Now in its sixth year of business, Gloves Not Gunz was set up in 2017 by Croydon locals Adam Ballard and Ben Eckett, who both wanted to bring about positive change in their area after a spate of murders.
Only a year after launching, the organisation received a community partnership award from Croydon Council for the partnership work they had delivered alongside the council’s youth engagement initiates. Fast-forward to 2023 and we find continued company growth, real community impact and a prevailing, fierce motivation to help young people.
If you’re into boxing and live in South London, you’ll likely have bumped into Adam and the team at GNG’s HQ at the boxing club in Norbury (if not, then go say hi!). Indeed, sport (boxing in particular) plays a massive a role in Adam’s life. With extensive experience in combat sports, the GNG co-founder has trained and competed under renowned Muay Thai coaches, including Kieran Keddle (who Idris Alba did his first programme with to become a fighter!)
“If you ask people what they think of Adam, they absolutely love him and see him as a father figure, which is nice,” commented Ben Eckett about his business partner and long-time friend Adam. And we couldn’t agree more! With his undeniable warmth, wit and dogged determination to helping young people, we were delighted to get a chance to sit down with Adam and learn more about what he does, why he does it and where it all began….
Join us as we discover more about local Croydon Dad, boxing coach and GNG Co-founder and director Adam Ballard.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your background?
I had a really good childhood. It was very conventional with my mum, dad and brother.
What was young Adam like back then?
In hindsight I probably had a massive identity crisis, but because my area wasn’t very tough, I thought I was the ‘toughest of the tough’, so I’d cause a lot of trouble. I got kicked out of my school for fighting and ended up being able to take my GCSEs at another school because I played rugby (at quite a decent level) but I then got suspended from there.
So sport featured prominently in your life from quite a young age?
I grew up with contact sport as my thing, and always liked bumping into others.
I then got into boxing and soon realised I wasn’t as tough as I thought I was, which definitely humbled me.
It’s weird though, because me and my friends still thought we were quite dangerous, like gangsters or whatever, but we weren’t. Looking back, the first time I went to Croydon Boxing Gym, I realised that kids from my area wouldn’t have survived in this place.
Tell us a bit about your entry into gym as business?
So firstly, I ran a boxing gym in a place called St Paul’s Cray, which was a gym embedded in the traveller community. Within that community there was a lot of disputes, and as such it gave me a lot of first-hand life experience in conflict resolution and dealing with things—as there were quite a lot of times when dangerous things happened.
What came from dealing with such situations?
It highlighted my awareness around the narrative coming from the media that says, ‘you just gotta’ look out for young black boys with knives.’ And it was actually the opposite, you know?
I think it really opened my eyes to how the media depict social issues and how they can sway opinions by generalising people.
How’d you end up settling in Croydon?
Met my beautiful wife and she lived in Croydon, so we moved to a new place together. I went to a local boxing gym which was in a Scout hut. It was ram-packed with every nationality you can think of. Croydon has always been a hub for people entering this country for the first time so the gym had a massive afghan population as well as young people from the BAME community. It was so different to the previous gym I had been at, as there was maybe two white kids including myself.
What were some of the difficulties you encountered?
One challenge was that we weren’t able to utilise the space a lot because we only had it twice a week. This highlighted for me [what it meant] coming from a nice area where I didn’t have to worry about whether an activity was free or not because mum and dad would just pay. As there was nothing for free in Croydon.
What else was going on at the time?
My wife fell pregnant and during that time I went to the location where our gym is now and noticed the building was empty (it used to be a football changing room). It ended up taking about two years to get the building from the council and involved a large amount of hours volunteering.
With the location sorted, what came next?
I met Ben and shared the idea [about opening Gloves Not Gunz] and very, very informally ran a few sessions at the old boxing gym. It started as one session a month for free for kids who didn’t want to box but wanted somewhere safe to be.
What about your own motivations for launching GNG?
From my point of view, I was fed up hearing people talk about problems, give solutions, but do it from the armchair. Not actually doing it from anywhere. So we set up Gloves Not Gunz alongside Croydon Boxing Club and here we are now!
Let’s talk more about the “we”. Tell me a bit about your partnership with Ben?
Well, we both lived in the area and with Ben’s experience working within the youth sector it was just a marriage made in heaven! We both wanted to do something properly, and [though] we’d never say it at the time, we didn’t really want to work for anyone else but understood we had to as part and parcel of life.
So what started out as a boxing thing only has grown into way more than just a boxing club…
Fortunately, because of me and Ben, we’ve developed this whole wrap-around model which has made it more than just a boxing club. And that’s what I’m saying: one wouldn’t have worked without the other. I would’ve just had the boxing club.
So it’s very much a brainchild we’ve both developed, and I think that’s what’s made it good throughout.
We had some ups and downs at the start, probably understanding what we were and who we are, but now we are very much confident in what we’re doing. And yeah, I got a wife, kids, my niece is with me – it’s all going off, all going on!
Building positive relationships is also integral in the work you do with young people. Can you share a bit about your mind-set (and skill-set!) used to connect with and help marginalised communities (especially youth) at Gloves Not Gunz?
I realise that young people (young men, especially) need support.
I’m never one to blow my own trumpet but I feel one of my skills is being able to nurture a young person and advocate for them, be a social worker. I feel I am a good problem solver for young people… If someone asked ‘What’s your title?’, I feel like that’s what I’d be good at, Problem Solver.
Although I came from a nice area and good family; I have experienced a lot of trauma through situations I shouldn’t have put myself in. I definitely think young people need to be represented in terms of seeing people that look like them, talk like them and grow up in areas like them do well and make it in life but I don’t buy into the narrative that every youth worker needs to be from the hood and be an ex-gang member etc.
Words: Sarah-Claire Picton | Interview: Grace Watson | Featured image (and Community Day group shot) by Bevin Sutherland