Spartans Mind


Progression and Avoiding the Choke

By Spartans Mind

In fighting sports, there is a term known as ‘gym champ’. The gym champ is a fighter who can fight well in the gym, but when fighting in competition, their performance drops. The colloquial term for this behaviour gap is choking or choke. All sports have their version of choking: the double fault, the missed 1-foot putt, the trip on the final hurdle. 

Knowledge of choking is not only relevant for high-performance athletes (Beilock, 2010). The weekend warrior and even the casual member can enhance their enjoyment and speed up their improvement by understanding the choking phenomena. 

In this week’s blog, I unbundle some of the contributing factors to the choke and what the experienced athlete and weekend warrior can do to avoid the choke and ensure they can optimise their progress as athletes.

Mindful thinking makes sense during the learning process to avoid the choke

A key area of focus for cognitive psychology is the study of memory. When working with boxers, I like to discuss the difference between two types of memory; working and procedural. Working memory is similar to what many people think of when they think of short-term memory. Working memory is the small amount of information the brain can hold when completing a cognitive task. 

When you are learning an activity, say a new combination or footwork, working memory is essential to recall the steps required to learn the technique actively. The conscious awareness of the activity is vital for one to learn a new behaviour. We keep the behavioural steps in working memory, repeating the moves in our head as we repeat the moves with our body.

Being mindful of the technique, and having an awareness of your working memory related to the task, is crucial for your brain to learn the activity. Avoiding distractions and focussing just on that movement is crucial to both learning the move correctly and moving on to the next stage, which is automating the movement.

Once learnt, working memory becomes a hindrance

Another critical form of memory is procedural memory, the long-term memory for performing tasks. One of the best ways to understand procedural memory is to think of the memory activated when riding a bike. The learning of bike riding is a procedure held in memory and activated when required.

Once you have learnt a task, activating working memory will hinder performance. If you had to think about balancing while thinking of peddling fast, as when you first learnt to ride, your riding performance would suffer. We want to rely on procedural memory.

The same is true with boxing. The key to progression is avoiding accessing working memory once we have mastered a task, and it is in procedural memory. Once mastered, if you think about what is involved in the movement, you will block your ability to perform the task.  

Not only will you block the procedural memory’s capacity to automate the task, but going back to working memory takes a person back to what is known as a beginner’s mind. The person is taken back to what it was to be a beginner, and performance drops.

Keeping working memory occupied to avoid the choke

So, what can we do to stop the interference if we know that we don’t want working memory to interfere with procedural memory? We need to give working memory something to do other than think about the task. Focussing on something else, such as breathing, is a perfect way of entertaining working memory and stopping it from interfering with our procedural memory and, ultimately, our performance. 

Aiming for flow

We are aiming for what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) would call a state of flow. Flow occurs when we are doing a difficult task and find ourselves immersed in the activity. In upcoming posts, I will discuss flow in greater detail but suffice to say that if we can perform in a state of flow, then we can perform to our highest ability, and it will seem effortless. Flow occurs when a boxer has no idea how they pulled off a combination, saw an opening or avoided a punch before it left the person’s shoulder. Flow is captured in movies like the Matrix, and flow is a goal when working actively with an athlete.

Understanding why

For the athlete understanding the ‘why’ they want to progress toward a state of flow is a given; they want to perform to the highest possible level. However, understanding the why is also essential for the casual gym goer at Spartans. We know that progression is key to longevity in the sport, and longevity is key to long-term gains; by being explicit about ‘why,’ we set up a fundamental condition of flow, namely activity that leads to desired outcomes.

Understanding why we are boxing, be it for fitness or fighting, and what continual improvement looks like is part of our ongoing performance development. With all the athletes and weekend warriors I work with, understanding and reminding about the why is key.

Reaching your optimal level of stress to avoid the choke

Stress is not necessarily a negative thing. People need a certain level of stress to perform, as noted by what is known as the Yerkes-Dodson curve. 


When stress gets high, the positive becomes a negative, impacting our cognitive ability. Stress hampers the ability of the brain to communicate with the body. The result is a disconnection between our thoughts and actions. Hence, learning how to manage stress, a topic for a later blog, is crucial for athletes and weekend warriors alike.

Having a crowd there and replicating the scenario to avoid the choke

For athletes, one of the most stress-producing events is having an audience watching one’s event. Athletes are only human and naturally suspectable to stage fright and feelings of humiliation from performing at a level below standard. 

