Commando Boxing

The Effects of Combat Stress and Your First Fight

Want to Know What You Can Expect When You Get in The Ring?

Try and picture this - you’re by yourself or with your coach in your dressing room or warm up area. You've been skipping, lightly hitting the pads, stretching, and generally loosening up. You feel good, your mind is clear, and you are ready to fight the fight you've trained hard for for many months.

You have a game plan. You know how you want the fight to go and when the time comes you head out of the dressing room and walk toward the ring with crowds of people cheering and screaming on both sides of you. Suddenly, as you realize you’re headed into combat, your pulse becomes a little quicker. Your mind starts thinking irrational thoughts and is no longer focused.

Your field of vision starts to narrow to the point of tunnel vision and you find it harder and harder to hear anything. Your trainer’s advice becomes nothing more than a low mumble in the background. Just before climbing the stairs to get in the ring, you notice your legs feel like blocks of concrete.


As you stumble your way up the stairs and clumsily step through the ropes, you realize that at this point, if someone were to ask you to write your name or perform any type of fine motor skill it would be completely out of the question.

The referee comes over and checks your gloves and mouth guard. You hear the bell and that’s it…next thing you remember, the fight is over and someone (hopefully you) has their hand in the air. What the hell just happened?

The Effects of Combat Stress

Boxing, like all contact sports, is a form of combat – and combat causes your body to do some whacked out things. You can never truly negate all of them, but with proper training and preparation, you can reduce their effects. That training includes recognizing the symptoms and then initiating measures to control them.

From a physiological standpoint – your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) gets activated which is more commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. There is nothing you can do about it.

SNS is a powerful survival mechanism present in all mammals that lets the body focus all resources on either charging towards or running from an imminent threat. It is involuntary, virtually uncontrollable, and dominates all voluntary systems until the threat has been eliminated or avoided.

So Let’s Take a Bit More Detailed Look at What’s Going On in Your Body…

Heart Rate

When SNS is activated, it will drive your heart rate from a normal 60-80 bpm to upwards of 200 bpm in order to instantly distribute various stress hormones via the bloodstream. The optimal heart rate range for combat performance is between 115 and 145 bpm. At that rate, complex motor skills, visual reaction time, and ability to think (cognitive) will be at their highest.

Check out this chart to see the effects of an increased heart rate on combat performance:

Heart Rate - bpm



  • Normal


  • Fine motor skills begin to deteriorate
  • Dexterity in fingers diminishes
  • Hand/eye coordination deteriorates


  • Complex motor skills begin to deteriorate
  • Movements requiring muscle groups to be used in sequence or that have multiple movements diminish
  • Find it difficult to recognize and react to potentially hazardous situations


  • Only gross motor skills (fight or flight) can be employed with any effect
  • Actually increase in effectiveness as nothing else works – punching, kicking, major muscle movements
  • Vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels to shut down surface blood flow to prevent bleeding) is highest
  • Auditory exclusion (can’t hear things)
  • Tunnel Vision
  • Irrational behaviour (becoming submissive or passive, frozen in place)
  • Loss of bladder/bowel control

Hearing (Auditory Exclusion)

Once in combat, the brain will shut down any senses that aren’t providing it with the most effective information. Usually that is vision, so things like hearing, taste, smell, and feeling are effectively turned off. The take away from this is that the coach or trainer should be aware that their fighter is not necessarily going to hear or at least register what they are being told inbetween rounds (especially an inexperienced fighter).


If SNS activation occurs, the following symptoms cannot be avoided, but they can be dealt with. For instance, to deal with tunnel vision, you can learn to pivot your head left and right to compensate.

  • Tunnel Vision – field of vision can decrease as much as 70%
  • Loss of Near Vision – great difficulty focusing on objects that are closer than 1m due to pupil dilation
  • Loss of Ability to Focus – loss of control of muscle controlling the lens makes it difficult to focus on a target – causes a significant decrease in accuracy and a significant increase in reaction time
  • Loss of Monocular Vision – can cause someone to see double
  • Loss of Depth Perception – can incorrectly judge distance believing the target is closer or farther away than it actually is. If you’re surprised by an attack, you’ll have the tendency to hit low and to your dominant side.
  • Loss of Night Vision – you’ll rarely fight in the dark, but if you do, you’ll need to look around your target to use your night vision receptors.

