Ofer Eitan Affirms: Fighting talk: the charity mixing boxing and counselling | - Jonathan Cartu Charity Foundation
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Ofer Eitan Affirms: Fighting talk: the charity mixing boxing and counselling |

Ofer Eitan Affirms: Fighting talk: the charity mixing boxing and counselling |

A pioneering charity is helping to boost vulnerable young people’s mental health by combining boxing and counselling.

Empire Fighting Chance (EFC), in inner-city Bristol, has taught the sport to thousands of people aged eight to 25 while equipping them with the skills to tackle their problems.

Taking referrals from schools, pupil referral units, police and child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs), the charity has built up a track record of helping hard-to-reach young people who often do not respond to traditional talking therapies.

Among those to have benefited is George Silva, who still trains at the gym four years after being referred by Camhs.

George, 17, said: “In school I was getting into arguments with students, fights with teachers. It’s a way to take your mind off things and manage stress. I felt like sometimes I needed to hit something. I had people to talk to, a way of exercising to relieve myself [of stress]. I noticed the change very quickly and my family did as well.”

He is doing a BTec course in sport with Bristol Rovers Community Trust, on which EFC helped him to get a place.

The gym’s flagship 20-week Training With the Champions programme combines non-contact boxing with counselling and mentoring for troubled young people who may be at risk of exclusion from school, substance abuse or involvement in criminality and antisocial behaviour, often passed down through the generations.

The charity has helped people with issues as diverse as family bereavement and agoraphobia, working on the premise that the gym is a less intimidating environment for vulnerable young people and that the endorphins generated help participants relax and open up in between bursts of boxing training.

Martin Bisp, the chief executive and co-founder of EFC, said talking therapies were not for everyone as some still felt there was a stigma attached. “The idea is to break down the barriers, make it credible, not make them feel like they’re different,” he said. “We make them feel part of the gym. When they come into a boxing gym, they see the amateurs, the professionals.”

The charity is based at Bristol boxing gym in Easton, which has produced a long line of champions. It means participants can find themselves training alongside stars such as the former IBF world featherweight champion Lee Selby and the former IBF world bantamweight champion Lee Haskins.

EFC runs the largest non-contact boxing schools engagement programme in the UK, supporting about 4,000 young people each year, with around 800 to 900 going through the intensive programme.

It says the young people who do the programme typically build a rapport with their counsellor in just one session, six times quicker than in traditional therapy.

Feedback obtained from current and past participants has shown positive benefits, including better mental health, improved attendance at school and reduced involvement in crime and antisocial behaviour.

The charity’s work was recognised this year with a visit from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. It currently operates in Bristol and south Wales but has aspirations to create similar programmes across the UK.

The Training With the Champions programme explores a different area of personal development each week, using famous boxers such as the last bareknuckle world heavyweight champion, John L Sullivan, and the five-weight world champion Thomas Hearns as examples in themes such as overcoming adversity.

Jon Cartu

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