Boxing clever to tackle mental health
Pierce Sherry says boxing has helped him channel his feelings of anger ‘in a good way’
Young trainee boxers Brian and Michael Ward under the instruction of Philip Rooney, who set up the Navan boxing club. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Brian O’Reilly, Brian Ward, Philip Rooney, Pierce Sherry, Michael Ward, and Johnny Joyce at the Navan boxing club. Photograph: Alan Betson
‘Hands up high” was the war cry directed at the young men in the ring at their boxing class.
Protecting their head was the intention of the command and the teenage members of Johnstown Boxing Club in Co Meath say the sport is also helping them to look after their heads in another way.
Pierce Sherry (19) joined the club five years ago and he readily admits that at the time he needed it as an outlet. He lived in Johnstown, which developed on the eastern edge of Navan town. During the Celtic Tiger it attracted many couples who bought a larger home there than they could have afforded in Dublin.
However, like many other areas, the houses came before the schools and other community facilities. Johnstown, which is home now to about 10,000 people, is still without a community sports centre or a similar focal point for young people and teenagers.
When he was 14, Sherry says there was “nothing to do. I was just ‘messing’. You would get so bored just playing football everyday and running around that eventually you have to mess.”
Pushed to explain what “messing” entailed, he says there were gangs of lads who would end up “smashing windows and doing anti-social things, drinking . . . mad crazy things they shouldn’t do”.
“One thing leads to another and next thing you are getting arrested. That never happened to me but [it did] to a lot of my friends.”
Sherry was quick to say that this is not a reflection on the parents of his friends who did take part in anti-social behaviour because, “they would do it without them knowing; they would do it slyly”.
It was the first sport he took part in and it also allowed him to channel his anger. Sherry says he was at risk of leaving secondary school because he was “very angry all the time. I was aggressive.”
He says he had to let out his feelings and boxing allowed him to do this “in a good way”.
“I would definitely have been kicked out of school but for it. Just before I started boxing I was in front of the board of management, they were going to expel me.”
He had just completed his Junior Cert when he began to box regularly. “I let my anger out every day. I would go training four nights a week.”
Sherry went on to complete his Leaving Cert and also took part in many fights with the club in the months before it.
He says he was told he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and a “bad anger problem”.
“I have never lost my temper really since the first year boxing. I think to be honest it is because I let it out [there].”
Boxing’s effectsPhilip Rooney
“I think boxing matures you. When you are fighting in the ring, you are in there on your own. We are in the corner but there is nothing we can do. We can shout instructions, but when you are in their fighting, you are on your own.”
Rooney, who moved to Johnstown from Ballymun, began the club when the property market had crashed and there was a lot of unemployment affecting Johnstown. He stresses about the importance of giving young people options. “It began with one bag in my shed.”
Rooney was out of work and bumped into an old friend and learned he was living on the other side of Johnstown.
“He wanted to get fit so I told him I had the bag in the shed in the back of the garden . . . he started to train with me.”
Word spread and “there were a lot of people not working, so people would ask, ‘Do you mind if I come around?’ I had about three or four bags hung in the shed and six or eight lads most mornings coming around the shed just to hit the bag, to get out of the house and do a bit of training work.”
It was 2009 and, Rooney says, most had “lost their work and they were bored”.
The effect was more than just fitness and losing weight, he says. “Without a doubt it made them feel better about themselves. If you are stressed in any part of life, whether with work, family, kids, partner, life in general, you come in and hit the bags and get a lot off your chest by hitting the bags and pounding away. It de-stresses you.”
Johnstown Boxing Club has relocated twice and is now in a large premises on Academy Street in Navan town.
“There are 30 kids hanging around in Johnstown . . . There is no playground, there are no centres, there are 3,000 houses and if you average two kids a house that is 6,000 kids with little to do,” says Rooney.
“If they have no options, they are going to hang around with the gangs. We give them an option with the boxing here and there is also Johnstown football club.” Neither club has a home in Johnstown; the soccer grounds are the far side of Navan.
Brothers Michael (13) and Brian (12) Ward have been boxing for six years. They too live in Johnstown and their biggest fan is their uncle Brian Reilly.
Despite their relative youth, both youngsters see the long-term benefits of keeping up boxing. “I started when I was seven,” says Michael.
“The first day I went in I was kinda nervous but it was good. Everybody was nice. It kinda brings you on and you have the support of the club too. Nobody says I am better than you or stuff like that,” he says.
“We are all helping each other in fitness and the best thing of all is you can make new friends.”
“You can’t be drinking and trying to keep fit, it wouldn’t mix right so you want to stay away from smoking and drinking and focus on your training, your fitness and your health and tournaments and stay away from all that unhealthy stuff,” he says.
His brother Brian agrees. “It gives you a good start in life and helps you stay out of trouble and gives you something to do. Instead of just hanging around and eating junk and stuff, you go to the club to keep fit.”
“If they are with someone who, for example, is smoking or drinking, or that sort of lifestyle, they will do that too.
“I want to keep them away from any trouble. All the fighting they do is in the ring and when they leave here they are exhausted and all they want is to go home to bed.”
He says they are relations of boxer Joe Ward who has qualified for the Olympics and Michael would like to follow in his footsteps. Crucially the boys enjoy boxing.
“It is important to enjoy it so you will work hard and not be slacking off,” says Michael.
“It is meant to be hard training but Phil and Raj [another coach] try to put fun into it. When I see kids who don’t do any sport and they are sitting on walls, not doing anything, it is a waste. This [boxing] is better than sitting at home playing your PlayStation,” he says.