My Boxing Coach is My Therapist
No, seriously. She has the degree and everything.
Danil Nevsy / Stocksy
It's a breezy afternoon in London's Soho, but inside Third Space Gym sweat pours down the back of my t-shirt as the punches fly. Gloves up, knees bent. "GO!" a voice bellows inside the boxing ring. I extend my left arm and jab at the boxing pad with an embarrassed guffaw before an additional "GO!" snaps me back into action. Two jabs of the left this time, one cross with the right. Left, left, right and "ROLL!" I duck under, springing back up. "I'm not moving like a butterfly," I laugh as my body swings around for a punch. "You'll be floating in no time," my instructor says as I collapse in a wheezing heap on the floor.
What a difference a left hook makes. Boxing is the therapy I've been searching for—and it's the reason I've been chugging around this training ring like an asthmatic hobby horse for the last hour. With every strike to the punchbag, relief washes over me. It's a feeling I've struggled to find over the last few months, temporarily lost in a sea of grief-stricken rage. Earlier this year, my husband's chemotherapy treatment coincided with my miscarrying the baby that we both desperately wanted. My frustration has made me feel like climbing the walls; my anger gave me the urge to kick them down at 2 am. It pulsed through my veins.
I struggled to engage positively with negative emotions without allowing them to dictate the terms—as I'm sure is a pretty universal experience. It's why I'm where I am today, under the guidance of my trainer Cathy "The Bitch" Brown. The ex-professional British boxer, sporting performance coach and CBT therapist currently runs women empowerment workshops, one-to-one coaching and women-only classes (they're called 'Bitch Boxing,') in west London. "I think a lot of people don't know how to deal with anger," she tells me over a mint tea between classes.
"I got into boxing because I was adopted and I was very angry all of the time," she tells me. After Brown was born, she was transferred to a Catholic Care Orphanage like many babies born out of wedlock at the time. In her late teens, she was raped and abused. Lacking strength and confidence, she decided to give kickboxing a go in 1992. "I didn't want anyone to make me feel scared like that again," she explains. "I was determined nobody was going to bully me."
After six years competing, Brown was approached by a boxing promoter and she applied to the British Boxing Board of Control for her professional boxers' license. She was only the second woman ever to do so. Back in 1998, Brown tells me, the sport was incredibly sexist. "You'd walk into a gym and nobody would even acknowledge you were there," she recalls. "That went on for about ten years." Promoters wouldn't let her fight—they said they didn't believe in women's boxing. She ended up negotiating with them, offering to pay for her own shows, changing in her car because there were no women's changing rooms at the venues she appeared in.
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In 2007, a neck injury forced her to quit professional boxing altogether—which is when she decided to study cognitive behavioral therapy. These days, Brown combines the two disciplines, and her blend of coaching and CBT has both women and men lining up to train with her—most of them amateurs such as myself, who are curious to discover what the combative sport has to offer.
Are all the women who come to Brown like me—looking for a way to deal with something negative that's happened in their lives? Many are, she says. Some have a therapy session before they start training, some open up after. "Sometimes they turn up and they just don't want to talk," she says, "they just want to punch something." Although, in those instances the women usually open up at the end of the session because they're so relaxed.
Boxing, Brown tells me, is like a chess game. "You've got to have clarity of mind and your moves in boxing have to be [premeditated]," she says. Contrary to my ill-informed assumptions, it's not about angry shots and aimless punches. "That's why I teach people to have calmness of mind," Brown explains. "You've got more power in your shots when you're relaxed."
Former UK professional middleweight Nigel Benn once called boxing "therapy for rage" but it's only recently that "therapeutic boxing" has really started to take off, attracting couch potatoes such as me who are struggling to engage with negative feelings. As American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler once said, "speaking from rage does not always let us see how rage carries sorrow and covers it over."
After I miscarried, my sorrow and anger merged so closely they became indistinguishable. As a consequence, I've started to question just how different these two emotions really are. Look up the etymology of 'anger' and you'll find that it derives from the Old Norse adjective 'ongrfullr' meaning 'sorrowful.' In life, as in language, a hair's breadth exists between the two. As a result, neither emotions are ever easy to understand in isolation from each other.
There's a third tangled emotion, too, and it's a significant reason why I asked Brown to take me through my paces in the ring. Whenever I get angry, it scares me. When Brown asks me why, I tell her that it's probably because I feel out of control. So much has occurred in my life that I haven't been able to steer. When my frustrations rise, I'm scared the apple cart will topple over. It feels negative and self-serving. "It's not bad to lose your temper," she replies. "Separate that guilt from the anger."
It's not an easy thing to achieve. Female anger still feels like a major taboo. "Who gets to be angry?" Roxane Gay asked in a New York Times essay last year. She posed the question because the history of angry women is a complex one. "When women are angry, we are wanting too much or complaining or wasting time or focusing on the wrong things," she wrote. Over the years I've been culturally conditioned to swallow my anger down and suppress it, only to re-experience it in another recycled from months later. It's a vicious circle.
"Suppression is really toxic," Brown tells me. "If you suppress an emotion it's going to come out in another form, later down the line. I encourage everyone to get in touch with it. You're human: You're going to get angry, you're going to get stressed. Anxieties come up in everyday life—it's learning how to control it. Boxing releases that anger. You're punching a material object and releasing that emotion."
In boxing, the impact of fist-to-bag, with all the power of your back and core feels almost like exorcism, Brown says. "It's not going to make the problem go away, but it means that when you go back to that problem, you're going to deal with it more calmly."
The next day, that's exactly what I'm doing, thwacking the punching bag to the beat of five. In a controlled environment, I'm no longer afraid. My mind is clear and I'm grinning. As the sweat beads roll down my forehead, I'm in command of my body and a psychological weight is lifted. It's a lightbulb moment. Checkmate. The anger exists but no longer owns me.
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