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Culture Edition, Sports Cultural KO


By: Kevin Smith •  4 years ago •  

As a teenager growing up in Liverpool in the seventies, there were only two options, either football or boxing. My brothers and I were actually quite accomplished footballers, so that was our main sport. Our father, however, had been a champion boxer in his younger days and was the chairman of the Golden Gloves Amateur Boxing Club in Liverpool, so that was where I mostly trained whilst playing football.

In 1986, at 22, I suffered a fairly serious injury playing football when my tibia was broken during a tackle. During the healing process I took up boxing and started competing for the Golden Gloves on the domestic boxing circuit. The Golden Gloves coach at the time was George Schofield, another well-known Liverpool fighter. He decided to take out a professional license as my club mate, Shea Neary, wanted to turn professional. Shea went on to win a WBU light-welterweight World Title, losing eventually in 2000 to Micky Ward – a momentous fight that was later immortalised in the film ‘The Fighter’ with Mark Wahlberg. So with nobody else willing or trusted to take up the reins at the Golden Gloves in 1991, I took over as the head coach.

At the Golden Gloves, I was surrounded by many of the great Liverpool boxers and coaches while growing up. My father was a club mate and sparring partner of Alan Rudkin, the then British Champion who fought legendary Lionel Rose for the World Bantamweight Title in Melbourne, 1969 (Lionel Rose was the first Indigenous Australian to win a world title). During those years, I got a lot of pleasure in helping young athletes achieve success and began to learn about the complexities of being a good coach and decided I wanted to excel at the profession.

I have always made time to listen to every coach that I have been fortunate enough to learn from. My main mentors through these years were George Vaughan, the patriarch of a very famous Liverpool fighting family and Joe Harper. Joe was a highly ranked flyweight boxer in the 1950s and 60s competing for Caryl Gardens Amateur Boxing Club, also in Liverpool. Joe assisted me at the Golden Gloves ABC in Liverpool for nearly 20 years until I was appointed as the National Head Coach for Scotland in 2007.

I coached in Scotland for two years and my approach was to develop athletes into independent, smart competitors. You want a boxer who can quickly analyse an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and adapt their style and tactics to overcome them without me having to spell it out for them. I would say that I have a democratic approach to coaching – allowing athletes to have a greater input as they develop their knowledge and understanding of themselves and their sport.

After the London Olympics 2012, Boxing Australia restructured dramatically and went from a centralised programme to one where the boxers stayed at home training at their local boxing clubs, only coming together for training camps or tournaments. The former head coach had retired so the position was advertised around the world and I was fortunate enough to make it through the interview process and be offered the position. I had no difficulties making the change to Australia, having coached internationally previously in Scotland, Nigeria and the Philippines. Wherever you go in the world you will find a ‘scouser’, I think it is in our nature to explore and push back the boundaries of what is achievable. I usually make friends easily and my family have always supported my coaching career. Boxing is a universal sport populated by honest, down-to- earth people wherever you go.

Unsurprisingly there are very few differences between the people in Australia and those back home in Liverpool. Culturally, the weather is the deciding factor. For instance, if we had this weather back home in Liverpool then we would all spend most of our time on the beach in Southport or Ainsdale, much the same as Australians do living near the coast, rather than indoors training! Here, Rugby and Swimming are some of the number one sports, alongside sports like surfing, or shark-dodging as I call it, and the simply fantastic weather keeps everyone outdoors. The large geographical distances between gyms here is also a problem to overcome. In the Liverpool area alone there are about 20 gyms, each with a large boxing team supporting all age groups. Here it is very difficult for gyms to get together for sparring because of the time involved in travelling, which is unfortunate. We have made great strides in the last few years bringing non-contact boxing back onto school curricula, and found that the feedback we received was very positive. I was involved in developing a National Vocational Qualification in the Further Education Colleges to give young boxers the opportunity to gain a nationally recognised qualification whilst pursuing their chosen sport. Some of the graduates then went on to study for a degree in sport or coaching at University-level.

There are differences in the sporting body organisation between countries, however. The fact that each state in Australia has its own legislative body complicates matters, although I am not very familiar with governance issues. In England, all of the boxing clubs register with their local association who are then members of the national governing body. There are always major differences in the way the sport is governed in different countries but the coaches and athletes have been very similar and very respectful wherever I have worked in the world. You should always change your coaching approach to compliment the environment in which you work. There are social and cultural differences in all countries and it is important to find out how you can best help your colleagues and students to work together for the common good.

Having now worked as a coach in some capacity for five different countries, I would definitely say that you need a strong support network around you from your employers, the Board (who you are ultimately responsible to), right down to the coaches and support staff that you work with on a regular basis. I am extremely fortunate to have a very experienced and wise National Development Coach as my offsider who has helped me to settle into Australia and my role as the National Head Coach.

It has actually been quite easy to build a rapport among the team as we share a common goal and we have the same drive and passion to succeed. Whenever we get the boxers together, they quickly gel and support each other’s efforts. All the staff want the boxers to achieve their full potential and we will do whatever we can to assist their endeavours. Boxing and Rugby are fairly similar in that no matter how fierce the competition and how hard the combatants have fought, once the final bell rings there is a massive amount of mutual respect and praise for one another. Lasting friendships are forged.

Boxing Australia is committed to helping our athletes achieve success at the Olympic Games. It would be a fantastic reward for all our efforts if we could help place an Australian boxer on the Olympic Podium in Rio. We now have a daunting task just to qualify our boxers through the Asia Oceania Olympic Qualifying Event in China in March 2016, but those boxers that do win their way through can have great confidence in doing well later this year in Rio.

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