Cus D’Amato on Fear
Cus D’Amato [1908-1985] was a man of great integrity, knowledge and heart. Most famous as being the manager and trainer of champions Floyd Patterson and Mike Tyson, many martial artists outside of boxing would come to learn about him through his brilliant insights on fear and the psychology of fighting.
“Boxing is a sport of self-control. You must understand Fear so you can manipulate it. Fear is like fire. You can make it work for you: it can warm you in the winter, cook your food when you’re hungry, give you light when you are in the dark, and produce energy. Let it go out of control and it can hurt you, even kill you….Fear is a friend of exceptional people.” [Fire 50]
On Recognizing Fear
“Fear is the greatest obstacle to learning in any area, but particularly in boxing. For example, boxing is something you learn through repetition. You do it over and over and suddenly you’ve got it. …However, in the course of trying to learn, if you get hit and get hurt, this makes you cautious, and when you’re cautious you can’t repeat it, and when you can’t repeat it, it’s going to delay the learning process…When they…come up to the gym and say I want to be a fighter, the first thing I’d do was talk to them about fear…I would always use…the same example of the deer crossing an open field and upon approaching the clearing suddenly instinct tells him danger is there, and nature begins the survival process, which involves the body releasing adrenalin into the bloodstream, causing the heart to beat faster and enabling the deer to perform extraordinarily feats of agility and strength…It enables the deer to get out of range of the danger, helps him escape to the safety of the forest across the clearing…an example in which fear is your friend.
The thing a kid in the street fears the most is to be called yellow or chicken, and sometimes a kid will do the most stupid, wild, crazy things just to hide how scared he is. I often tell them that while fear is such an obnoxious thing, an embarrassing thing…nevertheless it is your friend, because anytime anyone saves your life perhaps a dozen times a day, no matter what how obnoxious he is, you’ve got to look upon him as a friend, and this is what fear is…Since nature gave us fear in order to help us survive, we cannot look upon it as an enemy. Just think how many times a day a person would die if he had no fear. He’d walk in front of cars, he’d die a dozen times a day. Fear is a protective mechanism….By talking to the fighters about fear I cut the learning time maybe as much as half, sometimes more, depending on the individual.” [Heller, 60]
The Next Thing…
“The next thing I do, I get them in excellent condition….Knowing how the mind is and the tricks it plays on a person and how an individual will always look to avoid a confrontation with something that is intimidating, I remove all possible excuses they’re going to have before they get in there. By getting them in excellent condition, they can’t say when they get tired that they’re not in shape. When they’re in excellent shape I put them into the ring to box for the first time, usually with an experience fighter who won’t take advantage of them. When the novice throws punches and nothing happens, and his opponent keeps coming at him…the new fighter becomes panicky. When he gets panicky he wants to quit, but he can’t quit because his whole psychology from the time he’s first been in the streets is to condemn a person who’s yellow. So what does he do? He gets tired. This is what happens to fighters in the ring. They get tired. This is what happens to fighters in the ring. They get tired, because they’re getting afraid….Now that he gets tired, people can’t call him yellow. He’s just too “tired” to go on. But let that same fighter strike back wildly with a visible effect on the opponent and suddenly that tired, exhausted guy becomes a tiger….It’s a psychological fatigue, that’s all it is. But people in boxing don’t understand that.” …[Heller, 61]
“… However, I should add that at no time does fear disappear. It’s just as bad in the hundredth fight as it was in the first, except by the time he reaches a hundred fights or long before that he’s developed enough discipline where he can learn to live with it, which is the object, to learn to live with it…”
“Every fighter that ever lived had fear. A boy comes to me and tells me that he’s not afraid, if I believed him I’d say he’s a liar or there’s something wrong with him. I’d send him to a doctor to find out what the hell’s the matter with him, because this is not a normal reaction. The fighter that’s gone into the ring and hasn’t experienced fear is either a liar or a psychopath…” [Heller, 67]
The Hero and the Coward
“I tell my kids, what is the difference between a hero and a coward? What is the difference between being yellow and being brave? No difference. Only what you do. They both feel the same. They both fear dying and getting hurt. The man who is yellow refuses to face up to what he’s got to face. The hero is more disciplined and he fights those feelings off and he does what he has to do. But they both feel the same, the hero and the coward. People who watch you judge you on what you do, not how you feel.” [Heller, 97]