Secret coach's diary part 1: Beginner's luck
In the first of a candid and revealing new series, an anonymous ABA coach describes his experiences, offering an invaluable insight into the highs and lows of life in and around English boxing's amateur grassroots ...
I am stood in front of six children, ranging from around eight-years-old to fourteen. We are gathered in front of a full-size boxing ring. The oldest child, by far, is a teenage girl, who alternates between looking indifferently into the middle distance and giggling at her much younger sister, who is stood next to her.
Further along the line are a young boy, who grins expectantly, and another boy who looks terrified. When his dad dropped the latter off earlier, he warned me: "He looks like butter wouldn’t melt, but he stabbed another lad in the head with a screwdriver a few weeks back."
Welcome to the world of amateur coaching.
I passed my ABA course around six months ago, over two weekends in a school an hour’s drive away. English amateur boxing is currently in something of a state of flux in terms of how it coaches its coaches. Apparently, the old method was more an assessment of a would-be coach's personal fitness and boxing ability, rather than how they could pass those skills on.
Now, the ABA training consists of a sports science influenced course which also looks at the safety of weight making, bout analysis and how to approach match-making, as well as safeguarding and first aid requirements. In terms of the skills you are expected to impart it is simple straight shots (lead hand, back hand, to head and body) from an orthodox stance, as well as basic defence and footwork.
It seems relatively straightforward stuff to pass on until you find yourself stood in front of a group trying to deliver it.
Younger kids listen but get easily distracted and many struggle with basic coordination, although weirdly I bet I see one youngster a week who walks in and moves beautifully straight away. Teenagers tend to listen but quickly ignore you if they think you're bullshitting them.
The group I have in front of me are all completely new recruits and, when I try to teach them to move forward and backwards correctly with their hands up, all but one drop their hands.
I stop and remind them, and get them to do it again. After a few repetitions they all manage it, so we move on to something else - lateral movement. Hands drop again. It’s a long process.
One of the boys puts his hands up and tells me I am doing it wrong, his dad has been training him. “You block like this,” he says, completely covering up his face and eyes with his fists.
“How could you see your opponent?” I ask.
“My dad knows more than you,” he retorts, keeping up his Winky Wright impression.
Eventually we move onto the jab. I try delivering the spiel about why you need that shot. All the kids seem to take it on board, yet when I ask them to copy me and throw one they begin throwing wild haymakers with both fists.
I try to allow them some freedom and get them to shadow box for a minute, and the teenagers look around self-consciously and gingerly throw jabs, whilst the younger boys are all windmill arms and Rocky head movements.
It really can be a long road.
That being said, it’s rewarding. It may be a cliché but it’s true. Seeing a kid who could barely stand up straight without falling over when he or she arrived going on to display nice footwork, or a decent yet limited kid unleash an unprompted combination shows you’re doing good work.
Above all, the evolution of behaviour of some of the kids into laid back and considerate individuals having arrived with an attitude and a desire to fight all that moves is a pleasure to see.
After the kids file out, the senior amateurs and professionals replace them. This is another challenge, because at least half have had significantly more experience than me. Not hard, as my highest level boxing was being used as a walking punching bag by a decent domestic middleweight who used to bust my nose almost every week.
Again, I am given the newbies to coach. There's only one, on this occasion, a mature student who lives in the area.
“I love Rocky Marciano,” he declares and then tells me he lost three stone so he could become a boxer.
“I wanna be a pro!” he announces.
As with the kids, I talk him through the basics.
He looks at me sceptically.
“What about this defence?” he asks, and gets in a Mayweather style shoulder roll position.
I point out that for a beginner this is a tad risky as he would be very easy to hit, with his face completely exposed, and I throw a few slow motion punches, stopping just before his face, which he flinches away from.
“I’d just do this,” he says when I stop, and waves his lead hand around in the air.
When I get him to shadow box, he insists on switching stances, sometimes mid-punch. Again I tell him not to run before he can walk, but he has clearly decided he knows best.
As the session comes to an end, he approaches me, and tells me he wants to spar the next time he’s in the gym.
“I want to spar hard,” he says, giving me a huge smile.