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Kick & Punch / May 2021
Kristen Geil, Reebok Contributor

Female Boxers Describe What It’s Like to Take a Punch

Swinging at the heavy bag in gym class may give you a good workout, but to really understand the gritty, physical nature of the boxing, you need to step into the ring.

You go to heavy-bag boxing class weekly. You know how to wrap your hands, understand what it means when your instructor tells you to “roll” and can rock out 12-punch combos without breaking a sweat. 
But landing that jab-cross-hook gets super real when it’s a human, not a bag, you’re aiming for. And taking the hit yourself is something that’s hard to describe until there’s an actual fist in your face. Yeah, you’re totally pumped and you feel a surge of adrenalin just thinking about it. But when that first punch goes down, what does it actually feel like? We’ve got the 411.

It Makes You Winded

There’s a difference between getting hit and taking a punch, says Rachael Washington, a trainer at EverybodyFights and middleweight champion. “I can’t recall the first time I got hit, but I can remember the first time I took a punch,” she says. “Another fighter and I were doing a controlled body shot drill. One of the shots took the wind out of me, and my immediate reaction was to laugh. Not like a ‘ha, that’s all you got?’ kinda laugh, more like a ‘whoa... so that’s a punch’ kinda laugh.”
Courtney Belcastro , a Title Boxing Club instructor in Chicago, had signed up for a contact class at her local boxing gym and confidently matched herself up with one of the more skilled guys for a light contact sparring drill. “We were focusing on blocking and my reactions were a bit slow, and I took a shot right below my liver,” she says. “I played it cool, but the hit kind of took my breath away. And it wasn’t even that hard!”
Sometimes, a punch takes a few seconds to register. Shadowbox instructor Kat Sterling, ranked third in the U.S. in 2018, was sparring with champion fighter Alicia Ashley when Sterling was on the receiving end of her first clean body shot. “You don’t feel it at first—but two or three seconds later, everything feels like it’s crumbling from within,” Sterling remembers. “She knew when she landed it, because there was a smile on her face. Two seconds later I was like, ‘Where is the air? Where are the oxygen levels in this space?’ It felt like all the air had left my body. It’s not the punch that hurts, it’s the after-effects that are kind of disorienting.”
Kristina Centenari of Rumble Boxing in New York City calls her first punch “exciting, nerve-racking and one of the most difficult mental situations I’ve ever been in.” With the wind knocked out of her, Centenari needed to figure out how to keep breathing while also convincing herself that she was OK. “Despite it being a controlled environment with my coach watching the whole time, sparring gives you a taste of a true fight or flight situation,” she says. “I can’t recall another situation in which I wanted to quit or run away. It was the first time I was tested in this way, and although I got my ass handed to me, I felt incredibly strong afterward.”
Belcastro felt similarly energized by her first hit. “It motivated me to defend and hit back,” she remembers. “I’m not sure if that was a result of growing up with two older brothers, but I definitely had that ‘fighter’ instinct right away, which made me feel better about getting hit as a whole.”

It Sounds Worse Than It Feels

Surprisingly, all these boxers agree on one thing: Taking a punch is way scarier in your imagination than it is in the ring. “You don't realize how tough you are until you're put in the situation and then you see how much you can actually handle,” says Belcastro. “Occasionally you get a shot that makes you step back for a second, but some shots don't really hurt that much.”
Being able to rein in anxiety over a potential hit is key to a successful sparring session. “I’ll never forget the first time I got punched in the face because it’s loud!” says Centenari. “It was the sound that shocked me more than the actual blow. Once you learn to control your mind, actually getting hit is not always as bad as you may think because of the natural adrenaline pumping. You just don’t have enough time to focus on the punches you take—you have to be in a constant mindset of how you’re going to fight back.”
In fact, you can actually train yourself to get used to being hit, says Sterling, and once you do, it’s not that different than psyching yourself up for the last few miles of a marathon. “Getting hit can be practiced,” she says. “You can practice being able to handle yourself after getting hit, to the point where whoever you’re fighting won’t have any idea you’re hurting.”
“Now, no one wants to get hit on the regular—but knowing that you're capable of taking a hit and staying on your feet is pretty rewarding,” adds in Belcastro.

