How The “Honey Badger” Leveled Up To Win Golden Gloves

“I don’t know if you’re going to win, but I know you’ll come out of this a better fighter.†Those were the words of professional boxer Mehdi Abidi to his friend Daniel Hayes, just before a Golden Gloves (amateur boxing) tournament. Hayes went on to win the tournament and became a top-ranked middleweight boxer representing Trinidad & Tobago.

Unable to participate in the 2016 Olympics in Rio due to a shoulder injury, Hayes shares how this remark from Abidi precipitated a turning point in his career.

“Mehdi and I encourage each other before a match. I was consistently the favored fighter, and pre-competition Mehdi would say, “You got this!†So he really opened my perspective when, for the first time, he talked about leading into the fight with the intention to become a better fighter. Don’t get me wrong. I want to win, but in my early years as a competitive athlete, I was only focused on winning, (which made me more vulnerable to fear).â€

Showing up to win with the intent to grow freed up Hayes to give what he refers to as “100% effort, “ earning him the nick name “The Honey Badger,†in recognition of his fearlessness. Hayes counts mental fortitude and attitude as two of his strongest suits. He talks about the importance of learning to accept failure, knowing that you’ll have the confidence to bounce back.

My conversation with Hayes brought to mind the research that guides sports psychologists and coaches in working with athletes. In whichever field you strive to be perform at your best, being aware of the psychological profile and mental skills of successful elite athletes can help you to level up as Dan did.

As presented in the go-to textbook, “Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance†(2015), top performing athletes:

  • Have high self confidence and expectations of success, with a positive attitude and thoughts about performance;
  • Demonstrate the ability to self-regulate their arousal (to be simultaneously energized and relaxed);
  • Feel in control and are able to perform with total concentration, focusing on the present task;
  • View difficult situations as exciting and challenging, maintaining a productive perfectionism (high standards coupled with the flexibility to learn from mistakes), and a strong determination and commitment.
  • Hone these mental skills: goal setting and imagery; developing competitive plans and arousal management techniques; and practicing arousal management, attention control, coping, and refocusing skills so that they become automatic.

Journaling is a core methodology used by athletes to identify the conditions that characterize and facilitate their peak experiences. It’s through this approach that sports professionals chronicle feelings associated with performing at their best, along with what they learned from these moments. They also track:

  • Stressors (on and off the field), manifestations of stress (anxiety, anger, frustration, etc.), and the related impact on their performance;
  • What they need from coaches and teammates, and how they can enhance the productivity of these relationships;
  • How they can increase their confidence, awareness, and concentration, and what they observe about their performance when they improve in these areas;
  • How they can train themselves to relax quickly, tuning into parts of the body that tend to hold more tension than other areas;
  • Strategies for focusing, coping in pressure situations, and controlling thoughts (self-talk) and arousal; and
  • Mental preparation to get the most out of practice time, including how they can avoid permitting personal challenges to affect their play.

Sports journaling involves assessing the strategies that work, and those that don’t, in order to individualize the support systems and resources that offer the most beneficial investment opportunities for the competitor. Learning is as much of a focal point in between practices, as it is during practice and during fight or game time.

Being led by an intention to grow while showing up to win, as “The Honey Badger†says, requires you to “Fail as much as you can. If you give 100%, you’ll come out better.†The proof is in his golden gloves.