Discipline, resilience, and confidence. Those are just some of the many lessons that kickboxing teaches which have seen over 12,000 people drawn to the sport in Ireland.
Roy Baker began kickboxing in the early 80s when it was still a young sport in Ireland. He and his friends were looking for a new “challenge”. At the time, karate and taekwondo were the prevalent combat sports with only around 15 kickboxing clubs in Ireland. He was immediately captivated.
“I had done some boxing, I had done some karate and then I saw this new dynamic sport which used all of those components and it gave me some resilience. I was a really timid young kid, if you knew me now, you’d say it’s not possible but I was. Why I’m so passionate about this sport is because it gave me that resilience and ability to believe in myself.
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“I competed at world level for nearly 20 years and the resilience that gives you in life is extraordinary. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am in life, both professionally and personally if I didn’t have that sport.”
Kickboxing gave so much to Baker that he decided to give something back. In the late ’80s, he joined the executive board of Kickboxing Ireland and has seen the sport blossom in the country. From its small beginnings, there are now 157 clubs nationwide with thousands of participants.
Children as young as five can participate in ‘ninja classes’ which are first broken up by age, and then competency. While some young beginners will look at their coaches as a type of “superhero who can kick and punch”, the major draw for parents is the self-control, discipline, and respect that the sport naturally teaches, according to Baker.
“I see parents are trying to understand the importance of discipline, the importance of work ethic. You see that in the classes. In my class, I could have 50 children and the children are formed and aware of the way to behave. There’s no shouting, screaming, no disruption. There is a discipline applied to the classes through respect.
“You’re punching and kicking and it’s a dangerous environment so you have to have that discipline, you can’t have someone go off and do their own thing because someone could get quickly hurt.
“The parents can see the benefits of it, mentally and physically, the discipline, the attitude we install. One of my favourite sayings is ‘your attitude determines your altitude in life’.”
In 2019, Baker was voted in as the President of WAKO (The World Association of Kickboxing Organisations) and is therefore in an ideal position to see how Ireland compares to the rest of the world. Russia’s federation has a membership of 500,000 people while Turkey has 230,000 members. Yet our small nation is consistently ranked in the top five in the world.
Our proud standing can be attributed to the work of the high-performance programme, the dedication of the coaches involved but also the natural fighting spirit that is part of the Irish make up.
“We’re focusing on our high-performance teams in the different disciplines. Ireland is a fighting nation, it’s ingrained in our DNA and you can see that across all the fighting sports. We’re doing a lot of stuff that is best practice, we’re not doing it perfectly by any means, but we are predominantly leading the way in many aspects of the sport and we’re always adapting.
“We’d look at the training schedule of fencing because fencing is very similar in the dynamic movement and if I see something changing in their high-performance structures, we’d bring it in as much as we can.”
After a long and winding road, kickboxing was officially recognised by the International Olympic Committee in November 2017. In what was arguably the biggest movement in the sport of all time, the recognition gave kickboxing its own standing in its governance and protocols, and the credibility that it gave massively boosted their pitches when looking for funding.
As part of the application process, the IOC inspected the Irish Open, the biggest kickboxing event in the world with over 40 countries participating. What the inspector saw that day left him speechless.
“One of my proudest moments is when we had the IOC over here to inspect the Irish Open during the application. It’s the biggest kickboxing tournament in the world and when we brought them in, the chief investigator, when he stood up and looked down at the arena, he said ‘how many participants?’ I said that there was about 3,850 and he said ‘you do realise this is bigger than the Youth Olympic Games?’
“We have no staff, everyone down there was a volunteer. We had referees coming from America to referee for three days free of charge.
“We still encompass the volunteerism in sport that some sports have lost. It’s like the GAA, trying to find that balance between helping people who have dedicated their lives to the sport financially while keeping a balance on the sport. ”
So why does a man who has dedicated 20 years of his life to the sport still continue to be so involved? When your personal and professional life is so hectic, what is the motivation to continue to give so much back?
“It’s unusual that somebody who is the president of a world Olympic federation is still coaching, I don’t know anyone else who does that. It’s funny, my family says ‘how can you work for 12 hours and then go out and teach for four hours?’ and I go ‘it’s my off button, it gives me all of my energy back. When I’m with my kids, I don’t think of anything else. It gives me so much personal satisfaction when I see how my kids grow and what they become later on.
A huge proportion of my students are teachers, both primary and secondary, I would say 80% of them. I hope that’s a part of the work ethic and the discipline we instill in them.
Roy Baker was speaking as part of our new series, ‘Showcase your Sport’, in association with the Irish Federation of Sport, in which we will be giving you a thorough insight into some of the most fascinating sports we have in Ireland.
To watch coverage of the Irish Open 2020, tune into the Pundit Arena Facebook page on Friday, May 1st.