Collins learns the conquest of pain

John Roberts, in the second part of an investigation into sports psychology, hears how a hypnotherapist has helped an Irish boxer to become a world champion
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The Independent Online
Carmen Basilio, a rugged world welterweight and middleweight champion of the 1950s who numbered Sugar Ray Robinson among his conquests, was asked if it helped to bless himself before each round. "Not if you can't fight," he replied.

Something similar might be said in relation to Steve Collins, Ireland's World Boxing Organisation super-middleweight champion, who has brought a new dimension to applying mind over batter. Collins goes into the ring with a clinical hypnotherapist in his corner who professes to have trained him to be able to control pain and bleeding.

According to the hypnotherapist, Tony Quinn, this is achieved through "the unconscious attention response", a process he says he has used to help hospital patients undergo surgery without anaesthetic.

One volunteer was his secretary, Colette Millea, who decided to have her ears pinned back. "Often the people that you know are the hardest to work with," says Quinn, a consultant to a chain of Irish health centres whose expertise in concentrating the mind has been sought by actors, politicians and businessmen.

So how does the "unconscious attention response" theory work? "If I asked you to give me your full attention, and I'm talking about something you're not interested in, you may not bother giving me any attention at all. So I call that inattention. If you are studying a subject that you're not really interested in, you can pay conscious attention, where you force yourself to pay attention, because you have to pay attention.

"Then there's the third aspect, which is called unconscious attention, where you're so totally involved in the subject that there's no part of you left over that's conscious that you're paying attention, if that makes sense. It's like being so totally involved in a good book that you don't hear traffic sounds around you or a person speaking to you.

"A simple example of it was when I was working with Dr Jack Gibson, who supervised my research with the University of East London. Dr Gibson found that if he had to stitch the face of a person who had been in an accident, and they looked to him desperately in a state of fear to do something for them, that is a state of unconscious attention.

"The person's whole mind is wrapped around the doctor at that point, and if the doctor says to them, 'If you relax completely you're not going to feel it, in fact it will feel very pleasant to you, you'll actually enjoy it', amazingly enough it actually seems to take place.

"Strictly speaking, I don't see myself as a hypnotist. I don't control anybody's mind. I help them gain control of their own mind, to get it to do what they want it to do. I'm not a medical doctor, it's very important to say that. I have a doctorate in clinical hypnotherapy and a masters degree in psychotherapy and I'm also doing a PhD in psychology. I also have qualifications as a PT instructor and in the area of nutrition. I won 12 national titles as a body-builder, so I know about weight-training, and I also have a background in martial arts."

Collins has given Quinn his undivided unconscious attention all year after seeing him on a television chat show in which the hypnotherapist was asked by Wayne McCullough, the World Boxing Council bantamweight champion, if the technique could be applied to boxing. Since he started to work with Quinn, Collins has won two world title fights against Chris Eubank and a third against Cornelius Carr.

Eubank complained that Collins was being turned into a machine by Quinn and would not be aware of the damage inflicted on him during a fight. "Eubank also said in a TV interview," Quinn recalled, "that he thought that boxing was 85 per cent psychology and 15 per cent training. So to me it makes sense to train the mind. And I firmly believe that the athlete of the future will also be a mental athlete.

"Basically, all I did with Steve was help him to use more of his mind to bring out what was already in there. You can't bring out what's not in there. It is true, I believe, that someone who is mentally trained has an advantage, because to a fair degree you can control your energy, you can control the pain, you can control the bleeding. And, even more importantly, you can actually control your recovery after the fight is over.

"Where normally, Steve told me, he could have great pain all over and every muscle in his body would ache for about two or three weeks afterwards, he was OK within an hour or so. He could control his own pain, even to the bruises and swellings, as we found that people did in the operations.

"Before you start into an operation, you train the person how to control their blood flow. It can be amazing. If the person starts to bleed heavily you can actually say to them, 'Stop that bleeding', and the person will actually stop the bleeding. You can control much more of the symptoms in the body than most people realise, provided you don't let opposing thoughts go in there. You have to be congruent all in one direction with the training."

Is there not an ethical point that if performance-enhancing drugs are banned by sports authorities why allow performance-enhancing hypnotherapy?

"There's no doubt it would enhance performance," Quinn says, "but I don't necessarily use hypnotherapy. We've developed what we think is a different approach. Sports people are all looking for an edge, and it's much safer than taking any kind of drugs. It's really using just your own mind.

"My response is that if something like that is available, then probably more and more people in the sport are going to use it. Some people have a greater ability to control pain, control recovery, control their energy, than others. It will still depend on the person's mental make-up."

Quinn said that he and Collins were attempting to limit the amount of damage the boxer suffered, but he added: "Having said that, no one can guarantee that you're going to win a fight. That would be be nonsense. Nor could they guarantee that you're not going to be knocked out, or that you're not even going to be hurt. But from my clinical experience it seems to be the safest way to go in there."

The anti-boxing lobby, supported by the number of recent ring deaths and crippling injuries, would question that there is any safe way. Is there a chance that Quinn will come to regret his involvement in a brutal business?

"Steve and I both agree that we're not interested in damaging anybody. We're only interested in getting the job done, and we approach it that way. In fact he asks me to put in specific instructions to make sure that he's not particularly damaging anybody, that he just wants to win. He's not in there with the attitude, 'I'm going to murder this person'. That's genuinely true.

"I don't know whether they'll succeed in banning boxing, because then it might go underground, and I think then it can't be supervised, and maybe that's even worse. But I think it will always be with us."

In addition to Collins's physical welfare, Quinn says he helps the fighter focus his mind on any changes considered necessary to improve his boxing technique. "If, for example, Steve wanted to change his footwork or his punching style I would be told exactly what was required and, in that state of unconscious attention, I would say back to him everything that was going to happen. Once you put all that in there it's almost like a programme that the person then works from. It's a very quick way of learning, that's the simplest way of understanding it."

There is a strong possibility that Collins will fight Nigel Benn, who holds the World Boxing Council title. That is bound to be an eyeball-to- eyeball affair, especially since Benn has used the services of Paul McKenna, the stage hypnotist. Imagine, Quinn in one corner and McKenna in the other.

"According to Paul McKenna, it would be fascinating," Quinn says. "It would be good fun. It would be a great challenge for Steve to fight Nigel Benn. He has a lot of respect for him."

Quinn added: "I was never involved in boxing in my life before Steve approached me after the TV show. I didn't know anything about it. If you had asked me about boxing, the most I could have said to you was, 'Oh, yes, well I think Cassius Clay was the greatest boxer'. I used to think he was very stylish and a joy to watch, but he's just an example of someone who transcended the sport." An example, also, of someone who believed explicitly in his own ability and could reach into the minds of opponents with devastating effect, and yet who still took too many damaging blows.

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