Changemakers: Rolling with the punches

Dr Kathy Adcock gives vulnerable young people the chance to work through their difficulties in the ring

What happens when you invite the world of clinical psychology into London boxing gyms? It looks something like In Your Corner, a social enterprise created by Dr Kathy Adcock. Picking up where child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) struggle to intervene, In Your Corner gives vulnerable young people the chance to work through their difficulties in the ring while in the care of both psychologists and local boxers.

After completing a doctorate with the University of Plymouth in 2009, Adcock went on to work as a clinical psychologist with the NHS, specialising in the mental health of young people who had experienced trauma or were care experienced. “We used to have a lot of conversations about them – they’ve often got a large professional network and we all sit round and talk about how concerned we are,” the founder tells The Big Issue. “But young people in that bracket are often the ones who find clinic-based services the hardest to access. There’s an incorrect assumption that all people can sit down and talk. And many simply see themselves as a bit stressed or angry.”

The psychologist also happened to be training as an amateur boxer at the time. It’s a sport that has “got something to it”, she says, forcing participants to “be very present”. And as a sport that carries a touch of risk, boxing is of interest to impulsive teens.

“You’ve got this one-to-one thing going on with your coach,” Adcock explains. “And boxing’s always had a really good history of social change projects, but the narrative tends to be about keeping kids off the streets, just assuming that boxing teaches respect and confidence. I thought we could do something more powerful than that, specifically improving emotional wellbeing with tools from clinical psychology.”

In 2016 she got to work. Approaching her local club, Adcock set up a pilot group the following year with nine young people. It went “very positively” – so much so that it won the European Boxing Confederation’s Passion For Boxing Award for grassroots social-action projects.

Later the organisation won a three-year grant from Comic Relief, allowing it to set up a new project, CONNECT, in partnership with London Community Boxing and Southwark Local Authority, which has been running since September 2018. Young people are referred through CAMHS, social work and proactive schools, and sometimes come from youth offending. Participants initially undertake a 12-week programme, and are expected to attend as many sessions as they can. Later, they can stay involved in the graduate programme, on which they can attend sessions as and when they please.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

“The reason I didn’t do it at my day job is because within the NHS at the moment there’s huge pressure on service delivery,” Adcock points out. “It’s hard to be creative in that context with the constraints that are on it at the moment.”

The sessions are different from other boxing groups. They are co-facilitated by a boxing coach and a member of clinical psychology staff, with time split between training and activities focusing on emotional regulation. Coaches are expected to deliver training in a way that is psychologically informed, while the psychologist gets in on the boxing.

“We’re trying to highlight the strengths and achievements of our young people. Then it’s no longer: ‘I’m a young person who was kicked out of school’ or ‘I’m a problem at home.’ It’s: ‘I’m confident enough to try new things and achieve when I do.’”

Participants can earn certificates through exam board AQA’s scheme for recognising achievement, which is a help if they are struggling in education, and graduates can get involved in a filmmaking programme. Others have applied for junior youth work roles with local authorities after their time with In Your Corner.

To date 61 young people have been through Adcock’s project. Some have reported that after the course they are better able to manage themselves; feel calmer and less sensitive to triggers; are open to trying new things with a belief that they are capable; get on better in school and find it easier to make friends.

“CAMHS is a predominantly female, white, middle-class service, with a lot of work to do on diversity – boxing is a strongly masculine, traditionally working-class, largely BAME in London context,” Adcock says of the biggest challenge she has faced. “And finding a way for those two to gel has required careful thinking.”

This year the social enterprise is expanding into two new boroughs, Camden and Westminster, and taking on more work with schools and services for people excluded from mainstream schools. “Working with young people is a challenge too, but a brilliant one,” Adcock laughs. “You never quite know what’s going to happen.”

How can you quantify the impact of boxing on wellbeing?

At In Your Corner, young people set their own goals for what they want to get out of the project, which could include ‘I want to feel more confident being part of a group’ or ‘I want to find healthy ways to manage when I feel stressed’. Last summer, the boxers were found to have made headway on a huge 94 per cent of the goals they set themselves.

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Illustration: Matthew Brazier