the bootstraps method

My trainer and one of the boxers told me the fight two weeks ago was a mental win, given how I fought and the experience difference between me and my opponent. A lot of people told me it was a great fight and that I did a great job. Many people said they were impressed. Someone even told me I was robbed. The encouragement has been really nice, but it seemed like there was something I was waiting to hear that no one was telling me. I spent a few days thinking about exactly what it was that I wanted to hear, and I finally figured it out: I don’t really care about hearing that I’ve worked very hard and improved a lot, or even that I’m a good boxer for having started not so long ago. I want to hear that I’m a talented boxer. I want to hear, not necessarily that I’m good now, but that I could be a great fighter if I wanted to be. In reality, being a great boxer would serve no real purpose for me, since I will never fight professionally or probably even seriously in the amateur ranks. But this doesn’t change the fact that I want to hear that I’m gifted. Why is this? Why would it mean so much more to me to be told that I may not be that great now, but I’m talented, than to be told that I’m a decent boxer because I worked really hard? When I think about it this way, it seems almost more meaningful to have worked really hard to be good, since that says more about one’s character and love for the sport. If I’m a good boxer because I’m gifted, it means my parents gave me some athletic genes, and I’m cashing in on it (albeit, probably with some hard work in there as well). That doesn’t seem as admirable as working really hard to be good at something you love, even if it doesn’t come naturally. Don’t most of us begrudge a little bit the people who are wealthy with family money, while we make heroes out of those who make it big by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps? Why do I view talent so differently from wealth?

I grew up hearing I was musically gifted. It’s true that I got away with practicing less than some other harpists or some of the kids in band, but I tend to think this was not because I was a talented musician. Rather, I was good at learning skills, which meant that training my hands to play the harp or my mouth to play the French horn came relatively easily. Maybe that’s just the way I justify “throwing away my talent,” which I’ve been accused of doing on multiple occasions. On the other hand, at school, I was told by standardized tests that I was not gifted, in spite of the fact that I did well in my classes. I have no doubt that this is a primary reason I veered away from academics and continued in harp though I had no real passion for music—I knew that I was good at the harp and that I could succeed in music. By the same logic, I assumed that because I wasn’t “academically gifted,” I wasn’t cut out for school.

I read an article recently from Psychology Today called “The Trouble With Bright Girls.” In it, the author, Dr. Heidi Halvorson, summarizes research from the 1980s showing that intelligent girls gave up the fastest of fifth grade children when they were presented with a complex task. Straight-A female students were the worst, capitulating the fastest of everyone. Intelligent boys, in contrast, were more likely to continue to struggle with the same task, rather than give up. Further research suggests that this phenomenon is not due to a child’s ability. Rather, it is caused by the difference in how girls and boys perceive and interpret struggling with a task; boys tend to believe that they can develop their abilities through hard work, whereas girls think that they have inherent abilities that determine what they are capable of accomplishing. In truth, researchers have shown that skills of all sorts are not innate and fixed, but can be improved drastically through hard work and persistence. However, this deep-rooted belief that abilities are hard-wired and not something that can be improved upon causes many women to shy away from goals that appear difficult or outside their field of expertise.

Halvorson suggests the reason for this belief stems from a difference in how adults encourage the two sexes. Little girls tend to be well-behaved and succeed at school, generally outperforming their male classmates. As a result, little girls are told things like “you are so smart,” “you are so good at that.” Boys, on the other hand, are often a bit more on the wild side and are fed lines like “if you would only pay attention, you could do this,” “if you would only sit still, you would learn,” etc. I would imagine that we women perpetuate this belief when raising our own daughters; we want to be told that we are smart and talented, so we make sure our daughters know that they are smart and talented as well. What could be wrong with that? The problem is that when girls struggle with a task, they take this to mean that they are not good at whatever the task is at hand, and consequently, they will never succeed at it. Boys understand this to mean that if they try harder, they will get it.

Wherever these beliefs came from, they most certainly have an effect on us as adults. In some way, however, I managed to break free from this misconception and make the leap into academia. I do not know what caused me to believe enough in myself to move away from music and back into the world of books, exams, and standardized tests. I think it may go back to my success in an Ecology class in high school. Regarding our first exam on edible plants, my teacher told me that I scored higher than anyone ever had and that I knew things he didn’t even know (as you can see in the photo, I have held on to that test for nearly 15 years). Perhaps I interpreted this to mean that I had some kind of scientific aptitude. (Looking back at my lifelong obsession with things you can eat, I realize my high score on this test may have been an indicator that I should have become a chef, not a scientist.) Or perhaps, without realizing it, I had learned from music that innate ability is not all there is to it—hard work, diligence, and passion are absolutely necessary. Indeed, they may be more important, since without them, even the most talented will not go far. Ultimately, the fact that I lacked passion meant that, talent or no talent, I would never be a great musician. As for being a scientist, I do not believe I am a particularly skilled or gifted scientist. I’ve made it this far in science mostly because of enthusiasm, persistence (aka, stubborn-ness), and a heap of hard work.

