Physical Chess: The mind game of boxing

Matt Cancellare works out on his body and mind in his home gym. — Kelsey Perrett

It’s well known that exercise boasts just as as many mental perks as physical benefits. It relieves stress and anxiety, releases mood enhancing endorphins, improves self confidence, creativity, memory, and sleep. Almost any type of exercise can produce these results, but those who really want to test their mental and physical limits should try lacing up the boxing gloves.

Boxing instructor Matt Cancellare of Vineyard Haven likens the sport of boxing to a physical chess game. The sparring participants react to one another’s moves, requiring tremendous focus, perseverance, and an ability to remain calm under pressure: desirable skills for any of life’s fights.

In fact, it was boxing that helped to turn around Mr. Cancellare’s troubled adolescence. When his family moved from the States to San Juan, Puerto Rico, the thirteen-year-old Mr. Cancellare started down a dangerous path. “It was a different lifestyle than I was used to,” Mr. Cancellare said. “A lot of poverty and crime to get mixed up in. A cop told me I was going to end up in the wrong situation, that there were two outcomes for me: death or jail.” Fortunately, the police officer offered the young Mr. Cancellare a third option. He took the teenager to a local boxing ring.

“It gave me the same adrenaline rush the streets gave me,” Mr. Cancellare said. “It’s a battle, and you’ve got to be 100% dedicated. In other sports, when you don’t do well, you just lose. Maybe your pride gets hurt. In boxing, you’re going to get beat up, and it really hurts.”

Once he began boxing, the young Mr. Cancellare found himself too exhausted to get into trouble. Given the choice to fight a peer after school, or keep his 5 pm boxing appointment, Mr. Cancellare always chose the ring.

“I can’t say boxing saved my life or anything like that. I still fell in and out of trouble, but I found boxing definitely could keep me away from what I shouldn’t be doing. I learned where to put my energy.”

Eventually, Mr. Cancellare moved back to the States, boxing in the amateur circuit in Brooklyn, followed by a two-year spell of pro fighting. When his wife, who is in the Coast Guard, was transferred to Menemsha station, Mr. Cancellare brought his passion to the Island as a trainer and mentor. “It’s a gift to be able to give back,” Mr. Cancellare said. “Whether you’re specifically trying to be a fighter, or you just want to work out, it feels really good to box.”

Boxing is a full body workout, and a tough one at that. It’s not only punches and blocks, but footwork, core rotations, and stability. It also consists of metabolism-revving interval training, usually three minutes of work, followed by just a minute of rest. “Boxing works every muscle in your body,” said Mr. Cancellare. “I’ve played a lot of sports in my life, and I think boxing is one of the hardest.” (Mr. Cancellare is not alone. A 2004 ESPN study ranked boxing the toughest sport in the world).

Mental tenacity has a lot to do with that ranking. “A lot of people think boxing is just throwing punches,” Mr. Cancellare said. “The majority of it is mental. As you fatigue, your mental clarity goes, and you have to fight through that. When you feel like you have nothing left, but you still have to go two or three rounds, you start to realize ‘wow I can do a lot more than I knew I could.’ You find it in your heart, your mind, to say ‘yes I can do that.’ You start to build confidence, you walk differently. It transitions into regular life; that’s one of the beauties of it.”

It may seem strange to outsiders that this elevated state of mind arises from what appears to be a violent, event brutish, sport. But Mr. Cancellare says there is little room for aggression in the boxing ring. “I can’t just go in there swinging like crazy, I have to be mentally controlled. In the heat of chaos, I’ve still got to be calm, cool, and collected. Which is crazy. Someone is trying to punch me and take my head off, but I’ve still got to be calm, cool, collected. Boxing teaches you that’s the best way to be in any situation in life.”

Calm, cool, and collected.

For more information on boxing on Martha’s Vineyard, call 850-316-5918, or check out the MV Boxing Club Facebook page, run by local boxing enthusiast Chuck Noonan.