The key to avoiding stage fright is replicating the situation as much as possible. For this reason, Spartan’s athletes train in settings replicating what they will experience in the ring on competition day. It is not surprising that our athletes perform so well on the local and international stages.

Stereotype threat or self-evaluation

The reason that people will often choke with a crowd is due to their self-evaluation. Working with all members on appropriate self-talk, developing self-esteem, and positive reframing is crucial to any gym that takes mental health seriously. Naturally, this is a core part of the Spartan’s Optimisation app.

A go-to cognitive switch

Athletes who become stressed often need the means to get back on to the level. A statement, or body action, is required, acting as a switch for the person to begin a calming process. The switch is known as a cognitive switch, and part of mental work with athletes and members is helping them establish a cognitive switch that they can use when their emotions become unwieldy. 

Organisations have a role

Organisations have a role to play in helping members control their choke response and ensuring member progression. Stress management is not just an individual issue; organisations working with athletes must be mindful of the topics discussed in this blog and help.

Spartans takes this seriously; the progression process is evident in the design of the programs and the technical advancements in the gym. We have tools available to members to help them establish their optimal stress levels to perform. We help our athletes avoid the choke response by simulating the fight experience and ensuring they stay in procedural memory and flow.

Today’s blog is an example of how Spartans aims to optimise our athletes’ performance and regular members’ performance. Optimisation is one of the three arms of Spartans Mind, the others being repair (run in conjunction with clinical psychologists) and strengthen (our outreach programme for at-risk youth and ex-offenders). We look forward to keeping you updated on all the developments in Spartans Mind through the blog and, of course, our in-gym initiatives.


Beilock, S. (2010). Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to. Simon and Schuster.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikzentmihaly, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (Vol. 1990). New York: Harper & Row.

why boxing

Why boxing? Why Spartans Boxing Club?

By Spartans Mind

In 2022 I took the opportunity, post selling my company, for a career change. While still a committed psychologist focused on high performance, I chose to follow my passion and take up the role of Chief Psychologist at Spartans Boxing Club. The reasons behind my shift in focus say a lot about the evolution of boxing training, its relationship to mental health and being able to work for an organisation that takes a holistic approach to the health of its members. 

Boxing is a form of exercise that has proven benefits for mental health.

A recent paper (Shosa, 2020) reviewed the therapeutic benefits of boxing with noted benefits including:

  • speech, social interaction skills, and mental health of individuals with Parkinson’s disease;
  • improved gait, balance, activities of daily living and quality of life;
  • one of the effective rehabilitation programs for COPD patients;
  • enhances mood, helps posture, improves hand-eye coordination, and effectively mental illnesses

The benefits of boxing resulted in the coining of the term ‘therapeutic’ boxing and a call for more studies on how to incorporate boxing into holistic approaches to mental health. Indeed, the term therapeutic boxing encapsulates the many papers and studies that have shown the benefits of boxing for mental well-being. In a research paper for the Northern Ireland Assembly (Hull, 2012), boxing was one of two sports cases studied for improving mental health. The qualitative comments are encouraging for boxing

  • Before I started the Boxercise programme I was suffering from agoraphobia, low self-esteem and depression, I wasn’t working or leaving my house other than to attend medical appointments. It had a major impact in helping me regain ownership of my own life…The first three sessions I found it very hard. It was the last place I wanted to be – I felt down, had low self-esteem and low confidence, but by the fourth session I was actually looking forward to it. By the fifth session, I had a lot of confidence and had started to eat properly and sleep. I was managing to go out and see people and by the end of it I had got the boxing bug.
  • I was really looking forward to it, to be honest, something really physical rather than just talking about things. It was the first thing I’d looked forward to for years…Once you start to learn the complexities of boxing, I found it was the only time I could focus completely on something else, with no time for my mind to wander off and think things it shouldn’t.

The science behind the benefits of boxing is not just from single studies. In a recent meta-analysis (think an analysis of multiple studies combined) of the benefits of HITT (High-Intensity Interval Training), boxing was one of the most studied exercises, demonstrating a range of positive results and the exercise modality with the highest completion rate (Martland, Mondelli, Gaughran, & Stubbs, 2020)

After a review of the literature, the benefits of boxing across the well-being spectrum were clear. I want to be part of the growing movement for holistic health, and Spartans offered that opportunity.

Optimal health is not just physical

Building on the previous point, boxing helps those suffering from mental health issues and those interested in what I have termed supra or optimal performance (Englert 1997; 2016). Fitness centres need to recognise that the driver for many people to go to the gym is not just physical but also about improving their mental well-being. Gyms that are genuinely committed to the health of their members can’t ignore the mental sides of health, which are arguably more important than physical fitness.

