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Gyms will be able to reopen, but it’s still a long way back for boxing clubs

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Coaches in the UK have faced the same problem, how can you train without contact and without a club, writes John Dennen

BOXING faces profound challenges. Amateur clubs have been shut down for months during the coronavirus pandemic and, even when they can reopen their doors, they will have to operate under restrictions, a particular problem as the essential elements of training in a boxing club are hardly compatible with social distancing. This is a contact sport after all.

There is an understandable concern too about how willing the public will be to return to indoor gyms even when it is permitted. “How many parents are going to send their kids to the club? They’re going to be worried just the same as sending them to school,” Graeme Rutherford, the coach of the highly successful Birtley club, reflected.

New protocols for when indoor gyms are allowed to open from July 25 involve keeping a log of when everyone is in the gym, limiting numbers, maintaining distance during exercise and so forth (see the guidance on England Boxing’s website). Such measures are still difficult for amateur clubs to implement. “It’s not like football where you come into contact with each other once every so many minutes. Boxing’s in your face. It’s contact. You’re not going to be able to do padwork, you’re not going to be able to spar. So if you can’t spar, how are you going to be able to box?” Rutherford said.

Reassurance would come, for example, from a testing regime being in place but it’s unknown how feasible that could be. That’s just one of many intertwined complications. If regional lockdowns were in force, with different infection rates in different parts of the country, that could hobble attempts to start running championships. Home shows, as vital as they are for clubs, are a long way from returning.

Training outdoors remains preferable. “[But] the weather dictates whether you can train outside or not. We haven’t got the best of weather in this country. You’ve got to have like a massive amount of space, which to be fair [at Birtley] we have outside the gym. But how do you turn round to Joe Bloggs and say it’s alright for you to come in but you can’t? But again, they can shadowbox in the house, they can run. You cannot really do any boxing. What do you do, hang a bag in a field or up tree?” Rutherford (pictured below on left) said. “To me, and this is what we do and that’s why I don’t use any bags, anything like that, boxing is about working in contact with each other. It’s a mirror image of another person. It’s defend, counter-attack. It’s about getting used to blocking punches, getting hit.”

However the environment of a proper boxing club, the community of it, has been greatly missed. “The craic, the laughs, the tears, the arguments, the fights, the sweat, the blood, the smell of the gym, the atmosphere of the gym,” Graeme said. “The passion and the wanting to win and the desire for it. How do you replicate that on a field with five kids?”

To get back “it’s going to be a long slog”.

The GB Boxing facility in Sheffield is able to lead the way with its return due to the government’s plan to bring back Elite sport. A month ago GB could bring 13 boxers back to their gym at the English Institute of Sport and that has been expanded to 24. Like professional boxers, Great Britain athletes have been permitted to do contact training so their squad has begun to do padwork and sparring. They have the resources to wear masks and PPE during padwork and bring in enhanced measures like daily screening, taking the temperature of boxers before training, and maintaining hygiene precautions throughout their training areas and their accommodation. Training, says performance director Rob McCracken, is getting “back to something approaching normal”.

“The boxers have had to adapt to the monitoring and are expected to observe the hygiene and social distancing protocols we have in place, but they have managed well and we have not had any issues. They recognise that a lot of people are going to a lot of effort for their benefit, so they are playing their part in making sure training camps run smoothly,” he said. “The boxers have been excellent. The coaches did a great job of keeping them ticking over while they were in lockdown but they were still keen to get back into the gym. They like to train as a group and the routine of three sessions a day gives them structure.”

It’s hard for coaches around the country to guide their boxers remotely. An expanding group of trainers has been meeting online during lockdown for regular ‘Coaches Gatherings’ on Zoom to share ideas. It’s an independent collective that Adam Haniver is helping to co-ordinate. They’ve brought in guest speakers, including Olympic medallists Anthony Ogogo and Joshua Buatsi, pro trainer Joe Gallagher, Chuck Wepner and some of the GB coaches, as well as more unusual experts; such as someone to discuss involving parents in sport and even a lecturer on what coaching can learn from computer games when it comes to engaging children. For these gatherings, they survey their participants to find out what they want to discuss and then look for speakers with the relevant expertise.

“We’re trying to give people different ways to learn,” Haniver said. “So many coaches have fed back to us that they’re really excited to get back in the gym and try some of these things out and really apply some of these new learning principles and ideas. We’re just getting people from different areas, from education, from competition, high performance coaching, from academia and we’re just trying to throw that into the mix and say, ‘What do you think?’”

“The more people involved, the more people who share the better. We get the guests from the coaches who come on the gatherings,” he adds. “I’ve learned so much from just listening to people.”

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