5 Life Lessons I Learned From Getting Punched in the Face

I started boxing four years ago, right before my 31st birthday. It was a long time coming.

I’ve wanted to box ever since I was a kid. There’s something that fascinates me about the sport: I love the training, the journey, the sweat, and the inevitable tears. I love the griminess of boxing gyms. Maybe more than anything, I love that it brings together misfits of all ages.

And let’s be honest, it feels really good to hit something hard.

When I first stepped into my local boxing gym, my coach told me something I’d never forget: that this sport would change me. “It will wear you down,” he assured me, “and it’s up to you to build yourself back up. No one can do that for you.”

Maybe this is why so many people sign up for boxing classes but don’t stick around for more than a few months at most. In order to grow, you first have to be open to change. Most people would rather stick to the safety of their comfort zone than step into the unknown.

I, on the other hand, was ready for change. I wanted the entire forced transformation that boxing offered. I had reached a place of stagnation in my life and was desperate for a way out. So I learned the basics, awkwardly at first. If you think learning to box is easy, you’re in for a rude awakening. There’s much more to it than just hitting something (or someone) hard.

For the first few years, I wasn’t very good. I was clumsy and regularly tripped over my own feet. I got punched in the face a lot. I began sparring a few times a week, and although I kept coming back, I wanted to quit after nearly every session. More often than not, I would walk out of the gym with tears streaming down my face. But I kept showing up. I signed up for my first amateur boxing match and (barely) lost. I kept going. Covid put a wrench in my plans, but I kept training nonetheless.

I’ve learned many lessons so far on my boxing journey. All of them apply not just to boxing but all of life. Here are a few that stand out.

Toughness Isn’t Everything

To me, boxers have always been the epitome of tough. To (literally!) get punched in the face and keep going? Now that is tough. And yet, a few years into my boxing journey, I realized what every fighter eventually learns: that toughness isn’t everything.

I could do two-a-day workouts, sprint up hills until I wanted to puke, and practice taking body shots without doubling over, and yet if you put me in the ring with a fighter more technically skilled than me, I’d have no chance.

A smart fighter will outwit a tough fighter every single time.

Real toughness, I’ve learned, has nothing to do with how many hits to the head you can take or how many burpees you can do in a row (although one of the major benefits of all physical training is learning to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable).

Real toughness is about not constantly having to prove yourself to others. It’s about learning to trust yourself, about not being controlled by your emotions or the voice in your head that tells you that you can’t do this. Real toughness is having complete mastery over yourself.

Avoid the Comparison Trap

When I first started boxing, I constantly compared myself to fighters better than me. Most of these people had five, maybe even ten years more experience than me. Some had been training since they were kids. It made no sense for me to compare myself to them. And yet, I invariably beat myself for not being as good as they were.

This constant comparison held me back in my training because I was always trying to jump ahead and skip steps. Rather than take the time it took to master the basics, I wanted to fast forward my training so that I could catch up with the more experienced fighters. When I had my first fight, for example, I was in great shape, but didn’t even know how to block a basic jab. No wonder I lost.

No matter your goal, surrounding yourself with people who are more skilled and experienced than you are can inspire you to dream bigger and become a better version of yourself. Just don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that you should be at the level that they are without putting in the time first.

Keep your eyes on your journey, and don’t worry about the journey of those around you. Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.

Plateaus are Part of the Process

For the first few months after I first started boxing, I progressed quickly. There was a lot to learn: the basic punches, defensive skills, and footwork. I learned how to wrap my hands and clench my fist properly in my glove. My coaches taught me how to take a punch, and the better strategy of how to avoid taking one. It felt like I got a little bit better every day.

And then, it happened: I stopped making progress. I had reached my first plateau.

“The plateau can be a form of purgatory,” wrote George Leonard, author of Mastery and The Way of Aikido.

Most people will do almost anything to avoid a plateau. And yet, no matter what you’re trying to accomplish, you will experience a plateau at some point. While plateaus are never fun, they’re a normal, albeit frustrating, part of getting better at anything.

Just because you’ve plateaued doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. Often, plateaus signify that you’ve reached a place in your learning where you need to further internalize what you’ve learned so far. Begin to expect them, and they’ll no longer be quite as scary.

“The road to mastery: brief spurts of progress followed by periods where you seem to be getting nowhere.” — George Leonard

Trying to Rush the Process Will Slow it Down

When I first started boxing, I wanted to get good, fast. I’d started later in life and thought that since I was already strong and athletic, I should be able to speed up the learning process.

Trying to skip crucial steps led to gaps in my training, gaps which I then had to go back and fill later on. If I’d allowed myself to be the beginner I was in the first place, I probably would have made progress faster. Instead, a couple of years into training, I had to go backward and relearn many of the bad habits I’d picked up in my haste to improve.

It’s a fact of life that some people pick things up faster than others. This is partially due to our genetics, partially our environment. Either way, there’s not much you can do about it. If you try and rush the process, you’ll likely slow it down. You may crash and burn, or just end up on an endless plateau.

Learn to accept that things will take the time they take and don’t rush them. Rushing will likely delay, not speed up, your growth.

Growth is a Lifelong Journey

Learning to box put me on a different life path. One where I’m nowhere near finished. I’m still not great, although I’m getting better.

That transformation I was looking for? It’s still in process. Boxing, I’ve found, is an excellent metaphor for life. You don’t just wake up one day and magically become the fighter (or person) you’ve always wanted to be. You’re always in the process of becoming.

And that’s what it’s really all about, isn’t it? The journey. In the end, it’s not our successes or failures but the journey that matters most.

As George Leonard once wrote,

 “It is not really a goal, or a destination, rather a process, a journey.” — George Leonard

Wherever you’re at in your journey, keep going.


Photo by David Guliciuc on Unsplash

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