Sylvia Scharper was just 16 years old when her father died, pitching her into a grief so profound she failed to process it fully at the time.
“I was in year 11 and studying for my VCE so I just didn’t deal with it,” she says. “But then I got to university and I became depressed. My dad was my biggest cheerleader. When he died I was crushed in every way, but the significance of it only became apparent at university.”
At the suggestion of an acquaintance, Scharper took up Muaythai boxing, which helped her unbottle a deep well of grief and sadness. “Once I started boxing, it forced me to focus,” she says. “When you’re under physical duress you become aware of what you say to yourself and where your self-esteem is at. It brought all of these emotions to the fore, and I gradually began to grieve my dad’s death.”
Much to her surprise, Scharper also found she had the grit and determination to become a competitive boxer, winning two World Muaythai Council Victorian titles and an Australian National Boxing Federation title in Pro Boxing.
While they were a great confidence boost, Scharper says the real boon was deeper. “Fighting has taught me to believe in myself again and uncover who I am and the significance of my dad’s loss. With every fight I have been forced to look within.” Trainer Lisa Longman, who runs women-only boxing classes in Perth, has noticed a huge increase in the popularity of the sport among women.
“When I first started teaching women to box a couple of years ago, there were no female-only classes and now they’re everywhere in gyms,” she says. “It may come down to the popularity of [mixed martial artist] Ronda Rousey, but I have definitely noticed a shift from it being male dominated.”
Longman’s boxing program, The Young Boxing Woman project, was designed for women aged 12 to 24, but there was such a demand that she has added classes for older women.
“The idea is that if you can do something hard and complex with your body, then you can apply that to other areas of your life,” she says. “A lot of girls drop out of sport altogether when they hit puberty, but sport gives them so many skills that they will need to be successful, like networking skills and learning the importance of doing something over and over again until you master it.”
Longman notes that boxing also helps women view their bodies differently – as active and responsive beings rather than inert and passive conduits. “I see girls and women all the time who tell me they can’t do something because it’s too hard,” she says. “And I tell them they can. You have all the right muscles to do it. It’s about learning to use your body for a purpose, and for enjoyment.”
Longman enjoys watching women and young girls shrug off their traditional roles as appeasers and comforters and chase achievement: “Women can be afraid of competing. They’re used to being told to be the nice one, but boxing helps them realise it’s okay to really want to win.”
Boxing also has health benefits, including keeping fit and punching away stress. Sydney-based personal trainer Amy Mitchell incorporates boxing into roughly three-quarters of her classes. “It’s a great cardio workout, it really gets your heart rate up, and it’s also fairly low-impact on the joints, which is good for women who can’t run or do high-impact exercise,” she says.
“The mental health benefits are also enormous. Women aren’t often encouraged to display their physical side, but when they strap on their gloves they really unleash their stress and aggression. I often joke that I can tell the women who have had a bad day by how hard they hit.”
- Improve your physical fitness: boxing uses many muscles and requires a high degree of cardio ability.
- Increase your self-confidence: mastering technique or reaching a milestone will do wonders for your self-esteem.
- De-stress: release pent-up tension in a healthy way.
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