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Young people Rapport Building and Communicating Developing Mindsets Crime Prevention

Coaching Key to Helping Young People Make Better Choices

Blake Richardson visits Heart of Portsmouth Boxing Academy, where Q Shillingford and Gareth Tennant offer unflinching testimony to the power of coaching as an effective tool to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour

Young people end up in a gang because they are sat at home and they’ve got nothing to do. They are bored and they get frustrated. Then they look out the window and see people their own age hanging out together, who feel the same way.

I know where these kids are coming from, having come from the streets myself. But I was lucky because I found a boxing gym and I found a better gang. ‘Come here instead’, I say to them. ‘We are a gang. Look around, there’s 20 of us. Come and join our gang'."

Quinton Shillingford MBE, more commonly known as Q, runs Heart of Portsmouth Boxing Academy and has made it his mission to improve the lives of socially excluded and marginalised people from disadvantaged backgrounds living in the city.

He describes himself as an ambassador for the transformative power of boxing and coaching, but he is so much more than that. Sports coach, life coach, role model and mentor all rolled into one, he has an exemplary track record of guiding children, adolescents and young adults who have strayed off course, or who are in danger of doing so, back onto the right path.

For vulnerable and disaffected young people who are plagued by insecurities, who may come from broken homes and who lack positive role models, he has been a saviour. He nurtures them and supports them through hard times and provides them with the education, confidence, self-worth and life skills necessary to make better choices and break free of the vicious cycle they feel trapped in.

The long list of people Q has helped includes Gareth Tennant, who was a member of a gang growing up in Leeds and developed a cannabis habit as a teenager. His life was turned upside down when he became addicted to Spice, a substance dubbed ‘the zombie drug’ because of the effect it has on users. He carried a knife for protection during a spell when he was homeless, while run-ins with the law were commonplace, resulting in several stints in prison. 

During his years on the street and in confinement, Gareth saw the horrors of knife crime first-hand.

Everything changed for him when his probation officer introduced him to Q and the Heart of Portsmouth Boxing Academy four years ago. He has remained abstinent since enrolling on the club’s coaching programme, turning his back on drugs and on crime, and his life back around.

Ever since I told Q I was in recovery and used to be an addict, he has been there for me. He doesn’t look at you differently because of your problems, he just takes you under his wing and treats you like any other person. Since the moment I told him, I’ve come on in leaps and bounds. 

He has built me back up to be the upstanding citizen that I should be. He helped ground me and give me the discipline I needed. Without Q – and also his number two, Dave Johnston – I wouldn’t be where I am today. Q’s more than a mentor. He’s a father figure as well."

A knife crime epidemic

Knife crime is accelerating. The scale of the rise is revealed in figures published by the Office for National Statistics.

Last year, there were more than 40,800 offences involving a knife or sharp instrument recorded by the police in England and Wales – a rise of 6% – with 31 of the 43 police forces reporting an increase in incidents involving a blade in the year leading up to December.

There has been a 60% rise in young victims of knife crime in the last five years, while the number of overall violent offences recorded by police was more than 1.6million, a 19% increase on 2017.

The government is promising to put its money where its mouth is to stem the alarming hike in knife crime, with Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Wright vowing to “expand sporting opportunities in youth crime hot spots” and to engage young people in disaffected communities.

Sport England invests more than £10million in programmes that support crime reduction and harness the power of coaching, and has pledged to increase investment in areas of high crime intensity. 

It is welcome news, as expanding the number of social inclusion projects is instrumental in building a sense of community in deprived areas, where carrying knives is now an accepted and widespread part of life for many young people living under difficult social circumstances.

Nick Pontefract, Sport England Chief Operating Officer, said: “Sport and physical activity is a powerful and positive force for good in society. Sport builds a sense of community and social trust, provides role models, and new skills that can drive meaningful change. Yet we’ve only scratched the surface of its potential as a tool to engage young people at risk of being involved in knife crime.

Coaching encourages integration. It embodies the value of social inclusion and unites members into a group culture that is driven by personal development. Coaching, in other words, helps establish social behaviour as opposed to perpetuating antisocial behaviour inherent in gang culture.

Early intervention key

There is a correlation between the age a person first enters the correctional system and their risk of reoffending. The younger you are, the higher the likelihood that you will reoffend. Which is why the main area of focus needs to be on early intervention strategies.

