Boxing lessons: 10 things I learned about life in an old, dirty boxing gym

It was cold, and raining, and dark. I didn’t really know where I was going, only that there was supposed to be a boxing gym in one of these old warehouses.

I didn’t see the sign, and I couldn’t find the door. I was a bit confused, kinda lost, and definitely late for class.

A bus was coming. I could get on, get out of the rain, and go home. No one would miss me; no one would know I came and left.

Instead, I retraced my steps, looked closer, found the door, and went in.

What I found inside changed my life.

Four years later, I’m still going in.

The gym is called Sully’s and it’s got its own history. My history with the place is through Coach Steph and Iron Lion training, and our little Saturday morning crew.

I’ve been coming here for nearly four years (since 2012), every Saturday, with few exceptions.

The gym is not pretty. It is not clean and nice. There is blood in the ring. There is spit in the spit buckets. (Maybe something worse — I don’t look too close.) The floors are covered with some very questionable carpet. The heavy bags are duct-taped, and so are the skipping ropes that hang off a nail on the wall.

I love it.

Now, the Iron Lion team is moving to a new space — a gym of their own, and I couldn’t be more excited to join them there.

Change marks an opportunity. When an era ends, it is a good time to tell stories. I want to take a minute and reflect on what I’ve gotten out of the past 4 years in this place, with these people.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned.

1. Open the door.

The first day I went to Sully’s wasn’t a Saturday but a weeknight. As I said, it would have been easy not to show up that night.

Even when I did find the door, I had to walk up some questionable stairs in a poorly lit warehouse.

When I reached the boxing gym, I wandered past dozens of beefy guys trying to out-posture each other on the bags, huffing and grunting. I was wearing running shoes and carrying pink boxing gloves.

At every step, I could have turned around. I could have let myself be intimidated or uncomfortable and leave.

But I found Coach Steph, who was working with another woman (a boxing buddy I just hadn’t met yet), wrapped up my wrists, and we got to work.

Opportunity doesn’t usually have a neon light flashing “Open” over it. Sometimes it’s a mysterious door, an intimidating entrance, a slightly timid step forward.

I learned you have to be willing to go a little further. To look for it. To take a breath.

And open the door.

2. Do something.

Why was I there in the first place?

There are three reasons I started boxing: anxiety, depression, and PTSD. I was basically wandering around in an emotional apocalypse.

I didn’t know what to do.

Sounds shitty, right? It was. Except that it was also kind of awesome.

Because the flip side of feeling like you’ve got nothing is that you’re willing to try anything.

I knew I needed to do something, so I was willing to try things I hadn’t tried before — things that my analytical, critical mind might have shut down in the past.

I learned that when you don’t know what to do, it’s a good idea to just dosomething.

You never know what that something could turn out to be.

3. Come as you are.

Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name… and doesn’t give a shit what you look like, smell like, or feel like.

Over the first couple of years I was boxing through an emotional rollercoaster. Sometimes I would be angry and just attack the bag like a crazy person. Sometimes all my sadness would have me running into the hallway to bawl my eyes out.

Sometimes I wanted to talk and laugh and have fun. Other days I just wanted to shut up and hit something.

All good, my friend. I did not need to worry here. This was a place where people were welcome to come as they are. Showing up and doing your best was always good enough.

These days, if I worry about being good enough to go somewhere or do something, I just think ‘come as you are.’ I grant myself the inner sanctuary to just show up. And I try to extend that to other people, too.

Let’s allow ourselves and others to participate just as we are, wherever we are.

4. Let yourself suck.

What a gift it is to accept you suck at something and love it anyway.

I sucked when I started and the longer I trained and the more consistently I practiced, the better I got.

But to me, it has always been a goal of ‘sucking less’ rather than becoming good or great.

I will never be a boxer. In four years I have trained as a boxer and I have cross-trained with discipline, but I have never competed and I never will.

Sucking is freedom. It is an all-access pass to trying and enjoying things without this adult notion of being “good enough”.

