Club Focus

1 April 2009 – By Steve Wellings

I view boxing coaches as social workers in tracksuits! Paul Johnston told me in his neat, narrow office as I quizzed him on this, and arguably every other clubs social impact. The Monkstown head coach was set to take his promising youngsters across town to spar at Harry Hawkins Holy Trinity in a forward thinking joint initiative. We have a sister club in the Holy Trinity, Turf Lodge as myself and Michael Hawkins would have a good working relationship.

Cross-city sparring isnt the only thing on the agenda for this Newtownabbey club, with Johnston organising a trip to America. Short term Monkstown are off to America to box against a Washington DC select and itll be the second time weve visited the capital. It allows our lads to visit the States and learn from the new experiences if offers them.

Johnston shares the coaching duties in a four man team with Robin Workman, Peter McKnight and John Neill in a revamped club sporting a striking Olympic boxing mural on the roadside. Hes been involved for near 20 years, first as a boxer and then in a coaching capacity for the last 16. Paul elaborates, I had a very brief, not very good boxing career, but found my forte in coaching as opposed to competing.

I fought at lightweight and boxed in the Ulster juniors but unfortunately I came up against quite a tough guy from the Dockers called Stephen McCluskey who went on to bigger and better things. The eyesight caught up with me and I couldnt see the punches coming.

The club was established in 1983 which meant a 25th anniversary last year and due celebrations. It was first established in the community centre at the heart of the estate and stayed there until 1996 when basically we outgrew our facility, before getting some lottery and peace funding. In 2001 we built an extension on, which doubled our size and put in the community fitness suite which helps subsidise the boxing side of the business. It also makes sure that funds are topped up for competition expenses.

I suppose the pinnacle of every club coach would be to have a senior champion; Ulster and Irish champions first and foremost. Weve been quite fortunate to have had the likes of Neil Sinclair who had great success as a professional and as an amateur. Weve had a few other champions here, like Billy Cowan who won five Ulster seniors and Michael OKane at featherweight won a senior title.

Cowans picture adorns the four walls alongside Sinclair and a multitude of other newspaper cuttings and fight posters, leaving space available for two impressively sized mirrors behind the side by side sparring rings. Inside the ring, two exciting female pugilists battle it out in an interesting clash of styles. Danielle McDowell, a smooth boxer with a classy left jab, and Carla Wright, a compact body puncher are as fiercely competitive as any male counterpart. Coach John Neill is busy orchestrating a new movement exercise when I take him to one side, These routines are all about feet exercise, having to think and keeping their distance, moving in and out etc. It can be fun as well, so breaking up the long drawn out training regime is the aim here. This gets the blood flowing and the heart rate going as well.

We do have a very good turnout, from kids of 12 up to senior level and lots of them hold titles, even the girls.

I gauge Neills opinions on the amateur system in general, Theres good and bad points about the system. My opinion is that the computer is only as good as the person pressing the button so if somebody cant see a shot going through, even if everyone else can, then the buttons not getting pressed. We can all sometimes be on the end of wrong scoring and I would rather see it back to the way it used to be with judges seeing whos winning the contest as opposed to using a computer.

Ive been involved for about five years as my son boxes here so I came along after boxing myself years ago. Its totally different now from when I used to do it with points scoring and all that.

Paul Johnston, meanwhile, is a man who would also be familiar with the current system, but from a differing angle having been involved with the Northern Ireland boxing team. We competed in the Commonwealth youth games in Pune, India and it was very successful, not just for the boxers but for the Northern Ireland team as a whole. The experience was about looking towards the Commonwealths in Delhi in 2010 and also further down the road to London 2012. It gave everyone an opportunity to witness different backgrounds and allow them to benchmark themselves against other athletes from various countries that they could come up against in Delhi 2010.

But what did he think of the fantastic Irish success at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing?

I think Beijing set a high watermark and it will be very difficult to repeat that level of performance, but we proved that Irish boxers can compete on a par with the best in the world. It sets clear role models for boxers coming through the junior ranks at the moment and shows them that Irish participants can succeed; its not just the Cubans, Russians, Kazakhstanis and others who can produce Olympic medals.

Beijing provides motivation for everyone in the Irish system and offers an Olympic dream to grasp at.

Grasping the dream is what young hopefuls Michael Bustard and Steven Ward are looking to accomplish at the moment, as I photographed them briefly before they departed for the Holy Trinity sparring sessions.

Steven and Michael are good lads with good attitudes and both are prepared to work. Theres some who win Irish titles and that makes them more determined to train harder, confirmed Robin Workman.

The kids love it and when they come in the head coach lays down the law so they can all follow and any bad behaviour, they get shown the door. Very seldom do we get bad ones; mostly all of them follow the rules, so we direct them as best we can. The ones who keep coming back want to learn more and go places in the sport.

Ive been involved about six years, since my young fellow Adam started boxing. I boxed very little myself but Adam wanted to come; he enjoyed it and weve been doing it ever since.

Robin moves off to take an eager youth on the pads so I capture the fourth member of the Monkstown coaching team, Peter McKnight, for an explanation on the formal side of things. Regular training nights see the gym open 6-9pm and the youngsters go from about 6.30-7.30. The older fellows train onwards from that so in season it could be five nights a week depending on what tournament or standard were training for.

Peter got drawn in five years ago after following the sport on TV for many years and Paul saw fit to ask him to help train the younger lads.

The sense of discipline and organisation (both coach and fighter know their roles) in Monkstown is an impressive blend and seems to pay dividends, as the youngsters saunter out the doors at closing time too fatigued for mischief. John Neill holds an obvious respect in the two rings as he organises a light hearted warm-up exercise for the older protagonists.

I think this club will get stronger and stronger, with a fitness suite, two rings and good facilities its at the highest standard in Northern Ireland, even Ireland. All I can see is it getting better here, especially under the control of Paul whos very good, he said.

Johnston shares the same aspirations, as he sums up the future plans of cultural, as well as boxing, development.

Were looking at a good junior and youth programme with a very healthy group of boxers at the minute. No matter where the club is situated it plays a pivotal role and I view coaches as social workers in tracksuits. Its not just about teaching a youngster how to box but its also about knowing how to teach them and what approach they will respond to. The coaches have a vital function, not just in a sporting context but in development too. Many of the kids who come here will be exposed to a variety of new experiences and theyll learn to mix with different cultures, which are obvious positives.

With Monsktown moving in a clear direction, the four coaches appear destined to wear their tracksuits for a good while yet.

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