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Understanding fear in professional boxing using Reflexive Thematic Analysis: Long fear is fantastic!

Mathias Alberton, Sport Psychology, Roehampton University, 26/04/2023


BSc Dissertation


Understanding fear in professional boxing using Reflexive Thematic Analysis: Long fear is fantastic!


“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

― Frank Herbert, Dune


“Fear is your best friend. Fear is like fire. If you learn to control it, you let it work for you. If you don’t learn to control it, it’ll destroy you and everything around you.”

― Mike Tyson, Undisputed Truth


“Where your fear is, there is your task.”

― Carl Jung, Letters 1951-1961



Boxing, injury and stress

Boxing is a combat sport in which two fighters, limited to using only punches to attack/defense, aim to unable the opponent to continue the match or to outscore him/her (Collins & Poliakoff, 2018; Further boxing/divisions description in Appendix A). The contenders are alone in an untouchable place separated from reality, even physically elevated from it. Once in the ring, under the scrutiny of judges, each boxer will have to fight for victory or to undergo public defeat alone. The opponent will be someone looking to overcome you by beating you up to unconsciousness. As a direct consequence of this, boxing is different than other sports in that it involves the certainty of some degree of injury, mostly in the face and in the head, and it offers the possibility of major ones causing interruption in training or competition (Bromley et al., 2017).

Consistently, critical reviews and meta-analysis of epidemiological data have found head concussion, skull fracture and cuts to be the most frequent injuries in boxing, followed by trauma to hands/wrists/arms (Tjønndal et al., 2021; Alevras et al., 2022). Head injuries occur twice as many times in competition vs training, whilst hand/wrist injuries skyrocket up to 1000 times (Loosemore et al., 2016). Furthermore, all injuries increase with the athlete’s age. Up to 30% of injuries lead to a halt from active sport participation longer than 7 days (Lystad et al., 2020), whilst the repetitive head concussions recorded in boxing can lead to dramatic outcomes such as cognitive (i.e., dementia), behavioral, mood and motor function chronic disabilities (McKee et al., 2009; Zetterberg et al., 2018).

Injury and judgment are intertwined in boxing, because the athletes will be prized and/or penalized according to the amount of injury that they will inflict and be inflicted with, at the same time. It could be argued that injury represents a sort of pivotal stressor (inextricably rooted in the middle of the action around which boxing revolves, that is fighting), given its central role in the environmental demands faced by the boxer (Sarkar & Fletcher, 2014). In other words, injury is at the core of the fight, revealing its double nature as a means-to-an-end (that is purposely winning) and as the growling of defeat, with the former to be exploited and the latter to be dealt with if not, most unlikely, avoided.  Interestingly, every athlete could experience this pain/injury stressor in different ways (e.g., with anxiety or fear, but also as a challenge or a goal) according to the everchanging circumstances during a bout or because of (or thanks to) previous experiences, differently than other competitive (e.g., preparation and expectations) and organizational (e.g., athletic career and finance issues) stressors, often shared among elite sports (Mellalieu et al., 2009).

Stress and coping

In sport, the term “stressor” has acquired a neutral conceptualization of a stimuli (i.e., demands) posed by the environment over the athlete (Mellalieu et al., 2009; Sarkar & Fletcher, 2014). However, certain circumstances can be perceived as negative stressors when threatening (psychological danger) or harmful (physical danger), thus leading to anxiety pre/during competition (Ford et al., 2017; Spielberger, 1990). Intuitively, boxers must develop different coping strategies to reduce/overcome any negative emotional response detrimental to their performance during the critical moments of a bout/sparring.

Importantly, the context in which the stressor occurs also influences the coping strategies adopted, which in turn evolve over time (Lazarus, 1993). The core idea, encapsulated in the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping (TMSC; Lazarus & Folkman 1984 in Vollrath, 2001), is that people and environment interact continuously with one another (trans-act), with emotions acting as moderators between cognitive response and coping. Furthermore, any stressful situation will result in a balance/imbalance between the demands and the individual’s available resources used to manage them (Hulbert-Williams et al., 2012). In the model, the way in which the person first evaluates the situation as relevant to his/her/their well-being is referred to as primary appraisal. For instance, interpreting if any harm/loss has just occurred (assessment of what is in the past) or if there is the immediate threat/challenge of an imminent one (anticipation of what is in the future). Also, how badly the situation is affecting the person (motivational congruence) is primarily appraised in respect to how much one has contributed to creating it (motivational relevance). At the same time, deciding if one has the resources to face the situation is referred to as secondary appraisal (subcomponents: accountability, problem-focused coping potential, emotion-focused coping potential, and future expectancy). If demands are not met because of secondarily appraising inadequate resources, stress arises. Then, as time passes and the circumstances change, reappraisal/feedback keeps updating (Smith & Lazarus, 1993; Hulbert-Williams et al., 2012).

Specifically, a problem-focused coping approach is an effort to limit the demands, and the emotion-focused one is an effort to limit the emotional response (Smith & Kirby, 2011). Across literature, the idea that an intense emotion-response tends to be detrimental to an effective rational coping has found momentum, although Lazarus himself reinforced that “...In a culture centered on control over the environment, it is easy to come to the erroneous conclusion... that problem-focused coping is always or usually a more useful strategy” (Lazarus, 1999, pp. 123-124 in Austenfeld & Stanton, 2004). In the model, fear/anxiety share a common core relational theme of danger/threat and are motivationally relevant, but incongruent, and have a low emotional-focused coping potential (Smith & Lazarus, 1993; Hulbert-Williams et al., 2012). Last, personality could also play an important role in both appraisal and adaptation to different stressful situations and the Transactional Model might not sufficiently consider any effect of individual differences (Suls et al., 1996; Vollrath, 2001).  

