by Dr John Barry
It is often said anecdotally that boxing is a good way to help wayward working class boys to learn to be more disciplined. The British Medical Asscociation (BMA) reject this suggestion as patronizing and say that boxing should be banned (White, 2007), but my guess is that wayward working class boys don’t want the BMA to dictate their life choices, and would consider their interference patronizing.
The life story of a boxer is depicted in popular culture as one of hardship and challenge, punctuated by moments of glory. There are many such depictions, from the fictional (e.g. Rocky) to the biographical (e.g. Raging Bull), but there has been little serious academic effort to understand the psychological life of boxers.
We often hear that boxers risk brain damage (‘punch drunk’ syndrome) (Roberts et al, 1990) and other brain injuries (Bernick & Banks, 2013). But the evidence for brain damage in boxing isn’t a no-brainer, as shown by the systematic review of amateur boxing in the British Medical Journal which concluded that “there is no strong evidence for brain injury” (Loosemore 2007, p.812).
Although there are mental health benefits of exercise in general (Callaghan, 2004) and boxing in particular (Bin et al, 2015), there is a tragedy inherent in arc of a competitive boxing career, as depicted so often in Hollywood. The window of opportunity to excel in sports such as boxing is generally limited to youth and early adulthood. Within this time frame, the quality of life of a sportsman may go from humble beginnings to fame and glory, and back to humble again, in the space of a decade or two. The impact on mental health of such a trajectory is potentially immense, and potentially devastating. And although this arc is fascinating from the point of view of Hollywood, the psychological impact of such a life course has received surprisingly little attention from academia.
This is not to say that the trajectory of a boxer’s career is definitely much worse than that of other sportsmen, though given the raw competitiveness of boxing and the extreme demands and rewards of this sport, it is easy to imagine that the highs and lows might be more extreme too. Knowing the importance of job satisfaction to men (Barry & Daubney, 2017), it is difficult to underestimate the impact of these highs and lows.
There is something about the primal nature of boxing that is fascinating. Boxers seem to epitomize the ‘Fight and Win’ rule (or ‘social script’) of traditional masculinity (Seager et al, 2014). However taking this ‘rule’ to an extreme can be predictive of suicidal thinking. The dangers of pushing the ‘Fight and Win’ rule to the extreme correspond with what we know about the stress-inducing consequences of making ‘rigid demands’ of ourselves (Ellis & Harper, 1961). This makes intuitive sense, as shown in a study where participants suggested that irrational beliefs (e.g. I absolutely have to win) were associated with the suicide of a fictional boxer (Sporrle and Forsterling, 2007).
So, is boxing good for mental health? I would love to see more research on this question. What we do know is that although 75% of suicides in the general population are male, men are less likely than women to seek psychological help (Kung, 2003). Although talking about feelings is almost always beneficial for everyone, we know that men are less inclined than women to want to deal with distress by talking about their feelings (Holloway et al, 2018), and some men prefer to use exercise as a way of dealing with stress (Frydenberg & Lewis, 1993). We also know that male depression can sometimes be expressed through aggressive or even violent behavior (Brownhill et al, 2005).
Putting all of this information together, is it not a huge stretch of the imagination to suggest that men might find mental health benefits in boxing. However these benefits are probably masked by other factors, for example, the people who are the most attracted to boxing may have long-standing issues related to being raised in harsh environments, the fact that there is a risk of brain injury and cognitive impairment, and the fact that those taking a career in boxing may be in for a life of extreme highs and lows. Also, helping boxers with mental health issues is likely to be a complex task because therapists simply demanding that they talk about their feelings is unlikely to be the best way to get them to talk about their feelings.
Should we ban boxing, as the BMA suggest? I don’t think so. Rather, we should properly investigate the potential benefits. Should psychologists do more to support those who go into boxing? Definitely yes. Many boxers may have experienced a harsh early environment, and boxing is one way of keeping feelings and behaviours in check. Psychologists might offer other coping strategies, and be more aware of the stressors typical of the boxer’s life trajectory.
About the author
Dr John Barry is a chartered psychologist and co-founder of the Male Psychology Network. http://www.malepsychology.org.uk/male-psychology-network/about-us/
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Bernick, C., & Banks, S. (2013). What boxing tells us about repetitive head trauma and the brain. Alzheimer’s research & therapy, 5(3), 23.
Bin, W. A. N. G., Yang-cai, X. U., Zhi-kun, W. U., Hua-ping, X. U., & Dong-ying, W. A. N. G. (2015). Effect of wushu boxing teaching on college students’ physical and mental health. Education of Chinese Medicine, 1, 009.
Brownhill, S., Wilhelm, K., Barclay, L., & Schmied, V. (2005). ‘Big build’: hidden depression in men. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 39(10), 921-931.
Callaghan, P. (2004). Exercise: a neglected intervention in mental health care?. Journal of psychiatric and mental health nursing, 11(4), 476-483.
Albert, E., & Harper Robert, A. (1961). A Guide to Rational Living. Hollywood: Wehman Brothers.
Frydenberg, E., & Lewis, R. (1993). Boys play sport and girls turn to others: Age, gender and ethnicity as determinants of coping. Journal of adolescence, 16(3), 253.
Loosemore, M., Knowles, C. H., & Whyte, G. P. (2007). Amateur boxing and risk of chronic traumatic brain injury: systematic review of observational studies. Bmj, 335(7624), 809.
Roberts, G. W., Allsop, D., & Bruton, C. (1990). The occult aftermath of boxing. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 53(5), 373-378.
Seager, M., Sullivan, L., & Barry, J. (2014). Gender-related schemas and suicidality: Validation of the male and female traditional gender scripts questionnaires. New Male Studies, 3(3), 34-54.
White, C. (2007). Mixed martial arts and boxing should be banned, says BMA. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 335(7618), 469.