Combining a tough sport like boxing with activational social services for youth and their parents is not exactly a tradition in the Czech environment – unlike, for example, the United States. However, the unusual combination of an uncompromising commitment to boxing, a community education center, and work in the social sphere can sometimes set something in motion that is more than the sum of its parts.

An example of this is the Palaestra boxing club in Prague, which is officially part of the country’s early intervention system – primary schools, guidance counselors and social workers focused on youth are all aware of what it offers. Boys and girls have been coming to Palaestra for various reasons for 16 years.

Some just want to get into physical shape, while others want to work on themselves to show others (and perhaps themselves even more) that their place is not just among those categorized as “problematic”. News server Romea.cz interviewed Jan Balog, who is a boxer, the founder of the Palaestra and a trainer all in one, about the club’s beginnings and its current form.

I wanted to try it

Balog originally established the club to providing a helping hand to children and youth grappling with various problems in their lives. Today, however, more and more people are coming to the club in search of a meaningful way to spend their time.

The club becomes these people’s second home. “We have Czech, Ukrainian, Pakistani and Romani children here. We stick to the principle that we are genuinely open to absolutely everyone. That’s how I have always wanted this place to be,” says Balog, who was the national junior champion in 1985.

Balog says his activities with the club are based on what he has personally experienced and received from society and those around him. Essentially, he says he doesn’t do anything more than pass on his experience and skills.

“This society invested in me, and I want to repay it. It sounds like a cliché, but that’s what I began with,” he says.

Balog gained experience as a boxer starting at the age of 12 when he joined the Lokomotiva Košice club in Slovakia. After moving to Bohemia he continued to box under the direction of leading boxer and trainer Ruda Obid.

At the age of 15 Balog became the national junior champion and helped train other children. After meeting yet another leading figure of the Czech boxing world, Stanislav Tišer, who was working with children in the Prague neighborhood of Žižkov, Balog wanted to try to do the same.

Ever since then, Balog has come to recognize, through his own experience, that boxing and sports in general can lead a person to embrace values that transform his or her world view. The world’s view of that individual can also be transformed.

“Back then it seemed terribly easy to me. Working with children, leading them further… So after consulting with those around me, I decided to open a similar gym in Prague-Vinohrady. I rapidly understood that it’s not that simple and that it takes a lot of work, but it was a success,” Balog says with a smile of his beginnings.

Same rules for everyone

The club’s calling card is not just its successful placement of boxers in the rankings, but also its work with the families of the children who take lessons. “A child can come to us on his or her own, but sometimes their parents bring them. Ultimately it turns out that the person who needs aid is more the parent than the child,” Balog says.

“A child comes to us for the sport and then confides to us that he or she is being bullied at school, and then the kinds bring their parents here who also might need aid or support in some area – for example, they may have lost a job. It’s all part of the same work. We are a place where people meet each other, discuss their personal matters, and give and receive advice,” says Balog, adding that wherever there is the slightest chance, he always does his best to involve children’s parents in their training.

Balog also warns of larger economic changes that he says are becoming more and more evident over time. “More and more non-Roma are coming to us who have fallen to the bottom of the barrel for various reasons and who cannot afford to pay for their children’s recreational activities,” he says.

By taking a comprehensive approach, Balog and his colleagues at the Palaestra do their best to impact their charges not just in physical training, but also by devoting a great deal of attention to education, social counseling, and tutoring of the children, if needed. This involves enforcing the rules of the boxing club, which apply to everyone equally.

“Alcohol and drugs very clearly have no business being here in our club. If a child is, for example, hyperactive, or to put it colloquially, if he’s naughty, that definitely is not a problem. We know how to channel all that energy of theirs in the right direction. Then their parents suddenly find that their child is growing into a national champion – or if not that, they at least see a positive shift at school and in their child’s behavior,” Balog says.

Physical condition is not everything, the mind is the foundation

Balog explains that at Palaestra the primary aim is not to produce top-notch boxers if that isn’t what those who come to them want. “It depends on their motivation, on why a particular person came to us, if it’s the child or the parent who needs our aid, and what their ambitions are for the training. After our years of practice we already know what to focus on in which situation,” he says.

When asked why he believes boxing is the right path, it doesn’t take him long to answer. In every sport where the human factor is decisive and scores are kept, Balog says people might encounter racism, but boxing is unique.

“Compared to football, for example, one does not ridicule one’s competitor in boxing. It’s mainly about disciple, setting a strategy, skills, tactics. Without discipline it’s impossible to achieve the desired result,” he said.

The number of children who have passed through Palaestra and still train there is a testament to the fact that it actually works. In the beginning they were people who were fighting mostly with themselves, they were “offenders”, and those around them underestimated them, but ultimately thanks to coaching, to the sport, and to the support they receive, they become strong personalities.

“I have seen dozens of such children grow here. That’s just brilliant,” Balog says. For more information about the club, see www.palaestra.ecn.cz.

Jitka Votavová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
Jan Balog's boxing students training at his Palaestra club. (PHOTO: Jitka Votavová)

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