Anxiety and fear in sport psychology

Quintessentially, a threat is a level of uncertainty about danger, which is appraised (threat appraisal; TA) either by over-estimating the probability of the threat or its consequences and that can, therefore, lead to under-estimate one’s available resources to cope with it. As possible outcome of TA, fear or anxiety can rise, which in turn trigger protective reactions to the immediate direct threat or an apprehensive anticipation of a future one, respectively (Milne et al., 2019; Smith & Lazarus, 1993). Researchers have given a lot of attention to investigating anxiety in sports (Bromley et al., 2017; Weinberg & Gould, 2019; Horn, 2008). It can be defined as “an emotional reaction to a stimulus perceived as dangerous” (Spielberg, 1972 in Hanin, 2000, p. 93) that has been observed pre and during competition (Batista et al., 2018; Kirkby & Liu, 1999) and studied according to gender and type of sport (Correia & Rosado, 2019). In sport, anxiety can also lead to choking, a specific negative response to perceived pressure (Hill et al., 2010), and to internalize failure if defeated (Ryan & Deci, 2000; Horn, 2008, pp. 289-312). However, the idiosyncrasies of anxiety seem to root down to the individual athlete and the Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning (IZOF) model has highlighted that any intervention too should be individually bespoken. In the IZOF sport-specific framework, by supporting the athletes in becoming aware of the correlation between their psychological state and success they can then start acting upon it (Hanin, 2000). Along with being exposed to an unforgiving physical pain reinforcing any feeling of failure if defeated, and practicing an individual sport in which success can be also determined by judges (Reardon et al., 2021), boxing is set to be the perfect storm for creating an anxious response in athletes.

As distinct from anxiety, fear is referred to as “an unpleasant feeling rising as a normal response to danger” (Marks, 1987, p. 5) that “gradually subsides when the specific stimulus is no longer present” (Dias et al., 2013), but also as an emerging in consciousness, a human conscious interpretation of one’s neurological cascade creating, de facto, ‘fear’ as a response to a stimulus (LeDoux, 2014). In sport, fear has been primarily conceptualized either as fear of failure (hence related to the achievement motivation framework) (Taylor et al., 2021) or as fear of getting injured/re-injured (hence related to a successful return to sport) (Hsu et al., 2016; Kvist & Silbernagel, 2021). However, the above conceptualizations do not account for potentially putting one’s own life at risk willingly as a part of a sport experience. This possibility is inherent within boxing, as applying pain and punishment is an instrument to victory. Fear has been studied primarily in terms of conditioning and neurological pathways (LeDoux, 2014), acquisition and maintenance (Craske et al., 2006) and clinical disorders (Marks, 1987). It has been investigated also in the context of war and military training where interventions aimed to improve self-efficacy, defined as “the belief one has in being able to execute a specific task successfully” (Bandura, 1977) have been proven useful (Rachman, 1984; 1990).

Surprisingly, only a few studies have explored fear in sport, if not specifically in extreme sports (e.g., base jumping, big wave surfing, extreme skiing, waterfall kayaking, extreme mountaineering and solo rope-free climbing; Brymer & Schweitzer, 2012). Extreme sports’ peculiarity is that any mismanaged mistake can potentially lead to death (Brymer, 2005), albeit not because of a physical confrontation. Besides, any mistake in boxing can lead to a wide range of outcomes but very unlikely to death, posing another substantial difference between it and extreme sports. Some have suggested that participating in extreme sports can be the result of a dysfunctional relationship with excitement (Brymer, 2010) but it has also been noticed that extreme sports could work as a booster for humility and connection with nature (Brymer & Oades, 2009).

Early research observed how tension before a bout is a daunting common thought detrimental to performance in the absence of appropriate relaxation in the body and stillness in the mind among college-level boxers. Fear of being defeated and that this is going to happen in public has been pointed out as important too but, more specifically, that the fear of injury must be tamed to progress (Brenton G., 1943). Fifty years later, US military cadets were compelled to face the very same fear through compulsory boxing-practice before successfully graduating, with record anxiety levels compared to all other trainings (Haines, 1994). On the other hand, ongoing practice and the repeated exposure to fights’ punishment appear to create a callous resistance to fear in professional boxers. Possibly, because of a stratified self-efficacy effect (that is relying over past successfully executed tasks which, added one to another, contribute to understand a new one as doable or even easier) building fight after fight or because of a desensitization to fear, promoted by steadily repeating the same dangerous task (Rachman, 1984). In line with these observations, at this writing, there is not a minimum number of amateur fights one must have before turning professional, but great champions such as Floyd Mayweather (15 world champion titles), Tyson Fury (currently ranked as the world's best active heavyweight) and Deontay Wilder (currently second best) had 92,30, and 25, respectively (Fischer, 2023). Therefore, it would be possible to imply that professional boxers have experienced fear per se in their early white collar (amateur) boxing days, although little transpires about it from their most recent accounts, like they never experienced it at all, or like fear has being somehow “integrated” in by their emotional and cognitive functioning (e.g., desensitization) and that it is now appraised differently than before (e.g., self-efficacy).

