Paul Perkins, PhD candidate.

Paul Perkins (link) is about to submit his PhD at the University of Canberra. His title is Can a modified, low-risk form of boxing achieve significant community uptake? It is the culmination of a fascinating six-year journey for Paul and his supervisors.

This is a wonderful achievement. It is one founded on a profound friendship with Allan Hahn (link) and enriched by Paul’s thirst for knowledge. I have included pictures of Paul in India and at today’s unmeeting at the University of Canberra.

His abstract is:

Boxing has long been surrounded by debate. It has been subject to criticism on medical, legal, ethical and sociological grounds. Conversely, supporters argue that it is an excellent sport for physical fitness development, embodies egalitarianism, builds character, offers hope to depressed population sectors, has inherent aesthetic qualities and provides a cathartic outlet for emotions that otherwise could lead to anti social activities. Recent years have seen small- scale emergence of modified versions of boxing aimed at retaining positive aspects of the sport but eliminating negative aspects. The research reported in this thesis was directed at determining whether such a version could attract substantial community uptake.

A literature review was conducted to objectively evaluate arguments for and against conventional boxing and to assess the need for a modified form of the sport. A modified boxing program based on an existing model was established at a community club in Canberra, Australia, with the author of this thesis as its coach. It rapidly grew to include more than 100 regular participants. Design methodology was employed to progressively adjust program characteristics over an almost 5-year period, based on continual participant feedback. After ~2 years, several participants who had been present almost from the outset underwent in-depth, semi-structured interviews. Interpretative phenomenological analysis of interview transcripts revealed that their sustained involvement in the program was motivated primarily by a sense of belonging to a special community and by perceptions that coach-athlete relationships were strong, the training was purposeful, and there was a focus on safety. A follow-up study showed that the most valued coaching practices were an holistic approach to participant development, treatment of the participants as serious athletes, use of constrained games to promote skill acquisition, and an emphasis on athlete improvement rather than competition. These findings were instrumental in shaping ongoing program refinement.

At the start of the program, previously developed automated scoring technology was employed. This technology was then progressively adapted through repeated cycles of evaluation, reflection, planning and action. It proved effective in attracting public attention to the modified boxing concept but there were issues associated with its cost and the logistics of its regular use. In addition, several technical problems affecting system accuracy and predisposing to occasional system failure were identified. The technology was found to influence the style of boxing favoured by contestants and to reward all-out attack over skilled performance. Solutions to all these problems were conceived and partially implemented, but it was eventually decided that in the program setting that provided the basis for the research, use of the technology to judge contests between individuals was inconsistent with the shift of the program emphasis away from traditional notions of competition.

Throughout the duration of the program, specialised boxing gloves capable of markedly reducing peak impact forces were iteratively developed and refined to enhance participant safety and enjoyment. In laboratory trials, pneumatic gloves with capacity for air release and re-uptake afforded protective effects superior to those provided by conventional boxing gloves or by pneumatic gloves with sealed bladders. This remained true when target conditions in the laboratory were altered so that measured peak impact forces more closely resembled those reported to occur during boxing matches. Further research showed that the pneumatic gloves with capacity for air exchange were robust when subjected to a long series of consecutive impacts, with drift in various impact parameters less than that observed for conventional gloves. The development of the pneumatic gloves and their use in constrained games that formed part of the modified boxing program was highly regarded by the program participants.

When the Canberra modified boxing program eventually closed, the participants completed a written survey in which they recorded their impressions of it. Thematic content analysis of the feedback from 38 participants who had been involved in the program for three or more years revealed four major themes relating to the program environment, the underlying concept, the timetable and the training itself. The environment was seen as friendly, welcoming and supportive. The concept was perceived as entailing the development of a community, not just a sport program. The timetable was considered flexible and accommodating and the training itself was regarded as safe, fun and beneficial in multiple respects. These findings complemented and extended those obtained through interviewing a much smaller number of program participants earlier in the research process.

The Canberra modified boxing program underwent considerable dynamic change over its duration and this apparently allowed it to become highly effective in meeting the needs of its participants. The research surrounding the program demonstrated that a modified, low-risk form of boxing can achieve substantial uptake if tailored to the interests of a target population. Although there can be no guarantee that the Canberra program in its final form would be equally popular in other settings, it is likely that at least some of the knowledge acquired through the research that produced it is transferable. There may be a future for a form of modified boxing focused on safety, fitness improvement, learning of skills through constrained games, building of a sense of community among participants, and cooperation between participants instead of competition. Judicious use of advancing technologies could enhance the potential.

Paul Perkins, Wednesday Unmeeting

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