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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 sciences, 38(4), 430-469.
Shosha, M. (2020). “A brief introduction to therapeutic boxing.” International Journal of Physiology, Nutrition and Physical Education, 29-31.