7 life skills I learnt from 7 months of kickboxing

Early this year, as part of a leadership development program at ThoughtWorks, I was encouraged to take on and master an art or a sport that would challenge me.

I picked kickboxing. I’d always hated martial arts (a result of traumatic Karate classes at school), and had never had the discipline to learn a sport well. Kickboxing would be well and truly out of my comfort zone.

I knew a great kickboxing coach — Siddarth Abraham of Hyper Monkey Fitness. I was already a student of their functional fitness program, but I wasn’t regular or focused. Siddarth was enthusiastic to take this challenge on, and designed a rather kickass personal training program for me. He was also keen for me to have a tangible end goal — being able to teach a basic kickboxing class in one year.

It’s been 7 months since I started, and I’ve learnt not just the techniques of the sport, but also several life skills that apply to work and life in general.

1. Overcoming mental models

When I was growing up, I was awful at all sorts of physical activities. Aside from a running race I won third prize in in kindergarten, I’ve never won a medal or been a key member of a sports team.

All my life, I was told I’m not cut out for sports, and I grew up believing that was true. Every time there was an opportunity to participate in a sport, even at a team outing, I’d retire to closest corner and pretend I wasn’t there.

Once I’d signed up for the kickboxing challenge, there was no going back. I had to show up and go through the rigour. Surprisingly, I picked it up and was making marked progress rather quickly. I’ve uprooted that mental model that had grown with me, and I’m now confident I can fight all the others I have.

Often, our limitations are only in our heads.

2. Making incremental, sustainable changes

For years, I’d tried to lose weight by adopting (and quickly abandoning) diets, and signing up for gym memberships and not showing up. I’d never had a really motivating reason to stick to anything I signed up for.

Kickboxing gave me that motivation. In order to excel at it, I had to be stronger, more agile and not get tired quickly. Losing weight was no longer the end goal; it was the means to a more motivating end goal.

I think diets should not be short-lived, but should be a permanent part of one’s lifestyle. So I started by making one small change, took my time to get used to it, and then added another change. My first was to make sure I eat a protein-rich breakfast every morning. It took me a while to get used to eggs for breakfast everyday. But it worked so well — I could see visible changes in my muscles and stamina within weeks. This encouraged me to make it a habit, and to actively look for the next change I could add.

Taking baby steps and measuring the effect of each has been transformational. There’s a lesson in it for making any sort of change programs effective.

3. Prioritizing

To a product manager, this should come naturally. It didn’t to me.

The excuse I’d always make for not going to the gym was that I didn’t have the time between work, sleep and other interests. Kickboxing requires a few hours of personal classes every week, and several more hours of various other strength training and cardio activities. If I wanted to do well, I couldn’t skimp on any of this.

This meant I had to make the time. I had to take stock of what I spent time on each day, and decide what I had to keep, move around, or remove altogether — much like deciding what features make a product.

I found a way to manage my schedule. I wake up a little earlier than before, skip peak hour traffic to go to an early class, and head straight to work. My morning reading got much less time, forcing me to read only what was really necessary (no more random Buzzfeed posts, entertainment news or webcomics), and move more elaborate reading to the weekend. I got rid of decision fatigue in the mornings — clothes for work and the gym are picked, ironed and packed on Sundays, so I can grab and fly every morning through the week.

By choosing what I really valued in my day and building a working schedule, I picked up a skill that makes me better at my role.

4. Levelling up

With any kind of work, you could go on doing it as you always have been, at a pace and a level that is sustainable.

Or you could sharpen your tools and level up.

I could have gone on practising kickboxing fundamentals, and become marginally better over time. But five months in, Siddarth chose to stop kickboxing classes and focus on 21 straight days of strength training — lifting weights, doing high intensity exercises and running outdoors. The idea was to focus on building so much stamina that I could later take on harder, longer kickboxing classes. Each day was harder than the last — but at the end, I was much stronger than before. I had the confidence to try more difficult classes and last longer in a fight. It was a worthy investment of time and effort.

5. Supplementing a focus area

The purpose of this training was to try and master a sport. I assumed that I’d have to give up all other physical activity, and focus solely on mastering kickboxing.

I was wrong. Siddarth made me do more of the other classes each week than before. I still do a combination of yoga, zumba, strength training, movements and pilates every week. They each help build stamina, flexibility and footwork that supplements kickboxing beautifully.

This goes to show that to build depth in one area, it would be detrimental to put blinkers on and focus on just that one area.

6. Learning by teaching

The 1-year goal Siddarth set for me was to be able to confidently teach a kickboxing fundamentals class for a group of newbies. Every few weeks, he would have me teach the basic stances and strikes to a new person for about 10 minutes. By watching me teach, he was able to pick up on what I’d learnt and what I was missing. Articulating the stances and strikes to the “student” made me more aware of the fundamentals myself, and I recall them more easily when I practice.

Teaching is great way to learn and to keep on sharpening one’s toolset — a philosophy that applies to learning literally anything!

7. Mentoring and coaching

This experience made me acutely aware of the value of personal coaching. The way Siddarth customised the teaching process to me and my limitations was quite inspiring. He set micro-goals along the way, pushing me a little harder each day. He powered through my whining and lapses of enthusiasm with giant doses of tough love. He followed up on my diet goals obsessively, by making me keep a journal and asking to see it often, and also monitored my progress with outdoor running.

Isn’t that what all of us need in our lives? Someone to push us beyond the limitations we’ve created in our heads, and to pull us up when we’re feeling uninspired.

It’s also something we could be providing to other people in our lives and helping them get more effective. This taught me how to be a better coach to my sponsees and other folks I work with, a skill I’m thankful for everyday.

If you thought taking on a sport would be great for physical health, you’re underestimating its power. I learnt so much that is useful to me at work, in my interactions with people, and with setting my personal goals. It is truly an investment with great returns!