Zed Linney

#FightingBack: A Perfect Combination – Youth Work, Boxing and Mental Health!

February 25, 2019 | by Matt Halfpenny


In the second of England Boxing’s features as part of their #FightingBack mental health campaign, Zareena Linney says boxing has helped a number of people she has worked with address a variety of issues.

“My name is Zareena, or ‘Zed’, and I have been a youth worker and youth work manager in Surrey for 20 years. I have always had a heart for supporting young people in communities and over the years have worked with hundreds of young people.

Many have been struggling with a range of mental health issues such as low confidence, anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders. Some were getting involved in crime and vulnerable to gang issues.

I have seen first-hand how boxing can have a positive impact on addressing such issues.

As a youthwork manager for the local council, one of the ways I addressed local issues was to by working with a local boxer to deliver sessions in youth centres, alongside my team providing youth worker support.

I saw good engagement – the young people’s mental health improved and they were preferring to focus on the fitness and moves rather than engage in crime. Some of the young people wanted the space to talk to trusted, accepting adults who were caring and would listen and value them, and they spoke about things they were struggling with as well as their ideas, hopes and dreams.

Sadly, over the last few years youth work across the country has been reduced, with positive activities reaching some of the most vulnerable young people disappearing, and in some cases provision has been closed all together. Youth worker jobs were vulnerable and it saddened me.

The need is great, and all I could see was mental health problems and crime with young people increasing, while their needs were not being met by the services on offer.

During this period, I started boxing and I enjoyed it, especially the moves, the interaction with others, and the ethos around respect and community. Boxing is a great sport for providing boundaries – emotional, personal, and club boundaries – and through practicing boxing techniques like defences, and by making decisions such as which blocks to use and which counters to deliver, we can encourage creative, independent thinkers.

Young people can enjoy the thrill of the fight within clearly defined parameters and boundaries. This can greatly improve confidence, self-esteem and, when mixed with encouragement, a caring coach and support, can really benefit mental health.

I wanted to progress within the sport and I became a qualified England Boxing level 1 coach. I started training at a local club to perfect the basics and met young people with a real passion for the sport. One encounter with a young woman that had started the sport at 14 sticks with me. She had mental health problems and told me that boxing gave her a break from feeling angry all the time – whenever she trained she felt ok. I asked her, ‘So boxing solved your mental health issues?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘I needed someone to talk to about my issues as well.’

That conversation planted the idea of delivering boxing with youth work workshops, using the power and pull of boxing alongside youth work to give young people a chance to share and explore together and improve mental health.

In July 2018 I set up Youthbox to do exactly that.

Youthbox offers community non-contact boxing and fitness/games for young people followed by youth work support and workshops, delivered by myself as a qualified youth worker and boxing coach. Youthbox aims to improve mental and physical health, support young people and distract them from crime, and reduce violence.

Alongside the boxing training I have delivered workshops on topics including building relationships, managing emotions, and exploring attitudes views and beliefs. The value of this work is being recognised locally, and I have delivered programmes via borough council playschemes, leisure services, family sports events, and youth centres.

Boxing strengthens mind, body and soul, and can help young people to face the challenges in their lives. Boxing training, alongside the opportunity to talk about struggles and hopes to trusted youth workers and coaches, can only improve the mental health of our future generation – our young people.

Boxing and youth work – it’s a perfect combination!

For more information please visit the Youthbox Facebook page by clicking here.