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The way back for amateur boxing

amateur boxing
John Dennen on the search for some solutions to the problems afflicting the amateur game

THIS week we’ve been looking further at the problems afflicting amateur boxing clubs and the sport overall. We’ve been speaking to coaches across the country to get a deeper sense of the issues they’re having to confront. Different clubs will have different priorities, and for many their particular set of challenges will be unique to their particular circumstances. But it’s striking too to see how many share similar problems.

One of the primary impacts is of course financial, with the suspension of events and competitions and with numbers inside the gym limited due to social distancing. Islington boxing club is just one example. The two dinner shows they normally hold each year for instance bring in thousands of pounds. Neither can happen in 2020 and there is no way really of plugging the shortfall. Their overheads will remain just the same. “So that’s a major problem. We were closed obviously for lockdown, about three months, no money coming in at all but money going out. We’re just praying that there isn’t another lockdown. That would really make things tight just when we’re getting back on our feet and breaking even with numbers coming into the gym,” Islington’s Lenny Hagland told Boxing News. “It’s worrying, clubs are worried.”

Islington has a large gym, so even though they are having to operate at a reduced capacity they’re not finding their numbers as limited as some other clubs. That in turn leads to a direct financial hit too. For instance Eastbourne’s Adam Haniver points out, “With the risk assessment criteria, we can only fit eight people in our club at a time. At £3 or £4 a time that’s £32 per session tops. Then of course you have last minute drop outs. I know some clubs have monthly payments which may be a solution.”

A club like Odyssey in Surrey hasn’t even been able to open their gym because they share the space with a youth club. They’ve been doing sterling work keeping their boxers fit and engaged but are just having to wait for the council there to allow them to open. Other clubs have found meeting the requirements to make their sessions ‘Covid-secure’ has meant reducing numbers to a simply untenable level. The next significant challenge for so many is maintaining engagement. Clubs can open, but activity is curtailed. Coronavirus restrictions mean amateur boxers still cannot do padwork or spar, let alone box competitively. This is a hefty blow to motivation, “like training for football and not having a ball”. “That’s our worry, that you get boxers walking away from the sport because of no competition and at the moment no likelihood of it,” Hagland continued. “But fair play to our lot, they are turning up, they are doing it, they are training hard. The motivation is dwindling but we’re trying to change training routines as much as possible all the time just to keep the motivation going.

“They go hand in hand, the two problems that most clubs are facing. I think if we were allowed to do padwork that would be one step forward. If we could do that sooner rather than later.”

“Keeping them wanting to compete, keeping them wanting to be in boxing,” is a challenge explains Salisbury’s Paul Edwards. “We can’t spar and we can’t put them in any danger so it is tough.”

“To not put the boxers at risk as much as we can and to keep them entertained. Keeping them interested,” he adds. “We haven’t lost any fighters but I’ve heard a lot of other clubs they’ve lost fighters.”

Paul Murray said, “One of the biggest problems we are finding at Camborne and Redruth ABC in Cornwall is keeping the boxers motivated when they are training because at the moment there isn’t an end result that they can work towards. And we can’t give them a date that they can work to where we can start to introduce some padwork and eventually sparring. If we can give the boxers some sort of guide that by this date we can start to introduce some padwork but we have to be Covid safe, at least that will give them and us the mindset to keep going.

The Holmes Chapel club is finding the same: “Biggest problem is maintaining interest. With no shows, sparring or pads it is tough keeping boxers engaged. Other sports are training properly and competing. They often ask why they can tackle in rugby and football but have to do a glorified keep fit class at boxing. This is also starting to have an impact on volunteers and coaches.

“Success from this pandemic isn’t measured by the governing body surviving, it is more than that. We need to care more about clubs, limit the amount of clubs that have to close and therefore the amount of young lives that don’t get changed for the better as result.”
Coaches are adapting to extraordinary circumstances. Adam Haniver says, “Then there’s [the problem of] the content of what you deliver. With pads and sparring gone for the foreseeable future, we need to find innovative ways to develop the boxers, but mainly, to engage them. So we are approaching this from a ‘what can we do’ as opposed to ‘what can’t we do?’

“As often as possible we want the boxers opposite each other, learning to read the cues, tuning in to the information. The best boxers are the best at reading their opponents, as they say. So, with that in mind we can do things like shadow sparring. Socially distanced sparring with no contact so the boxers are looking to notice habits, cues, tells in their opponents. It’s been an important time to revisit what learning is and how it pertains to boxing. Critically analyse our own practice designs and get better for the boxers in front of us.”

Trainers are using their ingenuity in the sessions they’re taking. But it is not easy to maintain this patience indefinitely. Knowing the route back would at least help to set something of a target, or provide a glimmer of hope. “We haven’t got a clue when we’re going to compete again or nothing like that,” Paul Edwards said. “They should let us know, give us a bit of something to look forward to.”

