Boxing consistently punches above its weight. Just as Muhammad Ali is often described as a sportsman who transcended boxing, so boxing has the power to transcend sport, with its unparalleled ability to transform troubled lives. Here, Q Shillingford MBE draws on countless examples from his own experiences as a top amateur fighter and elite coach to show 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.
The 2012 UK Coaching Awards Community Coach of the Year made a welcome return to the annual showpiece with two charismatic cameo performances at The Honourable Artillery Company in London on November 30.
Fittingly, he presented the 2017 Community Coach of the Year accolade to kindred spirit Marcellus Baz BME, who organises free boxing sessions for young vulnerable people in some of the most deprived areas of Nottingham.
And Q popped up again later to deliver some inspirational words of wisdom to the 200-strong audience when interviewed by Denise Lewis OBE (pictured below).
They chatted about the three underpinning principles on which his Heart of Portsmouth Boxing Academy is founded, and which have helped make it one of the most successful clubs in the country, in terms of participation and achievements. More of that later.
For now, let’s just say Q had me hooked. Not literally of course, but his words certainly left their mark. Here was someone who talks a good game but can also follow it through with decisive action.
Many in the industry are familiar with his inspirational story following his 2012 UK Coaching Awards success. I wanted to bring it bang up to date.
NBA to MBE
Coaching Edge – the nation’s leading coaching magazine produced by UK Coaching and published by Coachwise – featured Q in its 2013 autumn issue, with the brilliantly succinct headline ‘Q tips’, where it shone the spotlight on his GB National Boxing Awards (NBA) programme.
The following year, in 2014, Q was awarded an MBE by the Queen in the New Year’s Honours list for his services to boxing and young people.
His 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).
Regarding Q’s coaching progression with Team GB and England Boxing, he was one of 38 coaches recently selected for UK Coaching’s Performance Foundation Coach Support programme, run in association with UK Sport and designed to develop elite coaches working with athletes who have the potential to win medals on the international stage.
With his influence spreading far and wide, there was much to discuss when we arranged to speak a few days after the coaching awards in the middle of a typically hectic week.
I wanted to find out more about the transformative power of boxing, of which so much has been written, and 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.
The previous weekend Q 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 would be hosting a Talent Development camp in his own gym for schoolboys, juniors, youths and seniors.
And he had recently returned from the European Junior Championships is Bulgaria, where his England team won five gold medals and three silver medals.
Q’s 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!
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 the 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.
‘Nobody hits anyone at that stage,’ says Q, ‘but 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 also 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
After our chat (which stretches way beyond the anticipated 30 minutes!), Q is heading back to his gym, where he expects to find one of his volunteer coaches pounding the bags before another coaching session.
A former 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.’
I was reminded of documentary footage of world-renowned professional boxing trainer Freddie Roach, who has Parkinson’s disease. His shaking noticeably subsides when he is training boxers and has as much of an alleviating effect as the medications his doctors prescribe.
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.
Prisoner rehabilitation programme
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.
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”.’
Top 10 hits
Q had 142 fights as an amateur before being forced to hang up his gloves aged just 22 due to 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 (his part-time role was made full-time after he single-handedly sparked a renaissance in boxing in the Navy, with every member of the team ranked in the top 10 in the country) meant it was only a matter of time before England came calling.
Having operated on both sides of the ropes, Q has seen the tremendous impact boxing has on people’s lives, and 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
In his chat with Denise Lewis at the UK Coaching Awards, Q ran through his three-part ethos to running a successful boxing gym.
‘Firstly, you have to make people feel welcome, because that means they will come back again. The second thing is to remember that they are there because they want to be developed. So when you come to my club you will be put on a learning journey which is a ladder of progression, with awards and medals as you develop through the structured programme. You have to make people feel that they are developing.
‘And the third thing is you have to believe in everyone, no matter what stage of the journey they are on. If it is taking the Standard Award, you have to believe they will achieve that; if it is fighting for an international title, you have to believe they can win it.’
Believe. 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.