Punching Through Barriers: Female Cadets Integrated Into Mandatory Boxing at West Point
The Modern Army Combatives Program teaches hand-to-hand combative skills for the Army, and has greatly increased close-quarters combat training and proficiency. With inclusion into professional military education and widespread official tournaments, the program has also improved the Warrior Ethos, confidence and lethality of our force.
Although striking is part of the program’s curriculum, its focus remains on grappling skills due to risk-mitigation factors. Unrestricted striking, like that in the sport of boxing, is typically reserved for more advanced combatives training and competition. For over a century, the boxing program at the U.S. Military Academy has successfully trained cadets in boxing through a deliberate risk-mitigation process, balancing safety and realism while meeting training objectives. The academy recently conducted gender integration of the boxing program, requiring all cadets to complete boxing to graduate, removing one of the last existing gender barriers in the U.S. Army.
This unique requirement offers many benefits that are not fully realized through combatives. Commanders, NCOs and Master Combatives Trainers throughout the Army can improve their combatives programs by learning about the boxing risk-mitigation process used at West Point and how the program was adjusted to accommodate both genders. This training can continue to improve the combat readiness of the Army for all genders.
The boxing program at West Point has been continually refined and adapted to balance meeting training objectives while ensuring the safety of cadets. The course is taught through 19 blocks of instruction lasting 50 minutes each. Cadets are evaluated in one-on-one, full contact, graded bouts consisting of two rounds that last a minute each.
Boxing at West Point is the only mandatory activity that pits one cadet against another in full body contact. It teaches fear management, which is a necessary skill to lead soldiers in the crucible of ground combat. Striking to the head, like in boxing, increases the perceived threat of physical harm. This invokes a strong physiological and psychological response from participants, similar to that experienced in ground combat.
The fear response in boxing is much greater than the fear associated with ground combatives, where one can simply tap and quit when placed in a fearful or uncomfortable position. In boxing, there is no opportunity to tap out against an overbearing and aggressive opponent. Through boxing, cadets learn to manage fear and perform physically despite the presence of these stressors, a quality that is necessary for combat leadership.
Women were first admitted to West Point in 1976. Concerns over gender differences resulted in women initially having to complete a self-defense course in lieu of boxing. The requirement for women changed over the years into a comparable combatives class. West Point made the historic decision to integrate the boxing requirement in the summer of 2016, conducting a deliberate review of risk-management policies and procedures. Existing Army doctrine, however, provided limited guidance.
The primary concern with gender integration of boxing is that women appear to experience concussions at a greater rate than men. This may be a result of physiological differences between men and women. On average, women also have less muscle mass than men of comparable weight. Boxing, like combatives, is a weight-category sport. Matching men and women according to weight may not adequately account for gender differences regarding striking force.
A detailed and multifaceted risk-management program is adhered to at West Point to ensure cadets meet boxing program objectives while providing a safe yet authentic environment. Before they can box, cadets must complete a preparticipation medical questionnaire, screened by medical providers. Whenever there is boxing training, medical personnel provide constant support and assistance.
Hand wraps are used to prevent hand fractures and wrist sprains, fitted mouthpieces are worn to guard against dental injuries, and headgear is worn to prevent cuts and abrasions to the face and forehead. Boxers must also wear gloves, which primarily serve to prevent hand injuries. Heavier gloves are also believed to reduce punch acceleration, limiting the amount of force a boxer can generate. Boxers therefore wear gloves according to body weight, with male cadets 175 pounds and less wearing 16-ounce gloves and male cadets over 175 pounds wearing 20-ounce gloves. As a general policy, women wear 14-ounce gloves; however, instructors monitor females and increase the weight of the gloves for certain skilled boxers if warranted.
Cadets Closely Monitored
Aside from medical screening and protective equipment, instructors phase and control activities to further minimize injuries. Cadets are first taught punches in segments without an opponent. Segments are gradually reduced until cadets are performing full movements in formation or in mirrors. Once technique has improved to an acceptable level of proficiency, cadets find a partner within 10 pounds of their own weight for partner drills.
Instructors use verbal commands to control the volume of punches thrown, the defenses used, the tempo and, most importantly, the intensity. As cadets become more proficient, instructors increase the intensity and reduce the predictability of the drills. Trainers seek to maintain an inverse relationship between the intensity and the volume of punches, minimizing exposures at higher intensities. Finally, cadets may be pitted against each other in free sparring, which introduces the greatest amount of complexity. Although instructors closely supervise all sparring through issuing verbal commands, during free sparring, control is reduced.
Trainers continually assess cadet proficiency throughout instruction. Cadets are rated on a 1- to 5-point Likert-type scale, with a 1 designating an internationally competitive boxer and a 5 indicating a boxer so overcome with fear they can’t participate. Instructors then match cadets according to skill level, body weight (within 10 pounds), gender and aggression. This ensures that sparring contributes to attaining course objectives and limits injury risk. While conducting free sparring, cadets must box someone of the same gender. When conducting partner drills, however, cadets can work with a cadet of the opposite gender. Instructors continually monitor activities to ensure suitable matchups.
Another risk-mitigation policy that has proved effective at reducing concussion exposure is restriction of power punches to the head. Unlike a jab, a power punch utilizes weight transfer and rotation from the hips to increase the force of a strike. These punches are gradually introduced through instruction, allowing boxers time to develop defensive skills and timing. Power punches to the head are limited during free sparring, with cadets only permitted to throw one cross, one hook and one uppercut to the head per round. This policy serves to preserve the stimulus of perceived fear while minimizing the risk of injury.
A Budget for Boxing
Cost is always a factor when considering training objectives. Fortunately, most units possess Modern Army Combatives Program kits containing boxing gloves and headgear. A lack of punching bags is often cited as a concern. Bag work, however, is discouraged in favor of partner drills, as bags fail to improve defensive and offensive skills. A boxing ring is another cost issue, as many commercially available rings start at about $2,500. Free sparring should only occur in a regulation boxing ring for safety concerns, however, many benefits of boxing training can be gained through partner drills alone. A boxing ring may not be necessary to initially introduce and integrate boxing training into a combatives program. Hand wraps and fitted mouthpieces should be individually purchased due to hygiene concerns, and are readily available for under $10.
All units can benefit from incorporating boxing-style training into their combatives program. Doing so will increase the ability of soldiers to control their fear in stressful situations and improve confidence, Warrior Ethos, resiliency and proficiency in hand-to-hand combative encounters.
When incorporating striking into combatives training, however, commanders must ensure there are qualified instructors and medical support. A deliberate risk-management process must also be enforced. If conducting striking training with soldiers of both genders, policies must account for the physiological differences between men and women, ensuring the safety of participants while reaching training objectives.
Gender integration is not simply a movement to one standard; it requires deliberate thought and constant evaluation. When done properly, striking can and should be incorporated into a unit’s training program, increasing the combat readiness and lethality of our Army.