Technique Matters

You’d think, with gloves flying toward your face, you’d want as clear vision as possible so you know when to swing and when to duck. But actually, a common rookie mistake most amateur boxers make during their first time sparring is punching with their eyes closed. (Brush up on your fighting technique by avoiding these common punching mistakes.) 
“People have a tendency to close their eyes when they see a punch coming towards them, and also when they throw a punch,” says Quinn. “You have to learn to keep your eyes open, and not only that, but stay calm and remember all your technique—like keeping your chin tucked and taking deep breaths.” 
It helps to think of your opponent as a talented athlete rather than an enemy when you step into the ring. Says Claire Quinn, a Chicago personal trainer and Golden Gloves boxer, “There’s a level of respect getting in the ring with someone. I know that they’re not trying to hurt me. They’re going to hit me hard, but that hit is going to make me a better boxer.”
“It goes from the fear of getting hit, to the respect that someone can actually land a good shot,” agrees Sterling. And remembering that the more you practice your own, the better you will get.

Mindset Is Everything 

As physical a sport as boxing is, the most important adjustments you’ll make to be successful at sparring are going to be mental. “You need to talk yourself into getting hit before it happens,” stresses Belcastro. “It’s going to happen, whether it’s a hard hit or a light jab. Boxing, or any other combat sport, is based off of some sort of physical contact, so once you’ve already mentally accepted that it will happen, I think that’s half the battle.”
“It’s all mental—which is the reason why I love this sport,” says Centenari. “Yes, if you put in enough time and training, you will start to move more naturally in a fight. However, if you don’t have the mental toughness, you will hit a ceiling in your progression. You have to be able to think about a hundred things at once, but at the same time your mind has to be clear; you have to shake off a hit, while figuring out why you just got hit, while figuring out how to not let that same hit happen again, while figuring out how to hit the other guy or girl back.” 
Got that? It can be a tall, frustrating task at times, but remaining positive and patient with yourself will reap results faster than beating yourself up when you are on the losing end of a sparring match.

Practice Is Critical

When it comes to learning how to take a punch, these boxers know one thing to be true: It’s all about choosing a good coach and the right gym. “Boxing is a really big trend right now, but group fitness instructors aren’t fighters,” Quinn points out. “You want someone who has the experience and the knowledge to put you in the ring safely.” 
Belastro adds, “I'd even recommend watching sparring sessions for a few weeks before you participate, just so you know who the other fighters are and what to expect from the coaches who are monitoring the sessions.”
Don’t be afraid to face off with someone who has a lot more experience than you do. Contrary to what you might think, it could be safer than sparring with another newbie. “Two green people in the same sparring setting opens the door to thrashing around [rather than skilled fighting],” says Belatro. With a more experienced fighter however, “they are training to be able to take punches and maintain their composure; you’re training to get comfortable throwing punches. Those things marry very well.”
And finally, know going in that you’re not going to be Floyd Mayweather—at least, not right off the bat. “You fail up—you’re not going to get in there and do amazing your first time, and that’s something you’re going to have to accept,” says Quinn. “But if you keep getting in there, and keep getting the snot kicked out of you, eventually a lightbulb is going to go off.”
Rather than judging every time you step in the ring as either a success or failure, think of it as a chance to grow. “Trust your training and use sparring as a learning opportunity to get better,” concludes Belcastro. “The idea of sparring for the first time should get you excited, but definitely bring a little bit of nerves. Use those nerves to find your inner fighter and get ready to have some fun.”

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Kick & Punch / May 2021
Kristen Geil, Reebok Contributor