Teens and Boxing:
Boxing is a Hit with Many Teens
Fifteen-year-old Deicy Bencomo packs quite a punch. If this is hitting like a girl, then watch out. Bencomo, a student at Owasso Mid-High, has been boxing for two years. Last year she won her division in State and Regionals at the USA Boxing Junior Olympics and took home a bronze at Nationals in West Virginia. This girl knows how to box, and she’s not alone. Whether for fitness or competition, girls are taking their place in the ring to practice the art of the sweet science.
Bencomo’s coach, Aaron Sloan, owns The Engine Room boxing gym on East Sixth Street in Tulsa’s Pearl District. Sloan is a USA Boxing-certified coach, judge and referee, as well as a registered cardiac nurse. Sloan works with people of all ages at his gym; some are training to compete, while others are there to get or stay in shape. According to Sloan, the sport offers benefits well beyond physical conditioning, especially for kids.
“The biggest thing would have to be the self-confidence and self-defense that comes along with the boxing program,” he commented. “It affects them directly and almost immediately in school.”
Bencomo agrees. “I feel like it’s changed my life. It’s opened my eyes to a new world,” she said. “My school work has improved. Boxing wakes your brain up. It energizes it somehow. Last year my grades were okay, but this year they’ve gone higher. I have an advanced class this year, which is good, and I’m also going to do Tulsa Tech next year.” Bencomo thinks boxing is a good way for girls to protect themselves, too. “When you’re out on the streets by yourself as a girl, you can use it for self-defense…I feel stronger. I’ve got my defenses up now.”
On a recent weeknight, the gym is buzzing with activity. Two men spar in the ring while several women beat out a rhythm on the speed bags. Jump ropes are whirring through the air. Bencomo works the heavy bag, her long, black hair in two neat braids down her back. She looks strong, confident and beautiful as she pounds the stuffed, leather cylinder with her gloved fists, a smile breaking out around her mouthguard when she lands a particularly good punch.
Bencomo’s parents are both from Mexico. Her father is a boxing fan and had no reservations about his daughter’s decision to take up the sport.
“He said he was really happy because it was going to help me with my conditioning and with self-defense,” Bencomo said, translating for her dad.
Bencomo’s mom took more convincing. “She’s the one that gets really nervous, or she’ll yell at me, trying to tell me what to do,” Bencomo laughed. “My dad says my brother and I get our fighting style from our mom. She used to fight. She was like a street fighter. She was tough,” Bencomo said, smiling.
Sloan believes boxing is an excellent sport for kids. Not only does it help them achieve and maintain a healthy weight, but it’s also a good alternative to team sports, which aren’t always a fit for every child.
“I don’t think all kids are cut out for a team sport, especially if their confidence is already low, or if they’ve started a bit late. In a team sport, if you get just a season or two behind some of the other kids, it can be hard to catch up,” Sloan SAID. “With boxing, there are always kids starting. There is always somebody at your level. You’re at your own pace. You’re not going to get left behind at the boxing gym. Everybody develops differently. Everybody has weaknesses. Everybody has their strengths. Boxing has the advantage of being an individualized sport.”
But boxing also has the reputation of being a violent sport, and some parents may be hesitant to see their “little girl” pull on a pair of gloves.
Bencomo dismisses those concerns. “I don’t really feel like it’s a violent sport,” she said. “I feel like it’s a controlled sport. If it was violent, you’d see more accidents.”
Sloan concurs. “The first thing I would point out is that, historically, boxing gyms, not only in America but all over the world, have been used as a method to tame violence, as a method to get kids off the street. To take in angry kids and violent kids and take that out of them,” he noted. “They have an outlet at the gym to get rid of that. It wears them out; it gives them something to hit.”
The increased self-confidence that comes from learning the sport also helps, according to Sloan. “Most people fight or are violent on the street because their self-confidence is low, not because it’s high. When they get in the boxing gym, they get the confidence to know they don’t have to fight. In my experience, as long as I’ve been boxing as a coach or fighter, I’ve never seen anybody come into a boxing gym and get more violent. It’s always the opposite. It’s usually a humbling experience.”
Youth boxing isn’t without controversy, however. In a 2011 Policy Statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledged the benefits of boxing, “including exercise, self-discipline and self-confidence,” but concluded that the risks of head, face, neck and chronic (and potentially fatal) neurologic injury outweigh the benefits of participating in the sport.
Proponents argue that the sport is safe when practiced properly and that critics confuse amateur with professional boxing. Youth boxers spar infrequently and spend the majority of their time stretching, conditioning and working out on the bags, with injuries such as knuckle bruises and fractures the most common, not head injuries. In addition, amateur boxing is highly regulated. Safety gear is required, and the number of rounds is limited. Scoring is based on the number of legal blows landed through skill and strategy. Headshots and knockouts are not the goal; clean punches are.
“There’s a sports safety research paper that comes out every year,” Sloan said. “In the most current one, amateur boxing ranked number 26 on the list [of dangerous sports]. The most dangerous sport there is is high school football. There are more concussions in high school football than in anything…racquetball even ranked higher than boxing.”
Amateur boxing is governed by the same organization that governs the Olympics. “Everyone associated with the sport from the referees to the judges to the fighters themselves are all sanctioned. They have to get a certificate and are all educated with safety in mind…We’re held to extraordinarily high standards,” Sloan notes.
As a USA Boxing-registered coach in a registered gym, Sloan holds his competing athletes to those same standards. “Their grades have to be high; they can’t be in trouble. There is no street fighting. There’s nothing like that, or otherwise, they’re out of the gym. It reflects on us.”
Bencomo doesn’t worry much about any of that. She loves the sport and wants to continue. “If I keep with coach, I might want to turn into a professional boxer,” she said. She would encourage other girls to take it up, whether they want to compete or just train.
In Sloan’s gym, everyone is welcome. “We have all walks of life in here, from all different social backgrounds and ages,” he said. “Everybody seems to fit in and get along great, from kids to men to women.”