Present study and research question

Overall, the very concept of fear per se seems to be elusive in sport psychology literature, not being included directly in any of the major “appraisal” frameworks (Hanin, 2000), but always somehow broken down into a “smaller” and more “manageable” anxiety to cope with (intervention-wise), using different techniques (Nicholls & Polman, 2007). For instance, in swimming relaxation has been used to reduce anxiety whilst in rugby self-talk has been deemed more effective. In golf instead, training a longer quiet-eye (that is the focus on the final goal-task) is a useful skill to avoid mounting anxiety in the final moments before putting by gaining greater attentional control (Horn, 2008). Instead, although relaxation is commonly promoted by coaches as part of training in boxing, there is a void in research about it to date to the best of the researcher’s knowledge, nor about tackling anxiety or fear specifically.  Fear is a subjective, often unconscious (LeDoux, 2014) and almost “forbidden” experience (elaborating on Sotres-Bayon & Quirk, 2010 and Brymer & Schweitzer, 2012), as opposed to more common physiological and cognitive adversities such as feelings of anxiety and experiencing injuries shared by all athletes in their careers (Duthie et al., 2003).

In the present study, fear as a unique experience independent from anxiety will be explored by looking at how different professional boxers, sharing the same potential existential threat in front of, and because of, their opponents, make sense of it. The following proposed questions will be addressed: A: Drawing from their own experience, how do professional boxers make sense of fear? B: How do they cope with it? C: Do professional boxers understand fear to be different than anxiety and, if this is the case, how? Contributing to the limited existing literature on the topic, this study will help better define and categorize fear and anxiety as similar or different, and in which aspects, in sports. A wider understanding of these constructs could improve sport psychology’s interventions preventing boxers from falling short of cognitive strategies during the more psychologically demanding moments of a bout, optimizing their performance. Furthermore, investigating fear as an inherent component of boxing is ethically important for policymakers when considering the boundaries of what is normal within sports, if these were to promote physical and psychological well-being. 


Study design

A generic qualitative approach was adopted for this study. It was considered more appropriate to investigate the wide range of possible meanings attributed by different individuals to a set of emotions and feelings experienced by them in different moments and in different ways (Smith, 2016). As opposed to a quantitative approach based on an objectivist epistemology (that is statistically interpreting social behaviors as they were an immutable reality to then generalize any finding), a qualitative approach takes the context molding people’s actions in consideration, whilst allowing people to explain such a process with their own words through interviews (Yilmaz, 2013; Krauss, 2015). People and situations interact one another influencing knowledge (transactional epistemology, that is the subjectivity of knowledge), which in turn is idiosyncratic to the individual (relativist ontology, that is different social realities coexist as they are alterable constructions) and that can be investigated only by a personal exchange between investigator and responder (hermeneutical and dialectical methodology) (Guba & Lincoln, 1994). Coherently, these constructions (namely how fear and anxiety are made sense of by professional boxers) are explored in the present study through an interpretative approach, as it is not possible to objectively depict reality but only through an ongoing negotiation between people and its very nature (Sandberg, 2005).

Participants and sampling

Purposeful sampling was used in the present study as it helps gaining access to information-rich participants particularly experienced with the subject of interest (i.e., professional boxing) and, therefore exposed to the potential phenomenon researched (i.e., fear). In addition, their willingness to participate in a podcast freely distributed online (i.e., Martial Attitude Voice podcast; Alberton, 2022) allowed the researcher to evaluate their ability to share opinions in a rich, articulate and reflective manner as consistent with the aims of the study and the assumptions of homogeneity (i.e., all interviews, reduced variation across them, and depth description of the topic) (Palinkas et al., 2015). The researcher had the opportunity to know one of the participants (Guido Vianello) a couple years back before the start of the current study: the occasion being the researched providing professional consultation as sport massage therapist for another boxer (Masood Abdulah), who he trained with in the same gym when in London. Guido Vianello was invited to take part in the Martial Attitude Voice podcast and to talk about his experience and training as an athlete in the 2016 Olympic Games and he was positively impressed by the experience. Following, he expressed interest on the topic of fear in boxing and registered a second episode which, eventually, became the first of the series here analyzed. Guido Vianello also introduced two of the future participants (Alessio Mastronuzio and Natty Ngwenya).  Independently, Masood also asked to take part, and later referred Numan Hussain. Participants were all males, and appeared on Martial Attitude Voice podcast in the following order, from the oldest to the newest: Guido Vianello (nationality Italian, age 28, division heavyweight, podcast recorded on the 12/10/2022), Alessio Mastronunzio (Italian, 28, super welter, 30/11/2022), Masood Abdulah (British, 29, featherweight, 08/12/2022), Numan Hussain (British, 34, super featherweight, 05/02/2023), and Nkosilathi Ngwenya (known as Natty, South African, cruiser, 33, 01/03/2023).

Data collection

Digital technologies have grown both in exposure and importance in the context of sport, exercise and health and they are now widely used in qualitative research as they represent an extremely valuable source of rich data whether this might be digital texts, images or videos, online networks or digital interactions (Goodyear & Bundon, 2020). Podcasts belong to this last category as they are digital audio/video/text available online on different downloadable platforms (Smith et al., 2020), hence representing a digital qualitative method (Smith, 2016, pp. 355–367) in their own right. Podcasts have been used to investigate very different things: from sport, mental health, and wellbeing among newcomer youth (Smith et al., 2020), to coping strategies against discrimination within gay communities (Rinke, 2022) and the therapeutic power of podcasts for people who lost someone to deal with their grief (Peterson, 2022), to mention a few. The chosen sample of podcasts was accessed online on Martial Attitude Voice podcast (Alberton, 2022), available to listeners on Spotify and other online platforms: Five podcasts (almost six hours of recordings) with five professional boxers of different ages and categories, focusing on their subjective experience about fear in the context of boxing pre-during-post bout.

