From the off I want to be clear: I am a boxing fan. I love the sport and have so much admiration and respect for the fighters, coaches and communities that boxing supports.
I got into boxing from a young age, as my grandfather would speak of the boxing greats to me as a child. His favourite fighter was the ‘Brown Bomber’, Joe Louis. My first big memory of boxing was when, aged 7, there was the huge upset when ‘Buster’ Douglas knocked out ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson. I still have the newspaper clippings. I remember watching the fight on VHS some time later with my granddad, as he would parody ‘Iron’ Mike fumbling on the canvas for his gum shield. This was incredibly brutal but astonishing to me. Such influences inevitably led to me going to a boxing gym as a teenager, escorted by my brother in law.
I still remember the nerves and the buzz as I walked into the boxing gym for a first time, the smell of the gym, the sound of bags being hit and glances towards me as I was a new face. Gloving up to spar for the first time still lives with me. Let’s put it this way: I enjoyed the physical fitness, but when it came to sparring I must confess I was initially like a rabbit in the headlights. Technique and focus went out the window at first. But with time I found my footing and though I wouldn’t say I loved sparring, or ever got totally relaxed being in a ring, I did find that boxing was helping me in other ways. These experiences mean that I have full respect for anyone who steps in the ring, amateur or professional.
Reflecting on this, here are the ways boxing helped me as a young person, and now in my career as a social worker:
1. I was angry
As a late teenager and young man, I was angry. I couldn’t say what I was angry about if you’d asked me, but I had these strong emotions in me. Boxing and training 2-3 times a week helped me cope with these strong emotions. After a hard and intense session, I would feel the calmest I would ever feel. The discipline, focus, and for me the very fact of hitting a punch bag and not something else, helped me immensely.
2. Boxing helps me to engage young people
In my professional career as a Social Worker, having an interest in the sport of boxing has been vital. Boxing has helped me engage many young people, mainly boys, in building a trusting and meaningful relationship with them. Conversations about Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather or boxing in general has been influential in laying the foundations to young people talking to me about their own issues and concerns. These range from education and family life, to much more serious life and death issues, like knives and local rivalries. Using boxing to build the relationship has developed the trust to have conversations about what really matters to young people.
3. I manage stress through boxing
Though I no longer go to a boxing gym, I still keep up a strict fitness regime which includes hitting the pads with either my wife or brother. This boxing fitness training has continued to help me with my own issues of stress when working in a complex, and at times challenging, job.
4. Boxing has given me mental skills
Having spent time boxing has given me poise, confidence, clear headedness under pressure, and an ability to think on my feet. These skills have been essential in my career as a social worker, where, like all work with people, there are often surprises or unexpected challenges. Like in the ring, these require a quick but thoughtful response.
I believe In Your Corner here in London extends the fine tradition of boxing being able to support the marginalised and those in need of direction. Combining the physical training that boxing requires with emotional and mental health support is an amazing combination, and really does help change lives. You only have to look at how professional fighters such as Tyson Fury or Ricky Hatton have had to deal with issues of depression during their career to know how vital such support is. People can’t function in the ring or indeed in society, without attending to mental health and relationships with other people. In Your Corner is helping young people learn how to thrive.
Long may organisations like In Your Corner exist and continue to support young people and future generations become the people they want to be. With sound mental health, having overcome adversity to achieve their own goals, who knows? Young people attending In Your Corner may just become the next Anthony Joshua, Floyd Mayweather. Or I hope, outside of the ring, inspirational leaders who use their influence to help others, like London Mayor Sadiq Khan or Marcus Rashford.
John McDonnell is a Social Worker in London. The views expressed in this blog are his own and are not affiliated with his employer.