“How I went from totally unsporty to kickboxing black belt”

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Stylist’s Jenny Tregoning had written herself off as exercise-phobic – until she discovered the joy of kicking and punching things. She explains how she got hooked on kickboxing, as part of the new Stylist Strong campaign

PE was never my forte at school. I loathed netball and its silly pivot rule, would always play deep field in rounders in the hope no one would ever hit the ball that far, and could neither run fast enough nor jump high enough to be considered for the athletics team. In fact, my finest sporting moment was in junior school, where I came 2nd in the sack race, only to discover it’s not a proper ‘sport’ in real life. 

Like a lot of people, my hatred of PE at school put me off exercise for a long time. Throughout my late teens I dabbled in cringey aerobics classes and trips to the gym in the vague aim of keeping myself in shape, but exercising always felt like a chore – something to be endured rather than actively enjoyed. And so I never stuck at anything for long.

Fast-forward a few years to university in Brighton and in the true spirit of Freshers’ Week, I signed up to all sorts of different groups – from trampolining (it transpired that everyone wanted to take part, and I would have to wait two whole terms for my slot), to rock soc (RIP the Gloucester pub and your bargain snakebite and blacks), to the student newspaper (well, at least that one came in handy). My flatmate, meanwhile, had eagerly subscribed to a kickboxing class and asked if I wanted to join her. Now, I’m far from what you would consider a traditional fighter – I’m not aggressive, neither was I particularly strong, nor inclined to being punched in the face. But in the devil-may-care spirit of that first year at uni, I decided to tag along. And you know what? I loved it.

Woman training on a punchbag
Learning to fight involves total focus

Kickboxing was unlike any sport I’d ever tried. The thing I never enjoyed about team sports was the pressure of letting down a whole group of people if I made a mistake, but here I could focus solely on what I was doing. If I got punched or kicked, it was no one’s fault but my own. And if anything is going to teach you to maintain a tight guard, it’s that. Rather than plodding along on the treadmill or counting down the minutes on the cross-trainer, I was learning new skills – how to throw punches and kicks, how to manipulate my body to generate the most power, how to block, bob and weave. Plus, I felt like a total badass – even if I couldn’t reach my kitchen cupboards the following day due to my aching arms.

By the end of the year I had achieved my red belt – an actual, proper kickboxing belt; proof that I wasn’t terrible at something sporty – and I was hooked.

After finishing uni, I started attending a weekly women-only class organised by my local club, Kicks. Having previously attended a mixed class, it was helpful to train with people of similar weight and height, and a relief to not constantly live in fear of being knocked out by that guy who’s taking things just a little too seriously. As the months went by, I mastered new routines and graded for my yellow belt, then my orange belt. I upped my training to twice a week and, as I progressed through the rainbow of belts surrounded by supportive women and inspiring instructors, my strength and confidence grew.

Women training in a kickboxing gym
Pad work is a key part of kickboxing training

A big part of why I enjoy kickboxing is that it takes my mind completely off any worries I have. When someone is throwing punches and kicks at you, you have to react immediately, while also thinking about where you’re going to move off and what you might throw next. It requires 100% focus. By the end of every class, any stress or annoyance from the day has been totally erased. Forget yoga, there’s nothing to get you more fully in the moment than having a jab aimed squarely at your head.

The belts were key in keeping me motivated. Training for each grading – where you perform set moves, practise blocks and counters, and push yourself to the limit sprinting across the room in fitness rounds – was what stopped me returning to my lazy ways when things got tough. The clearly structured programme kept me on the right track and each grading I passed brought a sense of achievement, of having pushed my body to its limits and come out the other side with something to show for it – namely a crisp new coloured belt.

Strong, for me, is as much about strength of mind as it is strength of body. I used to get so worried that I would collapse from exhaustion during my grading. A voice in my head would tell me that I was tired, that I couldn’t do it, that I was still that feeble, sport-shy child and needed to stop. But once I recognised that the voice was my own, I realised that I could also change the narrative. All I needed to do was repeat to myself that I was strong enough, was good enough, and that I definitely could do it, and soon I started to believe it.

Jenny Tregoning with her black belt
Jenny reached black belt in 2016

It worked. Ten years after I first took up kickboxing, I got my black belt. By attending classes every week, never giving up (even after an enforced break due to injury) and an intense few months of training (getting up every morning on holiday to sprint around the garden of our French gite while my friends snoozed off their hangovers was painful), I had somehow pulled off the seemingly impossible. The fifth of November 2016 (remember, remember indeed) was one of the most nerve-wracking days of my life, but I made it through the grading on the biggest high I’ve ever felt. Somehow, from a naive 18-year-old joining a trial class in Freshers’ Week, I’d found a sport I loved and had reached the ultimate goal.

So even if team sports aren’t your thing, you can’t catch a ball for love nor money, and running bores the hell out of you, I believe there is a form of exercise out there for you, you just have to find it. If this decidedly unsporty woman can shake off the trauma of secondary school PE lessons and grow up to be a black belt kickboxer, I sincerely believe there’s hope out there for all of us.

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Not the sporty type? Here’s how to find an activity that’s right for you

1. Step out of your comfort zone

If traditional team sports bring back bad memories of being picked last at school, expand your horizons. From individual sports such as archery or figure skating, extreme sports like rock climbing or white-water rafting, to combat sports such as fencing and taekwondo, there must be hundreds of activities you’ve not yet tried. Pick something completely out of your comfort zone and you might just find your calling. Visit bbc.co.uk/getinspired for a list of different sporting bodies to find a club near you or, if you have a disability, visit activityalliance.org.uk for a list of inclusive gyms and taster classes.

2. Join a friend

If you’re nervous about trying a new activity on your own, ask a friend along for moral support (studies have shown that working out with a partner means you both work harder, too). Even better, ask around your friends and colleagues to see if somebody is already a member of a club or regularly attends a class who can tell you what it’s all about, share their enthusiasm and bring you along to try it out. 

3. Reconnect with your inner child

If you’re not having fun, it’s unlikely you’ll stick to any fitness regime, so think back to your childhood and which activities you enjoyed the most. Loved leaping around on the bouncy castle? Try trampoline fitness at Oxygen Freejumping. Always ran yourself ragged at British bulldog? Join a playground games class with Rabble. Simply loved climbing trees and scrambling about in the countryside? Try bouldering at The Castle Climbing Centre in London.

4. Set yourself a goal

Often exercising for the sake of it can feel like a chore, so try a sport where there are clear milestones along the way, whether that’s gearing up for a tournament, training for a 5K or taking up a martial art where you can work your way through different belt levels. Small goals along the way will give you a sense of achievement and help keep you motivated in the long-term.

5. Train with other women

While some people are perfectly happy training in mixed groups, the thought of having to spar with a six-foot-tall man who’s watched one too many Rocky films was definitely a hurdle to me kickboxing. Thankfully, I found a women-only class, which took away any initial anxiety and provided a welcoming and supportive environment to train in.

Photography: Getty Images

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Jenny Tregoning

Jenny Tregoning is deputy production editor at Stylist and editor of the Gourmet On-The-Go food pages, where she combines her love of grammar with lusting over images of food.