Jennifer Huggins owns and operates Kingsway Boxing Club in Toronto, Canada. As an Oympic Boxing Official with AIBA, she works the sport from the inside out. In addition to being Head Coach at her gym, Jennifer is the Founder and Executive Director of the annual Charity Boxing Gala “Fight To End Cancer” and is heavily involved in the community, however still manages to find the time to travel the world performing with Richard Forget (World Class Magician and Entertainer).
Jennifer’s business and personal motto is that “Variety is the Spice of Life!” She may box in the ring, but she most definately does not live inside of the box… unless of course Richard puts her there!
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you started boxing? I believe you were actually a figure skater originally?
I was in the sport of competitive figure skating from the age of 5 years old, so before I can really remember! It was my whole life. I used to compete in singles and dance with my brother, it was everything that I knew and everything that I lived and breathed. I would go from training 8 hours a day every day of the week and being forced to take breaks, which was the only time I would stop…if I had to! It was something that my entire family dedicated our lives to from the age of 5 until my career ended aged 14.
Is that when you moved into the sport of boxing, after your retirement?
I injured my neck really badly in figure skating and what I didn’t realise was how devastating it would be to me emotionally and physically, not to have skating in my life. The whole thing that got me through the recovery of my neck injury was the idea that I was going to get back into figure skating. It was the goal of everyone around me including my team, my coaches and my family. When I was in my recovery, I was introduced into boxing by accident because I was really tired of going for all of the rehab. I was in hospital for a little while after the injury and then I ended up doing rehab at a couple of different physio clinics, one which was right beside a boxing club. I have a competitive drive that was built in me from the age of 5 years old when I got into skating, so I needed to burn that energy off somehow. When I was in the boxing club, this young coach put me through the ropes (because that?s what we do as coaches) and they realised that even if I wasn’t necessarily the best boxer (because I had never put on a pair of boxing gloves before) I had the drive to do it. That’s something that now as a Coach I understand is more valuable in many ways than many technical talents.
Did you find that being an athlete in both sports gave you an understating as to how to be a better coach?
100%. I don’t think I would have become a coach if I hadn’t been an athlete in figure skating first, mainly because my experience from the athlete side of things was such an interesting and diverse one. From having coaches in both sports I had the experience of different kinds of intensities of coaching. So for example, in skating the focus and drive coming from the coaches was something that was presented in what could have been a very damaging way and actually was fairly damaging! I don’t regret this; however it definitely formed the way I looked at myself as a coach.
So you have learned what not to do from your own bad coaching experiences….
Yes. It’s interesting, there is a lot of positives for sure, but what lasts in an athlete is the memorable experiences; best or the worst. As an athlete you will remember your most amazing experience and you will remember your worst experience. Taking from what I’ve experienced, it gives a really good repertoire of what you are looking to accomplish with your own athletes. Everything I took from my coaches (even if I didn’t realise I was receiving it) has formed the good things that I try to go for as a coach. A good coach doesn’t necessarily do much more than reflect your athletes abilities so at the end of the day it’s more about taking care of your students than it is about taking care of yourself.
Have you coached both skating and boxing?
It was funny because the transition of skating and boxing as an athlete and as a coach happened all at the same time; when I got into boxing I was already starting to coach a little bit in skating. My family and my coaches where all waiting for me to get back onto the team for figure skating, I had tried after my neck recovered to get back into the sport and start coaching a bit. I was pushed there by my peers and I enjoyed the coaching. I enjoyed the experience of working with an athlete and encouraging what was already there from the athlete. I was around 15 or 16 years old when I started coaching figure skating and at the same time as doing the boxing myself. Also, my family was not interested in me doing boxing; I had to facilitate that on my own which meant that I was going to start coaching. Not necessarily coaching the competitive aspect of the sport, but using boxing as a tool for personal training activities.
I guess having it in the Olympics now may help towards that misconception?
It’s helping a little bit, but unfortunately the sport as a whole has a negative view from the public.? It?s one of the oldest sports in the Olympics, I believe that is has a history of around 3,000 years so it?s got this stigma attached to it. Because of what you see at the professional end of things and what people hear about and see on TV (like in the Rocky movies!), it’s depicted in a way that is not overly accurate. Funnily enough although as negatively as people see it, people are also really intrigued by it. It has this double edged sword where everyone wants to believe it’s one thing, but at the end of the day they kind of love it.
After becoming a boxing coach for a number of years, you then founded the Kingsway Boxing Club in Toronto. What inspired you to do this and how did it all start?
