Rio Ferdinand says "it’s OK to be emotional" in Sport Relief project

Footie star Rio Ferdinand told traumatised youngsters “it’s OK to be emotional” as he visited a ground-breaking sports project with wife Kate.

They saw how a boxing acad­emy is helping troubled students improve physical and mental health and build a better future.

And as one former pupil opened up about his life story, Rio, who lost his first wife Rebecca to cancer in 2015, praised the “phenomenal work” of the Sport Relief-backed centre.

BT Sport pundit Rio, 41, said: “It’s so important for people to feel it’s OK to be emotional and to work on their emotions.

“We came to the academy thinking it was just a boxing club but it’s so much more than that.

“This project helps young people deal with emotions, issues and anxiety through sport.

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“It’s amazing how powerful sport is, and to see how people have learnt from this work is phenomenal. Sport is great for physical health but also mentally it’s the place when you feel free.

“Whether it was playing as a kid or playing professionally, sport was a place for me to be free and I wasn’t taken over by emotions. It will be the same for these kids.”

Ahead of this year’s Sport Relief tomorrow, the couple heard how The Boxing Academy, in Hackney, East London, works with hard-to-reach youngsters who have faced severe trauma such as losing a family member or suffering violent crime, abuse or neglect.

Through boxing and school lessons, trained staff help students get fit, learn teamwork and manage their anger – improving confidence and concentration. It has helped many teenage pupils who have been excluded from mainstream schools.

Ex-pupil Jonathan told Rio how his dad had abandoned the family when he was four. Jonathan said: “I grew up in Hackney with knife crime around.

“Boxing means the world to me. It has helped me change my life, because the road that I was on before was very negative.

“I was hanging around with the wrong crowd, getting arrested.

“I was very aggressive, short tempered… Ever since I came here I’ve changed my life for the better. My mum is so proud of me now. That’s the best feel­ing in the world.

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“I’m studying at college and training hard – the goal is to be a boxing world champion.”

Former Towie star Kate, 28, said: “It’s been an amazing experience coming here. It’s such a good place for young people to come to. It feels like a family.”

She said projects like this help children who have “nowhere else to turn”, adding: “When they’re in school and think they’re not good enough, they come here and are told they can be great… and they change as people.”

Ex-England captain Rio, who started his career at nearby West Ham, said: “Without somewhere like this, some of these kids have told me they might be at risk, on the streets or end up in prison.

“If you’re putting your hands in your pockets and donating to Sport Relief, this is the reality of how your money can help.”

  • To find out more about the work Sport Relief donations make possible, watch Sport Relief on BBC1 tomorrow from 7pm.

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