Kick-boxing: ‘I feel more relaxed – I don’t get angry anymore’
A more courteous, gentle-mannered 14-year-old boy it would be hard to meet
Shannon Quinn (18) and Leon Donnelly (14) from Tallaght who partake in Kick (Kickboxing to Inspire and Challenge Kids) in Tallaght. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Leon Donnelly had been bullied at primary school before he was enrolled three years ago in the first Kickboxing to Inspire and Challenge Kids (Kick) programme.
“I was very nervous,” he says. “I was made feel very welcome and it progressed from there.” Living in Citywest, he had wanted to do it to learn to defend himself but soon made friends among the other participants.
A more courteous, gentle-mannered 14-year-old boy it would be hard to meet. There’s an air of quiet confidence about him as he helps out in the gym, having completed his sports and leadership award level two.
“I feel more relaxed – I don’t get angry anymore,” he explains. And it has stopped him being a target for bullying.
“I was in a situation where my bully was going to hurt me and I ended up protecting myself. Everybody I knew heard about this, ‘Oh Leon did this’ . . . I made a lot more friends.”
Although Leon is also in Karl Flynn’s Red Rhino Kickboxing Club, the Kick programme is not as fast-paced and you get a chance to talk, he says.
“They welcome you very well. You make so many friends and you always feel like that hand on your shoulder guiding you through, you’re not alone.”
For youngsters going through a hard time, it’s something to look forward to after school, he says. “At least you don’t have to sit in a home where anything could be going on, or out on the streets.”
His mother, Joannne, says she saw how the programme changed him when he was in sixth class and that’s why she didn’t want his involvement to end. “He was definitely more in control of his emotions and his anger, he seemed more able to express himself.”
Leon told her he had a real strong sense of belonging at Kick. “He said ‘I feel comfortable in my own skin when I’m there’. I would love him to feel like that in every situation and in time I am sure that will come.”
However, secondary school wasn’t easy for him initially. “He didn’t fit in with the kids who were just following the crowd – although he would have been one of them before. He got his own mind and his own beliefs from being part of the programme.”
But she believes that knowing he could defend himself made him more confident and being able to talk about his anxiety helped too in settling in.
Those involved in running Kick, says Joanne, “really don’t know how much they are changing children’s lives but also family’s lives”. She and her husband Paul have two younger boys and see the importance of Leon as a great role model for them.
Joanne has seen a family member sucked into addiction and knows how friends and people you pal around with become your family.
The fact that Leon gets his sense of belonging from the powerfully positive influence of Kick “is such a relief”, she adds. “In the area that we live, unfortunately, there is temptation on every road and it’s about surrounding yourself with the right kind of people.”
Also helping out at Kick is Shannon Quinn (18), who fell in love with kickboxing last summer when she did a week of it at a bootcamp that she had heard about through the youth organisation Foroige.
A talented gymnast, she had been training for 10 years, competing both here and abroad. But breaking an ankle in a fall at the age of 16 shattered her dreams of representing Ireland at the Olympics. She switched to coaching but it wasn’t the same.
“It was heartbreaking. I couldn’t do any exercise and I would have been training five or six days a week. When I found this, it was such a relief of tension that I had from not being able to do sports.”
Now she’s an assistant coach on the Kick programme. “You can see the simple mistakes that people make and it is such a good feeling to be able to go over and know what I am talking about and be able to correct them, to encourage them to keep working and to keep coming back.”
The whole experience has boosted her own confidence. Beforehand, “there is no way I would have come in and done an interview”, she remarks. “It just seemed to bring me out of my own person.”
She also sees the difference it makes to the teenagers starting off. “It gives them something to work towards; it is keeping them fit, keeping them off the street without them even realising that, and they are learning skills they can use in everyday life as well.”