Fagan: one year in

23 April 2011 – Oisin Fagan

Pending the selection-process and just before the IABA/Dublin City Council (DCC) partnership announced their successful candidates for the Community Boxing Development Officer positions, I wondered how the format would all take shape once it was set-up. Since, I’d already a background as a schoolteacher in severely disadvantaged areas of OKC, in the USA; I sat down with my old sets of physical education blueprints and began to merge those plans with the more contemporary boxing-coaching hypotheses, to see if I could attempt to enhance our great sport at a grassroots level, here in Dublin. Furthermore, since we were primarily hired as community development officers (first and foremost), planning was a focal point that couldn’t be overlooked. Simply put, we were hired to create a buzz and to galvanise our various communities, through the great sport of boxing.

When the team was eventually confirmed, I was delighted that the individuals in our group consisted of people with a lot of experience in boxing; from winning international honours, to academics with special interests in community-based and social issues. Now, was time to collectively brain-storm and formulate boxing in a way that it hadn’t been attempted before- all on agrandiose scale. After all, the FAI and the GAA had development officers for years. So, considering boxing is Ireland’s most successful Olympic sport, then why wouldn’t we be represented similarly throughout the country?

First-things-first though- the DCC chose the inner-city of Dublin to be the first-tested and since we were hired as a ‘pilot-scheme’, it was up to us to show all other jurisdictions that the ‘tool’ of boxing could prove successful, so eventually, these programmes would go nationwide. We decided that by working outside the ‘traditional’ boxing fraternity; whilst, continuing to portray our sport in a positive light, that this could only help enhance our cause. From a boxing-standpoint, we wanted to help promote a better image of our sport and establish ourselves in places that we have not traditionally penetrated. It is no secret that boxing is somewhat vilified throughout the wider population, so being totally aware of this, it was imperative for us to show an honest and more realistic image of the sport; which, in turn, would make it a lot more accessible and inclusive to a much wider demographic. Therefore, our jobs are not just about sending these ‘at-risk’ youth to boxing clubs, per-se; rather, to focus more, on opening their minds, widening their options, and pushing them towards good decisions, which promote better behavioural patterns and healthier lifestyles.

Initially, our team started to link-in with the summer projects and youth groups and we formulated Bronze, Silver and Gold StartBox programmes to facilitate them, which proved and continues proving very successful. In the Bronze section, we train groups in underprivileged Dublin City areas, whose participants have a very limited knowledge of boxing. Our remit includes children of mixed gender and race, ranging from the ages of 10-21. On the Bronze programme, the participants are raw and inexperienced, but our goals are simple- to get them interested in boxing at a rudimentary level. One of the main goals of the StartBox classes is to introduce as much ‘fun-filled’ exercise as possible, so that the participants enjoy the learning-process. Therefore, we use a lot of boxing-games, where the students can acquire the essence of what sport is all about. As well as making the sessions fun and exciting, we teach the very basics of boxing, including how to hold your hands, posture, stance, defence, basic movement and straight-punching.

In the Silver programmes, participants who graduate from the Bronze and show an interest, will be introduced to a more comprehensive and rigorous session, where we get them to start wearing headgear, gum-shields and protectors; whilst, participating in some light body-sparring. Finally, the Gold programmes start to mimic what a session might look like at the club-level, with an emphasis on regular sparring and cardiovascular fitness, at the helm. After that, we encourage the youth to visit their local boxing clubs with a view to joining up and becoming amateur boxers. The advantages of this are multifaceted. As, when the new boxer graces the doors of the gym, she already has the self-confidence to approach the coach, knowing that she has the basics down. This also saves coaches a lot of time at the fundamental-level, so they can quickly progress their new members onto more advanced drills and skill-sets.

In fact, on the 28th Jan, we graduated many of our youth club participants through the Gold programme and we staged our first ‘Showcase Final’ for them to spar against various groups from other DCC areas. The venue of course, was none other than the famous National Boxing Stadium, Dublin and this in itself did wonders for their confidence and it provided empirical evidence to the positive aura which our programme creates for the children and youth of these areas. The atmosphere at the Stadium that night was electric and it comprised of friendly-rivalries, where groups from Pearse Street, pitted their protgs up against Sherrif Street, then we had youth clubs from Fatima compete against Teresa’s Garden’s and some groups from Ballyfermot, Crumlin, Drimnagh, Ringsend, Coolock, Kilbarrack, Ballybough, Ballymun and Finglas all thrown in for good measure. The craic was great and everyone got behind their local boxers, in what proved to be a very successful night for all involved.

Now, just one-year into our jobs, our group has gelled together nicely and we’re extremely dedicated to the cause of amateur boxing in this country. Our team consists of Olympic champion, Michael Carruth; former Irish amateur youth champion, Paul Quinn; European medallist, Eric Donovan; top coach of many champions, Tommy Ahern and myself, a professional champion in Ireland and the USA .

Over the past 12-months; between us, we have worked with literally, thousands of individuals and scores of groups; including, youth clubs, summer projects, schools, sports clubs, festivals and the CDVEC’s, just to mention a few. In relation to the VEC’s; while they already have annual tournaments between themselves, we have been helping with training and facilitating in the corners of the participants for their semi-final tournaments. We continued this throughout the last few weeks and only recently helped out in the same capacity, with their successful VEC Fight Night Tournament, on the 28th March.

