what boxing can teach us about men's mental health

Guest blog by Matthew Williams, Director of Knock Out Depression

Is there any better metaphor for struggle than boxing?

Competition stripped to its most basic form, yet demanding a level of skill that is easily missed by the untrained eye. A sport in which at any given second everything can change, where victory can be seized from the jaws of defeat, and fortunes are made and destroyed in the blink of an eye and the crashing of a gloved fist against an unprotected chin.

Boxing is so deeply interwoven within our culture that many of our most common sayings derive from this most noble and brutal of physical arts: coming up to scratch; down for the count; on the ropes, and letting our guard down, to quote just a few. Boxing mirrors life, and just as a tough fight reveals the character of its combatants, so does boxing reveal a number of truths about the nature of life.

So, how exactly does boxing relate to depression?

Depression at its worst, is a bruising, brutal battle for survival that can cause us to question just how many rounds we can continue to endure for. It also reveals truths about ourselves – and about life –that can help us to become better, stronger, and wiser.

As a huge boxing fan and someone with lived experience of depression (it’s knocked me flat on my back three times) there are lessons that I believe we can take from boxing that can help us to win the biggest fight of our lives – the one with our own mind.

As managers and HR professionals we can use these lessons to further our understanding of such conditions and create more mentally healthy workplaces. Here are three lessons that boxing can teach us about depression:

1. Nobody else can fight for you

Many fighters surround themselves with an entourage of cheerleaders and hangers-on.

Each individual may – or may not – serve a specific and useful purpose to the fighter, and as a collective they can often be seen pumping up their fighter, whooping and hollering, and trying to distract, unsettle, and intimidate the opponent.

But when the ring empties and the referee calls the combatants together, they’re on their own. And in that moment of truth, a fighter needs to know that they’ve done the work, they have the tools to do the job, and have full belief in themselves and their abilities.

Depression is a cruel illness in that it often robs us of the very things that we need to defeat it, i.e. confidence, faith, motivation, energy.

This is one of the reasons why it is so important to create positive self-care habits to proactively look after our mental health, and to help us prevent the onset of mental health problems (the 5 Ways to Wellbeing offers excellent guidance for this).

Because when depression enters the ring, you quickly realise that nobody else can fight it for you.

Within the workplace, people managers and HR professionals must keep an eye out for the signs that suggest an employee may be fighting a battle with their mental health. Usual tell-tale signs include a decline in performance, less interaction with colleagues, absenteeism, or changes in their general demeanour.

Leaders may also wish to consider how their working environment provides opportunities for employees to apply the 5 Ways to Wellbeing within the workplace.

2. We all need a good corner man

While we all must fight our own battles, we don’t have to fight alone.

In boxing, a good corner man can make all the difference. They can see things that the fighter can’t see in the heat of battle, and can offer a broader – and sometimes wiser – perspective. They can bring skills and attributes to the fight that can make the difference between winning and losing.

Depression is a lonely, isolating, and terrifying place to be, and when we’re against the ropes and sagging under its punches, we need to be able to know that we CAN ask for help, and that there is no shame in accepting help, advice and support from others – friends, family and medical professionals.

In fact, it can be the bravest, strongest, and the best thing that we ever do.

Workplaces should consider the strength of their ‘corner team’ when it comes to supporting employee mental health. For example, is there a culture where employees know that they can speak to someone if they are struggling, without fear of judgement? Are there members of staff that are trained in mental health awareness and/or mental health first aid who are able to offer support and a listening ear?

3. ‘I didn’t hear no bell!’

Life, like fighting, is hard.

The price of stepping into the ring is that you are going to get punched. Hard. The price of living is that, sooner or later, life - and indeed, work - will knock you on your backside.

And falls don’t get much bigger and more painful than depression.

Any fighter can get knocked down and any of us can find ourselves struggling with our mental health. From the CEO to the office administrator, we can all struggle; we are, after all, all made from the same stuff. There is no shame in struggling.

In fact, the biggest and strongest of us all – 6ft 9in Heavyweight Champion of the World Tyson Fury – has been brought to his knees by depression.

But it’s not our falling that defines us, it’s how we rise. And even in the most seemingly hopeless of situations, we can find a glimmer of hope. Something to believe in.

Faith in that one moment where everything can change. Because as long as we stay in the fight, as long as the final bell has not tolled, we are not beaten.

In the toughest of fights, sometimes the best we can do is fight one more round. And when we get through that, we fight one more.

To steal a phrase from Rocky Balboa, ‘that’s how winning is done.’

It can be a long fight, and staff may need extended periods of sick leave before they are able to return to work at full fitness.

People that have not experienced such struggles may find it difficult to understand just how debilitating mental health problems can be, and those who struggle may feel very conscious of this and about how they may be perceived should they take sick leave for their mental health. They may also feel guilty for extended absences, or for being unable to perform at work to their usual standard.

Workplaces should therefore consider the support they are able to offer employees during any periods of sick leave, for instance via employee assistance programmes, and also how they may facilitate a safe return to work.

If you would like to find out more about what boxing can teach us about depression, download a FREE copy of my Going 12 Rounds with Depression Guide below:



Matthew is an author, speaker and coach that has been knocked off his feet on more than one occasion by depression. Determined to fight back, he has used his passion for boxing and the power of storytelling to change the narrative of his life and now uses his experience to inspire and support others, particularly men, to build healthier, happier lives.

To find out more, visit: changeyourstory.org.uk/