A hard-knock life

Katie Taylor meets the charity using rugby to support at-risk teens


"You might think that putting at-risk teenagers with behavioural and anger issues on a rugby pitch is a little bit reckless,” says Ken Cowen, CEO of School of Hard Knocks, “but that’s the point. We’re putting them in deliberate confrontational situations in a highly regulated and controlled situation. It helps to recalibrate their way of reacting to the challenges they’re faced with.”

In 2012, Ken’s big idea, a training programme that could reach adults with employability issues and troubled and at-risk teenagers, became a national charity. By using rugby to unite the individuals undertaking his School of Hard Knocks programme, he hoped to encourage the usual good stuff – motivation, team work, respect – but he also wanted rugby to give others what it gave to him and so many others who love the sport, in the form of skills development, training, fitness, a sense of purpose, self-worth and pure enjoyment. School of Hard Knocks was Ken’s deep dive into the complex world of unemployment, petty crime and exclusion, and the hopelessness and disengagement that it fosters. Starting out as an adults-only employability programme, it adapted quickly when Ken and his team saw who else it could benefit.

“The people we worked with on our employability programmes talked to us about their situations, and the challenges they’d faced in their lives. We realised that we needed to have an earlier intervention in place to help catch young people before they began their adult lives on a more difficult path,” he said.

Ken now oversees the organisation’s growth throughout the country, and the 700 young people who enter programmes in England, Wales and Scotland every single week. At the top of the School of Hard Knocks is a leadership team made up of social housing and regeneration specialists, high level players, sports psychologists, and even a RFU referee. Their team of ambassadors includes Maggie Alphonsi MBE and Andy Gomersall MBE. It’s fair to say that SoHK has become a highly respected organisation not just in social inclusion and rehabilitation, but in the world of rugby union too. They’ve also been approached by the likes of Sky and even a brewery to help promote their message.

"Being a Friend of the School of Hard Knocks costs the same as a pint every month"

The connection between rugby and beer is ingrained, and in 2018 Truman’s launched a special brew called “Blindside” to help raise money and awareness for School of Hard Knocks and the important work they do. Launched for the 6 Nations at the Globe Pub at Borough Market, Ken says it was great to have been approached by a brewery who wanted to support their vision. 

“We enjoyed having our own beer – especially as we always say that being a Friend of the School of Hard Knocks costs the same as a pint every month. We’d definitely be up for doing something similar again!”

Outside of their promotional campaigns, Ken and his team have been working hard to spread their positive mentorship programmes as far and wide as they can. Their adult programme incorporates CV writing and interview skills as well as rugby training and behavioural psychology support, offering individuals the chance to turn their life around. Ken admits the adult course is an easier sell than the teenagers’ programme.

“The adult course is a structured eight-week programme with a prescribed end point and set, visible goals. The individuals who come to us for this programme know exactly what they want – to change their lives, to give themselves better prospects, to get out of a cycle of petty crime and resistance towards authority – and that makes it easier to take on, mentally. For young people, particularly young people who lack direction or who have low self-esteem, anger problems, behavioural difficulties, or perhaps they’re on their last warning at school before expulsion, it’s much harder. School of Hard Knocks provides our young participants with a long-burn, two year course and by its nature there is no set outcome, and no structured plan towards an end goal. The young people who come to us often don’t know what they want from life, and it’s our role as their mentors to help them deal with their anger and the changes they are experiencing, and to support them as they develop into motivated, respectful adults with the self-esteem and the tools to go far in life.”

In time for the rugby world cup 2019, Ken is keen to celebrate the work School of Hard Knocks has done in Cardiff and the Valleys and in North East Scotland, areas which suffer from some of the harshest climates of deprivation and social exclusion in the UK. 

“Our staff-wide WhatsApp group shares success stories every week, and honestly, the last one you read is always the one you’re most proud of. Recently, a colleague, Liam McKay, was in Cardiff at an outdoor activities centre training an adult who was undertaking our adult programme. There to instruct them for the day was a young lad who had gone through our young person’s programme just a couple of years beforehand! He told Liam that he was studying for his senior instructor qualification with the company he was working with, and was being sent to the Alps to learn how to instruct skiing. He had come to the School of Hard Knocks as a last chance option by his school who was on a route to expulsion, and his outlook was low. This makes his achievements now all the more incredible, and we’re very proud of him.”

That’s not the only high point of the day, however. “It’s also worth mentioning that Liam himself came to us on the adult programme after experiencing challenges in his life, and is now a full-time member of our team.”

Liam and many of his colleagues join hundreds of individuals who have been given a second, third or fourth chance to start again with a clean slate, thanks to rugby, the School of Hard Knocks and the team they’ve created to support those who feel they’ve been abandoned. Ken, you’ve done a good thing.

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