Contact sports such as boxing are infamous for brain damage. For some, stepping into the ring can be the start of, not just an incredible career, but also the end of their life.
Yet, there is another side to boxing – a side that former Stone police officer Andy Whitehall MBE has exploited to give local people the chance to turn their lives around.
For over 10 years, Whitehall has been rescuing young people from abusive households, childhood trauma and bad mental health by setting up The Right Stuff boxing gym.
Back when it all began in 2008, Stone’s large youth population outstripped the facilities that kept them engaged, leading to several cases of gang crime and drug deals.
Change had to happen.
“There was a hardcore group of about 20 young people who I wanted to engage,” Whitehall reminisced. “So, to start with, I took them all on in the ring during a charity spar-athon to raise money for a youth café.
“Afterwards, I was approached by parents and teachers who had seen their behaviours improve massively. So, I started running weekly sessions, and diversified to work with young females that had grown up with domestic violence and or been exploited in some way.
“It’s about looking at what happened between the ages of naught and seven. That’s the key thing, whatever trauma happened in those seven years sets their clock, and we use boxing in a subtle way to try and resolve some of those things.
“Most 12 to 13-year olds who get offered counselling don’t want to know, but they do want to feel peace of mind. So, I address the underlying mental health issues and make the person emotionally well – boxing is just the canvas, and we paint on it to mentally engage people.”
Whitehall’s award-winning Right Stuff Project is more than offloading stress onto a punch bag. He engages his boxers in community projects, hosted the Staffordshire Space project for consecutive years, and delivers sessions in schools around Staffordshire.
Despite this being a full-time gig for the 52-year-old, he’s not alone. Whitehall has a team of accredited boxing coaches, and as soon as his boxers are 14 years of age, he sends them on boxing tutor courses to help them become young leaders.
“That’s part of building their own self-worth,” he said. “They’ll coach young people, and if I feel they are confident enough, help me coach adult ex-offenders, drug users.
“One of my girls, has just gone to do physics at university and she was with me for six years. She went through Level 1 and Level 2 coaching qualifications. She’s moving on in life, and generally if you’ve been successful people should move on.
“That gives me satisfaction because without the interventions at that particular turbulent time of getting through the teens, their lives would have probably gone a very different way.”
The Right Stuff creator knows this as much as anybody. What he saw as a Stone PC was not Whitehall’s only inspiration for his project, but it was his own traumatic childhood in East London that saw him turn to the boxing gym as a youth.
“The classic case is young men go to the gym to pump their bodies up to make them strong, whereas mainly it’s an anxiety and that’s given them the need to be that way,” explained Whitehall.
“In the gym, my coach was my first decent adult male role model, and there was a structure that kept you safe.
“Football for example can be chaotic and tribal and there are bursts of aggression. Whereas in boxing it’s all very controlled – there are no bullies because they get quickly found out, and people have an innate toughness which doesn’t have to be put on display all the time.
“I had one kid come in with a psychiatrist report that said I had to keep an eye on him because he’d seen so much violence in his household, he didn’t have a sense of pain like a normal person would, or how much pain he could inflict on somebody. So, we tick a lot of boxes for people who have had trauma.”
On the boxing side, Andy Whitehall has produced three national champions through his project, and is taking some of his girls to competitions this month.
First up was the Esker All-Female Box Cup in Dublin, which had a record 400 participants from 15 countries attend over the weekend. And in 10 days’ time, Right Stuff will be in Newburgh, a city in the state of New York, for Guns Down Gloves Up.
“Newburgh was a great little city up until about the 1980’s when the recession hit; now it’s boarded up buildings are notorious for gangs, drugs, prostitution,” said Whitehall. “It’s about putting Newburgh in a better light and positively engaging the young people in that city.
“I’m taking people who have never had the opportunity to go to those places, so it will expose them to different cultures and diversities that you probably wouldn’t find in Staffordshire. It will expand their minds and hopefully their own personal aspirations.”
Whitehall’s aspirations are unwavering: to use his small project to make big change across Staffordshire.
When asked about a possible knighthood having been honoured with an MBE in 2013, his feet remained firmly grounded and true to his project.
He replied: “I’d trade that MBE for a young person having a decent life any day of the week.”