Boxing helps those less fortunate

I started my career in youth work. Initially, this was counselling, but over time this moved into running a youth centre for disadvantaged youth. I have worked with ex-offenders, some of whom have gone on to great accomplishments. In this later stage of my career, I wanted a job where I could give back. I wanted a job that involved working again with troubled youth and showing them that life can change.

Boxing is almost synonymous with youth programmes globally. In many socially depressed areas, one will often find a boxing gym. Despite many of these youths coming from violent backgrounds and concerns about boxing programmes increasing violence, research findings such as those in the Irish report mentioned earlier indicate quite the opposite:  

There had been some anxiety among health professionals that Boxercise and boxing methods may actually increase aggression and violence among people with mental health problems, which certainly has not been the case whatsoever…What it has done is to improve physical fitness in all participants in some there was quite noticeable weight loss. This is quite important to help prevent health risks such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. (Dr Deji Ayonrinde of the Bethlem Royal Hospital).

Few occupations allow me to blend all my passions and give back to the community, especially in a country that has given me so much. 

Spartans takes the down-side of boxing and boxing safety seriously

All contact sports have potential downsides on the body and the brain. Boxing is no exception, and the downsides of contact boxing are well documented. Spartans is a different gym that has adopted the slogan, ‘boxing without bruises’. 90% of the members will never spar or enter the ring. A further 5% will engage in light sparring.  

For the 5% of members who actively spar or fight, our sparring is done in a controlled manner with head gear, mouth guard and lowered intensity. For the fight teams, those that want to fight, safety is paramount, not just at Spartans but as mandated by the Singapore Boxing Federation. Fights are stopped well before severe damage, standing eight counts are liberally given, and coaching corners are always mindful of the health of their boxers.

Serious competitive boxing is a young person’s sport. Much like soccer, rugby and any martial arts, there are risks. But for those who love the sweet science, managing these risks is part of the price of enjoying the sport they love. Gyms like Spartans understand the need to prioritise safety and make boxing safe for all, including their fight team.

Spartans Mind

With all of these benefits and safety concerns addressed, it was a no-brainer to join the team at Spartans. Working with the senior leadership team of Russ and Naz, we developed the concept of what a holistic offering might look like and agreed on three arms:

  1. Optimisation: Taking the mental health of our members seriously, we will introduce an app and tools that allow members to monitor their mental health, with helpful tips, videos, and interventions for those that want or need a mental health boost. We have partnered with one of Singapore’s leading providers of wellness apps to offer the service, which will be a first for Singapore fitness centres. In addition, we will look at novel ways to integrate mental health initiatives into our existing programmes and keep members up-to-date on boxing and mental health.
  2. Repair: Working in tandem with clinical psychologists in the community, we will be offering programmes to members and non-members that combine psychotherapy with physical activity. Progress will be monitored and include one-on-one sessions until the person is ready and willing to join a class.  
  3. Strengthen: We have developed an outreach programme for disadvantaged youth and ex-offenders. Working with Narash and the team at Impart and Futureselves, this 12 programme aims to teach life skills while improving physical fitness.

For those wondering how serious I ‘am about this change, let me say that I believe so much in Spartans that I have invested in the company. Being part of such a fantastic team and wonderful group of people was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down, and I feel blessed to be starting my next career. Watch this space.


Englert P. (2016) Confronting Reality Beyond Positive Illusions: Objective 

Appraisals for a Growth Mind-set and Positive Mental Wellbeing. Paper presented at the International Conference on Wellbeing, Singapore.

Englert, P. (1997). Eliminating the negative in positive illusions: A blue print 

for the maintenance of mental health during unemployment and redundancy. In P. Howland (Ed.). Voices in Continuum (pg. 115-126). Victoria Postgraduate Association: New Zealand.

Hull, D. (2012). The relationship between physical activity and mental health: a summary of evidence and policy. Northern Ireland Assembly, Research and Information Service.

Martland, R., Mondelli, V., Gaughran, F., & Stubbs, B. (2020). Can high-intensity interval training 

improve physical and mental health outcomes? A meta-review of 33 systematic reviews across the lifespan. Journal of sports sciences38(4), 430-469.

Shosha, M. (2020). “A brief introduction to therapeutic boxing.” International Journal of Physiology, Nutrition and Physical Education, 29-31.