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Rapport Building and Communicating Developing Mindsets

Great Britain Coach Reveals Full Extent of the Transformative Power of Boxing

Boxing has earned a reputation as a sport that transforms troubled lives. Chatting to Blake Richardson, Q Shillingford MBE draws on examples from his own experiences as a top amateur fighter and elite coach to explain how boxing consistently packs a powerful and positive punch

Your starter for ten.

He is a former national boxing champion; served his country as a member of the Royal Navy; is a current Great Britain Performance Coach and England Boxing Talent Development Coach, and, as anyone who knows him will happily testify, can talk for England too. To those whose lives he has transformed, he is also a national treasure.

His name begins with the letter Q – and ends with the letter Q!

It can only be the irrepressible Quinton Hosford Ernest O’Brien Shillingford MBE, more commonly known as Q, who is a big name in the boxing world both literally and figuratively. 

When Q talks, he will soon have you hooked. Not literally of course, but his words certainly left their mark on me. Here was someone who talks a good game but can also follow it through with decisive action.

Transferrable life skills

Q is testimony to the influence a dedicated coach and life-skills mentor can have on developing such transferrable skills as discipline, respect, resilience, dedication, commitment, mental toughness and courage in disaffected and disenfranchised young people who lack positive role models.

His Heart of Portsmouth Boxing Academy continues to grow year on year. The community enterprise is a seven-days-a-week operation, run by one paid coach and 11 volunteers, catering for every ability level and all age groups (from six to 62).

A week in the life of Q is never dull. When we speak, he is about to head back to the club for a training session with a former prisoner and drug addict who has turned his life around and now coaches at the club. The previous day he had been coaching on an England Talent camp for schoolboy and schoolgirl championship finalists, putting around 100 boxers through their paces at the English Institute of Sport (EIS) in Sheffield.

In a few days, he will be hosting a Talent Development camp in his own gym for schoolboys, juniors, youths and seniors.

And he has recently returned from the European Junior Championships is Bulgaria, where his England team won five gold medals and three silver medals.

His schedule is diverse to say the least. So, when I catch up with him, I should really have been prepared for the unexpected. However, when he told me that minutes earlier he had been sparring with a group of public schoolgirls in morning assembly, I admit I was caught with my guard down. Gobsmacked, you might say!

I will let him explain…


Progressive journey into coaching

“I was at Portsmouth High School, an independent school for girls, at 8am this morning to get ready for assembly with the whole school, where 19 girls demonstrated pad work and sparring, showing what they had learned on my GB National Boxing Awards (NBA) programme.

I put a head guard on, and the girls put on their head guards and put in their gum-shields and there we were jabbing, crossing and body punching and everyone in the hall was “wow!”. The teachers and more than 400 pupils couldn’t believe it because they don’t see those girls in that light. The confidence and courage that they showed was a real eye-opener for them.”

The girls, who have all taken their Gold, Silver and Platinum boxing awards, have learnt the whole array of pugilistic skills, including skipping, pad work, bag work, shadow boxing and how to throw combinations.

Those who join the NBA programme (gym members are automatically enrolled) begin by taking the Preliminary, Standard and Bronze awards as a non-contact introduction to the sport.

“You learn how to execute the basic movements like the jab, the cross and the hook, all the straight-arm and bent-arm shots and defensive skills. At the same time, you can put it towards your Duke of Edinburgh, Prince’s Trust, BTEC or PE GCSE," explains Q.

The Tutor Course, meanwhile, is for those who want to deliver boxing in their school, college or youth club or full-contact boxing in England Boxing-affiliated clubs.

The programme is a deliberately designed journey to suit everybody’s needs and motivations, with a seamless progression into coaching for those who want to go down that route.

“I just want to get the word out so that the schools realise the far-reaching benefits of having non-contact or recreational boxing in their curriculum and that they can also use the Awards programme to qualify as a tutor. That way we can increase the participation of boxing and get more people into the sport as a coach.

“I told the girls right from the start, ‘I don’t want any of you to compete, I do not need any more fighters, I have one of the biggest clubs in the country. What I want to do is build your courage, confidence and self-belief’.

“Don’t get me wrong, a lot of sports give you that – I get that it’s not exclusive to boxing – but unless you have been inside the ropes and heard that bell sound, you do not realise the courage it takes.”


Boxing the best medicine

During our chat (which stretches way beyond the anticipated 30 minutes!), Q regales me with numerous stories of how boxing has played an important role in people’s lives.

One of his volunteer coaches used to be a Royal Navy physical training instructor like Q. He has multiple sclerosis, which has rendered him wheelchair bound.

He tells me, ‘Q, I can’t stop the process, but I can slow it down’. His wife says his well-being has been improved immeasurably by boxing. It is a massive help and one more example of why we need to be encouraging boxing as an activity in as many settings as we can.”

Wherever Q is working, and whoever he is working with from one day to the next, the profound and varied benefits of boxing are always clearly discernible.

