Founded by Martin Bisp and Jamie Sanigar in 2006, Empire Fighting Chance (EFC) has transformed the Empire Boxing gym – a respected Bristol institution since the 1960s – into a vital mental health service operating in the centre of the city. With world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury frequently advocating the value of boxing and fitness towards his own mental health, the connection with boxing and emotional health has never been stronger.
EFC predominantly works with people aged eight to 25 who experience significant challenges in their lives, including those excluded from school and involved in antisocial behaviour – almost always as a result of mental health issues. With a unique programme of support, EFC provides an invaluable resource to more than 4,000 people each year in one of the UK’s most deprived areas. It offers young people who would probably not access traditional forms of therapy a variety of bespoke services designed to support complicated home lives, blighted by poverty, deprivation and inadequate housing.
“We are a charity that uses boxing, non-contact boxing and boxing training as a hook, to leverage the street credibility of the sport to knock down some of the barriers to entry for some of society’s most difficult to reach young people,” says EFC. Alongside that, it offers intensive personal development, psychological support, therapy, and advice on careers and education.
“Young people arrive at our doors with a range of behavioural and emotional issues, including anger, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem,” says Bisp. “Their distress is often expressed in ways that can lead them into trouble rather than care and support.” Young people are referred to EFC by schools, charities, pupil referral units and even the police.
Bisp says: “I’ve not yet met a 10-, 12-, or 13-year-old whose real life ambition is to be selling drugs or who wants to get involved in some of the situations they have been involved in. We have not yet met young people who have any desire to be mentally unwell. What happens is that their behaviour can manifest itself in certain ways. What we’ve found is that if you look at the symptom of anger or criminal behaviour, there are always underlying core problems. It may be chaotic home lives, it may be substance abuse by the parents, it could be domestic abuse, it could be sexual abuse. There is a whole series of factors that can lead into a behaviour that becomes symptomatic, which then gets a young person labelled.” Through its unique package of non-contact boxing and intensive personal support, EFC seeks to challenge and inspire vulnerable young people to “realise their unique potential” and participate in sport, gaining support in ways that feel natural.
Marvin Rees, the first directly elected black mayor of a UK city, trained at the gym as a young man. “I was a very lost teenager, a mixed-race kid in the middle of a racially fractured Bristol in the 1980s,” he says. “Poor family, living in the inner city about 200 metres from this club. I had a reasonable brain but I was immobilised by a fear of failure and low self-esteem. Through boxing, I got a real sense of confidence. And I was also around coaches who cared.”
Many of the young people EFC works with may have fallen through the gaps in mental health services or be waiting to receive support. “The young people we are dealing with come from chaotic home lives, maybe lack of parental support, lack of parents in total, they have mental health issues,” says Sanigar. “They want to access mental health services but the waiting list with CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services) can be six months. The hoops that a young person has to go through – visiting the GP, getting a referral to CAMHS, making that appointment, filling out the forms … That is challenging enough if you’ve got two parents in a middle-class family. But when you’ve probably not got the support, the barriers to entry for that service are too challenging and too long-winded, too time-consuming and too late in the day. Within that period of time, anything could have happened.”
Describing some mental health services as “culturally incompetent”, Rees says: “[Mental health services] are white middle-class services, designed by white middle-class people. What that means isthat if you are this type of person, it is going to work for you. If you are not, it probably won’t.”
Bisp says: “The feedback we get is that traditional talking therapy is middle-class, [young people] are often dealing with somebody they can’t relate to. We’re talking about a highly intimidatory atmosphere for a young person who is not confident and comfortable enough in themselves to sit in a room with somebody they barely know and start talking about their problems.”
Visiting the gym in 2019, Prince Harry said: “The thought of sitting down in a chair, one to one, with a therapist, can be a real deterrent. However, this is the sort of place where you don’t even realise you are being cured, but you are.”
“A lot of these kids have gone through so much, it might be physical or sexual abuse, it could be anything – and they are angry,” Bisp says. “Rather than try and tell people they shouldn’t feel angry, actually what we start talking about is that anger is perfectly normal. Anger is a manifestation of issues, and they are issues they have a right to be angry about. So, what we’re teaching them is how to react and how to deal with those situations in a way that’s constructive.”
Bisp, who developed the programme along with Sanigar and a team of sports psychologists, says that “the metaphor [they] have built through the boxing relates back to the young person’s individual life, and that’s what the psychology is trying to do. That mini-goal might be ‘don’t get thrown out of school Monday’, ‘don’t take drugs Tuesday’. The psychology is about how it relates to the boxing, but really it’s about how it relates to life.” Through positive affirmation and the strong relationship built through the sport, the coaches are then able to use that relationship to offer support outside of the gym. “I can’t just come in here and start talking to them, but we use boxing as a tool to engage them and that’s when we bring in our development points,” says Ako, a coach at EFC.
The former IBF featherweight world champion Lee Selby is a mentor at the club. “I try and get into them that I’ve worked my way up,” he says. “It’s not just sports that that works in, it’s general life. If you work hard you can achieve your goals and your dreams.” The influence of somebody such as Selby on marginalised young people – many of whom will have grown up watching and hearing of his achievements – can be dramatic. “They know I am from the same sort of background and they can relate to me,” he says. “At school they are being told what to do by some posh guy and they are not really interested.”
For many of the young people, a supportive, nurturing relationship with an adult can be a new experience. Sarah, foster mother of April, 16, describes how April’s relationship with her coach Courtney “has grown to the point where Courtney is a trusted adult. That has been a rare thing for her in her life, in her experience. It’s really important.”
This type of relationship at EFC is built and maintained over a 20-week programme that combines non-contact boxing with mentoring and psychological education. The coaches believe that boxing, being largely individual and broken into three-minute rounds, allows a unique opportunity for therapy and mentoring.
