Head of the London Boxing Academy

Boxing gloves

"Boxing is all about hard work and discipline," says Simon Marcus.

Raise Your Game: How did the London Boxing Academy Community Project first get started?

Simon Marcus: It started in 2000 when myself and Chris Hall founded the London Boxing Academy. The LBA is a pro-am boxing club.

After a couple of years the Youth Offending Service and the police approached us with young males who had been excluded from school. They needed to be occupied in the day, and the gym seemed to be a very good way of doing that.

Our results were so impressive that the police and the YOS encouraged us to do a business plan for a model of an alternative school. That's what we did.

We started in November 2006 with eight students, and slowly our reputation has grown. Our attendance levels are around 80%. That's decent for a normal school, but some of the kids who come here haven't even been to school for years.

Most Year Elevens are being entered for GCSE's. Before they came here they weren't going to get any qualifications at all, now they'll get two or three GCSE's. Some may even get B grades, so there's a success right there as well.

RYG: How do you go about turning the children's fortunes around?

SM: To turn these young men into fully integrated, law abiding citizens would take between five and 10 years. We don't have that sort of time so we try to allow them to change sooner than they otherwise would, if they hadn't come here.

We deal with some of the most aggressive, physical and violent young men in the country. I've met youths that have been mugged several times. When I went to school I was worried about getting punched sometimes. Can you imagine going to school and worrying about getting stabbed? This is the point we've come to. In a lot of areas we have the law of the knife, and, if we're not careful, the law of the gun will follow.

RYG: What does the London Boxing Academy Community Project do?

SM: Our timetable is based around sport, mainly boxing. What we try and do is transfer the skills that sport teaches into academic work, and life in general. We do boxing, football, basketball, table tennis, and athletics in the summer. There are other sports that we tailor to our students' needs.

Through sport the students learn teamwork, discipline, and acceptance of authority. They achieve self-respect by reaching the goals that they're set, whether it's 20 press-ups, doing weight training in the gym or three to four rounds on the punch bag. For many of the students here it's the first time in their lives they've achieved something tangible.

There are obviously physical benefits from doing exercise. It generates positive hormones within your system, which make you feel good. Endorphins are produced in the brain when you exercise. All this enables us to engage these kids a lot more.

As an environment, the boxing gym plays a big role in turning these kids around. When the students walk through the door, for the first time in their lives, they find they're not the alpha male. At home they're the alpha male. At school they're the hardest and nastiest kids. The second they come through that door they know they're at the bottom of the heap.

For the first time in their lives they're around physically strong, morally strong, hard-working, polite, respectable male role-models. That enables the students to observe that you can live differently. It provides them with a different way of looking at the world. That helps us deliver the academic side of our curriculum. Maths and English are compulsory. We also teach ICT, art and PE. In the last two to three months we've added economics and statistics to our curriculum.

RYG: How can participating in sport improve the student's educational achievements?

The sports we run allow us to punctuate the academic lessons with physical activity, which takes the pressure off the students. Our classes have no more than three students to one teacher, and they're no more than half an hour long. That works well when you're dealing with students who have a very short concentration span.

Sport allows these young men to express themselves. In their previous schools, they were unable to concentrate. That led to frustrations, confrontation and violence. We have to take that into account, so we allow them constant psychological and physical breathers.

RYG: Why is boxing so effective at changing a person's attitude?

SM: For thousands of years some young men have felt the need to prove themselves. Some join the army, some play rugby, some box. Many of these young men are unable to express themselves in other ways. In my own, personal experience, many boxers have dyslexia. They can be inarticulate as people, and that devalues them in society.

In a ring, these young people have validity, they have respect in their community, and they're allowed to express themselves in a way they know how. Boxing is all about hard work and discipline. It requires sacrifice and desire, and it's a noble sport.

RYG: What about people who say boxing is a brutal sport?

SM: It's patronising to try to tell people they can't make their own decisions. Boxing is effective in helping to include and engage young men. It allows them to express themselves, and to gain validation and respect in ways that other sports don't. It's a very dangerous sport, but it's also very satisfying and fulfilling.

RYG: What can you learn from boxing?

SM: You learn about respect. When you're training, sweating and suffering with people you learn empathy - the ability to understand others people's experience. Boxing is supervised, and it creates a situation where you increase the level of respect you receive by being noble and by honouring your opponent.

RYG: Have you had any success stories at the Academy?

SM: One boy took a swing at a teacher. The teacher told him to leave the site and go home immediately. The young lad left the building and walked to the gate. He stood there and sobbed. All of a sudden the gangster had disappeared and the little boy had returned.

I happened to be driving through the gates where this lad was crying his heart out. I stopped the car and asked him why he was so angry. He said he couldn't help it. I said to him 'If you're strong enough to go back in there and apologise, you will change your future.' He apologised and, from that day on, he got better and better. Now he's doing GCSE's and he's changed beyond recognition.

All the kids we've got here are going to be taking exams. If they hadn't come here, they wouldn't be. That gives me a real buzz.

RYG: How do we get more youngsters participating in sport?

SM: We need to encourage people to get off their backsides. We need to teach people what a healthy and balanced lifestyle is about. That way they live by a positive mental cycle. They'll find that effort brings rewards, which in turn brings satisfaction.

It's very difficult when you're on a cycle of playing computer games, eating pizza, sleep, drugs, and so on. That cycle causes a certain kind of depression. It requires effort to get up and go for a run, but if you don't run you could very well die of a heart attack when you're 35-years-old.


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