Ken Cowen is CEO and founder of School of Hard Knocks, a social inclusion charity which uses sport to tackle the issues surrounding education, unemployment, crime and health.
This week we read the open letter from the Sport Collision Injury Collective, which appeals for the banning of tackling and contact in school age rugby.
I will leave it to others to judge to what extent their ‘evidence’ may be flawed and ask if they are preying on the fears of parents who do not understand what a properly coached and supervised contact session looks like. A lot is already being said about the pure physical benefit of playing rugby when obesity is on the rise, but I want to highlight a different benefit altogether, which is that of emotional health and wellbeing.
The aim of the School of Hard Knocks charity is to help its beneficiaries ‘realise their potential’. The adult version of the work is well documented by Sky Sports but in January 2015 the charity launched a new programme, ‘SOHK for Schools’ for children aged 13-16 years old.
Most of the children we work with are struggling for motivation and a sense of engagement with school; others are in need of increased personal confidence and a sense of well-being. Others still are on the cusp of permanent exclusion from mainstream education. Many are a combination of all three.
SOHK for Schools takes pupils that have been selected by the schools on a three year journey, from year 9 through to year 11 in which mentoring and rugby coaching is combined. We are talking every week of the school year from year 9 through to year 11, intentionally using rugby as a means of personal transformation.
The results of a study at the Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) Department of Forensic Psychology suggested that the success of SOHK delivery is founded upon three well-established psychological principles: self-control, social bonds and self-efficacy.
Consider for a moment what happens every weekend in the inner cities of the UK when people, for whatever reason, square up to each other with violent intent. The outcomes are seldom positive.
A desire not to lose face – especially if fuelled by alcohol or even the encouragement of bystanders – all too often leads to serious injury, possible imprisonment and the resulting loss of employment or at least a loss of prospects.
This isn’t a small problem in our country: in the year ending June 2015, the police recorded 26,535 offences involving a knife or sharp instrument, a 4% increase compared with the previous year (Source: Office of National Statistics).
Now consider what happens when a defender playing Rugby Union lines up their ball-carrying opponent. To the casual or uninitiated viewer, rugby can appear anything but controlled at this point of contact. That would be a complete misunderstanding of what is actually happening.
Even before that moment of collision, both players are thinking about what needs to be done in order to serve the overarching goal of their respective teams: the ball carrier is considering how to manage his body through the tackle in such a way that the ball is presented towards his own team mates, thus giving them every chance to maintain possession.
The defender is thinking about completing the tackle and then, in accordance with the laws of the game, releasing the player he has tackled and then getting out of the way despite the almost overwhelming urge to do otherwise and get hold of the ball!
Do rugby players manage to do this perfectly? Of course not! However there is a discipline and thinking process that is coached into the minds of players that for the most part trumps the temptation to transgress.
When participants go through the SOHK course, we are encouraging them through the rugby coaching to recalibrate their responses to those moments of verbal and physical confrontation in the school playground and beyond, with a disciplined mindset. This comes through repetition and practice, just like most learned behaviours.
The early evidence in our schools work is that this approach to consciously use the physicality of the sport to increase self control is working. In the first year of the programme, we saw a 71% reduction in referrals for behaviour amongst the most disengaged year 9 pupils.
It never ceases to amaze me how quickly SOHK participants within weeks of joining a course become such a tightly knitted group. Even last week during a coaching a session, I brought the lads together and asked what they had learned from the morning’s session. Hoping for some feedback even vaguely to do with rucking, I got something far better when someone said: “That we are becoming a team.”
Of course there are many sports that create social bonds but the beauty in rugby is the absolute fact that there is a place for anybody, regardless of their body type and skill level. The contact element brings individuals together in a way that ‘touch rugby’, as good as that is, simply can’t.
One older participant said that: “For me, it has gone a long way in terms of building new friendships. With rugby came true acceptance even for all my faults. It gave me a sense of belonging and with that, a sense of purpose as well.”
In a context where young people feel isolated and unheard, the social bonds created through rugby are, in the experience of countless individuals, simply life changing.
The vast majority of SOHK for Schools participants are disengaged and consequently feel utterly disempowered. A lack of self belief is a recurring theme amongst both age groups we work with and in many ways, this is our biggest challenge, as that lack of belief combined with a lack of structure and sense of purpose becomes a huge barrier to progression. The third principle that SOHK is based upon therefore is that of self efficacy; that is, an individual’s belief in his or her ability and capacity to accomplish a task or to deal with the challenges of life.
A key and oft-repeated message from our coaches is that “You are capable of achieving far more than you can imagine, if you put in the necessary amount of work”.
Learning the sport more or less from scratch, our players are taken well and truly out of their comfort zone when they are taught the contact side of the game and it is fair to say that they are definitely challenged both intellectually (as they learn new aspects of the game each week) and of course physically. The net result however is that players are able to reflect back on the journey they have made and see remarkable progress in a relatively short period of time. So the coaches can say to them:
“Remember what you were like at the beginning of term – and see what you have done today! If you can achieve this much on a rugby pitch in just a few months, can you imagine what you are capable of achieving in the next two years in all areas of life?”
This is an incredibly empowering message and it is far more than a mere ‘pre-match’ motivational speech. At SOHK, we deliberately and regularly challenge ‘fixed mindsets’ which assumes that things can’t be changed (so what’s the point in trying?). The counter to this is a ‘growth mindset’ which assumes that things can change for the good with the right amount of work and application.
When pupils start to access this mindset, through constant coaching and practice on the training pitch, it slowly begins to take root in other areas, where they start to take responsibility and work that bit harder. Their self esteem begins to grow because they are getting praise and positive feedback. One Head teacher of a School in East London told me that she was completely blown away recently by the first properly written piece of work that one of our players has produced in two years. She directly relates that to the impact of rugby in this young mans life.
The day to day reality of course is not always that neat. One 14 year old pupil who was removed by social services recently from a chaotic home background and placed into care said to one of our coaches: “School of Hard Knocks is the only thing I look forward to in my life.” That is, at the same time gut-wrenchingly sad but also massively encouraging to our coaches, because they know that they are having an impact. An impact that in my view outweighs the risk of injury.
Yes, it goes without saying that everyone involved in the sport has keep player welfare as an absolute priority and this includes continuing an open dialogue about safety. Of course there are legitimate concerns around concussion which are being constantly reviewed by the RFU (the governing body of the sport) with improved protocols. What saddens me however, is the blanket refusal of this lobby to acknowledge the overwhelmingly positive social and physical effect that rugby has on thousands of children in the UK.
The danger is that we throw the baby out with the bath water and in mitigating against every possible physical injury, we risk depriving our young people, including the vulnerable children SOHK work with – from gaining great emotional reward.
We use sport to tackle the issues surrounding unemployment, crime and health. We work with individuals to help them take reponsibility and take positive steps forward in their lives.