In Argentina free muaythai classes offer a lifeline to children left behind by the economic challenges facing the country; and for one boy learning to trust his coach has meant the difference between despair and hope.
The Sport Is Your Gang projects are run in partnership with muaythai federations around the world, connected and inspired by the idea that sport can be more than a game. In a country where more than four million children are classified as poor, free sports classes can be the only community a child has, says Romina Arana from the Argentinian Muaythai Federation.
Sport Is Your Gang (SIYG) programmes run in countries as different as Finland and Honduras but they share a key principle. The trainers and organisers believe muaythai offers an alternative to the violent lifestyle of gangs and crime, they believe that a sports family can replace the horrors of a gang.
The Argentinian project began as a free workshop for kids in collaboration with the Barrios De Pie human rights group. Together with Romina they ran workshops on sport, and also offered free public muaythai demonstrations in the poorer neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires.
Now a stand-alone project, Romina says: “Why am I doing this? Easy – because muaythai can save your life. Muaythai gives people self-confidence, shows people that they can achieve goals, helps people to have a healthy life. This sport can take you far away from trouble since your partners in the class and teachers will stand by you.
“I want muaythai for everyone, not only for those who can pay gym fees.”
Supported by Giovanna Mondragon who heads the large Mexican SIYG with Elisa Salinas, Romina feels she is starting to make headway. Every week groups of up to 15 students come for classes in different parts of the city. Boys and girls are welcome, but echoing the problems facing women in the broader society Romina says it’s still a struggle to get girls to come.
Going forward she plans to work with two local gyms who want to send volunteer coaches and will bring equipment to the programme: the Atlanta Muaythai gym run by Richie Alcaraz and El Palacio Muaythai owned by Agustín Recondo.
She says: “Both gyms have already worked with poor kids and are trying to introduce the format of SIYG to that work. They’re about to start on any moment working with us.”
Coaches for the SIYG programme are trained, using material and ideas from the Mexican project in turn inspired by The Resilience Theory. It’s not just about sport, Romina explains but about learning how to positively interact with vulnerable and marginalised children.
She already sees a great difference in how the students interact with adults and even with each other. Building trust takes time.
Speaking about a boy named Gustavo, she says: “I have this young boy who is extremely shy, quiet and lonely. He hardly made eye contact with us in the beginning and he had all the characteristics of a drug user. He lives alone in a rented room on a very tough neighborhood of Buenos Aires.
“First day at the class he couldn’t even say hello. After attending about ten classes and missing not even one, he looks in my eyes and smile shyly. That’s what muaythai does for people.”
Learn more about the Sport Is Your Gang social project in Argentina.