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“Tough… but very rewarding”: coaching at AIR Sports Network

Sport is one of the most effective ways to engage with the most challenging and complex individuals caught up in a cycle of crime and imprisonment. During Coaching Week (June 4-10), the Alliance of Sport is showcasing #greatcoaching by those working in and around the criminal justice system.

AIR Sports Network uses sport to engage hard-to-reach and disadvantaged men and women in the community and in prisons. One anecdote from Head Coach and Lead Mentor, Marlon Boateng, reveals the broad skillset needed by its coaches.

One of his regular tasks is to recruit at-risk people on to AIR Sports Network programmes by doing outreach work in some of the toughest parts of London; literally walking around estates and into pubs, backstreets and shops where target demographics may be present and inviting them to participate.

“You’ve got to be careful what hotspots you end up in,” says Marlon. “If you don’t know the area you might fit the description of someone who’s being targeted nearby. Unless somebody recognises the Air logo on your tracksuit, you’re basically a stranger in their area.

“Getting your point across quickly and identifying with them is a key skill. It’s about your energy and the way you carry yourself. Your body language is important, even before you open your mouth and speak. Being relatable is important too; finding a connection through music, football, social media or even wearing the same kind of trainers.

“For us though, sport is the golden ticket. You walk up to them in a tracksuit and straight away your advantage is you’re not the police. Once we offer free football or gym sessions, suddenly we’re bringing people from different backgrounds together, who may otherwise never cross paths.”

What Marlon and his colleagues promote is a free sport and mentoring programme designed to tackle offending and re-offending, substance misuse, unemployment, mental health issues, community divisions and physical inactivity. As well as those who join through outreach work, others sign up of their own accord or are referred by the National Probation Service, social services or the Metropolitan Police.

Many of AIR Sports Network’s delivery staff are UEFA B qualified football coaches or Level 3 personal trainers. Sport sessions offered to service users are of a very high standard, as is the wraparound care to support their wider lifestyle and behaviour changes.

Staff are on hand 24 hours a day and are in contact regularly to maintain attendance and motivation levels as well as monitor diet and alcohol or drug use. “They can see that we care and that we’re fighting their corner, that we believe in them,” says Marlon (pictured right, at front).

“We always treat them as an individual. Some you may call four or five times a week, others who are more motivated might need less contact. We question where they are, how they feel mentally, how they are dealing with their issues. We focus on helping them achieve what they want to achieve. Whenever they need any sort of help, we’re available.”

The organisation’s scale and impact are highly impressive. Since its launch in 2007, AIR has worked with over 13,000 hard-to-reach and disadvantaged men and women across London, Kent and Essex, helping over 60% of them into employment, training or education. In 2016/17 their 1,047 service users achieved 689 outcomes (education, vocational training or employment).

“We are relentless!” says Colm Whitty, AIR Sports Network’s Managing Director. “Our sessions are fun, challenging, competitive and developmental. We like to be very hands-on. We know what their issues, passions and ambitions are and we constantly motivate them.”

Marlon admits the job is part-coach, part support worker, with the job extending to such tasks as phoning service users’ wives or girlfriends to let them know their partner has been taken to prison.

Ultimately, the hours spent providing support and motivation through sport and mentoring are hugely rewarding. The most gratifying aspect for Boateng is seeing an individual resettled back with his or her family after an estrangement or a custodial sentence.

“It’s not only being able to affect that individual’s life, but those of the people around him too,” he says. “A son has now got a father back, a mum has now got their child back. It’s a ripple effect.

“I’ve been stopped while out shopping and someone ran up to me and said, ‘Marlon, thank you so much!’ The same family that kicked him out of the house because he was using crack and stealing to get a score are now happier because he’s come out of prison healthier and fitter, got a full-time job, he’s looking after himself and hasn’t been nicked. … that for me is incredibly satisfying.”