Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Froch Groves fever: talking psychology with Sean Ryder Part 1

"Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate."
Sun Tzu, ancient Chinese military general

Sun Tzu, author of the legendary Art of War, would heartily approve of George Groves' propensity for psychological warfare. The enigmatic Hammersmith super-middleweight has been engaged in an intense psychological battle with Carl Froch ever since their first fight was announced last year, and in the build-up to Saturday's eagerly awaited rematch at Wembley stadium he has unleashed an arsenal of psychological gambits which adhere to Tzu's emphasis on the 'subtle' and the 'mysterious'. Meanwhile, in an admission of how mentally unprepared he was last time around, Froch has himself engaged the services of a sports psychologist to help him prepare for the rematch.

Suddenly, the biggest prize-fight of the year is a contest steeped in psychology - adding a fascinatingly cerebral dimension to what is already a mouthwatering physical confrontation.

On Tuesday I spoke to renowned sports psychology consultant Sean Ryder, who has worked with boxers, footballers and figures from the world of business among many others. Sean was kind enough to share with me his perceptions of the Froch-Groves psychological battle, his views on Groves' intriguing pre-fight gambits and his assessment of some of the psychological flash-points that have occurred in the build-up to the second fight thus far.

I've categorised and summarised the first section of our in-depth discussion under the headings below - with Sean being the expert, you'll notice that I understandably give far more time to his views and analysis than mine! And I think you'll agree that his insights make for fascinating reading.

Assessing the first fight:
There's no doubt in my mind that George's' 'disrespect' towards Carl ahead of the first fight, and his general bossing of their psychological exchanges, had a significant effect on the way the fight unfolded, with Groves performing well above expectations, and Froch looking distinctly below par. What, though, did Sean make of my theory?

Sean Ryder's view: "I think you could argue that. In fact, Carl has admitted that mentally he wasn't prepared for the first fight and that George got under his skin. What was interesting was that George definitely had a plan. He definitely knew what he was going to do every time they met; he knew what he was going to say, he knew the messages he wanted to get across. When you have any sort of face-to-face meeting [as a boxer] you have to think about the two effects that anything you say will potentially have: the first is, what effect will it have on myself? Is it going to make me feel more confident? Is it going to make me feel more sure in my ability? And then there's what effect it can have on your opponent. I think George judged it brilliantly before the first fight because everything he was saying was adding to his own levels of belief and his own levels of control. For example by saying, 'I'm going to take the centre of the ring, I'm going to hit him with two right hands in the first round', he was creating that certainty in his own mind and I think George benefited from that. By the same token, though, George felt those comments would have a negative effect on Carl."

Assessing the psychological balance of the rematch:
It seems that Froch is taking the challenge of Groves more seriously this time. Indeed, in an apparent admission that Groves had the psychological edge fathead of their first contest, Carl has even been visiting a sports psychologist in the build-up to the rematch. So how does the psychological balance of the rematch compare to the first fight?

Sean Ryder's view: "It's a really nice contrast this time around; George isn't really doing anything too differently, but you'll see that the effect of what he does on Carl has been very different. That's why it's quite dangerous if you're constantly trying to do something to upset your opponent; quite simply, you can't completely control how your opponent will react. This time around I think Carl has a better understudying of what George is trying to do, and if you know what someone's trying to do, it can really limit the effect it can have."

George and the Rubik's cube:
When Froch spoke at the opening press conference for the rematch, Groves put his energy into solving a Rubik's cube instead. He looked quite good at it too, an impression later confirmed when he clocked an impressive 2 minutes 21 in solving the multicoloured riddle for the Sky TV cameras. But what on earth was the hidden meaning behind all of this?

Sean Ryder's view: "I thought the Rubik's Cube was really interesting! The point about the Rubik's Cube is that it could be perceived in a whole host of different ways, all of them positive for George and negative for Carl. For example, George could be hoping that Carl would get irritated by a perceived lack of respect. i.e. 'I'm the champ, I'm talking, how dare he not listen!' Or George could have been looking for Carl to interpret it as a reflection of the fact that George is an intelligent man, a smart man, who can stick to a game plan and develop a game plan; that he's a bright and intelligent boxer who's smarter than Carl. Or from George's perspective it may well be that he just didn't care what Carl had to say! If you listen to what George has often said, he says that Carl 'just can't beat him', he says he's quicker than Carl, has better footwork, is harder than him - so perhaps the Rubik's Cube is just a reinforcement of the fact that what Carl has to say is an irrelevance to him when it comes to the fight. Whether that's true or not we'll see on Saturday!"

When push comes to shove:
Froch had kept his nerve, and temper, throughout the first press conference, until he decided to shove Groves while they posed for photographers on the Wembley pitch. Was this a flashpoint that revealed a potentially fatal weakness in keeping a lid on his emotions?

Sean Ryder's view: "From the outside it looked like Carl had a plan going into that day; he was going to remain calm, he was going to keep it together and be very controlled. Obviously the longer that goes on the more difficult it is to maintain that control. When you get to a certain stage, there's always the risk that Carl thinks: 'I've had enough of this, it's all an act, I'm going to let the real me out'. That could be what the push represented. But having said that, and I've looked at the footage a few times, Carl is so controlled with that push, that you can easily speculate that he'd planned to do it. Often if you push somebody, you meet their eyes really quickly to judge their reaction. I mean there was a chance that George might have punched him in the face! But Carl refused to be in his gaze. Whether that was controlled or not it's very difficult to say. I'm sure he planned to look face forward and keep looking forward and not look at George. But what he might not have thought about is that he was leaving his ear open for George to say whatever he wants, and they were there for quite a long time before the shove happened! So it could also have been Carl's way of saying, enough of this, and snapping... in a controlled way!

It's also interesting to look at what happened immediately afterwards, and look at George's response... he, well, I wouldn't say he was rattled, that's too strong a word, but he suddenly seemed incapable of responding. He would have been tempted to get engaged in some sort of physical altercation, but he knew he couldn't. So there was definitely an element, I think, that George was taken aback by what he perceived as Carl's unprofessional behaviour. I don't think he was expecting to be pushed at all."

Part 2 of this article will appear later this week, in which we will examine Groves' various mantras, Froch's use of a sports psychologist and much more besides!

Thanks to Sean Ryder for taking the time to speak to Boxiana. You can follow Sean on Twitter @SeanRyderDYA. His website is

Luke G. Williams
Follow @boxianajournal

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