Words by Abi Scaife
It isn’t easy for anyone to talk about their emotions, but for men, they are socialised since birth not to open up. Many people still see it as a weakness for men to speak about feelings of sadness, depression, or anxiety - even though we all feel them.
Alex Matvienko is an ex-professional boxer, who now trains others in Bolton, Manchester. Though his expertise lies within the ring, Alex doesn’t shy away from the struggles that can affect even the toughest boxer or buffest gym bro - poor mental health.
“15 years ago, I met a guy [Ricky] … he had been on drugs and cleaned himself up but he still had a bit of a poor lifestyle,” explains Alex. “He got his boxing trainers licence and helped me out at the gym for a few years [but] unfortunately, fell into a little bit of a bad habit again and took his own life about 10 years ago.”
Alex found it difficult that Ricky didnt open up to anyone, not even his friends, about how he was feeling - and decided he didn’t want anyone else to feel that way. Since then, he has been working on ways to encourage men to open up - and how to create a space that makes them feel safe enough to do so.
“I always thought ‘I want to do something that makes lads feel comfortable coming [and] talking,” explains Alex, who then became inspired after seeing adverts for Andy’s Man Club - though he didn’t act on this for a little while longer. After some gentle nudges, and a generous funder, he began Ricky’s Club - named for his friend.
Today, Ricky’s Club meets every other Tuesday at 7.30pm, inside Alex’s boxing gym. You can still hear people working out below you, but everyone in the room is ready and willing to be a listening ear.
Nobody needs to talk, and in fact, some people don’t - but Alex says he can see the change in those who open up. Even just being given the chance to speak, or to say what they’re feeling, leaves each man in a better position compared to when he turned up - and when they eventually start speaking up, that’s when the change really happens.
“If you keep anything inside you it grows - if you've got negative feelings, negative thoughts, negative energy it’s like mould - it keeps growing,” says Alex. “You have to air things and talk about it. You see it when people do talk, it gets off their chest and just feels so much better.”
They’ve had as many as 40 people, or as little as 10 - but no matter how many there are, everyone is welcome. While the smaller groups seem to make people more comfortable, no one is turned away, and everyone gets a chance to say how they’re feeling.
“When I go around the circle and say ‘give me a number for how you’re feeling’, sometimes you can look around that circle and see some guys’ eyes are filling up and they’ve not even spoken yet,” says Alex. “We’ll give them [the] opportunity to speak - some don't want to speak, some don't feel comfortable speaking at the beginning. But others just want to get it off their chest because they’ve never had anyone to speak to. And then it's good because once you get the circle going, others can relate and say ‘That's the same as me’.”
According to research done by the Priory Group, 40% of men won’t talk to family, friends or a professional about their mental health - while another 40% said it would take thoughts of suicide or self-harm to approach a professional. That’s a staggering number of men who are going without help, encouragement, or care while feeling low.
“Find a local group, open up and start doing things that make you feel better. The problem is once we start feeling poor, we start making poor decisions like drinking, like going to bed late. A lot of it is just having good habits,” advises Alex. “[And] talking to yourself better. We all live in our own minds. Talk to yourself like you talk to your friends."
The existence of organisations like Ricky’s Club - whether they’re a circle of chairs next to a boxing ring, or a crowded pub table - is so important for people’s mental health. When men are so rarely given leave to talk about the things that are upsetting them, or causing them anxiety in their life, having someone to say ‘I’m listening, and it’s okay’ is incredibly important.
A place without judgement, a place without stigma - a place where you can turn up, no matter how bad you’ve been feeling, and know that you are cared for, and respected.
Ricky’s Club takes place every other Tuesday, 7:30 pm at Elite Boxing, Bolton, Greater Manchester.
At Smiley Movement, we like to elevate the work of charities across the world. Here are three charities whose causes align with the themes in this article.
Campaign to End Loneliness. This charity campaigns to make sure that people most at risk of loneliness are reached and supported. Support them here.
Samaritans. Samaritans works to make sure there's always someone there for anyone who needs someone. Find out more here.
Ripple Suicide Prevention. R;pple exists to ensure immediate mental health support is presented to individuals following a harmful online search. Learn more here.