Reaction Time

How fast you can react to a situation correctly will dictate your success in boxing. Reaction is a four step process:

  1. Perception
  2. Analyze and evaluate the information
  3. Formulate the response
  4. Initiate a motor response

These steps have to be completed in sequence so as SNS activation occurs, your cognitive abilities diminish each step resulting in an overall slower reaction time. If either perception or analysis of the available information is stopped, there will be no reaction at all.

In terms of how you can use that to your advantage, consider feints. If your opponent cannot figure out what you are doing, they cannot react.

Other impacts of SNS activation on reaction include:

  • Reaction time can take up to four times longer
  • Disrupted concentration
  • Failure to develop a logical response
  • Irrational behaviour (run away…)
  • Repetitive responses (same punch over and over whether it works or not)
  • Freezing in place
  • Submissive behaviour (turtling, dropping the gloves)

How to Deal With the Effects of Combat Stress

There are five major variables that have an immediate impact on the level of SNS activation – all of which can be dealt with through proper training:

  1. Perceived Level of Threat – Through visualization techniques you can train yourself to picture an opponent as weaker or less of threat than they actually may be. As long as you keep yourself from getting “psyched out” by the size and/or skill of your opponent, you can essentially convince yourself that your opponent is not a threat at all. If they aren’t a threat, there is no SNS activation.
  2. Time Needed to Respond – Remember how important footwork is. Using it to create angles and to control the flow of the fight, you can prevent yourself from being boxed into a corner where you have few options and have to initiate a response with no time to think. Moving around and maintaining the distance you want to maintain gives you that added time needed to respond to a threat.
  3. Level of Confidence and Personal Skill – one is a function of the other. If you are going into a fight with months of hard preparation and have mastered your game plan, strategy, skills, and are in super shape, then you are going to be one confident boxer. If you haven’t prepared, you are going to doubt your abilities. It goes without saying that the better prepared you are, the better you are going to do and more importantly, your fear will not invoke SNS activation.
  4. Level of Experience in Dealing with the Particular Threat – your first fight is going to be a gong show. It usually unfolds like I pointed out at the beginning of this article. As you gain more experience in the ring, you will eventually feel more comfortable, you’ll relax, and you’ll perform better. It’s no different than starting a new job, relationship, or jumping out of an airplane – you get the jitters out and you’re good to go. The more times you confront the fear, the less impact it has on you.
  5. Physical Stress (fatigue, malnutrition, sleep deprivation, etc…) – This speaks to your level of conditioning. If you’re fit, take care of yourself, have a good diet and do everything physiologically speaking to make yourself strong with great endurance and stamina, then you are going to deal with the fight a lot better. Every little negative variable you put into the equation such as cheating yourself on the amount of sleep you need, or eating something that really is doing you no good will diminish your ability to fight at your peak.

In Summary

If you find yourself starting to react with a faster pulse/heart rate – just stop and relax and look at what is happening. Recognize it and you can do something about it. A simple breathing exercise where you inhale through your nose for four seconds, hold for four seconds, release through your mouth for four seconds, hold for four seconds and repeat four times can slow your heart back down and prevent a lot of this from happening.

So, how did your first fight turn out – or do you remember it at all? Leave a comment and let us know. Boxon.

About the Author Coach Aaron

Coach Aaron founded Commando Boxing in 2003. When he's not boxing, he's running ultramarathons or using data science/blockchains to create mixed reality HoloLens applications.

  • Tre hubbarf says:

    My first fight was this past weekend and it went exactly like you said .. I did get the first round knockout though!

  • Abdo says:

    Thank you so much i hope this help me
    My first fight in next days i hope i do well 🙂

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