During the summer, we linked in with the organisers of Croke Park and particularly with the ‘Fighting Irish Museum’, which, was on show for a few months at the top-class venue. We divised a package, which was received well by both groups. It proposed that we’d take our youth groups, youth clubs and summer projects that we’d already worked with, on a trip to the ‘Fighting Irish Museum’. After they finished in the museum, we then took the groups to conduct a StartBox programme in the Croke Park dressing rooms. This proved very successful, as the children were fascinated to be allowed train in the same rooms that their GAA heroes used, week-in week-out and it seemed like a great incentive for them to learn even more about boxing through the medium of the museum.

Also, during the summer months, we frequented Summer Festivals in various Dublin City areas. Sometimes, we erected boxing rings and took children on the pads to do basic boxing drills inside the ring. At most of the festivals, it was not even necessary to erect a ring; as, we still had long queues of children and youth, seemingly desperate, to be taken on the pads for an introduction to boxing. Much of the time, it seemed that our pad-work was the most frequented stall of all, at these festivals. This was evident, as it seemed like it was where most of the youth hung out. With the interest that was created by this simple activity, we were able to point some of the more interested children in the direction of either a programme that we would be conducting in their areas, or give them details to boxing clubs close-by.

We are particularly excited about the fantastic collaboration we have made with the YouthReach programmes. Basically described, YouthReach, was set up to establish a second-chance at education for youth in Ireland and particularly geared towards the unemployed, early-school-leavers, aged 15-20. We were delighted to form a link with YouthReach, as it’s in our estimation that YouthReach comprises of, and targets similar groups to ourselves and the same individuals that we feel might benefit mostly from boxing programmes. Many of these students are considered ‘at-risk’ and since they are availing of a second-chance to education, this would imply that many onboard, may have had somewhat of a complicated past; which, also goes hand-in-hand with boxing culture. These students seem to have an abundance of energy, together with determination and desire, which of course are considered imperative traits for boxers. In fact, we just completed our first ‘YouthReach Showcase Final’, on the 30th March at our National Stadium, Dublin and it comprised over 20 sparring sessions for the members of YouthReach who already graduated through our Gold, Silver and Bronze programmes. It was a very exciting night, as all the participants were hyped-up and extremely eager to show their peers and teachers how hard they had worked in the run-up to the competition. The National Stadium was packed with supporters and many of the bouts were top-quality and very exciting sparring sessions.

We have met with the Show Racism the Red Card group, in hopes to collaborate and include foreign nationals in all of our programmes; however, since they are mainly an educational group and they themselves, approach schools and clubs like our boxing officers, it is obviously quite difficult to merge an educational programme, with a very physical programme, without interrupting the flow of either. However, if anyone has ethnic groups they work with, who would be willing to work with us, I would love if they contacted me to secure a viable link in such a worthwhile venture. ‘Inclusion’ is the key to harmonisation and a fundamental understanding between various ethnicities and it’s only by working in tandem; that open-minded and intelligent folk, realise that people are people, no matter what ethnicity they belong to. Of course various cultures differ, but that’s what makes life interesting- learning new traits and adapting to other group’s customs in certain varieties, only enhance the understanding between people of different cultures and is the way forward in this ever-changing, dynamic Ireland we now live in.

We have also been welcomed with open-arms by primary and secondary schools. It’s great to have the support of the community, but to be welcomed into the wider educational establishments, is a great achievement. It is also one of our goals to one-day, become part of the physical education curriculum through the Department of Education and although there is still a lot of work to be done in this regard, we are hopeful that we will be successful in achieving such.

All-in-all, our programmes, thus far, have been a fantastic success and we have had the backing and support of schoolteachers, principals, liaison officers, the Garda, politicians and social workers, to name just a few groups. This trend is certain to continue and hopefully within the next 12-months, we will be able to open the flood-gates to a nationwide scheme, helping to promote boxing all throughout the country. Our great sport is a ‘hot-topic’ right now and with the Olympics just around the corner, the Irish are now considered one of the ‘top-dogs’ in world boxing, which is an incredible achievement for such a tiny country.

Surely, if our development scheme can be expanded nationwide, this would only increase our chances of winning more Olympic medals, creating positive vibes and establishing strong characters as upstanding members of this proud country. Most importantly though, champions aside, it will help our children and youth get up off the couch, off the streets and away from video-games; whilst, promoting healthier lifestyles within a sport with so many positives on offer.

Furthermore, boxing as a whole, represents so much more than just a sport. When you think about it, most will form a reflection of mankind’s attributes pertaining to it; including, resilience, honour and courage, not to mention the dedication to be successful and ultimately to be a survivor in this big, bad world. So, in my opinion, we’ve really got the ‘total package’ here to work with- it’s surely a sport that mirrors life in general and I feel we must try to nurture the interests of our children and youth, by directing them towards this gift of a programme; which, in turn, will grant upon them, fantastic learning-experiences, which teaches core methods to optimise health and fitness opportunities. Perhaps, most importantly though, it will bestow upon them, a very positive direction down the road of life itself.

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