A word from Ben Cox, Founder of RowUK

Each morning, I wake up with one mission – to change the lives of young people through the power and discipline of sport.

After nearly two years of planning, RowUK came to life in September 2016. We had a concept and we wanted to prove it. 

Our concept is that sport is an excellent vehicle through which to raise aspirations and build confidence in young people who, for whatever reason, don’t have the self-belief to fulfil their potential. We are also unapologetic in asserting that competitive sport, as distinct from noncompetitive physical activity has significant benefits which are yet to be fully understood. We wanted to examine this properly and get some robust analysis as to ‘what works’ and why.

At a younger age, I shied away from competition. Now, I relish it. What changed was that a few key people backed me. Those life-mentors were the teachers, coaches and senior teammates I met through sport. They pushed me, guided me and always expected more. They led by example, they were patient and they were consistent. That’s why I started RowUK. I wanted to create an environment where good kids could thrive.

So, after fifteen years of working in both the state and independent education sectors, and also for London Youth Rowing, I felt I was ready to build an effective model as I saw it - and to test it properly. 

In November 2014, I heard on the Leeds alumni grapevine that the university’s rowing club had moved into the newly-opened Leeds Boat House. The following year I was on holiday in Yorkshire and popped in to see for it myself. It was a midweek afternoon and this beautiful new facility was locked up and quiet. Back down in London, the centre I ran was teeming with kids every day. I wrote to the university with a plan to open up the boathouse to local schools. Long story short, they contracted the newly created RowUK and just over a year later I moved back to Leeds.

We got to work. There is now full time professional coaching in the nearby Gorse Academies Trust and that programme is set to expand again in September. We have university students coaching indoor rowing clubs right across the city and we are about to stage the third RowLeeds Indoor Championships. To hold the competitive aspects of the programme together, the University of Leeds Boat Club recognises it needs to be the most compelling destination available for ambitious junior rowers leaving school. That will take time but the building blocks are moving into place. 

As I have said, I know how important it is to have people looking out for you, guiding you through selection and demotion, through victory and defeat. But a plucky anecdote isn’t enough. What is needed is hard evidence.

Only robust and clinical analysis, across large cohorts, will give an understanding of the complexities facing schools and families in our more deprived neighbourhoods. We have hunch, but we want to know for sure. 

Thankfully, the University of Leeds Schools of Psychiatry, Biological Sciences and Food Science and Nutrition are just as interested as RowUK in getting the answers. In 2018, we will roll out the research

programme, iRoW (impact of Rowing on Wellbeing). We will seek to understand the impact of our programmes on physical and mental health and, ultimately, a national and even global view is part of our long-term plans.


But why rowing? In some senses, it wouldn’t matter if it were rugby, cycling, ballet or anything else. We are a niche and costly sport and that makes it harder to reach more young people. The answer is that rowing, rightly or wrongly, has a reputation. In many respects that reputation is unjustified. However, it cannot be denied that, in schools at least, rowing is a badge of preeminence reserved mainly for the independent sector. Success in this sport for the young people we serve will be emblematic far beyond the parkland surrounding Dorney Lake. More than anything, it will echo back to south Leeds in a way that requires no explanation to the children and families we work with and, eventually, to those decision-makers who can help shape their futures. 

We have already received exciting requests to manage programmes in other cities. Elsewhere, commercial opportunities are presenting themselves and we will capitalise on the right ones at the right time, helping to reduce our dependency on traditional grants and donations, and allowing us to drive our programmes forward with agility and innovation.

We are strong advocates of the benefits of sprint rowing and we see this as the future of the sport. We are talking to national and international interests in this area and will be building relationships with sponsors and partners throughout 2018. Also, the demand from the fitness industry for experienced coaching is a new and exciting feature of our sport and an area where we are already starting to add value. Making sure RowUK is a byword for quality is paramount as this side of the business grows. 

We plan to scale up beyond Leeds at some stage, but we have no desire for our impact to be a mile wide and an inch deep. For now, we want to build a bullet-proof delivery model and a world class research programme. Zoning in on that comes before everything else. 

Last but not least, we are excited to be launching the RowUK Foundation in February. This will mean that RowUK will now have a charitable fundraising vehicle through which we can financially support and grow the incredible work being delivered by all of our valued partners.

This report aims to share more about what RowUK does and why it does it. We made some pleasing progress in 2017 and we have some exciting plans for the year ahead. If you like the sound of what we do and would like to work with us in 2018, I’d love to hear from you. 

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