Coach John Kavanagh: Sharing a fighting philosophy

John Kavanagh

When coach John Kavanagh’s fighters prepare to enter a cage and go to war with an opponent, they rarely stop to think about the pain.

Learning how to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. That was Conor McGregor’s stated mission when he first discovered martial arts as a teenager.

Sport might seem trivial in comparison to bullies and bigots but most athletes are searching for the same thing: to feel cool when it starts to get sweaty.

Twenty years as a coach have taught John Kavanagh that man’s greatest fear is not what you may think. When his fighters prepare to enter a cage and go to war with another, they rarely stop to think about the pain.

“The average guy is not all that worried about going in and getting punched in the face, for some bizarre reason. What makes most fighters uncomfortable getting into a cage? It’s not to look silly.” Kavanagh was on his way to becoming a maths teacher in a previous life. At first it seems hard to reconcile that background with the world he now inhabits.

But give him a platform in a Trinity lecture theatre and he is totally at ease. Science was his first love after all, so he felt very much at home addressing the TCD Metaphysical Society.

“My philosophy on martial arts is the use of the scientific method,” he says by way of introduction to a discussion on the ethos of different martial arts.

Beside him on the stage are experts from the fields of Krav Maga and Karate but Kavanagh trumps them all. Engaging and entertaining, the audience hang on his every word.

“I always say to my fighters the same thing: that win, lose or draw the people who matter in your life, the people who love you will still love you and the people that don’t care, well they still won’t care.

“The process of facing things that are uncomfortable I think is a great leveller. In accepting failure, facing loss, I teach the kids in my club and I always tell them that we’re the best losers on the planet.

“When we lose, we’re going to smile, shake our opponent’s hand, go back to the gym and learn and improve. And go back out again.”

Were it not for the success of his fighters, Kavanagh’s name would mean nothing to the public at large so his coaching philosophy sounds refreshing in an era when winning is everything.

“I want my kids to become very, very comfortable with losing,” he says.

“Lose all the time. There’s a winner and a loser on the day but it’s okay to lose, don’t worry about it.

“You’ll have another competition next week. I want this to be part of their life so that if they start a business and it fails, they understand that it’s not unnatural, that the important thing is to get back up again.” Drop cap.

What if, like John Kavanagh, every coach told his athletes that it was okay to lose? Would the sporting world perish or would athletes feel liberated? Consider ice-hockey, the only non-combat sport in which fighting is acceptable. Like most games, in order to win you must score more than your opponent. But it’s never quite that simple. Not every team is blessed with a Wayne Gretzky. Ice-hockey’s response to the Gretzkys of their world was the goon – an enforcer sent onto the ice to dish out retribution.

“Enforcers are seen as working class superheroes – understated types with an alter ego willing to do the sport’s most dangerous work to protect others. And they are underdogs, men who otherwise might have no business in the game,” wrote John Branch of the New York Times in 2011.

“Teams employ on-ice bruisers, the equivalent of playground bodyguards.”

Although physical violence is not as prevalent as it once was – it says something about the prevailing culture in ice-hockey that the punishment for fighting is five minutes off the ice. In a 60-minute game, the fighting penalty pales in comparison to rugby’s sin-bin, where offenders spend 10 minutes on the sideline just for preventing a score.

“Ice hockey is considered the only team sport where fighting is allowed,” said Aaron Guli, President of the Irish Ice-Hockey Association, addressing the same audience as Kavanagh.

“Generally it is considered part of the sport. Fighting becomes a bit of a release.

Guli was born in New York and grew up playing ice-hockey in the United States. An assistant coach at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island before moving to Ireland in 2011, he is currently head coach with the Irish men’s U18 and U20 sides. While fights are extremely rare on the international stage, they are still common in the NHL – the biggest league in the world.

“They’re trying to really weed out fighting in ice hockey but that will probably never happen. Ultimately I think fighting will always be a part of ice hockey. It’s just part of the psyche of the sport,” said Guli

. During Gretzky’s reign in the 1980s and ‘90s, Marty McSorley was employed as his enforcer. Scoring and preventing goals were not part of the job description. And yet he enjoyed a 12-year long career as The Great One’s bodyguard.

“You would have one or two (enforcers) on each team whose job was not to go out and score goals, it was to strike fear into the other teams. Every team had at least one or two minimum,” said Guli.

You don’t have to trawl too far through the archives to find equivalent characters in Gaelic games, rugby and soccer. While mass brawls and minor melees are no longer commonplace in those games, the lines between fairness and foul play are often blurred.

Instead of punching and kicking, modern sports are figuring out how to eradicate spitting and diving. Losing has become such a stigma that cheating is sometimes more palatable.

When it comes to fighting, even ice-hockey has its own set of principles.

“They (players) fight with each other for one or two minutes but generally that’s it. They have a code among themselves,” says Aaron Guli.

In the world of professional prize-fighting, trash talk dominates the build-up to the extent that honour and respect seem like alien concepts. Yet Kavanagh insists that those virtues are never forgotten by the fighters.

“You’re supposed to show honour and respect to your training partners but to the enemy, none,” he says. “Don’t confuse the martial arts lifestyle with the entertainment industry that is professional prize-fighting.” Each fight ends with a handshake, a public expression of respect. In this regard, most team sports are no different. When the final whistle sounds, the conflict is over.

A handshake precedes the battle. A second one signals the end of hostilities. What happens in between is the problem.

Derry’s Joe Brolly has been by far the most outspoken critic of what has transpired in Gaelic football in the last decade. For Brolly, cynical fouls and feigned injuries are the ill-effects of a win-at-all-costs mentality that pervades the GAA.

In an effort to eradicate some of the problems evident in the modern game, the rule-makers introduced the black card in 2014.

“The win at all costs mentality is pointless and the classic example is the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Donegal. That day when 15 jerseys laboured soullessly, pulling down, pulling down, feigning injury. The crowd in the field of dreams booing, slow clapping and groaning at this travesty that the game was turning into.

Jim McGuinness did us a favour. He proved that winning at all costs is to be avoided at all costs,” Brolly said in an address to the GAA’s Games Development Conference in 2014.

Brolly has been beating the same drum ever since. Earlier this year he went so far as to describe inter-county footballers as ‘indentured slaves.’ If winning is the only creed in modern sports then there can hardly be room for people with John Kavanagh’s mentality.

For Kavanagh, it was Rocky who captured it best: ‘It’s not how hard you can hit but how hard you can get hit.’

Rocky, as portrayed by Sylvester Stallone, was the most popular sportsman the world ever saw. He was also one of the world’s greatest losers but Rocky proved that failure could be a noble act.

Maybe humility is ultimately more valuable than any success.

When coach John Kavanagh’s fighters prepare to enter a cage and go to war with an opponent, they rarely stop to think about the pain.

I want my kids to become very, very comfortable with losing. Just don’t worry about it.


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