Ethical considerations

Given that the content of the podcasts is in the public domain, to use it for research purposes is considered ethical practices under the research guidelines. For example, for quoting informants and use of real names and does not require informed consent (“personally identifiable information or records without specific consent of the individuals when the information is already in the public domain” (University of New England, 2010; University of Roehampton, 2014). All athletes taking part in the interviews are professional boxers and, therefore, public figures. Therefore, their personal details such as age and occupation are in the public domain, and using this information for research purposes adheres to institutional ethical guidelines (Appendix B).

Interview protocol

All interviews analyzed in the present study were available online on Martial Attitude Voice podcast and performed face-to-face and lasted between 32 and 82 min (total recording time = 247 minutes, mean time/episode = 49.4 minutes). Each interview was conducted within different training stages of each athlete and, therefore, some took place weeks before a fight or a few days/weeks later the last one. Two interviewees were Italians (Guido Vianello and Alessio Mastronuzio) and being the researcher also mother tongue Italian, this language was used in these episodes. Using a semi-structured format, all boxers were led through an identical set of 28 questions also similarly phrased (Appendix C). However, the podcasts were run in a flexible way, to dive into specific topics as these arose or the occasion permitted, enhancing fluency and richness of information acquired (Patton, 2015). According to Patton’s interviews principles, different probes were used to unpack issues at a finer level of detail (e.g., Let me rephrase this: you said X, Y, Z... correct?”; “Could you please expand on this more?”; “What effect did that have?”). Overall, the podcasts were run as conversations with a focus point on fear. Therefore, the host introduced the guest and usually started off with a series of general questions related to the background, the training and the competitive season to make the athlete first feel fully at ease with the podcast experience as a pertinent part of the interview process, this also facilitate to build rapport between the interviewer and the athlete. Only after, the researcher started posing more challenging questions on fear, these also structured with an ideal logical order. At the end of all podcasts, except for the one with Guido Vianello, the boxers were asked to listen to the dictionary definitions for both fear and anxiety (Appendix D) and were asked whether they agreed with them or not, also thinking retrospectively to the conversation they just had.

Data analysis

Reflexive Thematic Analysis (RTA) was chosen for this study as it is a flexible approach to develop/analyze already existing data for comprehensive common themes and to interpret them. RTA can be a very inductive methodology, allowing to analyze what is embedded in the language: for instance, beliefs or assumptions which in turn can be common to different people connected to one another (Fairclough, Mulderrig & Wodak, 2011). RTA was conducted with an explicit lens (Braun & Clarke, 2006), hence with a practical approach rather than with a theoretical one as for Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), where the focus is intended to uncover hidden meanings (Spiers & Riley, 2018). Still, RTA methodology allowed the researcher to be an active part of the process, not to force any result to be driven by a mechanical, descriptive analysis which would have limited potential further interpretation of the data (Braun et al., 2016) and new ways to understand the social world (Braun & Clarke, 2006).

Reflexive thematic analysis procedural overview and quality criteria

To guarantee quality, RTA was conducted using the systematic six-phase model of Braun et al., (2016) and their 15-points “checklist”. Firstly, the interviews were transcribed verbatim (Appendices E, F, G, H, I). Secondly, from each transcript, multiple readings allowed to familiarize (phase 1) with the data, and different notes were taken, which in turn led to the creation of initial codes (phase 2) labelling interesting parts of the data relevant to participants’ experiences. Thirdly, the identified codes were grouped into candidate themes (phase 3), which identified both what is important to the professional boxers and what it meant to them. After careful review, some of the refined and named themes were organized in a structure to present overarching themes, which then included subthemes (phase 4); These finalized themes which best represented the data were the backbone of the rich analysis’ development (phase 5) (Appendix J). Lastly, all the existing notes and written analytic work done so far were edited and developed by writing it up in the overall report (phase 6). The six phases above were not intended as mere consecutive steps and, as new insights were acquired through the process, it was possible to review past steps (Braun & Clarke, 2006; Braun et al., 2016). Overall, RTA was conducted considering its quality to be evaluated through the criteria of ‘the 4 R’s’ rigor (the diligence used throughout the analysis process), relevance (the contribution in better understanding the researched phenomenon, that is fear in boxing), resonance (the use of evocative imaginary within the RTA text to have a clearer, bigger impact on the reader) and reflexivity (the researcher transparency in taking into account his own subjective openness and self-awareness) (Finlay, 2021).

Transparency and reflexivity

Qualitative research is inherently subjective and, therefore, reflexivity is essential as all interviews are all led by the researcher who, being a dynamic part of the process, might influence the information gathered by underlying beliefs (e.g., how data is collected, coded, analyzed and reported) (Braun and Clarke, 2006). The researcher has actively trained in Kung Fu over the years, discovering a preference for those emphasizing defensive technique movements. Retrospectively, he has noticed how much these helped him overcome unresolved issues with past episodes of physical and verbal abuse happened in separate moments at the hands of different people, not part of family and friends, which triggered profound feelings of fear at the time of events. Although fascinated by martial arts and the narrative of “control over power through discipline” behind them, the researcher never practiced boxing and remains puzzled over the individual choice of boxers to be punched at and to withstand the horrible feeling that he thinks would feel unavoidable and overwhelming. Any personal political or religious belief that harm and violence should be ideally avoided has not affected the analysis/coding process, in the researcher's opinion. Rather, a conceptual bias could be found in the results and their interpretation as driven by an underlying intuition that loss, pain, anger and fear are somehow consequentially and inevitably intertwined when their outlet is fighting, whether this might be considered sport or not. Lastly, transparency of the analysis was enhanced by the researcher using NVivo (version 13.23.0), which allowed to have an audited trail of the process and, by extension, trustworthiness and plausibility (Appendix K).


