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How rowing keeps London’s at-risk young people afloat

Rowing is proving to be a highly effective engagement tool with young people at risk of offending – thanks to London Youth Rowing’s Life Skills programme.

Almost 8,000 young people took part in LYR’s programmes last year, with 72 state schools engaging with their Active Row programme for pupils from the capital’s most disadvantaged areas and the Breaking Barriers project offering work experience placements, employability workshops and one-to-one mentoring for selected 14-19 year olds.

Over the last year, LYR have built on those foundations by launching the Alternative Provisions programme, principally for young people in Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) who are most at-risk of unemployment and offending. So far, 101 young people have hit the water across nine Alternative Provisions at four hubs across London.

Programme Director, Jenny Cooper, set up the Alternative Provisions project (which is funded by The Worshipful Company of Vintners) and says that rowing is the perfect vehicle to challenge young people as it offers them a completely new environment.

“They are taken totally out of their comfort zone,” says Jenny. “We take them out on the water almost immediately and they have no perception of whether they’ll be any good, or whether anyone else will be either.

“If you’ve got excellent hand-eye coordination and you’re good at catching a ball, traditionally at mainstream school that puts you at the top in PE lessons. With rowing, it’s not about that. It’s about following instructions, requires a lot of concentration and really rewards good behaviour.

“Somebody might be athletically gifted and have all the physical requirements, but because they can’t focus for longer than five or ten seconds at a time, they’re way behind others who are perhaps quieter and a bit withdrawn, but listening and trying. It rewards effort rather than skill, particularly in the early stages, which is why we see developments in behaviour.

“Another reason it works is that in a 30ft dock there’s a natural element of danger and a need for them to pay attention and be safe. You have to pay attention in a moving boat. The water does so much more of the coaching than we need to!”

London Youth Rowing
LYR Alternative Provision participants at the National Indoor Junior Rowing Championships

After an indoor taster session at their schools or PRUs, pupils’ teachers accompany them throughout the 12-week course on the water and they provide feedback about each young person’s progress. Jenny says that, once they have overcome initial barriers, the impact thereafter usually takes hold rapidly, with boosts in teamwork, communication skills, self-esteem and confidence.

“We see big improvements in behaviour in the majority of children we work with,” she says. “LYR often works with young people who can’t swim, have never tried rowing before and who might be reluctant to try it. We combat this with coaches who are friendly, positive role models who are aware of the challenges young people face. Teachers are also rowing with the students, moving the boat together.

“The participants find that although rowing on the water is difficult, they can see their improvement immediately from week to week. The first two sessions are usually very challenging, then from session three onwards they’re soaring – they are moving the boat much quicker, starting to compete with one another, doing things independently, asking to row in different sized boats and challenging us to provide them with more variety!”

“We can take them out of their comfort zone- the benefits to their wellbeing and future direction in life are clear to see.”

Feedback on the LYR Alternative Provision programme

Tolu, young participant –

Rowing has made me feel good. I feel more confident doing new things and working with new people. You gave me good advice on physical activity and I’m boxing in school now too. I’m a better team player. Rowing helps people with self-control, anger issues and if they have problems in their lives and they want to get away from them.

Jasmin, session coach and now a teacher –

I was not sure what to expect as I hadn’t experienced working with young people from such difficult backgrounds before but I was pleasantly surprised. The young people are diverse individuals, full of energy and their behaviour can be challenging, often creating lively sessions. Rowing is a tool that helps them develop a variety of different skills such as confidence and teamwork – it has been an experience that I will never forget.

Peter Mayfield, Beachcroft Alternative Provision Lead teacher –

To see young people with such a fear of the water and boats actually out on the Thames was a massive achievement. Working together without arguing and following instructions was impressive. LYR coaches have been patient and understanding. We’re very keen to start up again in September with a new group.

For more information on London Youth Rowing’s range of programmes, visit