The Kingsway Boxing Club actually started in my apartment!? I was in my parents neighbourhood where I grew up, walking through to visit them.? It?s a very rich neighbourhood, but my parents are not.? We lived on what was considered the South Side of the neighbourhood, but within a one minute walking distance of an area that?s very prestigious called Kingsway.? As I was walking through I thought ?hey you know it would be really cool to move back, I?m a coach and a personal trainer and maybe I could afford this area?.? I walked into one location which was a rental apartment and it had a very large living room and a couple of bedrooms so I wanted to find out how much it was for rent. It ended up being pretty pricey, close to the $2,000 dollar mark a month. I told myself I could never afford this, but at the same time was thinking this could be somewhere I could turn into my own personal training space. It’s always tough when you work for a large gym because you have to give a lot of money back to the gym rather than holding onto it and growing your own business. So I ran with that idea [of renting the apartment] and asked my parents if they would let me move back home in case it didn?t work out.? I was about 22 years old and I and they said absolutely not! But I just went full speed ahead the way I usually do anyway! I had nothing except my clients who I asked to stay with me and work with me as a personal trainer in my own space as well as still working at the gym until I could let that go.? Surprisingly, the time frame of going from working at a gym to completely working for myself managed to happen within 2 months! Because the area of Kingsway is such a high end area I didn?t expect them to have a great reception to boxing, this is probably before the big push of boxing and people being interested in it for fitness. I found that I got in at the right moment, people loved it, they received it well. Part of the appeal was probably my youth and the fact I am female; they trusted me and didn?t feel intimidated, they just kept coming! Within 2 months of opening my studio space in my apartment, I had to open up another location and within a year I had to open up a much larger location after that!
You said people trusted you because you are a female coach; did you have male clients as well as female?
I had a good combination of 50 / 50 when I first started out. We have a competitive location now and most of the clients who I work with are male, but we also have a very large female client base who are interested in fitness, although we have a lot more females interested in boxing competitively now. I would say when I started my gym it was a bonus that I was female because of the type of sport it was, but now as a female coach in boxing I don?t feel like I?m an underdog anymore. I don’t feel it’s necessarily something that sets me a part anymore, which is not a bad thing! It’s an interesting transition.
Have you ever faced challenges of the male athletes being too strong or aggressive for you when you need to hold the pads and coach them? Do you have to keep very physically fit to do this?
I’m very small, I weigh 115lbs, but I have the mind of a 270lbs person! I have been surrounded by men in boxing and many of the guys who started off with me 10 years ago weigh over the 250lb mark. Actually one of the hardest transitions for me was learning how to coach people my own size. I am so used to training guys that are much larger than me that it?s never posed a problem because I was raised this way, so its definitely not something that has ever held me back. The only thing is when you have a guy of 250lbs hitting with a force of over 250lbs, you can feel the effects and the shock of it in your hands from the hand pads immediately. I remember when I was first coaching and I was holding pads for this massive German boxer, I could feel the shock of his punches going through the pads and into my arms. I did start off by getting a couple of shoulder injuries because I wasn?t holding the pads properly and because his size alone was much larger than my body was prepared for. One of the reasons I had to open a larger studio when I first started was because I was above a nail and massage salon and they could hear the pads that the guy was hitting and it sounded like gun shots! So I had to go down the street and do pad work with this guy, but the neighbours actually called the cops because they thought he was beating me up! I wish I had that on tape!
So the guys didn’t hold back and be soft on you then?
No! Because I’m little and because I have a strong way that I hold myself, I found that many of the larger men want to test to see how strong I really am! When I’m holding pads and working with them, the first thing they do is try to see how much I can handle, but then they always get way more tired and burned out because they are doing that!
As well as being a coach and running your own gym, you are also an International Boxing Official, tell us more!
I was just elevated last year in Cuba in August to work at the International level. AIBA (Amateur Boxing Association) that licences me are also the same sanctioning body that brings the coaches and officials into the Olympics. I have officiated at the World Championships last year in Korea and I have just been booked for the Taipei Championships in May.
Have you experienced any friction from others being one of only 2 women doing this?
The timing is impeccable right now because of the female rise in boxing, there has been a big push. I was fast tracked, so people who have been doing this for a very long time and really deserve the elevation as well, were not necessarily looked at.? Because I was a female, I was being pushed ahead faster.? Women have 3 weight classes in the Olympics and we need more females at the officiating end of it for weigh ins and medicals etc for the fights, so because of the fact that female boxing is such a big thing now and because I am female, I have been given quite a bit of a push from the association. The negativity I have received is because of the fact that I have only been doing refereeing for 6 years now (although I have been involved with the sport for many more) and there have been people in line for what I am accomplishing for over 30-40 years. I have been pushed ahead in ways that can definitely make some people upset, but at the same time there is a good reason behind it. I feel very very fortunate, but at the same time, there is a bit of guilt.
When you have a female on a female team, or even on a male team, there?s an added empathy that I don?t think is felt in the same way with just men. We need the males and we need to females, there is something to be said about having both.
What advice would you give to another female, young or old, wanting to get involved with boxing whether as a coach, an official or an athlete?
I would say start now! There’s never been a better time. I think the opportunities for females and the amount of opportunities and material out there has never been bigger. I noticed that I stood out when I first got into boxing as a coach, a boxer and as an official, but standing out really does help and right now you will stand out as a female getting involved at this moment. I believe that boxing is going to end up jumping so big that there will be a much bigger competition pool.? The biggest transition I had was going from a female dominated sport where you couldn?t stand out because there were so many women, to boxing where you really stood out because you are a female. At the moment women only have 3 weight categories in the Olympics whereas the men have 10, but as that changes it will be harder to get involved and it won?t be as special at the time as it will be right now.