Academy proves boxing's benefits

Paul Zanon
17/01/2017 9:55am

Photos by Rupert Hartley

Paul Zanon reports on a unique and highly successful school in Hackney - where education is based around boxing... 

Nestled in a side street in the heart of Hackney Central is a building you could easily walk or cycle past, mistaken that it’s either an office, a gym, or perhaps a supplier of sports equipment.

The Boxing Academy is far from any of these.

Providing and addressing a fundamental need in society which many other individuals and organisations have shied away from, the Boxing Academy is, quite simply, a phenomenon.

The school was originally established to provide alternative education programmes to young people, many of whom had been excluded from schools due to their behaviour.

Through the medium of boxing, they have been able to reach out to many of these students in London and play a positive role in their lives, not to mention generate the students GCSEs and a range of life experiences along the way. The merits of the Academy’s outputs earned them an Investors in People Award in 2015 and a Charity Award winner’s mantle in 2016.

Something tells me their trophy cabinet may be expanding in 2017 and beyond.

Earlier this month, Boxing Monthly was kindly invited to attend, alongside England Boxing, the All-Part Parliamentary Group for Boxing and a number of staff and students from the Boxing Academy, a launch of a report commissioned by England Boxing entitled, 'The Role of Boxing in Development: A Social Marketing Perspective.'

Boxing Academy’s Head Teacher, Anna Cain, explained the importance of such research. “I’ve been saying for years that boxing is brilliant for helping disadvantaged young people, to change their lives and make them more positive. However, me saying that is not good enough. We’ve needed proof. I’m delighted that England Boxing have commissioned this research [by the Walker Research Group]. In fact, the Boxing Academy has commissioned its own research off the back off this to continue to understand why exactly boxing benefits our particular students.”

England Boxing’s Chair, Caspar Hobbs explained to Boxing Monthly the value of boxing as a developmental tool, especially within the academy setting. “A lot of research has been done [by the Walker Research Group] and also by [the] All-Party Parliamentary Group for Boxing, which has taken empirical evidence from a number of sources. Very simply, it shows that, for every pound invested into boxing, there is a saving on the criminal budget.

Hartley EnglandBoxing01558"The reason those reports show is that, particularly with young males, there is a major problem in terms of gangs and lack of father figures in many of the economically challenged areas. Boxing provides an incredibly effective, very cheap mechanism that can pull people away from gangs. Boxing also provides a quasi environment if you are perhaps missing a father, because it gives you discipline. In addition, it gives you confidence and fitness.”

Hobbs continued. “Boxing is an individual sport. Team sports allow you to trust in other people, and work hard at certain times, yet other times, allow you to ease off a little bit. In boxing, you are always under the spotlight as an individual. When training, you are under the watchful eye of a qualified coach and if you are not totally committed to it, you can’t get away with it in the same way you can on a rugby or football pitch.

"The intensity of the training and need to come in prepared, sober and clean [from drugs], will hurt you. People become addicted to the clean life and the training as much as their old addictions they had before they had boxing in their lives.”

Mentoring plays a massive part in the future of the young people and with boxing being utilised as the focus tool, there is a strict policy that all staff teaching boxing must have competed at some level. In the words of Anna Cain, “No offence to boxersize instructors, but if you’ve only taught boxercise, it won’t cut it here.”

Thankfully, the staff are made up of a great pedigree, with the Head of Boxing Jermaine Williams, a former double amateur champion who still competes, leading the boxing staff.

Hartley EnglandBoxing01561Williams explained to Boxing Monthly the progress he’s witnessed during his time at the Academy. “The amount of discipline I’ve seen the students build up is truly immense. From the day they walk through the doors of the Boxing Academy, through to the time they leave, you don’t even recognise them. They come to us, having a feeling of injustice, angry at society.

"When they walk through the door, we start fresh. We build that relationship with the young people and take at least six months to get to know them and get that mutual trust, so we can start to undo all the negativity in their mind. We get them to understand that the whole of society is not against them and that they do have people to talk to here and improve their mindset with positive mentoring and using boxing skills to focus their anger and aggression on the punchbags. We give them a sense of being part of a family here, which is something many don’t have outside of the Academy. Many go home and don’t have any relationship with their parents whatsoever. Here we work closely with them, monitor them and then offer them that support they need throughout life.”

And in terms of what would be deemed a successful student? Williams explained. “A successful student would be someone who has real anger issues and a negative outlook on life, to then being a person who wants to do something with their lives. To go to college and get a job after. Most importantly, success is a student who wants a positive future and has long term goals, as opposed to short term goals such as making some quick cash from a drug deal.”

Boxing Monthly was also able to catch up with one of its success stories, current student, 15 year old Lamar Hewitt, who has been attending the Academy for two years. “The Boxing Academy has changed me altogether," he told me. "The boxing specifically has taught me self-defence, but most importantly, how to control my anger. I’ve also grown in confidence and don’t feel that I need to fight outside of a ring now. The teachers in the BA have taught me everything I’ve known in a ring. My message to kids [is]: ‘Stay in school and behave, because not many people get second chances. I had to learn the hard way."

With an abundance of attendees in the boxing gym, one individual stood out - literally. The 6 foot 5 inch frame of super heavyweight Olympian Lawrence Okolie was engaged in padwork from the moment he walked in. Eager to interact with the young students, Okolie patiently took the time to help sharpen the students skills, whilst sharing some sage words of advice along the way.

Okolie explained why it was important for him to attend the day. “I’m from the borough of Hackney and my brother [Henry] also works here. I see a lot of myself in these kids, so there was no option – I had to some down.”

And in terms of what boxing can offer the students? “It helps in a number of ways," Okolie explained. "The likes of those who have been bullied or have behavioural difficulties, boxing helps because of the discipline involved and respect.

"When you’re training hard and you are surrounded by people who train hard, it creates respect for them, which then brings confidence. This confidence then translates into life. Ethics such as hard work. For example - when you’re asked to do 10 push ups and you don’t want to do them, but you do them. When it comes to outside life and you have to do a report or have to do something you are not inclined to do, you have the mindset to overcome it. Boxing provides that.”

Could the Boxing Academy potentially produce one of Britain's next Olympians? Okolie responded to Boxing Monthly with confidence, “If anyone’s feeling the spark of boxing, anything’s possible.”