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What We Can Learn From Legendary Boxing Trainer Freddie Roach About Adapting And Fighting For Our Greatness

Pursuing our life’s work may be challenging because it’s frightening.Pacman

The uncertainty, fear, and self-doubt that comes with showing up, not always seeing results, and what feels like relentlessly walking into a wall, is very much all part of the process.

As I was reading through Mastery by Robert Greene—a fantastic, insightful and timeless read—the example of legendary boxing coach Freddie Roach had me highlighting and marking the entire two pages. His story is the epitome of the kind of adversity and hardship that is evoked when pursuing the work you love.

Greene goes on to say:

From the time he was born in 1960, Freddie Roach was groomed to be a boxing champion. His father had been a professional fighter himself, and his mother a boxing judge. Freddie’s older brother began learning the sport at an early age, and when Freddie was six he was promptly taken to the local gym in south Boston to begin a rigorous apprenticeship in the sport. He trained with a coach several hours a day, six days a week.

Many of us, however, are past the age of entering an apprenticeship at such a young age. But don’t let this reality stop you from creating your own. The field that you’re in (or want to get in) requires a skill or a set of skills. Realize this: you don’t have to be in the field to practice the skill. It’s like a student: you don’t need to be in a classroom to learn. Much of our skills can be developed on our own time, in our own workspace. The hard part is starting and promising to show up again tomorrow.

The story continues [emphasis by me]:

By age of fifteen he felt like he was burned out. He made more and more excuses to avoid going to the gym. One day his mother sensed this and said to him, ‘Why do you fight anyway? You just get hit all the time. You can’t fight.’ He was used to the constant criticism from his father and brothers, but to hear such a frank assessment from his mother had a bracing effect. Clearly, she saw his older brother as the one destined for greatness. Now Freddie determined that he would somehow prove her wrong. He returned to his training regimen with a vengeance. He discovered within himself a passion for practice and discipline. He enjoyed the sensation of getting better, the trophies that began to pile up, and, more than anything, the fact that he could now actually beat his brother. His love for the sport was rekindled.

It took me a few years to admit to anyone that I was a writer. Some people would know that I was a writer, and would ask how it was going. I would tell them that it’s just something I was doing on the side to figure out what I was going to do with my life. Even someone like Freddie Roach received constant criticism from what’s supposed to be his most loyal and supportive fans: his parents.

Many times, when we tell our parents or friends that we’re going to embark on an brave venture, many of them laugh at us or secretly doubt us or think we’re crazy. Alas, this is part of the process of pursuing your life’s work. Instead of letting it unman you, stirring up more fear and self-doubt and causing you to delay, we can use this criticism to empower us, to fuel the fire, to continue to push on and discover something new about the work that we love doing. Roach discovered his passion for practice and discipline—and this, it turns out, is a resounding principle that repeatedly reveals itself throughout his life and his work.

Roach, showing much promise, was sent off to Vegas to further his career. At the age of 18, he trained with legendary coach Eddie Futch. The path looked promising: Freddie was chosen for the United States boxing team and climbed up the ranks. But, as you can probably smell it from a mile away, another roadblock presented itself.

Robert Greene goes on to say [emphasis by me]:

He would learn the most effective maneuvers from Futch and practice them to perfection, but in an actual bout it was another story. As soon as he got hit in the ring, he would revert to fighting instinctually; his emotions would get the better of him. His fights would turn into brawls over many rounds, and he would often lose.

After a few years, Futch told Roach it was time to retire. But boxing had been his whole life; retire and do what? He continued to fight and to lose, until finally he could see the writing on the wall and retired. He took a job in telemarketing and began to drink heavily. Now he hated the sport—he had given it so much and had nothing to show for his efforts.

This is, perhaps, my favorite part of the story. This is the part of the road where it starts to turn and get dark. After so many years of practice—more than what most of us have already put in (four years of writing for me)—he was told by his mentor to retire and was constantly criticized by his parents. I can understand why he threw in the towel: the support, or lack thereof, was nonexistent. Where do you find motivation when everyone is doubting you? Is the feedback not enough to have you convinced… or is it simply fear?

I do this to myself from time to time. I ask myself, What am I doing with this blog? Do people even like my writing? And then I get emails saying how wonderful an article was, how they’re going to print it out and read it over. Feedback like this keeps me going; also realizing that many of my heroes have been in the game for 10+ years to be where they are. I choose to keep going.

Steven Pressfield calls this “The Shadow Career” in Turning Pro, and it’s exactly what Freddie Roach gets into. Pay attention, because you may be in one as well. I was in two of them for two years (a sales job at the mall and a factory job). Pressfield says:

Sometimes, when we’re terrified of embracing our true calling, we’ll pursue a shadow calling instead. That shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar, its contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us.

Are you pursuing a shadow career?

Are you getting your Ph.D. in Elizabethan studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies that you know you have inside you? Are you living the drugs-and-booze half of the musician’s life, without actually writing the music? Are you working in a support capacity for an innovator because you’re afraid to risk becoming an innovator yourself?

That metaphor will point you toward your true calling. If you’re dissatisfied with your current life, ask yourself what your current life is a metaphor for.