The RTA produced four overarching themes, namely: 1. Fear and anxiety go hand in hand; 2. Fear keeps us alive; 3. The fear of losing everything is right there in boxers’ faces; 4. Coping with fear is to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.

  1. Fear and anxiety go hand in hand

Anxiety and fear appeared to be almost equal in the words of all boxers within the sample, who referred to them as interchangeable throughout the podcasts, at least in terms of overall feeling and of how this feeling compelled them to behave. Across the interviews, participants expressed how if one was feeling frightened, it would also mean that one was anxious and vice versa. Working hand in hand, any difference was instead pinpointed to the timing in which anxiety and fear are appraised. To expand, anxiety was referred to as an anticipatory appraisal of future events, whilst fear itself was experienced more in the present moment when the threat is right in front of them. For example, one boxer, Masood reported:

Hard to say because I can't differentiate the two too much. I feel like fear and anxiety come hand in hand. Fear is there's a lot more in your face. Anxiety is just like... different, different feelings you get at different moments. (…) You're just afraid of the outcome.

Interestingly, in the context of boxing this could indicate that during the whole preparation for a future fight, which frightening experiences were somehow lived already at earlier stage, and they were so clear and present for the boxers that fear sticked with them from day one to fight-night. Importantly, the similarity expressed between fear and anxiety, if not for their apparent temporal component, provided a precious insight to the last research question on whether fear and anxiety are different or not and how, whilst also functions as a cornerstone for interpreting the subsequent themes, focusing on how boxers make sense of this feeling and how the cope with it.

  1. Fear keeps us alive

This superordinate theme was influenced by the convergent statements upon fear being innate, unavoidable and fundamental for one’s self-preservation. Across interviews, participants described how fear related to a necessity “to stand your ground in front of evil” which translated in the appraisal of a fight-or-flight situation and into the necessity to act upon it. As it turned out, fear not only enabled a swift physical mobilization but also rose self-awareness in the boxer tuned into the dangerous perils of surviving the fight not by escaping it, but by facing it, and, therefore, by becoming himself the instrument of danger. To exemplify, Guido reported:

Still, I repeat, it is always a thing that makes you be self-aware, it makes you defend yourself, because boxing is attack-defense and defense-attack at the same time, therefore you must always have clear in your mind what you are doing and, in this, fear helps you.

Interestingly, across interviews, participants reinforced the importance of fear as a self-preservation mechanism by considering the negative assumption that a man without fear s almost a non-sensical proposition, because he would lack the self-awareness and the heightened state of self-protection necessary to stay alive in the dangerous context of boxing. Hence, participants indicated that it would be unwise not to feel fear, an instance that would inevitably lead any boxer to lose and to get hurt, defying the whole purpose of the confrontation. At the same time, any appraisal of present and future danger was triggered by fear itself, a fundamental component without which the athlete would be unequipped to take responsible decisions about what to do in preparation of the tasks ahead. Guido stated: “If a boxer wasn’t feeling fear, he would go into the ring to get punched at a lot because, not having any alarm signaling, he would come unprepared and, therefore, would underestimate everything.”

Linked with anxiety, all participants consistently expressed the same idea of fear as accountability. The instant fear is felt, a cascade effect on future actions such as training is put in motion to which this responsibility applies through disciplined behavior. Discipline was consistently reported as an integral part of the preparation, this lasting several weeks before a fight. In the words of participants, the final goal of victory was aggravated already right after the moment of it being scheduled by the certainty of pain and injuries that would have eventually occurred in the endgame. In turn, this perspective made fear of future events already and constantly present, as it was already the fight-night, which in turn compelled boxers to have disciplined behavior throughout. Masood stated: “He had seven wins, six knockouts. If I didn't fear his power, I wouldn't have prepared in the way I did.”

In their retrospective narrative during the podcasts, boxers overcame their opponents, and, eventually, conveyed a sense of gratitude to fear. In fact, in a novel and counterintuitive way, findings pointed to fear as having a positive, mentoring effect to thrive by being self-aware not only of the risks of boxing, but also of the amount of disciplined work necessary during preparation to avoid any harm and, eventually, any loss. In the words of Numan: “Fear, if used correctly, is fantastic!” Fear has become almost a companion, to which one is neutrally accustomed to rather than petrified by, and that can be ultimately translated into physical action. This deep knowledge of fear is concretized in the boxers’ capability to tune-in with their opponents, to see fear in them because of certain cues in the physicality of the adversary’s actions. Fundamentally, boxers described appraising threat both inwardly/outwardly, constantly evaluating both the resources available to them and to the opponent, so that what is potential fear for one (flight) is catalyzed in destructive energy for the other (fight) as exemplified by Guido: “And you can also see when someone takes a hit and steps backwards. (…) If you feel he is scared, you punch him hard straightaway.”

Therefore, fear literally keeps the boxers alive throughout practice, by calling upon accountability in their discipline, and during the physical confrontation of the fight, by providing them with all the necessary cues to protect themselves or to weaponize their power.  

  1. The fear of losing everything is right there in boxers’ faces

This theme relates to the negative darker experience of fear for the boxers, which related to both the fear of failure in performance and in life intertwined with that of present and future injuries. Through boxers’ eyes, when fear was not appraised positively, it meant suffering. Suffering the pain of the punches right now, but also the fear of failure possibly deriving from this pain. The two concepts are different in their physicality, but also in their timelines, one being the most pressing for the athlete (in synthesis, fear of failure) and lasting all the time separating him from the result of a bout. In turn, this is continuously fed by the ripple effects of fear of injury spanning across past (training), present (competition) and future (possible disabilities and death). Boxers reported to be most fearful of losing a specific fight, but also of losing the opportunity to progress in professional boxing towards greater economic rewards, which in turn might also affect relationships with family, coach and supporters. From a slightly different angle, the fear of failure was also understood as “constant” fear of passing their time before having reached the apex of the career, after so many sacrifices, therefore overlapping once again with the concept of anxiety in its temporal attribute. To exemplify, Guido reported: “Therefore, my fear is well defined: It is the fear to lose, to lose everything, both in the ring and in life, that is to lose the trust of my followers.”

