Sport – a positive solution for disaffected kids?

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Did you see the debate on Good Morning Britain this morning with Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid? They were debating the role that foster parents play with the children in their care and potential terrorism, in the wake of the Parson’s Green bombing last week.

I passionately believe that the National Fostering Agency should consider sport, and the ways in which it can positively impact the children in foster care (who may have experienced huge amounts of trauma in their lives) as one solution. I believe this because I have seen it for myself.

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Working with difficult kids

The discussion between Piers and Susanna took me back to my early years of coaching . I took up a position in a Pupil Referral Unit, and I truly believe the experiences I had at this school had a direct effect on my coaching journey and led me to becoming British No.1 Tennis and Olympic Coach.

I’ll cut a very long story short, but the boys I was given to look after were without doubt a massive challenge. Some of them were already involved in drug use and theft, some were violent and had even attacked teachers with knives. From a sports coaching perspective, engaging with these boys was a big ask.

Kick boxing inspires troubled teens

I was a national champion kick boxer, which had led me into coaching the art. I decided to use my skills with these very troubled boys. This was the first major experience I had of how sport could focus children’s minds. In this case, these were boys who had dramatically lost their way in life.

One of the jaw dropping moments happened at my first session, as I walked into the hall to set up. Some of the boys had concealed themselves just outside a door and were smoking and I must admit I thought, “what have I got myself into here!?” Looking back now, I still find it pretty incredible that a month into the programme, I had these boys lining up outside the door of the hall in a disciplined fashion, all bowing like proper martial arts students before entering the door and all fully focused for the session.

They all lined up as kick boxers, and trained to my counts of one, two, three… I’ve experienced a lot in sport, but without a shadow of a doubt, I’m very proud of what these boys achieved.

Boxing can give young men a focus

Below: Nino wth the England boxing team, including Amir Khan.

Boxing is a notorious sport for saving young men and boys who have taken the wrong path in life; again, I have first-hand experience of this from the time I spent as part of the England Boxing coaching team.

I was invited by England coach Jim Davison to work at Crystal Palace and the EIS World Class Centre in Manchester, both venues homes of England boxing at the time. I’ll never forget my first session at Crystal Palace. I walked into the training room as a new face and I admit that the tough looks on the faces of the young boxers were a bit intimidating. These boys were fighters and also very tough young men.

I settled in, even joined the team on social evenings to the cinema, and quickly realised that these boys were very respectful, focused, determined young men who were finding self-respect and a place in life, all through sport. Jim said to me at the end of one of our sessions, “Nino, watch out for a lad we have in the team, a boy called Amir Khan, I think he’s going to be good”, and he was right!

Tennis gives young girls a chance to shine

Both myself and my late wife Elena, co-founder of the Foundation, witnessed some of the hardships that children could endure. When Elena became interested in helping girls from deprived areas in Ipswich, I told her about my experiences and she said, “We need to use tennis to give these girls a chance.

My wife was so caring and sweet, even if on court her reputation was pretty fierce! We ended up visiting some of our girls in their homes when things got tough for them (to put it mildly). Elena took the time to have a cup of tea with the parents in their homes, and give them her time and support. Through her kindness ,and her foundation, I believe we have had a massive effect on many children’s lives – through sport and through Elena’s vision. I’m now committed to this work on a daily basis and to keeping her legacy alive through the national work we carry out with children.

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I think that the National Fostering Agency should look at ways of linking with sport, and how it could potentially give children who have had major trauma in their lives a positive life focus. Giving kids an opportunity through athletics, boxing, tennis, football, dance or any sport could have an incredible effect on where their life paths could take them.

Children grow up to become the adults in our society; we must explore all the options!

Nino Severino – Learn Play Grow Founder

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