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Let's hit it! Boxing to empower incarcerated women

Copyrights: Project FLEX

Let's hit it! Boxing to empower incarcerated women

Project FLEX works with incarcerated young women to teach them life skills and prepare them for life after prison, using the sport of boxing.

When most people think of boxing, they picture heavyweight champs like Muhammad Ali or Ronda Rousey – not girls behind bars in blue uniforms with boxing gloves. But that’s all I see. I coach boxing for incarcerated young women.

A sport like this is generally stereotyped as “violent,” but research has shown it can be a powerful tool and creative outlet for socially excluded youth. Priding itself on self-discipline and self-awareness, boxing has the potential to teach a multitude of desirable skills and mentally prepare youth for life after prison. For women specifically, boxing helps to bring out a young girls’ strengths and capabilities in more ways than she could have ever imagined possible.

Sport in prison 

Historically, sports have been known to teach youth applicable life skills. However, in the juvenile justice system, it requires immense adaptability to adjust teaching methods. Outside of prison, we’re used to having tools at the ready in our everyday lives, such as the internet at our fingertips, unlimited equipment and space, and norms/rules that we all elect to follow.

Teaching within prison walls requires a complete shift in mindset, including the ability to work with what’s on hand, having little to no outside resources, and maintaining sensitivity to individuals' unique needs and backgrounds. For example, redirecting an entire researched plan in less than five minutes due to a lack of participation/cooperation, or teaching in a space where distractions like physical fights or other violent situations are occur.

So begins my experience working in Project FLEX, a sport-based youth development program created by two professors at Northern Illinois University. The program is run by graduate students, such as myself, who have a passion and dedication for helping the lives of youth who are the most isolated from society.

Our favorite line is “it takes a very special and certain type of person to want to work in a jail.” Curated below are a few techniques that we can apply to different environments for programming. This includes low-income populations, schools and afterschool programs, benefiting troubled or vulnerable young women, or for coaches or parents who want to incorporate more empowerment into their teachings. 

The goal of any effective sport-based youth development program is to build relationships and educate youth on life skills that can be developed through sport. While we are a girls boxing club, the sport is viewed as a second priority to the teaching of life skills. Boxing is a segue to create those important relationships and impart life lessons without the conversations that can feel disingenuous or forced.

Building a winning corner

With coaches in their corner, boxers feel supported. For people who are incarcerated, it can be hard for them to see who's really in their corner. Having strong and positive relationships while incarcerated is essential.

Through FLEX, we emphasize that, as coaches, we are here for them – not to judge, but to help build them up to the best they can be. As a coach, it is critical to set priorities around creating a comfortable space where youth are confident enough to speak freely, be themselves, work on their boxing techniques, and have fun. One specific way to create a safe space is to let the girls know they are not alone.

Boxing may seem like an individual sport, but there’s always a team of people in the background for support. Through this, the girls learn to focus on positivity in relationships, which can help mend and strengthen relationships outside of the prison setting.

Catching hits and recovering

When boxers get knocked down, they have to choose whether to get back up and keep fighting or stay down and let the opponent win. When incarcerated, choosing how to persevere can be incredibly difficult, due to how isolated, restrictive, and unfriendly the environment is.

Oftentimes our students will come into program angry, unmotivated or coming off of a traumatic experience such as a fight, death of a friend, or missing an important family milestone like the birth or death of a loved one. When those situations occur, there are usually two options that work best: one is lacing up your gloves and throwing punches at the mitts for 10 minutes until you no longer can lift your arms, or, alternatively, rolling out a yoga mat, turning the lights off and enjoying a few minutes of peace.

Having established quality relationships with the students helps coaches identify what is needed and when. But, even when it’s not clear, using these strategies as options helps encourage them to self-reflect, better handle stress, and offer different coping techniques to be resilient in the face of hardships.  

Strong body, strong mind

In boxing, it’s important to feel comfortable and confident in the moves you are working on, or else your opponent will take advantage of that lack of confidence and win. In our program, we model a safe and judgement-free space, so that when we are boxing or working out, we are learning something new and challenging our body and mind versus focusing on looks or appearance.

One way to do this is to implement a compliment system. At the end of each session, students are invited to offer positive feedback on anything they did that day. This could sound like, “your left hook was so strong today!” or, “I really appreciated how you shared that story.”

This creates an environment with open feedback, which eventually lends itself to constructive feedback as well – another important life skill to develop.

Another way to foster confidence is to facilitate open conversations about how we are mentally and physically feeling. Many incarcerated young women come from traumatic backgrounds, and they may have complex relationships with their bodies due to abuse, early pregnancy, violence, and other serious situations. Developing a space where we can focus on sharing and normalizing insecurities, frustrations, triumphs, and questions is one way the boxing program can contribute to their self-esteem.

The sport of boxing mirrors numerous aspects of life in terms of navigating challenges, building on strengths, and seeking positive social support. In a quality youth sports program, coaches have a unique opportunity to maximize on these parallels in a way that helps facilitate the development of life skills. Coaches are encouraged to prompt this transfer of life skills through talking about how acquired skills can help navigate everyday situations.

There is no doubt the sport of boxing can have a positive impact on a variety of youth – we have only just begun to see this transformation with the strong young women in our prison boxing program.


Huntleigh Wozniak is a first-year graduate student studying sport and exercise psychology at Northern Illinois University.

Jennifer Jacobs, PhD., is an associate professor of sport psychology in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education at Northern Illinois University.


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Huntleigh Wozniak; Jennifer Jacobs


Tuesday, August 10, 2021 - 19:45

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