Brock research responds to gender-based violence

Jazz Kamal hoped to become an elite-level martial arts athlete, until the inappropriate behaviours of one of her coaches stopped her from pursuing her dream.

Now a coach for trauma-informed, non-contact boxing program Shape Your Life, Kamal strives to inspire women to conquer their fears by changing the way they think about their bodies.

“As a coach, I set the tone for participants,” she says. “I respect that women all have different bodies, abilities and experiences, but I also teach them our bodies are not cages that confine us or hold us back. Instead, they can be a source of freedom.”

The Shape Your Life program uses a trauma-informed approach that accounts for the lasting effects of violence in the lives of its participants. Coaches are aware of the impact trauma has and are able to interact with program participants in an appropriate manner while being sensitive to the experiences they’ve had.

“Trauma is held in people’s bodies. Healing from violence involves knowing and feeling that you are in charge of your own body,” says Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Shape Your Life program co-founder Cathy van Ingen. “This means our coaches primary responsibility is to make our participants feel safe in the gym and have an understanding of the kinds of experiences the women are bringing with them.”

The program is founded on the idea that non-contact boxing can be used to connect with survivors of violence outside of the typical therapeutic approaches that don’t engage the bodies of women and trans people.

“Coaches are not asked to be social workers,” van Ingen explains. “They do need to be participant-centred and foster safety, respect and empowerment.”

One way Kamal works to create a safe space is by seeing boxing through the participant’s eyes.

“When I first started doing this work, I needed to decide how I was going to present myself to our participants. I thought about the powerful women that lift me up and decided by taking pride in myself, I could be inspiring and help others to conquer their fears,” she says.

Each program cycle is 14 weeks. In that time, Kamal says she tries to connect the participants to the feeling of strength, not the appearance of perceived strength.  

“I tell the women this is your space to explore your power and express your rage. If you can’t do a push up, that’s OK, at least you tried,” she says. “It’s my job to show you options on how you can move your body correctly for optimal use, then you can be creative with that knowledge.”

Shape Your Life has grown immensely since its inception 11 years ago, with more than 1,600 women having participated, van Ingen says.

“Along with Associate Professor of Kinesiology Kimberley Gammage and thanks to funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada over three years, we’ve been studying the outcomes of the program by exploring the effects of trauma and pathways to recovery,” she says.

Another addition to Shape Your Life is Head Coach and four-time amateur national boxing champion Melinda Watpool.

“Having been a boxer for more than 10 years, I like to teach the technical aspects so that participants can see how they can benefit from correct blocks, stances and how to hold your hands when punching a bag,” Watpool says. “At Shape Your Life, I’m really focused on safety, structure and fun because this program is about building confidence, learning a new skill and talking about how to make improvements in other aspects of life.”

Both Watpool and Kamal agree that while it is rewarding to see their participants make progress over 14 weeks, unfortunately, there is an endless need for this program.

“Until I hear there have been zero acts of violence against women this year, I’m going to keep coming back,” says Kamal.

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