Hamburger Menu Twitter logo Instagram logo linkedIn logo facebook logo Home Scroll Down Arrow

Behind the gate: what’s it like to coach in a prison?

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.


Matt Airey had been coaching mainly in primary schools when the opportunity arose to coach rugby league in HMYOI Wetherby with the Leeds Rhinos Foundation. Before long, his role expanded to working on the Foundation’s education project Onside. He calls the experience “a real eye-opener”.

The project combines multi-sports, physical team-building and problem-solving activities with a classroom-based programme, with both elements building confidence and personal qualities to prepare inmates for re-integration into society and potential employment.

The Onside project started in HMP Leeds and HMP Wealstun in late 2016, has since expanded to nearby HMYOI Wetherby and is due to start soon in HMP & YOI Hatfield near Doncaster. The men and young people on the 10-week course are all within six months of release.

The classroom elements, delivered by Leeds Rhinos Foundation’s Project Tutor Janet Sylvester (pictured below), and the physical activity elements dovetail to teach skills such as teamwork, communication, goal setting, anger management, behaviour and consequences and many other areas of personal development, as well as covering practical elements such as CV writing and diet. The mixture of both the classroom and physical activity sessions demonstrate how individual qualities, employability and life skills can be linked into many different situations.

The sport element of the course acts as a ‘hook’ to engage the participants but they soon learn that the skills on the field or in the gym are transferable to everyday life. Matt “didn’t know what to expect” initially but soon found that coaching within prison walls wasn’t all that different from any other environment.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect at first, but the prison’s PEI staff at Wetherby have been fantastic. They joined in with the project from day one and that really helped build my confidence around the place,” Matt said. “They have got a lot of respect around the prison and showed me straight away that you should treat the young people exactly as you would anybody on the outside.

“If you’re being a little bit coy or treat them differently that could push them away or cause them to mistrust you a bit. Having PEI Andy Albrighton there ensured they knew where the boundaries were with us and that helped me be confident and natural around them. He has been a great support to myself and Janet.”

Matt, who had previously coached rugby league at Bradford University and in community clubs, had to deliver a more diverse range of sports to provide a broader opportunity for everyone to engage in the physical activities, such as softball, rounders, cricket, volleyball and tennis as well as specific physical communication and teamwork activities. One example of this was setting up an assault course with one man completing it blindfolded and a partner verbally guiding him through it. This linked with classroom lessons on being able to take and act upon instructions and work as a team.

“In terms of your personal skill set in this environment you need to be adaptable and have good resilience,” he says. “If they turn around and say to you, ‘Oh, this is boring’, you’ve just got to keep going and know that what you’re doing is giving them an opportunity to learn something that they might not have experienced before.”

The success of that first cohort meant word soon spread on the prison grapevine that the Onside project was enjoyable and worthwhile, so the second group were keen and engaged pretty much from the beginning.

Funding for HMP Leeds and HMP Wealstun was renewed at the beginning of this year for a further 12 months and the project is already achieving some excellent results, with ‘through the gate’ support helping offenders to follow the ‘life plans’ they made while inside. Many have started training or employment, re-offending rates are low and a few have even been invited back to mentor the next cohort on the project.

“It’s very satisfying seeing them gain in confidence,” says Matt. “In the lessons you’ll have guys who come in really quiet but end up being quite vocal – in a good way! You might start with someone who didn’t even like sport, but by the end they’re dead keen to come on the next one. We had one man who left the prison and we helped him join a local rugby team.”

The Leeds Rhinos Foundation were featured as an example of best practice in the Alliance of Sport’s Review of Sport in Criminal Justice, commissioned by Dr. Phillip Lee MP.

Our Co-Founder James Mapstone commented: “It’s great to see the Leeds Rhinos programme going from strength to strength. They have strong relationships with prisons and in particular the PE departments and integrated offender management teams which strengthens their offer and provides consistency and holistic support for offenders.

“We’re keen to showcase more initiatives like this and continue building the evidence base so that we can make the case for sport and together work with our partners to increase investment in the sector.”

As for Matt, his experience working in prisons has been immensely fulfilling. “It’s something that I never thought I’d be doing,” he said. “It’s an eye-opener. Some of these lads are only aged 15-18 but some of the life experiences they’ve had I couldn’t possibly have imagined, and all of a sudden you’re teaching them how to pass a ball. They’ve certainly got a few interesting stories to tell. I’ve learned a lot and hopefully so have they.”