Fighting Deprivation: An Interview With Amanda Spencer

AH, Baile Átha Cliath

Authors Note: Amanda Spencer is the founder of Jobstown Boxing Club. It will be six years old in July and in those short six years it has captured several medals at home and abroad. Everybody in Tallaght knows about its champions and about Amanda. I decided to interview her because I felt that she isn’t just a boxing coach, but a representative of working class women breaking barriers, and an example of how a sports club can serve multiple purposes. It actively provides a better way of life for young people stuck for options and promotes a healthier way of life. This is not just on a physical level, but also on an emotional and psychological one. Sports often teach mutual respect and break down barriers and stereotypes. They are community pillars that serve all of us in many ways – this interview and call out for continued donations is one small way the Connolly Youth Movement extends its support for this community pillar.

It appears to me that the transformation of health into something to be profited from has changed our understanding of sport and sport clubs. Instead of being integral to society, they are seen the same as any other business. This is wrong. Sport is good for your body, your mind and your community. Hopefully, that will be recognised one day.

What’s your name?

My name is Amanda Spencer, I’m from Jobstown, I’m 38 years old and a mother of three.

Amanda Spencer. The club’s head coach; an inspiration to the community and us all.

How long have you been involved in boxing?

I started when I was 11 or 12 and didn’t stick to it. It was a “boys atmosphere” and in some clubs and places, it still is. It is slowly changing and becoming more of an equal sport though. No clubs wanted to take me in because of the rules that needed a female boxing coach and there were none where I was, so I could not box. I was allowed box in Jobstown Boxing Club under the founder Paddy Hyland. This is the opportunity I want to give to young girls and women in the area too, a chance to box.

When did you start coaching?

In 2011. I’m the first woman to open a boxing club in Dublin.

The club started with 1 bag and 7 boxers. Started with nothing and got where we are in terms of boxers, equipment and so on. The equipment grant helped a bit, but more is needed to look after our 130 or so kids.

More importantly, why?

Firstly, I love getting the kids involved. This is an area that’s deprived and there are only two major clubs/centres for Jobstown, the leisure centre and ourselves which means there’s not much to do. That’s not the kids fault, so we can’t blame them entirely for what they get up to out of boredom.

Secondly, I wanted more females involved and was interested in being a female coach to make a difference. Katie Taylor has been inspiring to us all.

The third main reason was due to suicide and mental health issues in the area and backgrounds that you just could not believe.

Finally, I don’t coach for money, in fact I don’t get paid for it at all. We are constantly having to fundraise for the club. My award is the success of my boxers, that is my payment.

Mental health

My former partner and head coach Paddy Hyland died by suicide, so mental health is very important to us all here in the club.

Mental health is more out there now than ever before. One boxing session can intervene in a child’s life. It can be very intimate for them; you can tell when a child or teen is upset and even having a conversation about it can be lifesaving. For example [before COVID] we had a sparring session, and one of the boys was crying while sparring. At first we thought it was from the pain. It turned out that it was not, because when we started chatting to him, we found out he was suicidal. Talking helps.

What is the toll of being a coach in these circumstances?

It is a heavy toll. You must learn to separate your coaching from home, you need to be a coach but also help appropriately, that means informing parents but also knowing your limits. You cannot bring these things home.

Coaching remains a 24/7 job between parents and their children. I used to miss loads of personal events such as parties to look after the boxers, or for example to travel with them to tournaments and competitions.

The positive part is seeing kids adapt and grow. They become champions and this gives them a sense of achievement. There is no price on that. The support from the community and the congratulations that people give puts glamour on a healthier and better lifestyle that kids find in boxing. Social media does the same thing and when other kids are heaped with praise and congratulated, they want that too.

I think about what it would be like if we didn’t exist and how it would be a different world for the kids in our community.

Tell me about your champions?

Amanda is visibly proud about the champions the club has produced, especially the girls, one of whom is her own daughter.

All the kids are from an area recognised as deprived and disadvantaged, all local kids from big families. They live in an area with lots of substance abuse and anti-social behaviour. They are all tough kids. In the club they all get the same training and treatment, it just depends on intensity to tailor for the boxer. A few of the champions with titles have stopped boxing, but we have lots of up-and-coming boxers for the next generation that will be taking medals left right and centre. No child comes in with a “clean slate” because of the environment they are in. The club tries to keep a level of discipline regarding anti-social behaviour and makes it clear to their boxers that this is not welcome. This works because the club is really supported by the community.

