03/30/2012 07:02 pm ET Updated May 30, 2012

How Foosball, Pool and Muay Thai Helped Me Deal With Difficult Personalities (Including My Own)

There's a sweet exhilaration associated with the moment you first realize something you really like has intersected with something you're good at. I imagine artists or athletes have these moments more often than most, but mine? It was with foosball. The first time I hit a tight, whip-fast shot into the goal against a good defender I almost blacked out from joy. It was in college in the 90s and some girlfriends and I hung out with a group of guys who taught us the ropes. When they graduated two years ahead of us, we didn't know many other females who played so we took turns teaming against random guys our age. I was surprised by my aggressive competitiveness. I was like Shirley in NBC's Community, making boys like Winger cry. Smack talkin' some shit with a smirk, leaning my arms on the table taunting "Oh! Oh! In yo' face son!"

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a look that so clearly read: asshole? How about 30 times in quick succession? It's not awesome, so I (gradually) dropped the attitude and became much more sporting. Kindness always prevails.

Unless you're attempting to make a really hard bank shot on the 8 ball and a tall man who's at least 15 years your senior dressed in workmen's jeans with various chains latched to belt loops says to you with a sneer: "girlie, if you make this shot, I'll shove my own foot up my ass." I learned how to play pool in my mid twenties, heading to the Frosty Mug bar nearly every day at lunch with a work friend. On the way, we'd stop at Arby's and get three meals: one for me and my friend, and one for the bartender who'd open up the downstairs pool table just for us. My friend and I were equally matched skill-wise and we both got better after months of play.

This took me to the next level and to my pool mentor, Cathryn, who was Paul Newman to my Tom Cruise (minus the 80's pompadour). She was a ga-ga gorgeous tanned California blonde who wound up in Cleveland, Ohio and more advanced than me in many ways. We'd troll different dive bars looking for challengers and extra cash from side bets. I used to love watching prospective opponents approach her and ask if we wanted to play doubles. I knew, from the looks they were giving her and the smarmy comments they were making, that they were only looking to get her drunk, to get her engaged, to beat her at her own game. Nine times out of ten, she'd school them, carrying our team to a decisive victory. I'd stand back, watching their faces try to mask an irrational anger that bubbled to the surface -- perhaps due to being beaten by a "girl," or perhaps because they knew they'd lost their shot at pulling her into the backseat of their car for a drunken make out session. But she'd just ignore the tension and coolly say, "up for another?"

Whereas with foosball I realized it was best not to agitate, with pool I learned not to let the agitator get to you. When I was faced with that tricky, potentially game-winning bank shot I mentioned earlier, I was nervous. Not because I cared about the outcome of the game per se. What I cared about was not giving this sneering hustler the space to make me feel inferior, or scared. I got into my stance and focused my aim on the cue ball. "Girlie, if you make this shot, I'll shove my own foot up my ass." It could have gone either way, but that 8 ball went in clean and just as cool as I'd seen Cathryn emote many times before I said, "guess you'd better drop your pants."

Later on I moved to the Washington, D.C. area and met my future husband, Dave. Through an amazing confluence of events, including working five jobs between us, we got to live and travel around Western Europe for seven months. We were based in Amsterdam, using a friend's apartment while she lived somewhere else and in between trips to Switzerland and France and Italy and the UK we built a routine. Exercise was important to both of us, but we liked it structured. Dave was planning to continue his jiu jitsu training and he encouraged me to join him. Have you ever tried it? That shit is hard (and a crazy good workout). I took a month's worth of classes in the States and then I started taking classes in Holland. And then I started hating taking jiu jitsu classes in Holland (I love the Dutch, but the language? Didn't know it, and not so pretty). So I checked out their sister school's offering and watched some muay thai classes. Looks like Tae Bo! I thought, stupidly, and signed up for a 10-pack deal. After class two I realized: this ain't no Billy Blanks studio! This ain't no foolin' around. People were in training there. To be fighters. During one class, two men became overzealous in their sparring and one crashed backwards into the glass separating the class from the viewing room, spraying shards into both spaces. I was horrified. What the hell have I gotten myself into? I thought, but when I looked at the faces that surrounded me and they all registered as, "this is normal," I thought: keep going.

My first couple weeks, I simply dodged and weaved as best I could and when I tried to throw punches, I looked like a cat pawing at a string. But I got better, and stronger, and more toned. I was taught by world champions Ivan Hippolyte and Ernesto Hoost who nudged me to push myself. At first gently -- "Why don't you try doing the push ups without your knees on the ground?" (You know, what? I could) -- and then, more forthright: "Jen! You know how to do this! Feet planted! Hands around your opponent's neck! Bring his head down! Raise your knee to his face!" It was daunting and aggressive and powerful. I began to wonder if I could actually fight in real life outside the confines of a monitored class. One night Dave and I were walking home from a bar and someone bumped into me. "Oh really?" I said spinning around to face my potential opponent, "you want to come back here and do that again?" Using good judgment, Dave grabbed the arm of my puffy jacket and pulled me into a nearby side street. "Save it for the gym," he said.

Pushing myself in that gym became a vehicle of transference to push myself in other aspects of my life: want that promotion? Get to it. Have a desire to do something different but keep complaining you don't have time? GET TO IT. And as a woman, I found it especially beneficial to enter a traditionally masculine space and feel like I was on an even playing field. It was empowering, and that carried through to other aspects as well.

It's been a while since I've thrown a low kick or a right hook and it's been a while since I've had to tell a man to drop his pants (unless it's to my husband). But those lessons I learned? I practice those everyday.

Where did you learn your lessons?