Alternatively, but not exclusively, fear emerged negatively as that of incurring injuries during the fight, and of the pain related to them, which leads back to the fear of failure in the form of potential long-lasting disabilities or premature death, hence to the final failure. Intuitively, fear of injury (especially premature death) would be assumed to be the utmost concern, but as illustrated in theme 2 it works also as a memento to protect oneself. Across the podcasts, fear of injury appeared to hold an immediate lesser significance for boxers, a sort of lesser-evil, an instrumental obstacle to be almost forgone to succeed.

If “boxing is to get hurt” and the fear of losing was identified then with the fear of getting hurt, this last also drilled in the soul of the boxer at a deeper level, and for much longer. Unanimously, all boxers were aware of the dangers they go towards, and of being themselves instruments of the same fear in the eyes of their opponents. However, by extension, fear of injury was found persistently to be at the core of worries about the future at the end of the career, if too many/serious injuries occurred or if the boxer himself had been not sage enough to retire in time, before becoming too weak to continue fighting successfully. In the endgame, in fact, the fear of injury across boxers’ career manifested itself in that of incurring in long-lasting disabilities and of the overcasting shadow of a premature death. Natty stated:

There's been certain incidents. You know, some fighters were not fortunate, you know, to leave the ring alive. (…) Some people are in a vegetative state where they can't physically walk, talk. (…) Or lay around, you know, early dementia or Parkinson's disease like early. So yeah, it's well documented. It's very dangerous. 

  1. Coping with fear is to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations

As made clear across podcasts, fear is an ongoing challenge to be overcome, a voice to be listened to, and a reminder of what needs to be done. It being so present in boxers’ practice, all accounts were at ease in describing their different approaches to fear. Overall, the adding up of previous experiences were rated to be extremely valuable, providing a stronghold of self-efficacy enhancing coping with the fears of professional boxing, as emerged in this last overarching theme. The ‘conditio sine qua non’ for a professional boxer to obtain any great result appeared to be happy, to enjoy, and to thrive under the undeniable stress embedded in the dangerous physicality of the sport. To achieve this, all accounts recorded the massive importance of previous experiences as enabling them to cope with fear. The boxers’ experience was described as valuable because it added up one little result over another from the earliest stages of practice, when the fears embedded in the sport were first encountered. To exemplify, Guido stated: “Certainly, fear matures as you mature. I remember my first fights: I wouldn’t understand anything apart from feeling an adrenaline rush and I couldn't control much of what I was doing.”

Reportedly, as they progressed in their pugilism career, all boxers described becoming more accustomed with fear, possibly desensitized to it. In turn, that fear/anxiety referred to by several participants as “nervous energy” was no longer a blocking obstacle, but instead the guide towards success through self-preservation (see theme 2). A perfect example of how self-efficacy could be put in practice, positively moderated by time and directly growing by succeeding in always new challenges was provided by one of the participants: He explained having built over time a personal “memory bank” of past challenges and experiences with fear which he successfully overcame, to be called upon when facing new tasks signaled by the alarm of fear. Natty stated:

You just go to your memory bank: If you've been knocked down before and got up and won the fight; Or if you faced an opponent that the odds were against you. (…) You were meant to lose, but you came out on top at the end.

Further participants’ considerations upon coping with fear highlighted the strategies consciously adopted to limit its negative effects and take back control over their performance. Most notably, the use of self-talk was reported by all the participants. Distilled in different forms and bespoke to their personal characteristics and background, self-talk techniques were described as putting emotions back in balance, aligning focus and determination, and promoting a state of relaxation fundamental for them to perform. Specifically, self-talk was reported to be used mostly in the pre-fight phase, when fear in the face of imminent confrontation must be silenced by repeating ritually their own mantra. To exemplify, Natty reported:

And I'm saying to myself, as I'm putting my gloves on, you know, this is like the final stage. I'm trying to psych myself up. Okay. This is what we do. This is what we do. This is what we do.

Once in the ring, boxers reported feeling like they were in their element, right where they needed to be. And in the moment of fighting, if fear arises it must be controlled swiftly and firmly. The boxers described rationalizing their thoughts as the most efficient way to do it. Because “boxing is not about emotions”, but it is a rational act in the face of irrational, emotional challenges, corresponding with the literature. For example, one boxer, Numan stated:

If I react off this panic, I'm probably going to do something emotional, which isn't the right thing to do. It's an emotional response. The idea is to make a rational decision at that moment. So, it's almost like acknowledging your emotions but reacting rationally, which is very difficult. But this is the art of boxing. This is the art of boxing is to stay composed and to stay disciplined. It is discipline.

Lastly, one boxer also highlighted the moderating effect of his team, formed by the right people chosen directly and who all qualify as serene, therefore contributing to a serene, positive, and trustworthy sport environment. The control of fear is not by proxy. Reinforcing the idea that fear matures as the athlete does (see theme 2), the opposite seems to be true: Being able to control the environment eliminates most of the doubts, so that one can really concentrate on the task of winning, without fear of fear.