Sucking at boxing has been a gateway to sucking at other sports and activities. Things I thought I would never do are now available to me, because I’m not afraid to be a beginner.

Think you can’t do something because you’re no good at it? Bullshit. Go on and let yourself suck.

And by the way — be nice to beginners. I am grateful to everyone who was patient with me while I learned, both in boxing and anywhere else in life. I try to help others the same way I have been helped, so they too can enjoy the beginnery-ness.

5. Discipline doesn’t have to feel like discipline.

In four years, there were very few times when I considered not going to boxing.

I was committed. I did whatever it took to get there. I arranged my schedule around it. I actually, oddly liked saying ‘no’ to parties or events on Friday night so that I could be rested enough for boxing. I liked getting up early, preparing my gear, making sure I ate an hour before hand, all the little steps of getting ready.

I liked showing up, and listening to my Coach, and trying, and studying. I liked coming away with life lessons that I could take home.

When one of my boxing buddies found out where I live — across the city from the gym — she said, ‘wow, that’s real discipline.’

And it surprised me. She was right — it took discipline. But it never felt like it.

I learned that discipline doesn’t have to feel like someone is rapping your knuckles with a ruler.

It can feel comforting, safe. It can feel like you’re getting to know yourself better.

It can even feel like home.

6. Find your people.

If I didn’t feel like boxing, I at least wanted to see my people.

That sense of community gave me a sense of place when I felt lost. Now, they add richness to my life.

In the last four years I have changed careers, reinvented myself, and rewritten my story. Developing new friendships and community has been a wonderful part of that journey.

I came to realize that community is something we create for ourselves.

If you are missing some people in your life — people to workout with, or some awesome people to work with, or just new friends — go find them.

Great people will usually lead you to other great people.

7. Go “ugly.”

This is a bit like the ‘come as you are’ mantra but I want to make a separate point here.

I’ve had other people (mostly women) tell me they have not done something because they are afraid they don’t look the part, or they might be called out for being an ‘imposter’, or they do not look good enough or fit enough to do something.

There were many days where I got on the subway looking a mess. I had a skin condition but wore no makeup to try to cover my face. I wore old gym clothes. No shower, hair matted.

I refused to care.

I was going boxing, baby!

I stopped worrying about what others thought and I channelled my energy into what I was doing, and how much I loved it.

This is liberating. If you have not done this, you should try it.

8. All you really have to do is get back up.

What a wonderful thing to get punched in the face (literally and metaphorically) and keep going.

Some days I felt beat up. And some days I felt on top of the world.

None of it really matters except no matter what, I would keep going. Learn something from it, do my best with it, and move on.

The real challenges in my life were not boxing. Boxing just helped remind me of my own resilience. It helped me build physical strength to remind me of my inner strength. It helped me keep going.

Falling over really is just an opportunity to get back up.

9. Wherever you go, be all there.

“The more you put into this sport, the more you get out of it.”

Coach Steph said this very early in my training. I took it seriously. Hence the commitment, the discipline, the effort.

But she might have said it about life.

The time I started boxing represented a huge turning point in my life, wherein I started to chase joy, go deeper into personal growth, and give more time to the values, priorities and people I really care about.

I showed up more. I paid attention. I took risks and tried stuff. I began to really relish and enjoy what was in front of me.

And the adage proved true. The more I put in, the more I got back.

10. Love it ’cause it won’t last.

You might not have been able to tell through all the blood, sweat and tears — literally, all three things I have spilled at Sully’s — but pretty much every single time I’ve been there, I’ve been grateful.

I can wear a pretty serious face and I work hard. But many times, I’ve been smiling. Inside and out.

Because this has been awesome. It’s been a gift. And I knew it.

All along I knew these Saturdays were something special. And I knew they wouldn’t last forever. Nothing in life does.

And so I’ve been secretly savouring them.

This door is closing.

But I can’t wait to walk through the next one.


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