Young people who have offended or who are at risk of offending due to anger and emotional challenges are turning their lives around through mixed martial arts.
Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, Southend Combat Academy and the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex are working together to set youths on a better path for life.
The Southend Youth Mixed Martial Arts Programme has been launched in an effort to encourage young people to channel their emotions in a more positive way by challenging and changing negative thinking patterns and behaviour through disciplines like boxing and kickboxing.
The project has been funded with £5,000 from the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex’s (PFCC) Community Safety Development Fund covering three separate courses through the year.
Kirsty Horseman, project manager for the Council’s Sports and Leisure Services, approached the Academy to create the bespoke programme.
She said: “I had been working closely with our Early Help Family Support & Youth Offending Service, which does fantastic work with vulnerable young people, to see where there was a need for us to support their work and offer physical activity intervention support. A lot of the young people the Early Help Family Support & Youth Offending Service are working with have issues with anger and so we wanted to try to channel that in a positive way to help break the cycle of offending some of these young people are in or are heading for.
“I had heard about the work Southend Combat Academy was already doing for young people and so got in touch. This programme is exactly what we wanted and needed.”
The six-week course sees young people, aged 12 to 18, attend twice a week for an hour, supported by their Case Workers.
Simon Dempsey, Head Coach at Southend Combat Academy, feels the candidates can relate to him as he himself turned his own life around to be a successful father, businessman and coach.
He said: “We are a fighting academy, here to help prepare young people for the challenges of life and help young people get on and achieve their potential.
“We command their respect pretty quickly and they have six weeks to turn things around and get their future back.
“We challenge them. If they are feeling angry or aggressive, they can come here and channel it in a positive and safe environment. It gets them off the street where they might otherwise be getting caught up in trouble and it gives them an emotional and physical outlet. Most of the exercises we do help to release pent-up feelings or emotions and really challenge them to achieve their goals. This cycle of achieving helps young people to realise that other possibilities and opportunities are out there to be worked for.
“I’ve been in their shoes. There’s nothing they can do or say that’s going to shock me. I remember being one of the naughty ones at school, but I used to really connect with the PE staff. I went on an adventure weekend and had nothing but respect for those teachers, they took the time to get to know me and help me.
“Many of the young people we are seeing have very volatile home environments and only have negative attention in their lives. This is about making them feel they belong somewhere.”
The hope is for the course to be recognised by the court system and offered as a legal intervention, rather than the voluntary status it currently has.
Once the young people have completed the six-week course and have received their certificate, they are given free access to the club for three months in the hope they continue with the same positive focus.
This ongoing commitment from the club, post course, is key to sustaining the positive influence and hard work being instilled in these young lives.
Mr Dempsey said: “There would be no point putting them on the course and then sending them off. “They need to surround themselves with more positive peers. Here, they will associate with kids who are travelling and competing in fights and achieving great things like getting healthy, losing weight, increased confidence, better focus and concentration, respect and discipline and above all, aspiring to do better. We want to get them hooked for life.”
“The success is when we see them change as people. We do an evaluation and talk about their aspirations at the end and the difference in self-respect and aspiration is amazing. Coming here helps to calm their minds and focus on their health and wellbeing. For an hour, they are allowed to release their aggression safely. If they want to hit something, they can do it in a controlled environment and without being told off for it, this helps combat the negative cycle of pent up aggression, anger, frustration and other emotions.
“This programme is not about teaching young people to fight better on the streets; our regime instils a profound sense of discipline, order, self-control, and respect, and reduces the risks of young people getting into trouble.
“We want to capture them before they have a story to tell. We want to change their futures rather than having to put things right they have already done wrong.”
Without the PFCC funding, the course could not exist.
Kirsty said: “We really need the support of the PFCC. This has been a great pilot to see how it could work. Our aspiration is to run it again and help even more young people.
“We want to use this as a way of bringing youth crime down to a small minority and help create safer and healthier communities. We are having such a positive impact working with these young people, Simon and I are very proud of the programmes’ success and how hard our participants have worked.”
Roger Hirst, Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex, said: “I’m delighted to hear about the success of this project which we have been able to support via the Community Safety Development Fund. It is making a real impact to the lives of young people in Southend. By channelling their energies we can keep them away from anti-social behaviour and from being preyed upon by gangs.”
Cllr Tony Cox, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council’s cabinet member for adults and housing, said: “The Southend Youth Mixed Martial Arts Programme is a vital and important service available to an extremely vulnerable client group. We want to give these young people a chance they didn’t have and see the possibilities of something totally different than the world their used to seeing.
“In the current climate of increased concerns and risks around County Lines, drugs and gang violence, specific programmes like this which are aimed to engage at risk young people in positive activities and take them away from negativity, are becoming more and more important. Programmes like this provide a much-needed platform for a socially excluded group of young people to meet with positive role models in the community and work on improving their self-esteem so that they can make positive changes in their life. The Council is extremely grateful to the PFCC for the funding and to Southend Combat Academy for delivering such a successful community programme.”
• From cohort one, 80% now attend the Academy regularly
• From cohort two, 70% now attend the Academy regularly
“One 14-year-old was getting into trouble and so attended the course.
He completed the course and has since continued training with the club.
He was here so often and his behaviour changed so much that his mum did not believe he was coming here. She thought he was on his best behaviour at home to cover up any trouble he may have been involved in outside.
He was actually here most days volunteering and helping out with the younger classes and then staying on to train himself after. When his mum realised, she was blown away by the changes in her son.”
Simon Dempsey, Head Coach at Southend Combat Academy
Other feedback from young people includes:
“I can channel my energy into something positive and healthy, rather than getting into trouble.”
Participant on Cohort 1
“My confidence is much better – I had felt like I had nothing in my life, now I have something and people who are bothered about me.”
Participant on Cohort 1
“MMA has made me feel a lot better about myself and has made me think a lot about the stupid things I have done. It has built my confidence. The Head Coach has a very approachable personality; he pushes you to be your very best and makes sure you succeed.”
Participant on Cohort 2
“Joining MMA has boosted my confidence massively. I have become more independent and I have somewhere to take my anger out. It also helps with my emotions to help stop my anxiety and depression. I enjoy coming here and am still coming here to use my membership.”
Participant on Cohort 2
“This programme was absolutely exhilarating! I learned a lot about self-defence and how to release my anger in a safe way. It taught me about team work and it was really good fun. I will definitely be coming back to use my membership.”
Participant on Cohort 3
“The course has motivated me to do a lot more within my fitness and it has actually helped me stop smoking. Doing this course has helped me to release stress and anger when I need to, I also feel a lot healthier and it has made me feel a lot more confident in myself.”
Participant on Cohort 3
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