Punch Drunk Love

This is the extended version of a short article called 'Face Value' which appears in the April 2014 issue of Primo Life magazine. While I am still new to the sweet science, these are some of the tips I've put together from my own experience, and from chatting to other women. It is far from a definitive guide, and as such I’d welcome any additional comments or tips you might have. This entry is focused towards female boxers, but many of the principles are universal to beginners.

DON'T WEAR MAKEUP

It seems extremely silly now, but putting on mascara and a bit of blush every day is such a deeply ingrained habit that I put it on before going to my ever first boxing session. I never did it again. Between the sweat pouring off me and the punches to my face, within minutes my eyes were smeared and irritated. Waterproof mascara is not an alternative either as the gritty bits of coating break down and get in your eyes. Keep your face clean, and keep your hair out of your face too. You don’t want anything obscuring your view of the person who’s trying to get the best of you.

BE UNAFRAID, BE VERY UNAFRAID

Getting punched in the face is actually a very small part of boxing. As a beginner, you will spend most of your time at the gym running, skipping, doing squats and pushups, and throwing medicine balls around. Most of the punches you will throw will be at bags and other people’s hands. The only time you are at risk of really being socked is during free sparring, which is only a small part of the training. You’ll never be asked to do something you’re not comfortable with, and the objective of a boxing session is to learn, not to battle. That is what fights are for, and they come much later (if ever).

KNOW YOUR LIMITS

Professional and semi pro boxers and MMA fighters train at my gym, and until recently one of them was our coach. As a result, the bar is set very high, even for the twelve-year-old kids, office workers and debutantes, like me. It is exciting and inspiring to train in the same room as professionals and a great challenge, but it can also be intimidating, and sometimes you will feel that the impossible is being asked of you. I'd played sports my whole life and had spent the previous few years playing roller derby at a high level in Australia and France, but this didn't prepare me for the intensity and variety of training that is boxing.As a woman, you will almost certainly begin with lower muscle density than men and you may just not be able to do everything asked of you.

So what can you do? Find alternatives. For example, at my first session I was only able to tremble through two 'man' pushups before I had to switch to knee pushups. Over time I increased the number until I was mostly keeping up with the boys. There is nothing wrong with modifying or slowing down your exercises if you simply can't do them, but be honest with yourself. Are you truly unable? Or do you just not want to push yourself? Slow down as much as you need to, but never stop entirely* and you'll be amazed with what you can do that you never thought you could.*Unless it actually hurts, in a sharp-pain-this-is-not-right way. Then stop immediately.

QUIT APOLOGIZING

We are taught 'don't hit' from a very young age and old habits die hard but you need to get used to the idea that you are deliberately hitting people in the face and body, and that they are doing the same to you. Someone who is constantly apologizing and wincing with every hit they land is not an interesting sparring partner.

The reflexive 'sorry!' is inevitable, but make an effort to stop saying it and don't let it interrupt your training or hold you back from being the bad-ass fighter you are!On the flip side, it is OK to apologize if you accidentally hit illegally (for example, get someone in the head when you are supposed to only be working on the body) At my gym, the traditional punishment for this is to let your partner hit you once in the guts.

LISTEN TO BRITNEY

"You want a hot body? You want a Bugatti? You want a Maserati? You better work bitch"

You want respect? You want to be taken seriously? You better work bitch. My gym is predominately male, and in a blue-collar side of town. I am a tall white girl, and a non-native French speaker*, so I felt eyes on me as I stepped in the gym. Although this gaze was never hostile, simply curious, I knew that it would take time for me to establish myself. Sadly, many girls (and guys) who try boxing once or twice are put off and never return, so the regulars don't always make the effort to say hello until they have seen you sweating it out for real week in, week out.But don't be discouraged by what might feel like a silent treatment. Keeping your head down and working hard will be worth it when you receive the ultimate sign of acceptance: a sparring partner who is not afraid to hurt you.

*I live in France.

DON’T BE A HERO

With the exception of a couple of good female friends and sparring partners, I prefer to work with men. Some women walk into the gym with a defensive attitude, perhaps thinking that they aren't welcome and have to prove themselves. As a result, they let loose on everyone and anyone, including other women who are as new and inexperienced as they are. I once worked with a girl who had an extremely brutal right hook, but zero technique, ability to defend herself, or understanding of the principle of controlled sparring. I held back and didn't take advantage of her weak defenses, and took blow after jarring blow in what was supposed to be a light spar. After one too many brain-jangling hits (yes, I know, I should have been blocking them better) I finally lost my temper and got her with my own hard right. She got a black eye. While hurting her was not my intention, I hope she understood the message: being a female boxer does not give you a carte blanche to act however you like.

MIX IT UP

On a similar vein, while every gym is different, sooner or later you will meet men who will not want to work with you. We are all taught 'don't hit', and boys hear 'especially not girls'. Be aware that by asking a man to spar with you, you are facing someone who may be thinking any of the following;"How can I hit her? She's a girl!"; "What if I hit her boobs by accident?"; "She is totally new and doesn't know anything, this will be so boring!"; "I want to hit hard and I can't!'"; "She's cute, I don't want her to hate me!"; or even "I'm new at this too and now she'll see that I suck!".

No matter what kind of attitude you get, don’t take it personally. Some men simply cannot bring themselves to punch a woman, but do find sparring with women useful, because they can practice their defensive and anticipatory skills. Everyone has preferred working partners, and it takes time to establish your own. Your trainer should make sure you are mixing in the group and not just working with the other girls, if there are any, but take things into your own hands. It's rude to refuse an offer to spar, and once everyone sees that you mean business, they will be much more willing to work with you again.

WATCH AND LEARN

On the flip side, flattery can go a long way in the gym. I'm not talking about coquettish flirtation, but simply asking for advice. If you see a boxer doing something particularly well, find a good moment to ask them about it. You're showing that you have noticed their skills and respect them enough to ask for their opinion, and who doesn't like that? One thirty-second conversation could resolve why your uppercut isn't landing properly, and you've just made yourself a new buddy.

BUST A MOVE

Do you like to dance? If so, treat boxing as you would any other choreography. Good boxers look like they are dancing in the ring. They are light on their feet and move with controlled, fluid movements. I used the years of dancing I did at school to my advantage and spent hours in front of the mirror at home practicing jabs, rights, hooks and upper cuts in slow motion, thinking about where my hands, feet and hips were, how my weight transferred and where to draw the power from. Boxing may look simple, but posture and technique is paramount, and having a high level of body awareness is a huge asset.

WORK IT

Check your fine self out. In time you are going to be leaner, stronger and more muscular. All the workouts will get easier and your punches will start really landing home. Enjoy watching your body transform into the powerful instrument it is, and pay attention to the new muscles that are popping up. Those hard things on the back of your upper arms? Those are triceps. Cool huh?