We can help the youth of today steer clear of gangs and knife crime by giving them easy access to a nurturing ‘family’ they will not find on the street, be this their nearest boxing gym, sports club, charity project or community programme.

Q has been successful in rehabilitating young offenders and radically altering their behaviour and perspective on life. It may be too late to change the past, but with Q’s help they have learned not repeat their mistakes. 

However, prevention is so much better than cure, and the real solution to beating the scourge of crime and knife culture is to shift from a reactive to a proactive approach – which means educating people before problems occur. 

I talk to my boxers all the time about the dangers of knife crime,” says Q. “But first you have to earn their trust. They need to know that they have finally encountered someone who doesn’t judge them.

We are a product of our environment and for those who feel consumed by hardship, who feel they have been sentenced to a life of inequality, lack of opportunity and economic strain, and who feel to survive or fit in they must carry knives, the light at the end of the tunnel can appear light years away. 

Carrying a knife for protection will either make you a victim or a criminal. This has become a popular phrase. Those words are easy to say but difficult to get young people who see no choice but to commit criminal activity and whose decision-making may be easily manipulated by peer pressure to acknowledge.

To get them to sink in, coaches and mentors must first develop a rapport, built upon a person-centred approach. Q says it is vital you show a young person that you care about them, that you will never write them off and that you see the person for who they are, and not just the things they have done.

Tackling knife culture is a fight we must win. As one inmate incarcerated in America so sombrely put it in the VICE documentary on teenage knife crime, failure to ‘see the light’ can only end in a destructive outcome: “It will lead me to one of two boxes. A cell or a casket.”

Coach from the head down not the feet up

Like any good coach, Q firmly buys into the holistic philosophy that you must coach from the head down, not the feet up, with the objective to develop better people, not just better performers.

And if a coach can earn their athlete’s trust, cooperation and support, then anything is possible, says Q, who reveals one of the biggest lessons he has learned during his years as a coach is, “everyone has a lovely kid in them”.

Gareth’s story is a case in point.

If there was trouble he was involved. The police knew him well,’ says Q. ‘He’s now married with a young child and he’s in the boxing club nearly every day. He fought four times for the club, he’s done a tutor course, a Level 1 coaching course, helps out in the gym and, on top of that, he’s got a job.

He trains the kids and talks to them all the time about his life and how boxing and coaching has helped him.

“Taking him away from a group who was on the wrong side of the law and bringing him into a mainstream group was empowering and made him feel better about himself.”

Gareth takes up the story: “It was when I was 16 that I got involved in a gang. I broke away when I was 23 and moved south but my addiction followed me down and that’s when a cycle of prison and homelessness took hold.

Growing up in Leeds all those years ago there wasn’t a problem with knives as we were told how to defend ourselves with our fists, but since policing levels have dropped, knife crime has gone off the Richter scale. During the spells I was in prison I noticed that, over the years, more and more people were coming in having been convicted of knife crime through being a part of a gang. It was unbelievable."

Gareth says gaining a string of qualifications from the GB National Boxing Awards programme – which offer courses to help mentors, coaches, youth workers, teachers and professionals learn how to properly coach boxing – were some of his proudest moments.

“That’s thanks to Q and the club but also down to me and my own commitment, the community rehab centre in Portsmouth and with help and support from my wife, who was there to push me forwards just in case I fell backwards.” 

Gareth now works for the charity Society of St James, which helps vulnerable people experiencing homelessness, problems with alcohol and substance abuse change their lives. He doubles up as their sports co-ordinator and delivers boxercise classes every Friday.

Life has turned on its head, and now Gareth is a mentor figure himself who people look to for support. They find it easy to relate to him because he was once in their shoes, treading the same troubled path.

Coaching can help you play your cards right

Coaching has helped Gareth break free of the vicious cycle of crime, setting him on a path to opportunity and fulfilment, where he has begun making a positive difference to his community.

He is living testimony to the fact that great coaching breeds empowerment and can radically change lives in any environment.

With the help of inspiring individuals like Q, and with sport as an anchor, Gareth grasped his chance of a new life after being dealt a bad hand. Coaching has effectively allowed him to put his cards back in the pack and give them a much-needed shuffle. You make your own luck through your choices and actions, and this has meant the cards have finally fallen in Gareth’s favour.

Coaching in Prisons Series

Related Resources

  • Silvino Domingo: Given a Second Chance by Fight For Peace

  • Man on a Mission: Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Crime

  • How to Get the Most out of Mentoring


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UK Coaching Team