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Joe Frazier and the Impact of Extreme Sports 

Channel 4/ ITV questions by Ashionye Ogene  (November 2011)

Answers by Rhonda Cohen

The article is linked to Joe Frazier who died of liver cancer. He's most famous for his “Thriller in Manilla" fight with Mohammed Ali. It's well documented that the insults inflicted on him before the fight had a more lasting impact than the actual physical injuries sustained in the fight. We're interested in looking at the emotional well being and impact on athletes who compete in large scale, physically extreme sports. I've put down some questions that I'd be very grateful if you could share your thought wit me on. (Ashionye)

Athletes are under heavy scrutiny from the press and public and their peers. What effect can this have on their physical and emotional health over time?

Perhaps you can only ‘achieve when you really believe’.   I am not sure who, if anyone else has been attributed with this quote, though  Mariah Cary does sing about  “When you believe you can achievement” . 

Mohammed Ali was good at Psychological warfare.  He, took insults to a new level when he accused Joe Frazier of being a gorilla.  Ali even visually demonstrated what he was going to do to Frazier by using a rubber gorilla on TV. Name calling such as ‘gorilla in manila’ is deeply hurtful for someone like Joe who was a proud black man and it was a cruel way for Ali to gain media attention thrugh this type of psyching out.  At the 1996 Olympics lighting of the torch, Joe’s comments of  ‘they should have thrown Ali in the flames’ really illustrates Frazier’s bitterness and hatred of Ali’s tactics.

 The effects of negative emotion on performance is obvious.    Boxers are engaged in an extreme sporting situation where the focus is on knocking out the opponent.  Frazier or Ali,  in one of their interviews, did say that you can’t beat up someone if you like them.  So the hatred of the opponent is part of the boxing  as often is putting down your opponent in order to build yourself up and make yourself feel superior.

Psyching out is therefore a part of sport.   For boxing specifically, you need high levels of adrenalin in order to be ‘suitably assertive’ (controlled aggression). If you fight out of pure anger in the ring then you will be sloppy and not display the discipline needed to be a proficient boxer.

The skills of focus, confidence, anticipation and reaction time are essential to extreme sports. Boxers need to escape injury, avoid losing points or to elude a knock out.  They need a strong sense of self belief.  They need to compete at a maximum level of consistently.  Negative or extremely hurtful comments (like the gorilla comment and being a called an Uncle Tom) from an opponent (something Ali was good at) can evoke intensive emotional pain.  These underlying feelings can represent the most plausible reason as to why self doubt or despair can creep in. In fact it can be like a bit of rust or tarnish on metal which starts small but can spread.   Frazier could not have benefitted from the ‘put downs’ down.  It wasn’t until one of the latter talk shows (I think the one with Brian Gimbel) that Frazier spoke somewhat candidly about the fact that he wanted to put the rude comments from Ali behind him.  Frazier needed closure and wanted to show that he wasn’t bitter anymore.  Ali was already at the point suffering from his chronic Parkinson’s condition.  I actually believe that Joe was truly a gentleman as a sports person in that way as he didn’t continuously engage in tit for tat rebuttals.  He was there to compete and to excel in his sport.

Research has demonstrated that there a link between emotion and performance.  Boxers will develop belief about which of their emotions help performance and which are detrimental to performance.  Having an Emotional intelligence is then being able to identify and regulate your emotional states to bring about your best performance.

Public scrutiny is a great topic especially in light of all these reality shows and one not really written about psychologically.    Those in the public eye can engage in more self defeating actions when their lives or an incident is splashed over the media.  In fact, they often respond (which is not always sensible) fast in order to ‘get the situation over quicker’. This accounts for some of the negativity they feel about their status which makes failing publically more personally threatening personally. 

You could say that Frazier was consumed by negativity from Ali as well as consumed by the cancer.  And it is true that it is emotionally taxing when people continuously put you down, and bully you.  Some of this is because Ali was such a showman.  He manipulated his opponents and the public with his ‘I am the greatest’ attitude.   Getting everyone to buy into to and hoping his opponents would too.  Psyching out the opponent is a big part of boxing and other sports.

2. In what ways can professional athletes deal with emotional distress or difficulty brought on by sport?

Many feel intimidated by competitors.  Athletes need to learn to perform well under challenging situations.  Boxers or other athletes can choke under extreme circumstances.  They can be brought down by a ‘Fear or failure’ which will affect future performances  and even the thinking about failure as well as the worry and negative thoughts can  is exhaust an  athletes.  Fear of failure can be linked with fear of disappointing others, a fear of feeling embarrassment in the public eye ,a  fear of losing  not being  perfect.

However, boxers or athletes in any sport spend so much time performing under pressure that they have to get use to it and keep their mind set consistent.  One way is through changing perceptions.  Pressure is perceived and what we perceive can be changed or viewed in a different way.  It’s like the old adage about whether the glass is half full or half empty?  How you see things affects how you feel about what you are doing.  

Understanding that we are never perfect and that in sport what we aim for is consistency can help.  It sounds simple though for the perfectionist out there they know that it isn’t.  In addition, attributing success to effort and ability rather than luck can help in understand fear of failure.  Confidence building is another way that one can deal with emotional distress.

 3. Is there more help for athletes now than there was 40 years ago to deal with the emotional as well as physical pressures of their sport?

There is more help for athletes now than there was 40 years ago and ways of coping with the pressure.  Emotional conditioning is way of re-programming your mind and involves challenging the habits that you have which are associated with negative thinking.  This is done now a days with a sport psychologist and through techniques such as CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) or with a NLP practitioner (Neurolinguistic Programming). The performance effects of negative emotions are often built on a pattern of negative thinking. 

People in sport have to learn to overcome detrimental beliefs by challenging their own thinking in order to enhance their performance.  When you are conflicted about how you feel then this can create more pressure, a loss of self confidence and a loss of focus. Psychologist can help in dealing with ways to overcome the pressure and how to focus on improving skills.  So boxers need to fight their own demons first in order to fully concentrate on fight their opponent.   Psychologists can help boxers and athletes to prepare for high pressured situations and support them in developing pre  performance and performance routines  where they are as confident .