A mind for boxing

| Written by Andre DP Encarnacion

National Boxer Mario Fernandez (right) shows his stuff in the 2017 SEA Games. (Photo by Skip Tan, via Marcus Jarwin Manalo)
National Boxer Mario Fernandez (right) shows his stuff in the 2017 SEA Games. (Photo by Skip Tan, via Marcus Jarwin Manalo)

 

Few athletic disciplines are as primal, exciting, and yet as visibly violent as boxing.

The thrill of seeing an athlete physically dominating another in the ring has been one reason behind boxing’s immense following, from the age of Pancho Villa and then Flash Elorde to that of Manny Pacquiao. Despite, or perhaps due to this popularity, it is also one of the most misunderstood of all sports. Far too easy is it for casual viewers to dismiss boxing bouts as exercises in unmethodical brutality.

Marcus Jarwin Manalo of the UP College of Human Kinetics (UP CHK), however, knows that there is much more than blind aggression to the “sweet science.”

For the past five years, Manalo has served as the Sports Psychology consultant for the Philippine National Boxing Team. Armed with lessons from the ring, he is on a mission to educate athletes and coaches on the benefits of mental skills training. And a major component of that goal is his personal quest to create an ideal environment that helps our pugilists give their best, both in sports and in life.

 

Split seconds

“What I focus on are performance issues of the athletes as well as of the coaches,” says Manalo. As opposed to Clinical Sports psychologists, who deal with severe disorders like depression, his consultancy focuses on training skills like mental toughness, goal setting, concentration, and anxiety management.

“One misconception people have is that they think these skills are innate,” he notes. “Either you have them, or you don’t. Believing nothing can be done to improve these skills, many athletes act accordingly, failing to improve them despite the nominally important status of the ‘mental game’ in sports.”

 

UP CHK’s Marcus Jarwin Manalo. (Photo by El Bacani, UP MPRO)
UP CHK’s Marcus Jarwin Manalo. (Photo by El Bacani, UP MPRO)

 

In contrast, mental and physical skills are more alike than different. “Think of dribbling and shooting skills in basketball. You need to practice them regularly. Mental skills are the same. You need constant practice for them to become automatic during competitions.”

Moreover, and contrary to stereotypes, he considers emotional control to be the cornerstone of a good boxer’s mental toolkit. The science of boxing goes far beyond mere suntukan or bugbugan. In reality, all-out aggression leaves most boxers open to counterattacks. “You want to be aggressive, but also calm in the sense that you can make good decisions in the ring. And all of these decisions are happening in split seconds.”

Manalo uses mindfulness-based interventions to help his boxers manage the chaos of competition. These involve being aware of and accepting experiences in the present moment, rather than fighting them. For practice, team members are asked to use deep breathing and guided imagery techniques even before training camp. “Sometimes it’s just them lying down and focusing on the environment, and what it sounds like.”

 

The Philippine National Boxing Team warming up. (Photo by Marcus Jarwin Manalo)
The Philippine National Boxing Team warming up. (Photo by Marcus Jarwin Manalo)

 

In competitions, worries and concerns can overwhelm an athlete before the first punch is thrown. Here, mindfulness can help them to stay in the moment. Manalo says, “It lets them know that yes, they’re feeling frustrated. Then they can recognize it, acknowledge it. And then can they ask—what’s the best thing I can do now?”

Like other skills, however, it does takes practice. “You can’t just start doing mindfulness when you’re already at the Asian Games! it might not work.”

 

Establishing rapport

Tall and trim, Manalo had always been an athlete in his own right. Like many Psychology undergraduates, however, he once dreamed of going to medical school. One class that he took at the UP Department of Psychology threw a wrench into those plans.

“The class was discussing specific fields we could specialize in,” he recalls. “Like Educational Psychology and Counselling.” In that conversation, however, someone brought up Sports Psychology. His interest piqued, the soon-to-be graduate’s goals would change forever.

 

Marcus Manalo explains the importance of mental skills. (Photo by El Bacani, UP MPRO)
Marcus Manalo explains the importance of mental skills. (Photo by El Bacani, UP MPRO)

 

After graduating, Manalo pursued a diploma in Exercise and Sports Science at the UP CHK, which he followed up with a master’s degree with a concentration in Sports Psychology from Texas Tech University.

Returning to teach in 2013, he was also recruited that year into the Association of Boxing Alliances in the Philippines (ABAP), who was on the hunt for a new Sports Psychology consultant for the national squad.

“The coaches were skeptical,” he says. “If you look at the staff, at the time I was the only one who was not a boxer. It was like: how can you help us, when you haven’t experienced what we have?”

Apart from the fact that not everyone knew what Sports Psychologists did, the former basketball player, who had never boxed in his life, found himself in a completely alien culture. How he responded, and what he still considers to be the most important aspect of his job was: “Establish rapport.”

Over the next weeks, creating a collaborative relationship with the boxers and their coaches became his top priority. Mornings, he was running with the team, doing the same exercises they were doing. His computer’s hard drive was soon filled with the team’s sparring videos. Manalo ate with the team and slept together with them during their Baguio-based training camps.

As his knowledge of the sport grew, both the boxers and the coaches also began to see Manalo as a trustworthy and approachable presence.

“It’s important to make them see that you’re not just a professional that’s comfortable in an office or clinic setting,” he said. His closeness and integration with the team also helped him to become more effective as a professional.

“Not all of our national athletes are comfortable with pen-and-paper assessments,” Manalo noted. The time he spends in casual conversation with the team, therefore, also doubles as opportunities to assess the needs of his athletes and becoming available to them individually.

 

Winning takes care of itself

With the launch of the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia this August, Manalo is expected to fly in with the Philippine team. While optimistic, especially after a strong five-medal showing in the recent Korotkov International Tournament in Russia, he does not want medals to be the team’s primary focus.

 

Marcus Manalo (front row, black jacket) celebrates with the National Team in Russia. (Photo by Marcus Manalo)
Marcus Manalo (front row, black jacket) celebrates with the National Team in Russia. (Photo by Marcus Manalo)

 

“You don’t talk about the gold medal,” Manalo points out. Fans and management may consider that the metric by which athletic success is measured, but he has seen how an exaggerated focus on outcomes can saddle athletes with unnecessary pressure. “Ironically, if you want to win, you need to have less of an emphasis on winning. If you take care of the process, winning will take care of itself.”

With in-competition preparations becoming more mental than physical, this stage may be when our pugilists may need Manalo the most. Whatever the outcome, however, he hopes that the work he is doing now can help more teams to open their minds to Sports Psychology and how it can contribute to every stage of the athletic journey.

“I think the future of Sports Psychology is bright,” he says. “The only limiting factor is that there are no institutions offering a degree in it here, you have to go abroad to study.” But with the hard work of practitioners like Manalo, more coaches and athletes are seeing its value. “Eventually,” he adds, “maybe the CHK can even offer a master’s degree in it once we get more professionals in the country and in UP!”

 

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