A meeting with MP Chris Grayling when he was Secretary of State for Justice serves as an example of how boxing can also be a powerful tool in the successful rehabilitation of ex-offenders.

Grayling had learned on the government grapevine of 10 former inmates Q had taken under his wing as part of their probation programme. He enrolled them on the Awards programme and, a year and a half into their probation, none had reoffended and four were still regulars at the club.

When Grayling visited Portsmouth, Q told him he knew exactly why that was: “Because they had finally encountered someone who didn’t judge them.”

He gave Grayling a brief potted history of his own tough childhood growing up as a mixed-race child in a single-parent household in the exclusively white area of Andover in the 1970s.

He told him of the lifetime friendship he had struck up with Head Coach of Andover Boxing Club Billy Pike, who he first met aged nine and who he describes as “like my surrogate father and my first male role model”.

Luckily sport steered me away from the street and the street didn’t get hold of me like it did some of my friends, but I also learned that everyone has a lovely kid in them,” adds Q.

A second chance at life

He went on to tell Grayling that the first thing he does with those who haven’t been as lucky as he has been in discovering a positive role model and a love of sport is to put himself in that person’s shoes. He says he understands the mindset of individuals who feel shunned by their own communities and in desperate need of a second chance in life.

“Say someone has gone to prison for robbery. The whole street where they live knows that they robbed a house and has served a jail sentence. So, no one trusts them when they get out. They can’t get a job because the area they live is so small everyone knows their story. People will be talking behind their back.

“Or it might be drugs or alcohol related. Basically, when they come out, they haven’t got a chance. Not only have they done their time, they are now serving a worse sentence because no one wants to talk to them or trust them or even be seen with them.

“I said to Chris Grayling that ex-prisoners can come into our gym and they are not judged, whatever they have done.

“We’ve had ex-inmates on a probation course who have worked their way through the awards and tutor courses so that they have no reason to sit at home and get frustrated, no reason to roam the streets with their old street gang – they can come here.

So you have empowered them by giving them a qualification; you’ve taught them a sport and activity so they feel they have been educated; and on top of that you give them cause to go and deliver what they have learned to other people, with that bit of authority and confidence that comes with it.

“People have said to me in the past, “Why do you let them in, they are a nightmare”. And I’ll say, “They have been a nightmare in the past, but they are not a nightmare now”.’


‘Boxing coaches are like youth workers’

Q had 142 fights as an amateur before being forced to hang up his gloves aged just 22 because of permanent damage to his wrists.

He has no regrets though, maintaining he ‘had a good innings’ – an innings which saw him reign supreme as Royal Navy champion from 1985-91 and Combined Services champion from 1987-91, before going on to become head coach of the Royal Navy and the Combined Services squads during his years as a Physical Training Instructor coaching and training recruits to become servicemen.

The Forces paid for Q to take his coaching qualifications and progress through the Levels and his success with the Navy (at one point, every member of the team was ranked in the top 10 in the country) meant it was only a matter of time before England came calling.

Q compares boxing coaches to youth workers.

The way we keep kids off the street is unreal. We’ve got some real hard to reach kids in our gym. I was the same. I see a lot of kids and I think I know exactly where you’re coming from. I know for a fact that sport can change lives because it’s changed my life.

“Coaching is a passion and has given me the platform to have an enjoyable career and to make a difference to the people in the community with similar backgrounds to myself.”

Three founding principles

Q’s Heart of Portsmouth Boxing Academy is founded on three underpinning principles.

Firstly, you have to make people feel welcome – “because that means they will come back again”; secondly you have to make people feel that they are developing; and thirdly, you have to believe in everyone – “no matter what stage of the journey they are on, you have to believe they will achieve that. So, if it is fighting for an international title, you have to believe they can win it.”

Belief. Such a small word that can make such a huge difference to people’s lives.

It is imperative that a coach believes in their athletes. But you must also make them believe in you.

“Everyone has got a champion in them,” insists Q. “A coach has got to take the champion out of the person. You have to tease it out sometimes by talking to them and making them believe in you. I don’t mean bully them into doing things. Make them believe that you believe in them.

They can’t all be boxing champions, but I see people years later who tell me about their jobs and careers and that they are doing well. I don’t think many of them realise that being disciplined with their training and putting in that effort and commitment for so many years when they were younger helped them get to where they are today.

“They might have to work late to get a job done, knuckle down and show resilience to hit certain deadlines. Whatever it might be, your training as an athlete puts those building blocks in place.”

And there you have it: the empowering philosophy that coaching is about developing better people, not just better performers, delivered with the power and precision of a Joe Frazier left hook.

Q has produced champions in the ring, but an even longer line of champions out of the ring by helping those he has coached lead successful lives they can be proud of.

And, what’s more, in the years to come there will be a long line of other young people in Portsmouth waiting to join the Q.

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