Boxing clever to support young offenders

12th February 2016 at 00:00

Sylvester Stallone is once again receiving critical acclaim for his role as former world heavyweight champion-turned-trainer and mentor Rocky Balboa in Creed.

But can boxing truly function as a mechanism to help young men move away from crime and cope with social and emotional challenges? And can the boxing-gym culture lend itself towards positive forms of mentoring, development and learning for disadvantaged young men? As a criminologist, these questions have been on my mind for some time.

In my most recent research, I explored the impact of a youth rehabilitation programme that took place in the outskirts of Copenhagen. The programme, called Comeback, drew upon an integrated approach to boxing training and personal development for young male gang members aged 14 and upwards. I found that locating the programme within a boxing gym made it feel socially acceptable for the young men.

The physical training created an important outlet for the young people to channel aggression in a disciplined and controlled environment, supporting them in managing anger and stress.

Ultimately, the camaraderie and group attachment became more important to them than the sport of boxing itself. Most importantly, boxing metaphors provided a framework and vocabulary for coaches to encourage the young men to discuss and think through their situations and dilemmas.

They likened the challenges the young men faced to those of the boxer struggling and fighting in the ring, opening up an interesting and street-credible context for learning. The discussions offered crucial opportunities for the young men to discuss emotions and feelings, providing them with a safe context to explore broader versions of masculinity. As a result, the programme helped the young men to establish new coping and problem-solving mechanisms, opening up alternatives to gang culture and crime.

A small group of us are now in the process of establishing Comeback Scotland as a spin-out social enterprise linked to the University of the West of Scotland. Initially based in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, it will also use boxing training to engage young male offenders, drawing upon boxing metaphors as a means to help them make better decisions that could lead to more constructive and positive lifestyles. Early intervention and rehabilitation programmes need to focus on challenging entrenched views that associate masculinity with toughness, aggression and violence.

Importantly, the discussions that take place within these programmes need to be set within a street-credible context that might encourage young men to keep engaging with and talking about their problems, emotions and challenges.

My research has shown me that, more than any other sport, boxing can provide that context.

Professor Ross Deuchar is assistant dean at the University of the West of Scotland’s School of Education. For more details on the project, email ross.deuchar@uws.ac.uk

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