It’s difficult for me to tell how much this belief still affects my life. If I knew I was not a talented boxer—that even if I devoted all my time and effort to boxing, I would never be more than an average boxer, would I continue to do it? I like to think I would, since I don’t believe my goal in boxing is to be amazing, but I’m not sure. Is it because I don’t believe that I am a gifted researcher that I don’t intend to stay in research? I don’t know. I have not learned how to tease out my general feeling towards an activity or career from my perception of how gifted I am at it. However, now that I know that I am carrying around this misconception, at least I can take this into account as I make decisions and move forward in my life. Instead of waiting for family money, I can try the bootstraps method, doing the things I love because I love them, not because I will ever be great.


The Fight: After (or, learning to lose)

“Rather than the strength it takes to not lose, it’s the strength to stand back up after a loss that is sometimes more valuable.”
―Kyo Shirodaira

My heart sank for a second when I looked at my little USA Boxing Passbook the day after the fight and saw the checkmark in the box labeled “lost.” But then two things came to mind: the first was that now the pressure is off—my record will never be perfect, so it doesn’t really matter if I lose the next fight or the fight after that. The second was that, for nearly all amateur boxers, your record is what it is because of the opponents you’ve faced. There will always be better boxers to put you in your place—whether or not you face them in the ring determines how many times “won” is checked versus “lost.” I faced a boxer who has been boxing for years longer than I have, and she gave me a run for my money. If I’d faced a different opponent, perhaps a boxer with more equivalent experience, I might have won. Or maybe not, but it doesn’t actually matter because there’s always going to be someone to kick my ass.

My relatively graceful loss of the fight was my biggest surprise of the night. Being a perfectionist and over-achiever, I generally take defeat hard and personally—each defeat serving to me as more proof that I am not really worth anything. But I actually didn’t feel defeated that night. Not when the announcer called my opponent’s name as the winner. Not when I stepped out of the ring to walk back to the green room with my coaches. I knew I had fought the best fight I could have fought; I had given it all I had. I did some of the things I wanted to do some of the time, my opponent did not dominate me, and on a different day I think I could have come out the winner. It turns out that what I’d really hoped for was that I’d put up a fight, and that’s what I did.

Most of the fight is a blur to me. I have only a few clear memories of it. I remember the feeling of getting tripped up in the first round—I remember exactly how my feet felt sticking to the mat before I toppled backwards. I remember the referee’s gentle smile and the way she kindly said, “I know” when I assured her that I was fine as she counted to eight on her fingers after that fall. I remember being in the red corner in between rounds with a trainer on one knee in front of me, rinsing my mouth guard then pouring water into my parched mouth, while my primary trainer put icepacks on my neck like they do in the professional fights and talked to me calmly, giving me advice (although the words he said are lost to me now). I remember hearing my trainer say, “I think you took that one” as I approached my corner after the second round. I remember thinking during one round that I had not parried a single shot and that maybe I should do that, and I remember parrying two jabs then giving up on that idea because, even though it is the most basic defense we learn, it took too much of my mental energy. I remember getting hit fairly hard a couple times by my opponent’s cross, which always came fast after one or two quick jabs. As my head was knocked backwards, I remember thinking, “was that as hard as I get hit in the gym? No, not even close—I can still see.” My greatest memory I think took place in the third round, but it may have been the second. I slipped my opponent’s cross and came back with a left hook to the body—a throw I have not used often, if ever, in sparring. I followed the body shot with a shot to the head, or maybe two shots to the head. I’ve watched the videos since, and it seems I did this more than once, but I remember only one time distinctly because I really connected, and it all felt exactly the way it should feel. I remember being so unbelievably exhausted in the third round that I could hardly raise my hands (I now have so much respect for professional fighters who go sometimes 7-9 more rounds than I did). I remember the four thumps signaling the last seconds of the third round, and I remember going at each other with every last bit of energy we could muster like two animals fighting to the death. I remember the announcer saying, as we stood under the bright lights, that it was a split decision and thinking, in those long seconds as we waited to hear the final decision, that this means that I could have won. I remember the announcement that the winner, fighting out of the blue corner, was my opponent. And I remember the surprising lack of emotion I felt upon hearing this.

Of those eight minutes of my life, that’s about all I can recall. The rest is just a fuzzy haze of punches, clamor from the crowds, sweat, lights and exhaustion.

The thing I feel worst about, having lost the fight, is letting my trainer down. Someone told me he has never had a woman lose in the Haymakers for Hope fights, so thanks to me, his record is no longer unblemished. He made it clear to me before the fight that he was already proud of me, that no matter what happened out there, he would be proud of me, but that doesn’t change the regret I feel about not giving him another W.

