Punching & Being Punched: What We All Can Learn From Muay Thai & Boxing
The Jeff you see shirtless, sweaty and laser-focused on the swinging bag in front of him is a stark contrast to the Jeff you see in sweats, lounging on the couch in the back of his gym, legs kicked out & propped up on the foot rest in front of him, one arm draped over the back of the couch.
When I walked into Charleston Muay Thai and Boxing, Jeff’s gym here in Charleston, Jeff was in the middle of a workout. It’s oxymoronic, and I don’t know how it’s possible, but there’s a reverence to the way Jeff kicks and works the bag. Each move is as calculated, sharp and precise as it is calm, natural and regal.
He politely breaks his meditative, tunnel-vision stare with the bag to look over at me between breaths and exhale a short, “45 more seconds,” letting me know he’s almost done.
Fine by me.
I am just taking in the gym and the vibes of being in completely foreign territory: fight land.
I joined a boxing gym at the beginning of 2019 as a means of accomplishing several New Year’s Resolutions:
try something new,
do something uncomfortable,
change up my workouts,
meet new people.
Jeff was a trainer there and coached the first class I ever took. He wrapped my wrists, asked me about myself, and like the good teacher he is, continued to relate boxing technique to the techniques I already knew from lifting weights.
My first class (and second, and third, all the way to my last…) was hard as s***. Jeff, mic’d up and bouncing around, never missed a beat or a cue as he walked around shouting combos and modeling techniques all 8 rounds.
At the end, I was exhausted and achy, but proud of myself for just goin’ in swingin’ (literally) and switching from my own usual teacher role to student for a change. As I unwrapped my now-soaked hands and unclenched my fists for the first time in 45 minutes, Jeff continued to ask about my interests, why I trained, and I returned the same questions to him.
Somewhere in our conversation, Jeff casually floated out that he thought every woman should get hit in the face at least once. I laughed, but Jeff was dead serious. I’m glad I didn’t ask “why” then, because I know now that the answer to that question would require the background and time provided in this podcast interview with him, but in my head I was totally thinking, “WHY?!”
Three months and one interview later, I think I’d have to agree with him. I’m not exactly looking forward to my turn, but Jeff makes a great point (several great points) about what we can learn about life from hitting & being hit—men & women alike.
“Sometimes… you realize… that the way to get what you want is to tap into your primal rage… your ‘do-not-f***-with-me’ attitude. Bite down on your mouthpiece, ball your fists up, and make the person standing in front of you respect you. And I think every woman, young child and grown man can learn something from being in that situation.”
The metaphor between Muay Thai (and boxing) and life is infinite and obvious. At one point in our conversation, Jeff talks about what it’s like to get punched in the face for the first time. Just thinking about this makes me cringe!
But how many things are there in our lives that are the same way? Things that we’ve never experienced and are scared to experience (largely in part to our having never experienced them) that we hype up and psych ourselves out about? We intentionally try to avoid ever having to confront these things because we’re scared of them, scared of what will happen, how we’ll feel, how we’ll look, if we ever have to experience them.
Asking for help.
Leaving a bad relationship.
Telling someone you love something you know will hurt them.
Thinking about doing these things feels like thinking about getting punched in the face.
But at Charleston Muay Thai and Boxing, you’re actually going to get punched in the face, and in the words of Jeff, you’ll realize, “You are not made of glass. And you do not break easily.”
After you leave the job interview,
after you say you’re sorry,
after you fail,
after you walk away from something/someone that no longer serves you,
you realize… you’re okay.
In Jeff’s words, "You can learn a lot about yourself by getting hit over and over and they say, ‘are you okay,’ and you constantly say, ‘yes.’
At this point, I’m not sure whether we’re still talking about muay thai or being 20something. Life after college has often felt just like that: getting hit over and over, and yet— I’m okay. (And I’m even coming to terms with the fact that life in general is really just a series of blows to the face.)
But the other side of getting punched in the face is doing the punching.
You’ve probably heard the expression, “Sometimes you’re the bug, sometimes you’re the windshield.”
The same is true in Muay Thai and boxing: sometimes you’re getting punched (kicked, kneed, elbowed) in the face. Sometimes you’re delivering the punches (or kicks, knees, elbows.)
