Inside the Ring, On the Court: Head vs Heart

In life, in sport, on the tennis court or in the boxing ring… it’s all about the interplay and balance between head and heart.

Both are key elements in their own right and inter-weave in ways we won’t ever fully understand.

On the one hand, we use our head for cognitive reason and judgment, to make the right decisions about which shot to play, which punch to use, where to plant our feet, where to move our feet to for the next shot (tennis) or moment (boxing).

In both of these sports, this cognitive know-how / judgment comes from the hours on court, in the ring and in the gym, in training. Practice, practice, practice. Time and time again. Of course, there are other ways to develop this cognitive muscle too, through games, drills, activities and exercises.

(Side note: professional boxer Vasyl Lomachenko is particular advocate of mental skills training, and he does some interesting stuff – watch from 3mins in this Youtube video)

Then there’s heart. That natural instinct of feeling what to do next, in reading the situation less through cognitive thought, but rather connecting through intuition.

Do you remember a time when you acted purely from having a hunch about something? You can’t quite put your finger on why, you can’t explain it logically to yourself nor others, and yet it just felt like the right thing to do.

Our individual intuition is unique. Different from the next person’s. We all have it, to one extent or another. It’s there. The extent to which we are in tune with it, however, varies. In boxing, the phrase “a fighter’s instinct” is often heart. Rafa Nadal talks in his autobiography about how, in his Wimbledon Final matches vs Federer, he wanted to feel completely in the moment, with what he describes as no thinking, just in flow, and acting from a centred place. He feels he managed to achieve this and keep his head and emotions in check when he went on to win that epic match, dubbed one of the greatest of all time, which secured his first Wimbledon trophy. The first time around, he describes the pain that followed immediately after losing to Federer, especially in knowing that he had lost against himself.

In boxing, the “fighter’s instinct” phrase is often associated with a particular type of boxer perceived as fearless, skilful and lethal, one who knows how and when to strike, and when not to, who appears to have that innate connection to his primal self in the ring, when it’s man against man, or woman against woman, and pretty much as close to “fight or flight” as one can get.

Yet there are also fighters who are warm, noble and softly-spoken; think Sugar Ray Robinson back then, or Daniel Dubois today. These fighters too, like any fighter, like any human being on this earth, can possess this “fighter’s instinct”. Going back to the earlier point – each of us has our own individual instinct, our own unique intuition. It is there, within us. It is there, within you.

Here’s the truth of the matter…

Anyone can develop their natural instinct. And anyone can therefore develop their “fighter’s instinct”. A fighter’s instinct is just their natural instinct, which is then applied in the context of a fight, when they are in the ring. This is the same for a tennis player, who can apply their natural instinct in the context of a tennis match, when they are on the court.

With mental skills, I see a lot of focus towards that cognitive element in particular. In the knowing and understanding of one’s brain (the ‘head muscle’), versus their ‘feelings’ and intuition (the ‘heart muscle’). Think the widely-known book ‘The Chimp Paradox’ by Dr. Steve Peters. It’s a good book, with some useful information and exercises. However, in my opinion the book – on its own – falls short of tending to the complete ‘mental side’, and thus of developing the whole person.

The realm of intuition and instinct, developed through awareness, processing and use of emotions/feelings, is a slightly more complicated kettle of fish.

First off, emotions and feelings can’t be seen nor described using the vocabulary of English or any other language. They are felt. This makes them difficult to convey when talking about them in person, let alone through the medium of writing.

I was fortunate to become aware of and connect with my emotions through the therapy that I went through. Through a combination of the right treatment at the right time, and with the right people (the success of therapy or coaching is strongly determined by the relationship/vibe between coach and coachee; in fact, numerous studies have shown that this is the single most important factor in determining the “success” of the therapy or the coaching).

Referring to the bracketed part in the last paragraph, that is exactly why I work with an athlete for a minimum of 3 to 5 sessions, to assess how we get along, and for us both to get some feeling as to whether our sessions might be useful, and whether we would like to continue working together. In a similar way, tennis player Novak Djokovic and Andre Agassi spent some time “hanging out” at the French Open earlier this year to assess the “vibe”, as Djokovic called it.

When an athlete focuses attention on both head and heart, and working and developing both of these crucial elements, this is when they can truly lean into the person they can be. Whether that’s on the court, in the boxing ring, or completely away from sport.

It’s all about your head and heart.

by Jasraj S Hothi
Friday 11th August, 2017