My other big regret is that I didn’t connect with an uppercut. I threw a right uppercut once that I can remember, but missed or only grazed her. Ah well, I will have to fight again, if only to use my uppercut.

Overall, however, the fight was a success. I think it was a real boxing match—not two women flailing wildly at each other, as is what happens sometimes in charity matches. I showed that I had come a long way from my very first sparring session three months ago when I threw punches with two fists at a time like superman, when I couldn’t even imagine slipping a shot, nonetheless returning fire after a slip, when I barely even knew how to throw an uppercut, and when I moved stiffly around the ring and froze whenever someone threw a punch at me. It was a fair fight, in spite of our mismatched experience. I did not get beat up. I never felt panicked or that horrible, desperate feeling that comes when I’m getting the shit kicked out of me, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I am so glad I did not feel inclined to cry afterwards like I have so many times after a bad sparring session. Not even after leaving the ring did any of those emotions surface. This means, to me, that she didn’t totally win the fight.

So is this it for me and boxing? Not at all. I’ve only just started to get the hang of this sport—why would I stop now? Besides, I love it. I love boxing because it pushes me to my physical and mental limits. I love it for the technical skill required, for the excitement, and for the people. More than anything, I love it for what it teaches me about myself and about life. From boxing, I’ve learned humility, while gaining confidence. I’ve learned how to keep a cool head and take a hit. I’ve learned to trust my body, and I’ve learned how to fight when I’m exhausted beyond belief. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, three months of boxing has taught me something I didn’t learn from 15 years of playing the harp, from two advanced degrees, from running races of all distances or playing other sports. Boxing has taught, and continues to teach me to believe in myself even when I lose. And for this, I will be forever grateful because most of life is not winning. Most of life is getting up off the mat and saying “I can still do this.” Again and again and again.

Before signing off today, I want to say “thank you” to all the people who have made this possible and for the people who have supported me along the way. Many, many thanks to all the generous people who donated to my fundraising effort for Haymakers for Hope! Without your support, I couldn’t have done this (or anyway, I would have several thousand dollars charged to my credit card right now). I raised $4,775, and the total money raised from the fundraiser was greater than $155,000, which will go towards cancer research and awareness!

Thank you to the people who encouraged and helped me along the way. Thank you to my partner, especially, for getting me into this mess to begin with and for supporting me wholeheartedly these past three months when boxing took over my life. Thanks to Redline Fight Sports for sponsoring me. Thanks to all the people at Redline: first and foremost, thanks to my trainer who invested his time and energy in me and believed I could do this. Thank you to all the people who patiently taught me how to throw a punch and later, to all the men and women who sparred with me and made me a fighter. Don’t think this means your job is done. I’ll be back on Wednesday.

Lastly, thanks to all of you who have taken an interest in my story, read these posts, and commented on them or “liked” them on Facebook. As for the future of this blog, I have loved writing it, and I’ve learned a lot from it as well. I hope to keep it going, so if you’ve enjoyed it, please continue to check back.

The Fight: Before (or, a dog off its leash)

Wednesday October 1, 2014 (the day before the fight)

I’m not sure why I’m getting so worked up about this boxing match. I know the girl isn’t going to hurt me—she has nothing on any of the Redline women who I know could do some damage if they put their mind to it. There’s nothing to worry about there. When I think about this match in the grand scheme of things, or even the small scheme of things, it doesn’t even matter a tiny bit. It doesn’t even register on the matterometer (yes, I made that word up, but I think it’s going to stick). Whether I win or lose is of no import whatsoever. I have gained so much from this whole experience that if I walked away right now, I’ve already received more reward than I deserve. In training for Haymakers, I have rediscovered my love of writing, which I’ve had since I learned how to write, and this rediscovery will more than likely dictate my next career move in some manner. On top of that, I’ve learned about life. I’ve learned so much about myself and about my body. I’ve met some amazing people. I’ve worked hard and seen the payoff. So what does it matter if I lose this fight? It doesn’t.

When I remember that, the angry birds in my stomach quiet themselves, and I feel my heart rate come back to a sustainable, reasonable level. And something else happens…I remember that boxing is fun. I started boxing because it is fun. I kept sparring because it is fun. Not all the time, but it is fun when I am able to take the pressure off. When I can relax and enjoy the complexity, the athleticism of this sport, it feels the way my dog looks when he’s chasing a squirrel—it feels like being alive, like what I was made to do, like boxing has always been a part of me. When I think of this, I forget my nerves, and I become a dog pulling at the leash, eyes riveted on a squirrel, ready to run with every fiber of my being.

So I will think of my dog today. I will remember why I did this in the first place—not to win, but to learn. And learn I did, and learn I will again tomorrow night. I will play like a dog off his leash, thrilled to be alive, ecstatic to be doing what he loves, what he was made to do.