Contributing to the limited existing literature on how fear is elusively studied within the context of sport and in which aspects it could be differentiated from anxiety (Hanin, 2000; Nicholls & Polman, 2007), this study used RTA (Braun & Clarke, 2006; Braun et al., 2016) to investigate how the two concepts are different from one another and how they are made sense of among professional boxers. The analysis of five podcasts, freely available online (Alberton, 2022), with five professional boxers of different weight divisions, revolved around the core idea that injury, and the pain associated with it, are recurrent elements in boxing, differentiating it from other sports in that they expose the athlete to an unavoidable existential threat (Sarkar & Fletcher, 2014). Hence, it was found that the living individual experiences of boxers facing this pivotal stressor qualified them to be suitable subjects to learn from on the topic through a generic qualitative approach (Smith & Sparkes, 2016).

Fear and anxiety go hand in hand

Addressing the third research question, this theme is reported as the first one because it provides a useful angle to put into context the following three themes, clarifying the taxonomy of fear and anxiety in the personal experience and understanding of the participants across all podcasts. Differently than what expected, the first overarching theme showed how the two concepts were meant to be interchangeable, at least in terms of feeling, that is the nervous energy spoken about by the participants first appraised at the incurrence of it. Nonetheless, important minimal variations in the boxers’ narratives then highlighted anxiety being a precursor of fear, somewhat a worry upon future outcomes. As opposed to fear, which appeared to dominate the living moment, hence re-aligning the difference among the two within the respective timeframes back to reviewed literature (Milne et al., 2019; Smith & Lazarus, 1993).

To reunite this hiatus, it being ‘feeling the same’’ and ‘appraising the two as different in different temporal instances’, it is argued that, at the beginning of their boxing practice, whenever in the past that might have occurred, boxers were actually appraising anxiety whilst in the expectation for the novel task, which irremediably, albeit inevitably, led to feel the shock and pain of the punches, therefore to sustain a trauma, by all means, which was appraised with fear (rightly so, it could be added), coherently with existing literature on threat appraisal/anxiety pre/during competition (Batista et al., 2018; Kirkby & Liu, 1999). What possibly happened next was that the trauma, and the fear connected to it because of it, crystalized in the conscious mind of the boxing practitioner (emerging in consciousness; LeDoux, 2014) who then kept on facing it repeatedly as a natural part of the sport, and acknowledged (even accepted) it as ‘sort-of-normal'. A ‘normalization’ possibly mediated by the subsidizing of fear in the end of the dangerous stimulus (Dias et al., 2013) and by a desensitization to fear itself (Rachman, 1984). In turn, this expectation of the future recurrence of the same feeling would be appraised as a new fused appraisal. This long fear is unspoken of in present literature to the best of the researcher’s knowledge. It is argued to be quintessentially fear as felt during the original trauma in the past/present/future moment of confrontation, but also to follow the temporal conceptualization of anxiety, because continuously present throughout the preparation towards the confrontation (Batista et al., 2018; Kirkby & Liu, 1999). Thus, in the words of the participants, fear and anxiety were understood as inextricably working hand in hand, these being two and the same simultaneously, apprehensive anticipation of future (anxiety) protective reactions to an immediate direct threat (fear).

Fear keeps us alive

Fear was shown to go well beyond the mere flight-or-flight instinct of self-preservation in front of danger as the maximization of the probability of survival (Karni & Schmeidler, 1986), although this view was also unanimously shared across participants. Emerging from the RTA as an important novel theme was that fear could be felt and used as an asset by boxers, constant reminder of what must be done to limit any injury/defeat in the ring and in life, that is to keep them alive. Fear was confirmed to be a major player in the behavior of all boxers, fully aware of the risks of boxing and of the high incidence of possible injuries connected to its practice, as in the reviewed literature (Tjønndal et al., 2021; Alevras et al., 2022; Loosemore et al., 2016; Lystad et al., 2020).

Counterintuitively, the present findings suggest instead that, in professional boxing, the pivotal stressor of fear was actively and positively supporting the athletes (all of them!) and not negatively pressuring them, as observed in other sports (Mellalieu et al., 2009). In fact, participants reported to take responsibility thanks to the fear they felt in the perspective of future competition, which translated into putting a greater effort in training, so to be well prepared to avoid the occurrence of injury at the best of their capabilities. Consequentially, and in contrast with what initially theorized, fear appeared as a great motivator, it acting as both an intrinsic (for the boxer's own sake) and extrinsic one (for achieving a goal, that is not to succumb and/or to win) (Vallerand, 2012) towards discipline, as it is needed to secure well-being, but also to just perform (Ryan & Deci, 2000; Horn, 2008). Therefore, further explored in the future under the lenses of the Self Determination Theory (SDT) (Deci & Ryan, 1985), with specific attention to fear as part of the autonomy element of the theory, that is the importance to be in control over one’s own life.

The fear of losing everything is right there in boxers’ faces

Fear as a negative was found to primarily be the fear to lose and to pass one’s time. Also, it was the fear of something right there in boxers’ faces, namely the fear of injury. In the form of fear of possible future disabilities and premature death, this fear fed back in the ultimate fear of failure, that was the halt to the boxing career and the failure in life as much as in the ring. This was somewhat consistent with literature on fear and anxiety, traditionally approached in sport psychology as fear of failure (Reardon et al., 2021; Taylor et al., 2021) and of injury (Hsu et al., 2016; Kvist & Silbernagel, 2021), although usually seen as separated and not having the novel overlapping compound effect on each other found by this study in the context of professional boxing.

