Intentionally Building Team Culture
This time of year can be hard for a lot of people. It can be especially hard for boxers in a few unique ways. There are some of us who really have a great home life—I know that’s not the stereotype, especially for women boxers, but it’s just fact. I love my kids and my time and we have out traditions, and love everything there is about Christmas. That can get really challenging when you’re trying to stay on track for a fight coming up—sometimes even including being in the heat of a weight cut! But it hasn’t always been like that. For my first few years boxing, I actually really hated this time of year because of everything I felt like we’d lost. The extra days of the gym being closed and things being off schedule only gave me more time to have to turn around and face our loss. It took me away from those I’d felt like had turned into family. Not that my family wasn’t there. They were. But we were all married with our own family traditions, and just because my little family had fallen apart didn’t mean that theirs had, no matter how much they tried to include us.
If we know, from the start, that these are common problems with holidays within our athletes, then why don’t we work on solving that? After all, we all know how it affects a boxer if your mind’s not right—even during practices, let alone in the ring. At Lions Den, we have an extremely high percentage of women boxers. That’s happened for a few reasons that are not important to the point, but important for you to know. So when we are one of two gyms remotely friendly to competitive females for miles around, I am often asked by my male counterparts how I actually expect this to possibly work long term. They’re referring to the cattiness women are generally known for. Well, I’ve got quite an answer for you, and it might not be the answer you’re expecting.
First off, men are at least as catty as women. I hate to break it to you dudes, but you are. But second, our women come together like I’ve never seen a team do—and I think most boxing teams resemble family. We pass down kids clothes and toys, we help each other with our kids, we share tips, we offer to go to scary doctors appoints with each other, we call and check on each other when there are scary or sad losses happening in the others’ lives, we even show up at the other boxer's kids' events. If someone’s twenty minutes late for a practice they’re always at, we go mom-mode trying to call because we’re worried that they were in a car accident. We care. We deeply care, and that didn’t happen by accident. That was intentionally building a culture of caring to that degree since day one.
How does our gym look like this when it’s not what’s typically seen among women in other boxing gyms? Most importantly, I have promised all of my women since day one that we won’t fight inside of our gym. This means that as long as you are under my gym roof, I’ll never agree match you to each other. Yes. This means we will have to travel a lot. I understand that and feel that if I want to coach women, then that is an expense our gym has to factor in from day one.
See, a lot of the problem with women fighters inside of gyms is that we see each other as competition. This has never been my mind set since I’ve stepped foot into a gym—and I have actually had to fight teammates more than once. I told my family and friends going to the match that they were in for a crazy awesome match because we knew each other like the backs of our hands! And it always was! But then, there are a lot of other dynamics that cause problems later. For example, who cornered each of us? Who on the team rooted for one of us and not the other? Who secretly put film together of one of us practicing or got coached during practices leading up to the match while the other didn’t? And lastly, it left every woman who came through afterwards wondering if they were eventually going to have to get matched against me, therefore couldn’t trust me as a teammate, instead always looked at me as competition.
You can’t make progress if you can’t let yourself get pushed to a level of huge vulnerabilities with your teammates. You can only allow those vulnerabilities to show through when you trust your sparring partners and coaches. If you’re off because of something going on in your life outside the gym, you need to trust your team and coaches with that and never think it would be used against you. The thought, “It’s a trap!!” should never be anywhere close to your mind when you’re working with or talking to a teammate or coach. Your team should be a place where it feels like coming home when you come to practice. Where you can set your bag down, grab your rope, and say, “Okay girl. I’ve realized I can’t roll to the left worth a shit.” And she says, “That’s actually perfect! My hook has been doing this weird thing like this ___” “Cool. Let’s drill.” Then you drill, and then later you spar and look for each other’s weaknesses, gently reminding them when that weakness is showing—never taking advantage of them for it.
Much like in the ring, we can’t cheer each other on, quietly help each other, or trust each other with our life weaknesses if we ever feel that those vulnerabilities will be taken advantage of. It has to be known that if I know you are struggling with your child, I’m going to do anything I can to help you—never use that information against you or try to feel superior to you simply because that isn’t one of the many things I’m currently struggling with at this exact moment. It has to be known that this isn’t a place to meet men, and that no one is ever competing with each other in that arena. It has to be known that if I’m a specialist at communications and you’re struggling with an important presentation at work, then you can come to me and I’ll help with anything that I can.
In fact, I intentionally set up for us to go out together as a team about every month in order to bond outside of only boxing. The closer that I watch the women on our team get to each other in outside life, the more I watch them reach out and help each other carry burdens together. What happens when they start acting like a village to carry those burdens? We all start being in the gym more often and with much higher focus, energy, and commitment when we are in there. Everyone relaxes their muscles, gets to work, and is willing to push past boundaries because if they’re going to push themselves past their limits, they know this team will pick them up and get them home somehow.
You know what else that is super cool that happens? I have never seen ordinary people turn into actual boxers so quickly in any gym—and that is not my coaching. That is a culture of shared goals, dedication, reliability, trust, encouragement, and a hint of playfulness mixed in. See, when we work, we joke. There are tons of laughter coming from our gym most evenings. That actually helps our team develop neuron pathways and learn faster. It’s just plain science. But that science can’t happen without a true team effort and appreciation of every teammate’s gifts. Which comes to my most important job: It also has to be known within my team that I, as the coach, will equally coach my team according to the effort put forth by each of them.
I make this as a whole separate point because it is crucial to keeping our team culture healthy. I need each of my boxers--competitive or not—to know that they are valued and appreciated for what they give to the team. The flip side means that they have to be giving to the team. If I have someone coming up to a competition, then yes, I will be spending more time with them as they put in more time and effort than those around them. This doesn’t mean that I am ignoring my other athletes. This means that I have to keep my other athletes at the top of their games as well in order to help the one that has a competition coming up. I need to spend individual attention fostering each of their attributes. Why? Why would I invest in someone on the team who isn’t even competitive when we have an important match coming up with someone who is?
Well, because that non-competitive athlete shows up every day, supports the competitive ones, gives us her all, and brings her unique movements and skills to the table that our team would be without if she wasn’t there. I have to foster each individual’s special skills because each of those teammates has added into who the one in the ring has become. The ones who aren’t in the ring have still sweat, watched, commented, supported, cheered, whatever their gifts are into that one boxer fighting inside the ring. And that one in the ring wouldn’t be able to see that tricky combination coming, have been able to keep her cool under pressure, have known how to work on the inside, etc. if she hadn’t had the blessing of the teammates that were natural at each of those things working their asses off to reach their best to help her through those difficult skills she just utilized. I need everyone on my team to be their best if I want anyone on the team to be the best. When I show this to my athletes each practice, then they know that they aren’t in competition for my coaching and attention and they’re better able to work together whether I’m present or not.
There is no reason for women to work against each other. We are not in competition with each other. We are actually our best way to pull forward. By coming together and trusting each other, we can move women’s boxing forward. I know it can be hard to think about doing that when you also know there are so few women to compete against in the ring. However, lets pose the situation in this light: do we want to be the best women in women’s boxing? Or do we want to be the best in boxing?
Every time we work together with our possible opponents from other teams, we actually increase the game that we’ve all got to go into that ring with. So do we want to go in there and fight bums? Or do we want to go in there and show the world better boxing than has ever been seen—male or female? If I help you, then it ups the chances that we will both become noticed. The better you get—even as my opponent---the better that I have to become out of survival. The better you are at calling out my weaknesses in a meaningful way that makes me become better, the better that women’s boxing as a whole becomes. But none of that can happen unless we trust each other.