When our boxers don’t train, we remind them that for every day they don’t turn up, their opponent trains, a bit of competitive spirit!

Not just a club, but a social outlet too

The club was also a place where some of the boxers just stayed in until it closed at 10pm and hung out at because there was nothing else in the area, of course this was all before COVID. They’d be asking to stay another ten minutes, and then another ten minutes and another ten before I’d have to send them all home because they would have school in the morning. Teachers and parents have no problem picking up the phone about one of our boxers because of how close and tight knit we all are. We try to intervene but at the end of the day that’s down to their parents, so we have to do it in a respectful way.

COVID

Financially, COVID has stopped all subs for the club, which covered utilities such as electricity and other costs the club needs to bear. We will apply for the grant scheme for small businesses/non-profit organisations, but it could be as little as 100 euro because it’s shared out among loads of different groups. It’s not enough.

On the mental health side of things, it’s hard to be optimistic sometimes. Are our boxers still interested? Is the sport going to fall apart? Will they come back? They are pissed off that they can all go to school but not box. It doesn’t make sense to them.

Because of COVID other coaches may want to move on. Jobs have been lost, maybe they had to move, maybe they got new hobbies.

I was nervous we would lose the facility. I lease this from the council and the house we live in is linked to the club. The club is leased separately to the house and is on council ground. They tell us to fundraise. There are no wages for the coaches even though we are community workers. I had to get a part time job to sustain myself and to keep coaching.

In times like this, we need the community’s help. A while back we did leaflet many businesses looking for sponsorship, but nobody came forward.

Any savings we had will be gone very soon and that is because of the pandemic. Usually, we did bag packing in Dunnes, but we can’t even do that anymore.

It doesn’t feel safe at the moment. The lease is every five years, so it won’t be up for renewal for another three, but with COVID, it’ll be a hard three years.

Plans for the future

Amanda lights up again as we talk about the future!

The biggest plan I have is to expand. More coaches, more boxers, more facilities and an extension on the club. It is looking like that will cost about 25,000 euro and we will have to fundraise almost all of it. Our club will be 6 years old in July and it is getting better all the time. We learn from our mistakes. We will apply for all the grants available to us but we just missed one big one, the Sport Capital Programme, which every club is entitled to once. The council were actually surprised at our success too when they came out the last time, maybe they thought we wouldn’t last. I do believe if Paddy was alive, we would have gotten the extension and the money we needed.

We operate as a non-profit, so we don’t make any money out of it. We actually take money out of our own pockets to keep the club going often and it’s worth pointing out that clubs like Crumlin have people like Conor McGregor investing in them so no matter what you think of him, the club is benefiting from his sponsorship.

We are optimistic though, the lockdown ending means we can start training again.

Women in Boxing

I was not able to box when I was 11 or 12, but that’s changed now. A few of us in Dublin set up a boxing women’s committee which promotes girls and women to train. If you are a girl and come into a club with all boys, it’s hard to get motivated. So, before COVID we had a monthly day in Crumlin boxing club only for girls and women. For some it was the only spar they would get, for others it was the right inspiration to keep going because they knew that other girls and women were boxing all over Dublin.

The Boxing Federation recognised and elected us formally, so it is not just our own unofficial moves, but very officially recognised that boxing needs more women. I worked in the same gym as Katie Taylor’s dad and that helped a lot, those conversations and chats about everything and anything. 

Maybe the next Katie Taylor will come from Jobstown Boxing Club.

Racism is on the rise, what would you say to that?

Sports clubs are anti-racist, nobody is treated differently and we’ve loads of people of people from different backgrounds. It was the same for girls only ten or fifteen years ago where they were discriminated against and couldn’t box so we don’t say no to a child on any basis.

We would have lots of kids from travelling backgrounds and from all over Europe. It doesn’t matter and nobody cares where you’re from. You’re a boxer.

In this club, they are only themselves as boxers. Not female or male, not black, or white, just boxers.

It goes back to when I was refused from boxing clubs when I was a child, I was accepted here and paved the way for others too.

Conclusion

I thanked Amanda and took a few snaps of the club, but if you put Jobstown Boxing Club into google you will find plenty of images of the club as well as of their boxers taking medals left right and centre. I’d ask people who read it to donate towards their club. You can donate directly via Revolut to Amanda to 085 7426862 to support the club.

If you can’t donate, then please give this article a share and remember the importance of sports clubs in your communities and areas. Remember how much they really help young people.

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