You’re not bad; you’re a beginner

“Nick!” I yelled at the end of a frustrating boxing drill late last year, “Why am I so BAD at this??!!”

My personal trainer looked me in the eye and said in a serious tone, “Pam. You are not bad at boxing. You’re a beginner.”

Growing up, I hated being a beginner, especially at something that didn’t come naturally. The older I get, the more I appreciate the opportunity to begin something new: a skill at which I can only improve. That said, chasing expertise – or even competency – is not for the faint of heart.

I first started boxing precisely because it was like nothing else I had ever even considered trying. Nice girls don’t throw punches, and they certainly don’t invite them. Luckily, I discovered years ago that I’m not a particularly “nice” girl: exuberant, extra, loud, kind, sure. But not nice.

The power in beginnings

Fresh off thyroid surgery and a subsequent cancer diagnosis, I craved something that would make me feel strong and powerful. After all, I was beginning a new phase of my life. Transitioning from hearing boxing stories from my longtime personal trainer to becoming a boxing story seemed the natural fit.

woman wearing boxing gloves, standing in a boxing ring

Strapping on the second glove is about as challenging as removing a sweaty sports bra

At the beginning of being a beginner, everything is brand new. I didn’t have the slightest clue of what I didn’t know, but that was part of the charm. In the early months, I learned:

  • How to fasten my second glove.
  • A short-sleeved cotton t-shirt is better than a technical tank because you can’t use your shirt tail to wipe sweat while wearing boxing gloves.
  • Quadrupling a gaiter to wear around the forehead as a sweat catcher handles the rest (mostly).
  • The length (150″) and style (Mexican) of hand wraps I prefer, and how to wrap my own hands. Then how to wrap them quickly. And that I need to let them dry before re-rolling. Which I like to do because it’s neater and makes for an easier wrapping experience.
  • The brand (Asics) and type (wrestling) of shoes I prefer, and what kind of socks are most comfortable (lightly padded no-show Feetures)
  • All the jump roping skills I had forgotten since childhood, plus a few new tricks.
  • The numbers and names of the punches, and the very basics of how to execute them, along with the defensive moves.

Becoming overwhelmed

Once I knew a little bit about what I was doing, it started to dawn on me just how far I had to go to even gain competence. Excitement soon turned to dismay as everything I didn’t know began to pile up higher and higher, until what I did know seemed so insignificant as to be non-existent.

But, like Des, I kept showing up. I boxed weekly with Nick, and I attended as many noon classes with Garcia at Decatur Boxing Club as my schedule would allow. With consistency and persistence, the basics began to come. One day I realized that the things I had struggled most with – rhythm, choreography, power, speed, precision – were coming more and more naturally.

a woman training with a coach in a boxing ring

Learning from the greatest: gym owner, trainer of champions and human weapons, and the coolest cat I’ve ever met

Don’t get me wrong: I’m still a beginner. All those skills need a LOT of polish. I’m just now easing into more defensive moves, doing some light sparring, figuring out how to think ahead and respond. I got hit in the face for the first time last week and it was glorious in its sheer unremarkableness. It didn’t feel great, but it didn’t feel terrible, and I kept right on fighting.

Overwhelming becomes opportunity

I’ve begun exploring the art of ring generalship: controlling either my opponent’s position in the ring or taking ownership of the ring itself. I have a reputation in the gym for being a relentless fighter, someone who never lets up on her opponent.

By now, the vastness of what I have yet to learn doesn’t feel overwhelming; it feels like opportunity.

woman in a boxing ring throwing punches at a trainer holding up mitts

If you want to make the most of the opportunity, find a coach who is unfailingly patient, kind, and encouraging – preferably funny – and builds community.

The benefits of the beginner’s mindset has persisted outside of the gym. I started a new role at work earlier this year. When what I don’t yet know or haven’t yet mastered threatens to overwhelm me, I tell myself, “Pam. You’re not bad at this. You’re a beginner.” In boxing, I have Nick and Garcia, my stalwart trainers who help me learn and believe in myself. At work, my people leader does the same. It’s just PowerPoints instead of punches.

Beginning again

And as for running? I’ve been struggling in the year since my thyroid surgery. My endurance and self-confidence were in the tank. Running is something that had become entirely natural over the past 13 years. Even when I struggled to hit a particular time goal, the ability to endure was always there. It never occurred to me that a full year later, I wouldn’t have gained it all back.

I decided to follow the Train Like a Mother Heart and Sole 10k Level One plan to train to run – not race(!), just cover the distance with a smile on my face. It felt like failure to struggle on short, slow runs that were table stakes just last year. I was discouraged enough to ditch my beloved GPS watch, using only the timer on my phone to track duration.

Pennant that reads Don't under value what you are not and under value what you are

I am not highly skilled or experienced, but I am persistent and fierce.

A couple weeks into the plan, I had an office hours call with Coach Jen. And do you know what she said to me? She said, “Pam. You’re a beginner again. And that’s okay.”

My eyes started sweating a bit in relief at those words. I wasn’t a bad runner, or a loser, or a failure because my body could no longer do what it once had. I’m missing half a pretty important organ. My hormones remain rather iffy – but whatever my current baseline, it would still be okay.

I’m not a bad runner. I’m a beginner.

Your turn: Have you been a beginner at something lately?