Tallaght initiative gives teenagers a Kick in the right direction
Kickboxing coach says programme gives participants ‘something to be proud about’
Joy Shaughnessy and Karl Flynn who run Kickboxing to Inspire and Challenge Kids in Tallaght. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
At first glance it looks like a standard gym circuit work-out. At the blast of a trainer’s whistle, the teenage participants move from station to station, doing whatever is required at each – squats, burpees, star jumps, dumb-bells or punching pads.
However, in between the bursts of physical exertion, again under the direction of coach James McGuirk’s whistle, they go to one of 10 white sheets hanging on the wall, pick up a biro and scribble down an answer to questions about how they feel about themselves.
To one question: “If you could give advice to your younger self, what would you say?”, somebody writes “choose your friends wisely”; another “don’t smoke”; a third “stay in school” and a fourth “don’t be scared, do what you want”.
It’s week four in a 12-week programme known as Kick – Kickboxing to Inspire and Challenge Kids – which combines the discipline of martial arts with pro-social activities. They come for the thrill of contact sport, yet embrace the mental health and behavioural messages that are “sneaked in”, as one of the leaders puts it.
When the pilot phase here in west Tallaght in 2015 started and finished with the same number of participants, the organisers knew they were on to something.
“We think that young people evaluate with their feet,” says Joy O’Shaughnessy, a children and families project co-ordinator with South County Dublin Partnership. Teenagers may not be able to articulate their feelings on an evaluation form but the fact that they keep coming is the ultimate testimony.
There’s kids over that road wouldn’t cross the road to talk to kids this side of the road, which is ridiculous. We don’t live in the Bronx or anything like that but it’s there.
O’Shaughnessy co-designed the programme with kickboxing champion and coach Karl Flynn, who is now a project worker with South County Dublin Partnership. Both from Tallaght, their paths crossed when she started doing fitness training with him a few years ago.
“She asked me ‘why aren’t kids engaging with traditional youthwork activities?’,” he recalls, sitting in the Brookfield Youth and Community Centre, in what is one of the State’s most disadvantaged areas. Coming from nearby Brookview, he understands the place and the young residents’ attitude to well-meaning “interventions”.
“They are coming from school into another school [or] work environment, where they are sitting down constantly and you’re telling them what they should be doing and what’s expected of them. You don’t need to be a scientist to figure out that that’s not a good formula.
“It’s much better and influential if you can get them up and moving around, get the endorphins released and then, if you have a message you’re trying to get across, they are much more open to it.”
During his own childhood Flynn discovered the ethos of martial arts and it is something he wants to impart on the next generation.
“On the streets around here, you don’t go around saying ‘honour, respect and discipline’ but it goes with it,” he smiles.
Originally from Tipperary, Flynn’s own background was “far from easy” and social workers put him into sports classes such as karate and kenpo. As much as he enjoyed them, he soon found out they “work in the practice room but they don’t work in reality”.
Here in Tallaght, he says, fighting is the culture for some people “and I would have got beaten up a lot”. But that all stopped after he discovered kickboxing.
“I was never out for trouble but I couldn’t wait to get these guys when I got good.” However, the resolution was unexpected.
“The funniest thing happened that when I got good at it, I seemed to radiate this feeling as it were, these guys left me alone. I never actually had to do anything.”
By the time the youngsters he’s coaching on Kick have had a couple of sessions where they can punch and kick pads, “they absolutely love it and don’t want to give it up”. But “if they want to continue with it, there’s a certain way they have to conduct themselves”, says Flynn, who is clearly enough of a role model around here for his words and actions to carry weight.
“I would not want people going around like thugs and doing what I have shown them. Thankfully we have never had an incident like that and we have had great results.”
Not least of these is a bond among the participants in an area where community pride is not what it was when Flynn was growing up. Turning around to point out the windows of the L-shaped centre, he says: “There’s kids over that road wouldn’t cross the road to talk to kids this side of the road, which is ridiculous. We don’t live in the Bronx or anything like that but it’s there.”
They see outsiders coming in with the best of intentions to try to combat socio-economic disadvantage but the measures “are all academic”, he says and the locals don’t relate to them.
“The kids in this area I feel are so disillusioned and disenfranchised with outsiders coming in, or somebody throwing money at a problem or a fresh lick of paint on something, it is never really going to change anything.
“The best way you can get change, I feel, is for it to come from within and ripple out – to have something to be proud about.
“If you’re antisocial and your area is known for that, there is a certain amount of pride that these guys and girls can take from that, ‘That’s our thing’,” he explains. But Kick offers an alternative source of pride. It targets young people at risk and challenges antisocial behaviour in a positive way.
The project’s growth has been driven by the children themselves asking “what’s next?”, says O’Shaughnessy. Those who completed the first 12-week programme wanted more, so they were asked to come back and mentor another 12 youngsters on another 12-week programme. Then they moved on to a level two sports and leadership qualification.
Their training tops signal that progression: in among the rookies dressed in their own casual gear are the graduates-turned-mentors who wear black and white Kick T-shirts and then there are a few in long-sleeved “rash-guard” shirts, who have gained the sports and leadership award.
Learning to coach “gets them outside themselves and to think of the wellbeing of somebody they are responsible for”, says Flynn, who is also a qualified special needs assistant. He has no doubts at all about the effectiveness of Kick, which he also runs in Clondalkin and is due to start in Dolphin’s Barn in September.
“We know it works,” he says simply. One hundred per cent of their students have reported that doing the programme improved their physical health, their self-esteem and their happiness.
Towards the end of the 90-minute session, the youngsters are divided into teams to run a relay race around cones. Then they are asked to do the same wearing “beer goggles”, which simulate the effect of having consumed two, four or eight pints.
The chaotic staggering that follows is instructive. When Flynn later tells them being good at kickboxing is about sacrifice, “they get it”, he says.
The South Dublin County Partnership’s faith in Kick was shown at the end of last year by the awarding of a €25,000 support package from the €200,000 Animate Fund, which targets early-stage projects focused on addressing a health or social issue in local communities. These grants are run by the Social Innovation Fund Ireland (SIFI), with money put up by the global medical devices firm Medtronic that is matched by the Department of Rural and Community Development drawing on dormant accounts.
“It is a very early-stage project and was quite high risk from our point of view,” says Deirdre Mortell, chief executive of the SIFI, but they were impressed by the way Kick harnesses kickboxing to help young people develop themselves, not only physically but also around building their self-esteem, confidence and leadership potential.
“It is the kickboxing that gets them in the door but it is the youth work that actually adds the value,” she says.
A big part in the fund’s decision to invest in it, she adds, was the talent and leadership qualities of O’Shaughnessy and Flynn. They got a €10,000 cash grant, along with mentoring for six months and help in building a business plan to both expand the project and secure further funding.
The aim is to give many more young people from disadvantaged areas the opportunity to hit the pads, to find greater satisfaction in life.