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Box United Trains Chicagoans to Fight Like a Girl

Women’s History Month Grantee Spotlight

March 15, 2024

What does it mean to fight like a girl?

Since its inception in 2019, Chicago-based boxing non-profit Box United has been offering a fresh answer, empowering young girls to square off against gender stereotypes that limit girls’ mental and physical strength.

Founded by Mary Kate Vanecko, a former Division One lacrosse player turned boxer, Box United draws on her personal journey of discovering strength and confidence through the sport. Vanecko says that many girls still find the idea of being a boxer unimaginable. This aligns with a 2023 Women in Sport study which found that boys are typically encouraged to identify as strong and pushed towards highly physical and competitive sports, whereas girls tend to be taught to prioritize team cooperation in aesthetic sports like dance.

Watching girls take up the gloves for the first time means more than seeing them acquire a new skill: it’s the first blow to defeating the limiting stereotypes in all aspects of their lives. “After training as boxers, girls are better able to envision themselves doing other ‘unimaginable’ things like going to a certain school, having a certain career or even being able to manage their stress,” observes Vanecko.

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Through their innovative dual-focus approach, which weaves together youth development based boxing with cognitive behavioral therapy sessions, Box United looks to revolutionize mental health support for girls in Chicago, and beyond. Their custom 20-week Fight Like a Girl program, which is available to organizations to run independently, packs a powerful one-two punch against any body/mind challenges holding young girls back in life. It is the only research-backed all girls boxing program with an equal focus on physical and mental wellbeing. The intervention is needed: post-COVID, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracked a 60% rise in persistent sadness and feelings of hopelessness in teen girls, a rate that was double the numbers recorded for boys.

One of the young Chicagoans benefiting from this program is 10-year-old Harley. She first tried boxing when one of the teachers at her school began offering Fight Like a Girl. The group started by pushing school desks aside and training in the corner of classrooms, but now–nearly two years later–Harley and her fellow athletes have progressed to using a proper boxing gym nearby. ”I feel like a real boxer in the gym,” says Harley proudly. “We do a lot of boxing drills and I get to use the heavy bags there.”

“Although she’s one of the smaller students, Harley has a ton of power and strength that she’s been able to channel through Fight Like a Girl,” reports Vanecko. Having honed her skillset, she is now leading drills and helping other girls with their techniques. “Harley’s a clear leader at Box United. All of the other students listen to her and pay attention to her perspective.” For Harley, building her boxing skills is more than a social activity, though: it’s a confidence booster. “You really feel like you’re strong, like your body has a lot of power. It feels like you can protect yourself,” she says.

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Since they primarily work with middle schoolers, Vanecko prioritizes non-contact mitt and glove work, a training method favored by professional boxers which she describes as “an incredible workout.” There’s an added benefit to this explosive approach: emotional regulation. “It’s a powerful tool for many of our students dealing with trauma; it allows them to release a lot of aggression without having to direct it at another person,” she observes. “That’s an amazing healing tool.” For Harley, this certainly rings true. “I get to let all my anger out.”

In 2023, Harley and her classmates got to connect with older role models in the sport when they traveled to watch the women’s college boxing tournament at the University of Notre Dame. “Harley was a top cheerleader for the boxers and even developed a system for all the students to pick who they thought would be winners!” says Vanecko. This year’s visit promises to be even more special: the girls will get to box with the college team before the tournament begins.

It’s clear that Box United isn't just teaching boxing; they're instilling resilience, self-esteem and strength in the next generation of young women in Chicago. “I like boxing because it helps me see how strong I am and all that I can do,” reports Harley. “I’ve also learned to embrace my insecurities and the things that make me unique.”

And, when asked what it means to ‘fight like a girl,’ Harley didn’t miss. “To be the strongest one, of course!” she beamed.

Beyond Sport is proud to help support Box United’s youth mental wellbeing initiatives as part of our Head In the Game program powered by the Z Zurich Foundation.

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