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Taking a Punch

USNA Plebe Boxing

by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua E. Walters, All Hands Magazine
11 December 2018 Midshipman 4th Class Emma Brindley had never been punched in the face before.

“I'm a little bit shaky because I got knocked pretty hard in the face,” said Brindley, a United States Naval Academy (USNA) student. “I guess it's just like a pop to the face, and you're like, 'Oh, wow! I wasn't expecting that.'”

This is the sport of boxing. It is a long-standing requirement for new students, called plebes, at the United States Naval Academy (USNA). It is also a centuries-old naval tradition.

During the wooden ship era, Sailors had to stay in shape in order to perform the tasks required to sail the ship, from handling lines to reloading cannons. They turned competitive drills, such as which team could unfurl sails the fastest, into sports. At the same time, Sailors were also holding underground boxing matches in spite of ship rules.

In the early 20th century, in the age of steel ships and coal engines, boxing became one of the top entertainments at sea. This popular pastime allowed Sailors to prove themselves and solve grievances. On top of that, it was most likely a cure for boredom.

The sport became so entrenched in the Navy's culture that it spilled over into the academy. In 1865, Adm. David Dixon Porter, USNA superintendent, implemented boxing as a recreational sport. In 1919, Hamilton Murrell Webb, a Baltimore native, became the first official USNA boxing coach. The boxing requirement for plebes was instituted around this time as well.

During their first semester, plebes have to take both boxing and wrestling. Half start out boxing and the other half wrestle. After spending 8 weeks in each course, the plebes switch.

When class starts, they walk into Macdonough Hall and venture up to the top. There, in a gym with three boxing rings, USNA Boxing Head Coach Jim McNally waits, ready to instruct plebes how to defend themselves and throw punches. McNally, who has 32 years as a boxing coach under his belt, thinks the sport is a good way to expose plebes to physical and mental challenges.

“We want them to be scared when they go in there. We want them to be nervous, but we want them to experience adversity,” said McNally. “Getting punched in the face is a pretty adverse situation.

“One of the main reasons why we teach boxing at the Naval Academy is [that it's] probably the best activity that we have to put [plebes] into an environment of controlled stress,” he added. “So they need to learn how to stay calm, stay cool, take the skills they have been taught, and figure out how to get out of that bad situation without further harm.”

Being in a situation like that requires plebes to think quickly and not freeze up when being punched. They have to remember — and use — the skills they have been taught.

“I've learned after a few boxing classes [that] if I don't get my hands up and I don't start moving, I'm going to get hit again,” Brindley said. “So just bob, weave, get out of there, and try to readjust yourself [and] calm yourself down.”

While some plebes might be apprehensive about taking the class, like Brindley, they do learn something from it.

“One lesson I've learned is ... fortitude,” said Midshipman 4th Class Christopher Hisey. “Like Coach says, it's the willingness to go out and throw those punches with no regard for your safety. Especially in this line of duty, you need to forget all of your fears and put what matters most out in front of you. Sometimes, that means going as hard as you can.”

Because boxing is a sport that so heavily involves self-reliance, it teaches individuals about who they are and how they will react to stressful situations. Being a leader is not an easy job. Leaders can't panic in stressful situations. They have to know how to take punches.

“These are going to be the officers leading Sailors and Marines in the fleet,” said McNally. “If the [stuff] hits the fan, they can't be the ones panicking. So putting them through an adverse class like this where they got to deal with adversity — this is going to help them become leaders.”