Pebbles are by definition small, painful distractions that we encounter from time to time. Some we will just shake out in an instant and carry on, whilst others we will soldier on with a while longer until we reach that point whereby the pebble becomes such a distraction, that we are forced to stop and flush it out once and for all.
Of course we are talking in the physical here – a simple process of slipping off a shoe and removing a small stone. But if, like Ali, we switch this over into metaphorical speak, its not as simple as it sounds. As a society it is easy to perceive physical pain; a tangible element, where we readily accept and register immediate empathy.
Mental anguish has the opposite social perception; intangibly incarcerated within the sufferer, at times difficult to express and often immersed in taboo. Unidentified and/or inappropriately dealt with, it can distort our mental focus and eventually lead to depression, which in turn prevents us from reaching our goals; the pebble becoming harder to purge as we become overwhelmed with negativity.
It takes a very courageous person in any walk of life to both admit and take steps to remove such a mental obstacle - like climbing mountains it requires significant strength. But with the help of a tight and trusted team around him, professional boxer Tony Owen has done exactly that.
Co-founder of the thriving and beautiful ‘Go Fit Go Box’ gym based on an industrial estate in Tolworth, coupled with recently winning the Southern Area Light Welterweight Title belt with a convincing victory over defending champion Danny Connor, you could be forgiven for thinking that Tony Owen has it all. Certainly whilst sitting in his office and talking to him, it is very apparent that this quietly confident, unassuming, young boxer exudes an overriding sense of inner peace that most would envy. But it hasn’t always been like that.
After a successful amateur boxing career becoming the ABA Novice Champion, Tony took a break from the world of boxing only to pick it up again in 2009 at the age of 22 where by chance he was spotted sparring at a gym in Streatham. Instantly noticeable as a natural talent, he was asked if he would consider turning professional which he did with considerable success. However in recent times it became apparent to his team that something wasn’t quite right with their talented young boxer; the once passionate ‘rangy, skilled, southpaw’ was suddenly lacking in self belief. The unanimous defeat by Chris Jenkins in the Prizefighter Tournament, light welterweight quarter finals in July of this year, became the pivotal turning point in his life. It was tiime to take stock, face facts, find that pebble, and remove it for good.
It is generally perceived that boxing as with sport in general – is around 80% mental and 20% physical. Whilst natural talent is a beautiful gift, when it comes to success, the considered opinion is that it really is mind over matter. Trusted friend and Team Owen Fight Analyst Tony Roberts knew this and brought in the mind expert.
John Mill, is by profession an integrative hypnotherapist/psychotherapist who has become an integral part of Team Owen. Tasked with tackling a naturally talented young boxer who considered himself ‘stuck’ seems mountainous by definition, but as a highly trained professional in his field, John is clearly no stranger to this type of challenge. Trained at CCTS (Contemporary College of Therapeutic Studies) he uses skills acquired to study body language; watching every move, facial colour change, body stance, plus many other cues whilst engaging in conversation with his client – the combination of which helps him reach a level of empathy that enables him to perceive just what it is to be in their shoes, in their world.
The death of Lewis Pinto in June 2012 rocked the boxing fraternity to the core. Best friends since the age of 15, having first met on the Roundshaw estate, Lewis and Tony developed an almost inseparable bond, continuing their friendship and both turning professional in 2009 as fighters and trainers alike. The death of someone close, whether it be family or friend is devastating. For some it is impossible to reconcile with ‘Why?’ being the eternal question. The impact of Lewis’s death hit Tony very hard, unleashing a myriad of inward emotions that could be perceived as forming part of the grieving process. Consequently through therapy he spoke of Lewis and how he’d made it his mission to fight every fight for him going forward; on his behalf, in his memory.
Fighting grief whilst fighting in the ring, but not fighting for himself, Tony unwittingly put himself under huge pressure to win for both Lewis and his loved ones where defeat was just not an option. But defeat happened in the form of Welsh professional boxer and current Prizefighter champion Chris Jenkins which caused the crisis to manifest itself thereafter. For therapist John Mill, it didn’t take long to conclude that this young boxer had lost his sense of self since Lewis had passed away and that it was now time for release and reconnection via therapy.
Working with Tony, John sought to reignite all the real reasons as to why he was a fighter; reminding him of his early passion for boxing as a young man, with the single mindedness that had allowed him to achieve his goals. John used a technique called ‘Guided Affective Imagery’ which involves a light state of trance that enables the client to communicate out loud whilst the therapist guides them on a journey.
Under hypnosis, John took Tony to a meadow – a traditional starting point denoting a safe place that he could always return to. From here, both client and therapist followed a pathway described by Tony as ‘only wide enough for me’. As he continued along the path, John introduced a mountain, which Tony described as ‘steep and pointed’. From a therapy perspective the mountain is designed to provide a connection between the client and their goals and aspirations which they are unaware of at the time. Tony continued along a pathway which went around the mountain, was spiral in shape and deliberately ended by therapist John halfway up.