“The way that boxing is broken down into rounds means you’ve got opportunities to build relationships and to talk while they are doing the activity,” says Sanigar. “They can be skipping and you can be having a conversation. They can stop for a minute, you can have a conversation, you can’t do that in football. You have your own individual goal set by a coach, and your goal might be to get five skips. We build small mini-goals for young people to achieve.”
Ellie, 15, was referred to EFC by her therapist. “I had a really bad home growing up,” she says. “I never had space where I could just go to relax. It was always tension, tension, tension. I struggle with really bad anger issues. They have calmed down a lot, so much, since being here. Even after the first session you could see the difference. I’d keep everything in and wouldn’t let anything out. They really taught me how to open up about how I’m feeling. It’s definitely made a difference in every aspect of my life.”
Nina, who has PTSD, depression and social anxiety says Empire has made her “less anxious about being in groups, and being with new people”. She adds: “I just feel comfortable being able to come back even if I don’t have to do the sessions. I can speak to someone, it doesn’t necessarily even have to be about what’s going on, it can just be about anything which helps and it’s a nice distraction from everything else.”
Dontae, 17, was referred to the gym after being excluded from school a number of times. He is now at college studying health and fitness and says: “I started coming in more and more regularly. I started loving it and my confidence grew more and more; knowing how I feel, and telling them how I feel, and them listening to how I feel. It’s helped me to calm down. They are basically like mentors to me. My mental health has got better. My mental health was just about anger, anger, anger. Now it isn’t. I feel better, I feel more normal. I feel more awareness, mentally stronger, knowing what decisions can benefit me.”
One issue that EFC regularly identifies in young people is low self-esteem and sense of self-worth. “The level of extremity has drastically changed over recent years”, says Sanigar. “This is inner city, an area of deprivation that is going through a bit of a funny change at the moment. A three-bed house will cost you over £300,000. If you are growing up in this area with nothing – no role models, no mentors – it’s practically impossible now for you to get on the property ladder. Youth services have been closed. There is nothing for them and they are becoming more isolated, sitting in their bedrooms. They are living a fantasy life on their phones, where it’s Instagram, Snapchat – all these wonderful lives out there. They are suddenly looking at their lives and it is destroying their self-esteem.”
Once a young person has been supported psychologically, EFC looks to address some of the issues which have a detrimental effect on a young person’s wellbeing and self-esteem, such as unemployment. Its careers service sees 90% of users find employment, training or higher education.
Sanigar says: “It’s inspiring young people to understand the opportunities that are out there, which they often won’t get to see. With careers we look at what inspires you, what is it that gets you excited. If it’s football, the likelihood is you’re not going to be a Premier League footballer but we will take you up to a local football club. There are 80 different trades there, from the marketing department to the stadium manager to the groundsman. [These are] all careers in football at one level or another. It may still involve them getting a shift at Tesco or Ikea, to work their way along that ladder but there is an ultimate goal. For us, it’s about making the underlying, lasting changes to a person’s life.”
One of the employment schemes EFC runs is with local coffee roasters Extract Coffee, who offer a barista training programme. Steven, 20, found employment after completing the course: “I wouldn’t have got the job at Boston Tea Party without Empire giving me that push. When I started coming to Empire I wasn’t in a great place, but now everything has changed. After doing boxing sessions day by day, my mood generally got a lot better. I feel happier, I don’t have those days when I don’t feel like doing anything because I don’t have the self-esteem or the energy. I’m actively looking to do stuff. Compared to where I first started that’s quite a big leap.”
EFC has also trained qualified therapists in non-contact boxing skills in order to provide support to young people with some of the most severe mental health issues.
“The demographic we have here is very varied,” says therapist Jane Ivall. “Often they will be some of the hardest-to-reach young people. The fact they are engaging and connecting here is a good starting point for them engaging and connecting with us. Here, there is a whole range of people with a whole range of issues, and we just come alongside them using the medium of boxing to enable them to access mental health support. The boxing breaks down the barriers to traditional therapy. It enables people to open up and access things they traditionally may not feel comfortable to access. Talking about a trauma is complex. Working physically enables you to shift trauma, to explore things and to build a rapport and trust with a therapist quicker.”
For many who come to EFC, boxing has a unique appeal that alleviates any stigma that may come with accessing more traditional mental health or careers services. Sanigar points to the “credibility and grit” about what EFC does: “Boxers and boxing gyms are respected within these communities. I would say that in any deprived community in the world there is a boxing gym. [Young people] are not embarrassed to come. They can be in here, doing a CV, doing homework, having a one-to-one session with a therapist, having a group session, with a coach and some psychology, some career goals, this and that. And that’s the beauty of it. To everyone else, they’ve just been to the boxing club.”
In 2019, EFC supported 4,245 young people. The impact is striking. Among those young people, the suicide ideation rate dropped significantly and 74% are no longer at risk of exclusion from school, 78% are no longer committing antisocial or criminal behaviour, 84% are more motivated and 73% are happier.
According to Rees, “the benefits to the wider city are pretty straightforward: a healthier population. Young people who are less likely to become mentally unwell, who have more structure in their lives and who are better able to develop their own talents, abilities and ambitions in life. They are also less likely to become service users, or engage in activities that take away the quality of life from other people.”
For Ivall, EFC is “almost like a one-stop community shop … with support and care, and I’m going to use the word love, though the boxing guys would probably shoot me for that. [There is] support of real compassion and kindness which is un-judgmental and nondiscriminatory in any shape, size or form. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you come through that door you can have that support. That’s life-changing.”
“We’re not careers specialists, we’re not education specialists, we’re not mental health specialists,” says Bisp. “We’ve had to just do our best and what we think is right, and thankfully the results over the last 10 years have proven that what we do does work”.