Hard Knocks Lead to Brighter Futures

YMCA boxing program offers mentoring, helps boys build self-control and discipline

Sep. 14, 2016

In a converted Chattanooga fire hall, kids from 10 years old through their teens come after school every day to study together, eat together — and punch each other.

It may be the hitting they enjoy most.

The boxing team is the main draw for the Y-Community Action Program, a project of the Greater Chattanooga YMCA that offers mentoring and more to boys at risk of making a wrong turn in life.

Participants are referred to Y-CAP through their schools or the juvenile court system.

The program works:Nearly every boy who participates sees higher grades and improved school attendance.

Andy Smith is the Y-CAP regional director and heads the program, while also serving as boxing coach and mentor. His father, Joe Smith, founded the program in 1999 and still is involved as its No. 1 cheerleader, cardio coach and fundraiser.

Andy Smith spoke to Better Tennessee about the boxing program at Y-CAP.

Andy Smith, Y-CAP regional director, boxing coach and mentor

Andy Smith, Y-CAP regional director, boxing coach and mentor

Q&A with Andy Smith

BT: Can you give us a thumbnail history of the boxing program at Y-CAP?

Smith: I boxed myself growing up over in Red Bank.

Basically, I boxed from the time I was 10 until I was 16. And my dad got involved, right around when I was 14. He started helping the guys around the gym with cardio.

Well, when I stopped boxing, he got this vision that we could start our own program and really help some kids.

So, in 1999 – I was 17 years old – we started the program over in Westside, College Hill Courts. At the time, that rec center was just an empty building that wasn’t being used by anybody.

Now you fast forward years later and in 2014, we were finally able to get the boxing program up under the YMCA in our Y-CAP program.

BT: You mentioned your dad has been very involved in the program. How did that come about, was he a coach?

Smith: My dad never boxed.

He ran the New York Marathon a couple of times, the Boston Marathon … so he knew a lot about cardio and getting in shape.

In boxing, 90 percent of it is being in shape. The rest of it is skill and thinking.

So before practice, the team would meet and we’d go run four or five miles and he sort of led that.

Then when we opened the gym in College Hill Courts, my job was to run it day-to-day, while his was to go out and get funding to make sure that we could take these kids out on these boxing trips.

a young man takes hits at a punching bag at the YMCA boxing program

Students use the discipline learned in the ring to their studies in school.

BT: What is it about boxing that helps these boys, who come to you with challenges in their lives, get on a path to becoming upstanding young men?

Smith: Boxing appeals to the tough kid.

They have a lot of challenges, a lot of anger issues. A lot of them come from poverty.

It’s interesting how boxing sort of catches those kinds of people. There are a lot of things we try to teach them in parallel along with the boxing. Things like self-control, discipline.

If you can be disciplined in the gym, then certainly you can be disciplined in the classroom.

If you can work hard in the gym, then you can work hard at home, or when an adult asks you to do something.

Really, getting hit in the face is a lot like life. A lot of times we are going to face things and barriers in our lives that really, unfortunately aren’t fair. And, life’s going to punch us all the time. So, how we respond to that adversity shows what kind of character we have as a person.

What we teach kids is: Look, in a boxing match you’re going to get hit. To be a champion, you have to learn how to take those kinds of punches and then give them back.

Every single day at the end of practice, we spend at least five minutes talking about how boxing relates to your life personally.

It may be stories from the Bible. It may devotional stories. It may even be something that happened in the gym that day. We talk about carrying everything they learn in the gym and applying it to their lives outside the gym.

What we like to say is, ‘When you do the right thing, success will follow.’

If you train hard in the gym, you are going to win as a result of training hard. If you train hard in the classroom, you are going to get good grades. It’s all so parallel.

a young man boxes at the YMCA boxing program

Y-CAP boxers show better grades and less absenteeism in school.

BT: You’ve seen kids in the program take these lessons to heart and have success. Any stories that stick out?

Smith: There are two sides to that question.

One is looking at success inside the ring and the other is kids who have had success in life because of boxing.

I think of a kid who started with us back in ’99, who was one of the very first kids that we had who grew up in College Hill Courts. He was an okay athlete, but he certainly had to work for every win that he ever got.

I saw him two weeks ago. He’s doing phenomenally.

Here’s a guy who grew up on the west side, generation after generation – mama grew up there, grandmama grew up there – the whole family growing up in College Hill Courts.

Today, he has his own house. He has a brand new car. He works at Coca-Cola. And he attributes all that success today to what he learned in boxing. There are a lot of those stories out there.

And then we have a couple of young men right now who want to make the Olympic team. Here are two kids that come from poverty that had it really rough growing up, and they both started boxing at 10 years old.

We say we’re building champions, but we’re building champions at life.

We hope they all become productive citizens in our community. That’s what we want to see.

a coach mentors participants at the YMCA boxing program

“In the grand scheme of things, boxing is only a small piece of who we really are as an organization,” says Y-CAP Director Andy Smith.

BT: It’s obvious kids gain a lot by coming here and participating. For you and others who work with them, how is your life enriched by the kids?

Smith: For me, I don’t work a day in my life, because I love what I do.

Just as importantly, my family supports me. I have a wife who believes in our work here. I have three children, and obviously they sacrifice a lot because I’m not at home as much.

But for me, and all of the people who work here, we say that we go to bed every night knowing that we’ve made a difference in somebody’s life. If we can just plant a seed in somebody’s life, then we’ve done our jobs.

Our lives are greatly enriched on a daily basis.

There are days when you say, ‘Why do I do this?’

And about the time you say that, a kid comes walking in the door and says, ‘This is my life today — you changed my life.’

That’s what makes it all worth it.


Photos by Sergio Plecas.