This deliberate intervention is used to ascertain how Tony will handle obstacles and stumbling blocks in his life. Equally it is used to determine whether or not during life’s toughest moments Tony can find a way forward – assuming he wants to go on at all. It is worth noting that some of the most successful people return to the meadow at this point. When asked the question ‘Tony what do you want to do now?’ he immediately replied ‘Get to the top’. When John asked ‘How can you get there Tony?’ his reply was ‘Climb up the rocks’. He quickly found an alternative route and looked strong and determined.
Even though this was an imaginary journey, it is known that sometimes clients can see, hear and feel, as if they are really on the mountain. They can also struggle – just as if they were climbing a real mountain. Tony’s breathing was calm. He appeared determined – reaching the peak of his mountain quickly and easily. But as he stood at the summit, something happened….
Sensing something was different about him and using ‘Immediacy’ – acting on what he felt in the here and now – John got a sense that Tony wasn’t alone. He asked the question ‘Is someone there Tony?’ and obtained the response ‘Pinto is here with me’. Feeling a sense of goosebumps John quickly realised that he was experiencing something called ‘transference’ – his goosebumps being representative of Tony’s goosebumps. Asking him quietly what Pinto was doing, Tony responded ‘He’s standing next to me with his hand on my shoulder’. Pausing for a moment, allowing Tony to absorb what was happening, John then asked him if Pinto was saying anything. Tony replied ‘No, he’s just standing there silent next to me’. When further asked ‘Do you want to speak to him?’ Tony replied ‘We don’t need to say anything – we just know’. Leaving him for a while on the mountain with his old friend Lewis, John finally asked him to say goodbye and make his way back down. At this point some clients choose to fly down riding the breeze, others choose to run down screaming with joy. Tony chose to go back down the way he came – slowly and methodically.
Returning to the meadow Tony was roused back to conscious reality in order to process what had happened. Clearly moved with a beaming smile, he was allowed to try and make sense of the experience, whilst John explained the meaning of the mountain from a therapist’s perspective. Tony was at times lost for words as to how much this experience had touched him. As part of the process, John gave Tony his professional interpretation of his experience, stressing to his client that he could accept or reject it, in part or in total. The pathway that was ‘narrow and only wide enough for him’ signified to John that this journey was Tony’s alone. The fact that his mountain was steep and high, denoted that he recognised that there is a long process towards becoming a champion, but it was also a route which never once phased him as he travelled along it.
When John brought the pathway to an end halfway up the mountain, Tony simply found another way to reach the top. He was unstoppable in his approach and achieved his goal easily. John suggested that Pinto’s presence at the top of the mountain was symbolic of the fact that his friend was already there, ready and waiting for him after he had won his next fight; a fight that he would be fighting for himself. Pinto’s hand on his shoulder was there for him after his win – connecting as any friend would and saying ‘well done’.
Understanding and accepting his therapist’s interpretation, has enabled Tony to experience a sense of release, enabled him to regain his focus and reconnect with his goals and ambitions. It made him realise and accept that every fight going forward should be for him with no emotional strings attached. When he was asked again as to why he and Pinto stayed silent on the top of that mountain he simply replied ‘There was no need for words….. I just knew….it was unspoken’ – a statement that those in his close circle would agree fits in perfectly with just who Tony Owen is; a young man of great humility, few words and a good heart. But he is also a courageous young man, showing strength in admitting he had weaknesses, which in a sport considered one of the last male bastions of society is a very brave thing to do.
Tony Owen has climbed his mountain and is telling his story to raise awareness and help others both within and outside of his sport. With the help of John Mill and the rest of Team Owen he has managed to smash through his subconscious glass ceiling and is clearly continuing onwards and upwards. A convincing win after a such a crushing defeat 3 months previously is pivotal testimony to the unconditional support of his closest family, friends and mentors which combined with the profound benefits of his therapy completes the perfect ensemble.
For therapist John Mill – being sat amongst the audience, listening to noticeable comment amongst the Owen fans as they remarked ‘how different he was’, ‘how much he had changed’ – must surely be the ultimate satisfaction. And as he watched each sharp jab executed from the southpaw fist he must surely have sensed imminent victory; the pebble removed and the job done.
With the social networks currently awash with what is being billed as the ‘Clash of Carshalton’ in 10 days time, no onlooker could fail to observe that right now Tony Owen could not be in a better place both physically and mentally and without doubt he would be the first to thank and acknowledge ‘The Magnificent Seven’ that surround him; his father Ray, brother Lee, trainer Bernard, sparring partner Kaylem ( a promising boxer at the tender age of 15); fight analyst Tony Roberts, business partner and nutritionist Cameron Goff and of course John Mill. Team Owen look undeniable, formidable, unbeatable…..
December 14th 2013….. ‘And Still……’
Live on Sky Sports: Tony Owen vs Ricky Boylan
The Excel Centre
Grateful thanks to both John Mill and Tony Roberts for their contribution to this blog.