“If you had a goal to go to, at the moment we don’t know,” Lenny Hagland agreed. “If we could get some padwork in, that would be good, if we could move to sparring at a later date, that would be even better.”

“The biggest problem for us, and the boxers is the ‘not knowing,’” says coach Phil Wilson. “Having just taken over at Kingsheath following on from the departure of a great coach in Arthur Daly the boxers have gone through the crossover and still have no idea where they are going, due to being unable to box at present or even know a date to start preparing towards.

“We have to remain open and honest with the team, and we are unable to provide any answers at the minute, which is really hard… We will all get there I’m sure, but we could all also do with a wee glimmer of hope!”

“I think doing pads would be a big step even if we had to wear a mask. We take all precautions, take temperatures and boxers are mainly regulars so I don’t see why this couldn’t be done and be a boost for the boxers. Sparring would be a huge boost,” said Christchurch’s Jon Woods. “I do think we will start to lose boxers especially the older ones who want to spar and do pads before too long. To where is anybody’s guess so surely better under clubs’ and coaches’ control.”

Adding to the frustration is seeing amateur sports like football being permitted a return to play. At least football for instance benefits from being an outdoor sport, so much easier to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission, and in the government’s terminology contact in football is deemed to be ‘fleeting,’ in contrast with boxing where holding pads or sparring sees two people remain in close proximity, while ventilation for an indoor sport remains a problem.

A direct challenge however can be seen in unlicensed or ‘white collar’ gyms that are already doing padwork and sparring and how that can lure boxers away from regulated clubs. “I totally understand our clubs are doing things properly and the white collar unlicenced clubs aren’t,” acknowledged England Boxing chief executive Gethin Jenkins. “It’s unregulated, it’s unaccountable and it can be unsafe.

“That argument applies across the board and that’s why it’s important our clubs follow the regulations in the same way they follow the safeguarding regulations. They’re as critical and as important.”

Following the governing body’s regulations means gyms will meet the official requirements to be ‘Covid secure.’ That’s necessary to avoid any sanctions and is also reassuring for users of the gym, and parents of children using the gym. “It’s back to this tightrope that we walk. Yes, we want to open it up. Yes, we want to get back to normal as soon as possible but if we don’t follow the guidelines there is as big and relevant a risk of there being further restrictions and the sport being shut down completely. Again it’s a matter of balance of all that we have to consider and factor in to make sure that the amateur boxing clubs are proud of our medical and safety record. So it’s all about the balance of risk and adherence to government guidelines,” Jenkins said. “On one hand provided they follow them it means they can continue to operate and are covered, and won’t get fined. But they’re still limited, which obviously I fully understand is extremely frustrating.”

The national federation has to match the government‘s regulations to the sport. But England Boxing is lobbying the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to permit a wider range of boxing activity. They’ve joined forces with other combat sport governing bodies, like taekwondo, wrestling and judo, to make that effort more effective. There is a plan to bring boxing back to normal. The first step of that plan is to grant permission to resume padwork or a form of padwork with mitigating factors, which could be wearing PPE etc. like those we’re seeing the GB programme having to employ. “It’s a staged process, so padwork would be the first step back to a full return of boxing. The terminology DCMS use is a staged return. So first off you start with padwork and that’s why we focus on padwork because you start off with that, then your next step might be controlled sparring, in a period of time, then sparring, then competitive boxing, not least because some of the boxers have been out for so long you can’t just return straight back into it,” Jenkins said. “Focus on padwork is probably part one of a four step staged return. But you can’t get to two and three until you’ve done one.”

That is the glimmer of hope. There is a roadmap. The problem is we don’t know how quickly we can progress down that road. It depends on a decision from multiple government departments. “We have submitted proposals to DCMS that go into the triple lock system, which is Public Health England, Cabinet Office, Number Ten Office, which provides for a way in which we could do padwork and a stepped return for boxing,” Jenkins said. “A lot of it is dependent on permission from DCMS for us to go forward or to ease the restrictions and equally it’s important we maintain or obey the government regulations because if we don’t we run the risk of restrictions tightening.”

He’s aware the return to training is “a physical issue, it’s a mental health issue and it’s obviously a financial issue, that’s why we continue to lobby. We’ve done a lot of work in doing that lobbying but at the end of the day it’s reliant on the government to allow the easing”.

We can see the direction of travel. It’s attaching a timeline to that pathway that is currently out of the sport’s hands. There is reason for hope, but patience will continue to be tested. “I get laid low by the current situation. I’ve got boxers wanting to go pro and two who have already jumped,” reflected Miguel’s Chris Lodge. “Feels sometimes like I’ve got to start again. But I will start again… Boxing will come back and when it does I want to be held accountable to the highest standards of coaching and I want progressive development for myself and my boxers. Let’s not lower our long term ambitions just because others may not have our high standards.

“There has been and will be horrendous collateral damage to our sport and our near term ambitions … but two years from now let’s not look back and say we gave in.”

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