An interview by Dr John Barry with boxing coach Paddy Benson of Birmingham’s Pat Benson Boxing Academy.
It’s a familiar story. A young rebellious man seems out of control, always getting into conflict and looking destined for prison. Somehow he finds out about the local boxing club. Maybe it’s his last chance, or maybe it’s just a challenge he won’t refuse. But one thing leads to another and he suddenly finds that he has got something that is more important in his life than getting into trouble. Somehow or other, boxing has saved him from wasting his life.
If the NHS clinical psychology or forensic psychology services could replicate this kind of success story they would quickly recognise it as a breakthrough treatment programme. In fact some people outside boxing are starting to recognise the mental health benefits of this activity, and it just so happens that an old-school boxing club in Birmingham is leading the way. When I found out a few months ago that something called the Mind-Fit programme had won a mental health prize, I tracked down Paddy Benson of the Pat Benson Boxing Academy as quick as I could to find out more:
Barry: Congratulations Paddy on getting a prize for your wellbeing programme. What are your thoughts on your programme, and on the impact of boxing on men’s mental health?
Benson: It started after we had a guy who was from a substance abuse background. He used to train a lot, but sometimes he would go missing. We knew when he went missing he was on a relapse. One day we started chatting with him, and he opened up and said he really valued the structure and routine of the boxing training, which is why he kept coming back. That’s what he was really looking for and that kept him on the right track, away from drugs. We realised that we hadn’t given him any special treatment, but the boxing environment and routine had helped him deal with drugs. In fact of course training is a natural high, a release of endorphins.
Within about 30 mins radius there are lots of charities where we are in Birmingham, so we talked to them and put together a basic mental health package. We think that men’s mental health is a taboo subject at present, but one that will explode soon.
We evolved this programme due to feedback. We try to get the best out of everyone. Our strategy is inclusive – it’s not just for the top half-percent of boxers to win national titles. The programme is one hour per week doing bags and pads in a traditional boxing club, and participants like being coached in this real environment.
We have some specialist mentor staff, we have a social group – basically getting men to talk – and the feedback has been fantastic. We’ve had a national sporting award, and started getting funding. This is social prescribing. These guys are going to their GP but don’t necessarily need a clinical psychologist. For some people who have been using drugs or homeless, just eating fresh fruit is a new thing. The routine is the main thing.
We have worked with Nottingham Trent for a case study, but more with Brunel. Street Games provided free mental health first aid. Some of the participants get back on the straight and narrow, become mentors themselves, and even go on to university.
Barry: Are other things like martial arts just as good, or is boxing special?
Benson: Getting fit and building trust is key. Anyone will feel better. And staying away from drugs. Maybe boxing is more old school so there is a special sort of traditional aura. Our trainers have been around. This does help build trust. It’s hard to explain, but over time participants start to talk. They even start to trust themselves more when they feel more confident and healthy.
Barry: Do you think gaining meaning in life is important?
Benson: Yes, if you have been homeless or on drugs you know you are on the wrong path. When they meet us they mostly right away want to get their lives back on track. Finding an identity and purpose in life is a real achievement. They also learn to help others and give something back.
Some of the findings of my research in male psychology are things that are fairly unsurprising to most people who haven’t been steeped in the ideology of gender studies. However in these strange days when traditional masculinity is misunderstood even by psychologists in the US and UK, finding ways to help men’s mental health can sometimes be best done outside of mainstream mental health services. Important understandings about gender aren’t yet part of the psychology syllabus, for example, that when distressed, women often want to talk about their feelings whereas men would rather fix their problems. With men more likely than women to kill themselves, but less likely to seek help from a therapist, it’s my prediction that rediscovering how men have, for generations, been taking care of their mental health might benefit modern psychology. Activities like boxing might not appeal to everyone, but a pilot study by Brunel found it worked for the 24 participants on Benson’s Mind-Fit programme. Without a doubt the merit of this approach is worth further investigation.
About Paddy Benson
Paddy Benson trains in the Pat Benson Boxing Academy, a club based Birmingham’s Irish Quarter – produced the likes of champion Matthew Macklin and is currently training future world class boxers. The Academy was created to honour legendary trainer from Mayo in Ireland, Pat Benson, after he was crowned BBC Unsung Hero 2010. Pat and his grandson Paddy, a University business graduate who has also boxed for England Youth, work together in the family run club. Paddy will be giving a short presentation at the Male Psychology Conference at University College London in June.
About John Barry
Dr John Barry is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, Honorary Lecturer in Psychology at University College London, clinical hypnotherapist, and author of over 60 peer-reviewed publications on a variety of topics in psychology and medicine. John is a professional researcher and has taken an interest in improving the teaching of research methods and statistics. He has practiced clinical hypnosis
for several years and is a member of the British Association of Clinical and Academic Hypnosis. His Ph.D. was awarded by City University London, on the topic of the Psychological Aspects of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. He is co-founder of the Male Psychology Network, and co-founder of the Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. He is one of the authors of the new Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-04384-1
John has blogged previously on the mental health benefits of boxing.