One of my favorite life metaphors that Steven Pressfield shares in his timeless book, The War of Art, shows that the resistance—another name for fear—is the force that cajoles us into taking shadow careers:

You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.

That paragraph has always sent chills up my spine. Shadow careers are the bane of human potential. However, if we are in one or escaped one, there is a lot to be learned from them. They help us accumulate scars and reveal our worst selves to ourselves. I guess that’s the Great Question that we can all ask: Who would Freddie Roach be if he never left that telemarketing job?

Just another guy, right? Another guy who lived and died. There are so many stories like this, so much lost potential. It’s happening right now—more than ever. Imagine how many great talents are locked away simply because of fear? Imagine the kind of innovation, art, and change we can see in this world if every scared individual woke up the next day and relentlessly worked at embracing their life’s calling?

This is where Roach’s life takes a turn—not out of blind luck, but deliberate action; a responsibility available to each and every one of us [emphasis by me]:

Almost in spite of himself, one day he returned to Futch’s gym to watch his friend Virgil Hill spar with a boxer about to fight for a title. Both fighters trained under Futch, but there was nobody in Hill’s corner helping him, so Freddie brought him water and gave him advice. He showed up the following day to help Hill again, and soon he became a regular at Futch’s gym. He was not being paid, so he kept his telemarketing job, but something in him smelled opportunity—and he was desperate. He showed up on time and stayed later than anyone else. Knowing Futch’s technique so well, he could teach them to all of his fighters. His responsibilities began to grow.

This is absolutely brilliant; let’s break this down a bit:

  • Freddie Roach knew what he was going to get himself into at a young age, like a son or daughter taking over the family business in the later years.
  • He faced constant criticism. He used this criticism to push forward, but eventually he hit a wall and retired.
  • He took on a shadow career and began drinking heavily. But greatness is like hot air trapped in a bottle: it will surely find a way out.
  • Then came the epiphany, the glimmer of hope. I can almost imagine how Roach did it: One day he was so fed up with his life, his drinking and his job, that he went to the gym just to watch and reminisce the days where he was engulfed by what he loved—kinda like a young athlete going to a nearby park to watch the older kids, their hands grasping the fence and eyes peering through tiny holes with sheer wonderment.
  • But he saw an opportunity—one of Futch’s fighters not having a coach in his corner. He brought him water and shared advice, and then he showed up again the next day (very important). No one told him to do this. This was not luck, it was initiative. It would be easy to dismiss such a simple act such as providing water or giving advice as worthless, but alas, it opened an opportunity, one that may have changed the course of his life.
  • Even with a day job he continued to show up, because I’m sure a part of him compelled him to do so.

Of course, self-doubt is likely to happen, again. Greene goes on to say:

In the back of his mind he could not shake his resentment of boxing, and he questioned how long he could keep this up. It was a dog-eat-dog career and trainers rarely lasted very long in the business. Would this turn into yet another routine in which he would endlessly repeat the same exercises he had learned from Futch? A part of him yearned to return to fighting—at least fighting was not so predictable.

How often do you doubt yourself? I doubt myself every time I publish a post or even face this blank WordPress text box. I doubt myself at night before I go to sleep, and I definitely doubt myself when I try to connect all these dots for the sake of educating and not wasting your time. I doubt myself when these posts exceed 2,000 words thinking that no one will read them.

Here is the last part of the story that Robert Greene shares in Mastery; the part that redefined Freddie Roach’s life and turned him into one of the greatest trainers this world has ever seen [emphasis and parentheses notes added by me]:

One day Virgil Hill [the fighter he was training] showed him a technique he had picked up from some Cuban fighters: Instead of working with a punching bag, they mostly trained with the coach, who wore large padded mitts. (Do you watch boxing? Sound familiar?) Standing in the ring, the fighters half-sparred with the coach and practiced their punches. Roach tried it with Hill and his eyes lit up. It brought him back into the ring, but there was something else. Boxing, he felt, had become stale, as had its training methods. In his mind, he saw a way to adapt the mitt work for more than just punching practice. It could be a way for a trainer to devise an entire strategy in the ring and demonstrate it to his fighters in real time. It could revolutionize and revitalize the sport itself. Roach began to develop this with the stable of fighters that he now trained. He instructed them in maneuvers that were much more fluid and strategic.

Soon he left Futch to work on his own. He quickly established a reputation for preparing his boxers better than anyone else, and within a few years he rose to become the most successful trainer of his generation.

Roach has trained over 27 world champions; some of the fighters are Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, B.J. Penn, Tito Ortiz, Manny Pacquiao, Amir Khan, Virgil Hill, Oscar De La Hoya and many more.

Did I mention that Freddie Roach has Parkinsons? I’m sorry—at the end of the day, what are excuses?

He had a mentor, sure—something many of us will never have. But we have books, courses, the internet, etc. We can create our own version of a mentorship. We can practice our skills daily, learn relentlessly, and fail graciously.

He had a shadow career—something that many of us are in or will experience at least once. We must be conscious of this, and more importantly, brave enough to start transitioning towards something that strikes the chords in our hearts.

He was involved in boxing at a young age, entered a shadow career, only to start over and rekindle his love for the sport. He immersed himself into the world. He loved it. He is the epitome of attaining mastery and finding the work that you love.

This thought keeps haunting me: Imagine if he never left that telemarketing job?