these physical skills is a difficult requirement for the boxer at any level and entails the ability to conceptualize that which takes place in a physical manner, which requires that the boxer must be able to mentally "feel" any new movement in its entirety.
A problem which arises in the learning of any new skill (or movement) is that many of the stimuli are internal and proprioceptive in nature.
Just because a boxer may know what to do with regard to a new movement, doesn't mean that he or she can in fact do it correctly.
There is one enormous problem in getting the information from the boxer's mind to his/her body.
The boxer’s only feedback is in terms of their own bodily sensations (feelings); i.e. it is kinesthetic in nature.
It is one thing to understand the technical concepts involved in performing a punching movement, but quite another to put them into practice.
This is where the teaching comes in. It is the coach’s job to effectively provide the necessary comments when differentiating between appropriate and inappropriate actions with regard to the learning of new movements.
The boxer, when trying the movement for the first time, often suffers from what has been termed as 'information overload' i.e. too much is happening all at once.
Errors should never be perfected
Only when coaches are able to reduce this overload, by pointing out to the boxer those stimuli which are important for the successful task completion are they being effective. This allows for a more rapid acquisition of the skill.
Unfortunately, there are generally not enough adequate verbal descriptions of the sensations experienced by the boxer, by which the coach can direct his learner's attention.
The private sensations (feelings) associated with movement are not readily communicable, especially as much of the processing of the information occurs at sub-cortical levels.
This, therefore, presents quite a restriction on coaches as they are not always able to provide adequate feedback. It is for this reason that the use of video analysis can be a powerful tool, as it provides a means by which boxers can compare their own internal sensations with the visible results.
Remembering the sensations that produced the observable result allows the boxer to adapt actions on the next attempt. However, for improvement to take place the boxer also should be involved in self-criticism and analysis.
In the learning of a new skill, it is important to link the components of the new skill to that of all previously learned skills. These relationships, or basic movement patterns, significantly facilitate the boxer's interpretation of the new skill.
Furthermore, the important factors that attribute to the differences between skills are anatomical in nature, whereas the mechanics of the skills themselves are usually inextricably related.
Movements can be greatly 'over learned' through many repetitions, but the "many rep" stage should be utilized only when the movement is being performed correctly.
In the early learning stages, too many repetitions using the wrong technique (or an under-developed technique at that stage) may be more harmful than beneficial.
Errors should never be perfected.
Too much "wrong" repetition in the early stages will be harmful.
The basics necessary to the performance of any new movement should be thoroughly over-learned before attempting it.
Once the idea of the new movement is obtained, then many repetitions along the correct line will stabilize it. Thus, variations under stress (as in competition) do not result in a breakdown.
Observation of most top-class boxers provides sufficient proof of this as compensate for minor errors during the execution of a skill. It is therefore to the boxer's advantage to learn the basics thoroughly and advance from one skill to another in a logical order of progression, gaining confidence along the way.
Only with such confidence will the boxer be committed to the learning of new skills.
Kevin Smith is the current National Head Coach for Boxing Australia at the AIS Combat Centre. An Englishman by birth, he has coached internationally as National Boxing Coach of Scotland, England Team Manager and coach, Olympic Coach for Nigeria, and as a Boxing High Performance Consultant to the Philippines.
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