And there are just as many life lessons in punching as there are in being punched.
Despite what gender stereotypes might lead us to believe, Jeff’s gym is predominately female, and it’s not just because Jeff likes coaching women— it’s also because of what happens to women when they start punching and kicking and elbowing and kneeing things regularly: they start to realize how badass they are.
“They find a self-confidence they never knew they had,” says Jeff.
Speaking from my own experience in boxing, I can wholeheartedly agree with that.
For me, the motor patterns were completely new. Before boxing, I had really never just straight up punched something with all of my force.
I had never loaded up for a kick to the body.
I had never delivered a rear hook or uppercut in my life.
They were brand new movements. It was a brand new sensation, and with it brought brand new thoughts and realizations.
“Badass” is really the best way to describe it, but the badass-ness is mirrored: you realize that not only are you badass and you can do badass things, but you also realize there are plenty of legitimate badass things in the world— in both an exciting and terrifying way.
You cannot open the door to this world of new confidence and self-empowerment without also opening the door to the world of new challenges and opponents. Once you realize your badass potential, you also realize all of the battles to which you are now called to fight, because you are indeed fully capable of fighting them.
For Jeff, helping women get to this place through Muay Thai and boxing is his why. (**It’s also worth mentioning that he confesses to preferring to train women over men due to a general lack of ego that’s present in most males and a higher pain tolerance in females. #GoWomen)
Another hidden lesson in fighting beyond just the offense is in the defense.
Jeff makes another great point by saying, “After about 50 times of being hit in the face, you’re gonna be over it. And you’re gonna start moving your head.”
Is the same thing not true for all of the ways Life hits us in the face? After about 50 fails, 50 hard conversations, 50 *insert anything you don’t love doing*— you’re gonna be over it. And you’re also gonna start moving out of the way.
In boxing, ducking, slipping, dodging, blocking—the defensive moves where you’re not actively throwing anything— are just as important and actually pretty hard. I remember the first time those things were added into my combos and I felt a bit of relief, thinking it would be a “break” from all the work of hitting.
I was so wrong.
Defense is hard, too.
And it’s valuable.
One of the ways Jeff can spot a good fighter is not only when they can hit well, but also when they can make people miss.
And that totally makes sense!
Knowing when and how to get out of the way of dangerous things coming at you (or the best way to protect yourself if it’s too late/not convenient to duck) is an important skill— not just in boxing, but in life.
It’s the art of recognizing threats that only comes with experience;
the foresight to be thinking of the next moment (the next quarter of your business, the next follow-up conversation, the reaction to your action);
the shrewdness to observe patterns and think, “I’ve seen this before. I’ve felt this before. This time, it’s not going to break me.”
Sure, knowing how to hit is great.
Being okay with getting hit is also great.
But knowing how to hit then move out of the way is even better.
But you can’t learn to recognize a punch or a potential threat until you experience them yourself over and over and over again.
The way Muay Thai and boxing value and teach offensive and defensive strategies is incredibly analogous to the way we should be valuing and teaching ourselves these same strategies in our lives, because according to Jeff, “Everybody’s fighting something, whether that’s an opponent, self-confidence issues, body image issues, whatever.”
Whether you’re at Charleston Muay Thai and Boxing or not, there’s always an opponent. You’re always in the ring. We all are, and for Jeff, punching is his way of helping himself and others fight that opponent.
“…its not a comfortable situation…if you can have punches be thrown at you and find comfort in that chaos, then you can find comfort in any chaos.”
The lessons and connections are endless, but if those aren’t enough to make you consider trying out some sort of martial arts, Jeff’s passion and energy that overflows throughout our conversation will definitely tip you over the edge.
You can find Jeff and his gym on instagram at @charleston_muay_thai and if you’re local, you can stop by 1856 Belgrade in West Ashley to try out a class or meet Jeff for yourself.
He insists on reminding the listeners that he’s not intimidating, and most of the time, he’s got his dog running around the gym and there’s almost always more girls than guys, which he says is a reason for both men and women to come to the gym!
Go check them out and see for yourself what fighting can do for you.
You can also find the podcast in iTunes & Spotify by searching, “Emily Jordan Radio” or by clicking below!