Coping with fear is to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations

The different effective coping strategies adopted by boxers in front of fear were summoned by the idea that self-efficacy, through time, plays a fundamental role in building desensitization and providing structured resilience to it (Bandura, 1977; Rachman, 1984; 1990). Strategically, both instructional and motivational self-talk (Van Raalte & Vincent, 2017) was used mostly in the pre-fight ritual, when emotions must be lined up and doubts voiced down to focus on the task at hand. Consistently with TMSC, in boxing a rational approach to contrast the emotional challenges of fear was considered more effective than an emotional one, allegedly because of the fast-paced technicality of a sport requiring the utmost discipline (Smith & Lazarus, 1993; Hulbert-Williams et al., 2012). Lastly, and in a more novel way, to the best of the researcher’s knowledge, the team behind the athletes was acknowledged as reinforcing their overall serenity against the negative effects of fear during training/competition. However, it could be argued that also experience, age and, most significantly, money security as a direct consequence of the advancement in the boxing career might play an important role in this.   

Limitations and future avenues

RTA proved to be an effective methodology to come in closer contact with the individual experiences of professional boxers and to investigate their beliefs upon a personal matter such as fear, providing the best quality of the data source. The participant sample here considered was composed of boxers all belonging to different divisions and the interviews, overall, showed remarkable variance in length, limiting a stronger uniformity of the data. To better capture the temporal component of long fear, it is also suggested that future research adopted an alternative methodology, using RTA of shorter two-questions interviews upon what fear is and how it is coped with among a larger cohort, longitudinally. Subtle/large differences in the same-question's answers across time could provide deeper insights of any emerging theme. Additional quantitative data on the number of fights/years spent in training/competing at different levels by participants could help mapping any change in fear appraisal/coping in respect to experience. Alternatively, it is argued that fear roots into the unconscious mind of the individual and that different backgrounds and motivations to it could be explored in greater depth by other qualitative methods, such as IPA (Spiers & Riley, 2018).

If future findings supported long fear of injury to be the pivotal stressor and the greater motivator around which everything else revolves in boxing, the present study could have important practical implications in developing sport psychology interventions on motivation and threat appraisal bespoke to contact-sports at large. Specifically, when integrated with the Performance Profile assessment (Butler & Hardy, 1992), to improve what is understood to be more important by the boxers themselves within a theoretical framework considering fear as a guide to victory.


Using an interpretative generic qualitive approach from a transactional epistemology standpoint, five podcast interviews with professional boxers on how they understand/cope with fear/anxiety were analyzed with RTA. Four main overarching themes were found: Fear and anxiety go hand in hand, only partially supporting existing literature on the presence of anxiety as anticipatory of future danger and of fear as an immediate appraisal of a present one, but argued to be fused in the novel kind long fear appraisal; Fear keeps us alive, suggesting that, if used correctly, fear is a fantastic guide in doing the preparation work with discipline, re-framing fear as a greater motivator, under the SDT. Furthermore, fear can be recognized in the opponent and weaponized against him; The fear of losing everything is right there in boxers’ faces, supporting the theorized concept of fear of injury as pivotal stressor. In the form of fear of possible future disabilities and premature death, this fear feeds back in the ultimate fear of failure, that is the halt to the boxing career and the failure in life as much as in the ring; Coping with fear is to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations, a process mediated by different reviewed strategies such as self-efficacy (also involved in desensitization/resilience), self-talk (in a pre-fight ritualized manner), using a rational approach fed by discipline to the emotional challenges of the physical confrontation (consistently with TMSC), and team support (feasible once in upper ranks). The presence of fear in sport should be studied further for its ethical importance within policymaking, whilst appraisal/coping mechanisms’ development could be better explored with an alternative mixed-methods approach. Theoretical/practical implications in sport psychology interventions bespoke to boxing were considered, when future research was supportive of this paper’s findings.




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Translation of Italian language

Being two podcasts in Italian and the second three in English language and being the researcher native Italian speaker, both languages were used throughout the six-phase model. Hence, in the present paper, the translation from the Italian verbatim transcriptions into English has been limited only to the extracts relevant for the result section and to the list of questions/definitions used in the podcasts, whilst the complete record of all original verbatim transcriptions can be found in the Appendices C (Guido Vianello), D (Alessio Mastronunzio), E (Masood Abdulah), F (Numan Hussain), G (Natty Ngwenya).


Appendix A

Boxing description and participant’s weight divisions

Boxing (or pugilism) is a combat sport in which two opponents belonging to the same weight division, wearing mouthguards, hand wraps and protective gloves, strategically throw punches at each other while defending themselves from the return punches for a predetermined number of rounds (8 to 12) of three minutes each, with a minute rest between rounds to rest in the respective corners supported by their coach/staff. The ring is 6.10m square inside the line of the ropes, positioned at the height of 1m from the ground. The referee on the ring judges/controls the fighters’ conduct to be within rules and safety. The fight can be won by knocked-out, if a fighter is unable to continue, is disqualified or resigns. When both opponents still stand at the end of all rounds, the scorecards of the two/three judges at ringside determine a winner, or a draw in case of equal scores (Collins & Poliakoff, 2018).

As for the division, boxing has 17 different divisions (categories) according to weight (demanding specific training and extra demands for the individual athlete to lose/gain weight pre-fight, regardless “natural” needs/tendencies), which both boxers in a fight have strictly to adhere to. Usually, fighters weigh-in the day before a fight and, if over the limit, are given a short time in which to make the stipulated weight. Given that the minimumweight division is the first with an upper limit of 48 kg, for both simplicity and clarity here are indicated only the participants divisions’ respective boundaries: Featherweight 55-57 kg (Masood); Super featherweight 57-59 kg (Numan); Super welterweight 67-70 kg (Alessio); Cruiserweight 79-91 kg (Natty); Heavyweight, 91-unlimited kg.