Boxing has long been absent from school sport. Tina Ryan explores its return

Who would have thought that boxing, a sport that has taken some battering over the past few decades since it was banned from the curriculum in 1962, would be making a comeback into the fold of school sport? For so long boxing was the bad guy sport, tarnished by a seedy image and media scare stories about the long-term cerebral injuries sustained by boxers. However, in recent years it has clawed back some respectability. Thanks must go, in part, to repackaged, redesigned versions, such as ‘boxercise’ and ‘boxzone’ – these new concepts have enabled the sport to cross from boxing gym to leisure club and appealed to us more leisurely partakers of exercise. And, of course, the more stringent controls introduced by the British Board of Boxing Control have contributed to making the sport safer to practise. Boxing – even without the combat side – is undoubtedly one of the most all-round challenging sports. The gruelling discipline, the mental and physical agility, coordination and sheer physical exertion involved is enough to impress even the crème de la crème of other sports. In fact many elite sportspeople regularly box-train with professional coaches as a key part of their fitness regime. No question then that boxing has something positive and even, dare I say it, unique to offer. The swing in boxing’s popularity has not gone unnoticed in education but alarm bells still ring in some quarters when it is associated with schools. So the challenge for PE professionals is to find ingenious ways to draw on its strengths and leave the negatives at the school gate. Richmond LEA found a creative way to exploit boxing. The borough has a history of using sport innovatively to address a range of diverse issues relating to children in its schools. Five years ago, Phil Davies – the director of sport and the inspiration behind the project – and teacher Wayne Simon piloted ‘Self Esteem Through Sport’ or SETS as it is now referred to. The initiative, supported by the pupil referral unit, was aimed at disaffected children who were at serious risk of permanent exclusion or criminal activity. The borough devised two- and three-year programmes for Year 10 and 9 pupils respectively that put specific children on a series of sports courses as a partial replacement to some curriculum subjects. Wayne Simon led the project, initially with a group of 15 boys from Whitton School. He said: “The pupils we approached were those who were becoming increasingly isolated – we needed a mechanism to get them attached to a group again and give them a sense of belonging. It was also important for these teenagers to achieve something we could reward them for and ultimately bring about a change in their attitudes.” Not all teachers were in favour of the initiative. Some were concerned it would look like the disruptive children were the most rewarded. Staff involved have overcome the problem well with good communication between subject teachers and Wayne Simon’s team – Simon leads with authority and charisma and ensures he is aware of what’s going on in the classroom, while teachers feed back good and bad behaviour and children are not only incentivised but penalised too. In this way, the programme works hand in hand with the curriculum and not in isolation. The school chose pupils who had at least demonstrated some interest – active or passive – in sport. Getting the parents involved was important too. Wayne Simon says: “Parents have to buy into the idea and participate in evaluating their child’s progress”. He adds that the “hands-on” approach has broadly contributed to changing some of the adults’ own attitudes to being a parent and to the role of education. SETS’ first generation teenagers showed a significant positive shift in attitudes to school and overall demeanour. Teachers reported that their concentration levels were much improved and that they interacted better with their classmates. Overall the group had gained confidence from their sporting achievements. Spurred on by its success, the programme is now in six of the borough’s schools. The objective is increasingly to catch children at an earlier stage, before negative behaviour patterns are entrenched. Children now targeted typically have poor attendance, are disruptive and are victims of bullying – or even the bullies themselves. Various sports and skills are chosen to address the specific issues and difficulties of the group members. Wayne Simon has found that water-based sports such as rowing and sculling are particularly effective in understanding the value of working together as a group and has helped improve the teenagers’ relationships with their peers. The other core sports that provide the focus of SETS include football, rugby, archery and, of course, boxing. Wayne Simon was initially concerned about teachers’ and parents’ perception of boxing and admits that it was “an uphill struggle” to persuade those involved that it had something to offer. But Simon was convinced from the outset: “We had used team sports successfully but I wanted the kids to get other things out of the programme by trying an individual sport. Boxing perhaps takes the term ‘individual’ to an extreme – it’s called the loneliest sport but it is all about self-discipline and rigour and that was what initially appealed. I also wanted to release some of the boys’ pent-up aggression.”  Simon had sought partnerships with impressive credentials for football (Brentford FC and Fulham FC) and rugby (Harlequins) and boxing was not to be outclassed. John Holland, son of Harry, a former pro-boxer in Audley Harrison’s team, owns a boxing gym in the borough. Holland Junior runs sessions for total beginners, boxers and elite sportmen alike: Harlequin rugby players and professional footballers are regulars there. John Holland, along with his colleague and ex-World Superfeatherweight Champion Barry Jones, ran a four-month boxing course for the SETS students. No sparring was involved – training focused on skills and fitness alone. The teenagers were coached in footwork, handspeed and coordination, first in front of the mirror and, as they progressed, using pads and punch-bags. Holland says: “There is a lot to think about in boxing – it’s much more mentally demanding than people imagine. The kids had to really concentrate to think on their feet and stay focused to maintain coordination and agility.” In fact, a few of the teenagers involved had already excelled in other sports, yet boxing proved to be the toughest, most gruelling of lessons. James King was one of the SETS participants. He said: “It took a lot more effort than the other sports but also the skills were more precise, there was greater technique involved – it was definitely the most challenging sport I had tried.” Enthusiasm running high from both sides, the boxing pros set about organising something special for the group. Barry Jones contacted his old friend, World Champion Joe Calzaghe, who invited the children to his gym in Cardiff for a weekend of masterclass training. Barry said: “The kids were a little in awe of their surroundings when they first walked in, as the gym was much bigger and filled with serious boxers in training. We carried on as usual with our warm up, skipping, mirror techniques and then the punchbags.  And then Joe walked in. He was clearly pleased to have the kids there and was interested in what SETS was trying to do.  James King described their time with Calzaghe: “Joe told us about his boxing career in a normal, down-to-earth way and we got to ask him questions. We all just connected with him, he was very easy to talk to and yet we left feeling very inspired by him as a person.” Richmond Borough’s initiative has won it acclaim from government and a PDM Conference National Award. For Wayne Simon, the programme has been successful in what he refers to as “overwriting children’s own sets of principles” and breaking the cycle of behaviour. In plain terms, Richmond Borough has seen a marked reduction in exclusion (only two pupils out of the 105 SETS attendees ended up at the pupil referral unit). Teachers have reported a significant improvement in attitudes and behaviour and, finally, the teenagers have come away armed with leadership diplomas and coaching certificates: the ARA Wetskills Level 1; RFU Coaching; Level 1; the FA Coaching Award. Oh – and a few rounds in the ring with Joe Calzaghe into the bargain.

Tina Ryan is a freelance journalist

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