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A constraint led approach to boxing

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

Boxing Exploration

For many people who enjoy moving, they may have flirted with the idea of training in a combat sport. Today I would like to explore with you a means with which to approach the art of boxing.

Why boxing?

In no particular order:

- Presents the issue of staying safe and maintaining purposeful tactics whilst in a dangerous environment.

- Interesting movement problems to solve, for instance, target acquisition, footwork, rotation, force production, rhythm, coordination and timing. Also, use of peripheral vision, creativity, judging distances, endurance and a whole lot more.

- Boxing can provide a shape or reason for a broader physical practice, because it is sometimes difficult to shape a physical practise without some inspiration as a starting point.

- Boxing is probably the most accessible martial art, you don’t necessarily need to possess unique physical attributes to participate; whereas for grappling arts you need to be comfortable falling, and for kicking arts you need good lower limb range of motion. This however is a minor point as falling and range of motion can be developed.

- You can also use boxing to explore the topics of philosophy (ego), tactics, awareness/ use of space and psychology.

Of the traditional approaches to coaching boxing how many can you think of?

Commonly the following are mentioned:

- Hitting the pads.

- Hitting the heavy bag.

- Speed ball.

- Jumping rope.

- Shadow boxing.

- Sparring.

But is there an alternative approach, a breath of fresh air?

What about a constraint led approach (CLA)?

If you’re interested in a superb deep dive into CLA I highly recommend Capoeira Bromley’s blog series on the subject. [See link at end of blog]

In short using a CLA means instead of instructing athletes in how to do something, people are allowed to find their own solutions. The coach will amend the experience for the athlete in various ways to encourage new or better solutions to appear. The theory suggests a coach can manipulate the constraints in 3 ways:

1.The Performer. The coach needs to take into account who the performer is, and what that person is bringing to the table on that given session. So, the coach will always note past experiences, anthropometrics and even the emotional state when setting up a task. Some of these are not easy to manipulate, but are important aspects for the coach to consider.

2. The Environment. This will include the flooring or surface the activity will take place, alongside light, noise and temperature.

3.The Task. This is often the easiest constraint for a coach to manipulate as it can be easy to change dimensions, the number of players or equipment”

Source - Capoeira Bromley Blog, Topic CLA.

Why is CLA a breath of fresh air?

Often what happens when you go to learn a sport is the following:

You will be given some basic formulaic instruction, this will then progress to more complex formulas (such as putting together a 1-2-3 on the pads in boxing) these are often poor at reflecting the actual way the game is played, in a unscripted sporting environment when you face a competitive opponent it can leave participants feeling overwhelmed or under prepared for the levels of randomness they face.

Continuing the boxing theme, you go to your local club and your coach takes you through a pad work out (see video of scripted pad work below) to an extent this is often considered (by non CLA coaches) part of the process that will translate into you being able to hit your opponent in sparring. However, people often struggle as unlike on the pads your opponent doesn’t conveniently remain still or even better come to your hand as you throw your punch. Unlike the standard pads experience you don’t just follow your opponent around like a boxing zombie whilst your opponent shouts out which punches to use on them. Unlike on the pads you can’t just switch off your tactical brain as you probably have someone throwing accurate punches to vulnerable areas and that certainly doesn’t represent the highly choreographed experience that most pad work resembles! (Rant over…promise)

What would a constraint led coach do differently?

Boxing: the art of hitting and not getting hit.

Well in theory the constraint led coach would create sparring scenarios that control the damage/exploration, let’s start with an example (see video).

So, the video showed one person in a body protector throwing fairly obvious punches and the other moving around trying to solve how they would counter their opponent’s attacks. Let’s now watch a brief clip of some boxing.

Out of interest which one looked more likely to produce the skills and timing needed to spar for real, this is not to say if you encountered someone who struggled massively with the body protector drill that you would keep them doing a complex drill until they just magically get it. No you reduce the randomness until they show consistent quality, but I argue you need some realistic drills (whatever the person can handle) otherwise they are actually a danger to themselves and others when sparring.

Why might they be a danger to themselves and others?

Well picture the scenario, you are a highly conditioned person, perhaps you have lifted weights for years or were very competitive in a non-combat sport, this individual might have zero awareness of sparring etiquette (more on this to follow) and may also not understand about how much force is reasonable and acceptable in a sparring/ contact scenario. This can be learnt using progressively complex sparring drills, starting to the body and working your way up generally developing the feel for this and also encouraging communication and co-operation amongst athletes which is imperative. It takes time, but it is a fun and an exhilarating process. If you don’t develop a caring and communicative culture, with progressive exploration of sparring scenarios, then it is highly likely that your athletes will get seriously hurt as they won’t understand how to create a learning experience for themselves and others via the medium of sparring.

Sparring etiquette.

To go through all the various drills that I use would make this blog far too long, but the etiquette amongst sparring partners can be summed up as follows:

Both participants need to learn from the experience, not hard lessons like how not to get a concussion next time as no one is getting paid to spar or box (amongst my students), so if my students find themselves dominating a sparring situation you will often see them handicap themselves by picking tactics or a style that reduces their advantages (natural or tactical) but in turn these increase their learning experience as they are now more evenly matched with their opponent. This creates a positive learning environment from which everyone can emerge healthy and happy. I would also highly recommend that any harder sparring takes place solely to the body, as this helps dramatically reduce the possibility of brain damage, whist allowing participants to explore a more athletic/ aggressive style of boxing.

In summary, whether your sport is boxing or not, I hope the introduction or exploration of CLA gets you thinking about how you practise and what you’re actually developing. If you have any thoughts on the topic of sparring or CLA or how to learn combat sports I would love to hear from you.

Peace and love (even to people that persist in traditional pad work)


I thought it would be worth throwing in an example of a thought provoking and inspiring pad work session between Mike Tyson and his coach Kevin Rooney. Observe the clinical nature of the drills and the clear display of the tactics Mike used to dismantle opponents practised with quality via the pads.

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