Early on a Saturday morning over breakfast, I met with Martin McClenaghan to chat about Jiu Jitsu training and his new job, head coach at SBG Belfast’s Growing Gorillas kids program. 


LL:  Hi Marty, thanks for taking the time to sit with us! I’m just going to dive right into the first question – how long have you been doing BJJ? 

M: About 2 and a half years now. When I was 14 to about 16 I started MMA, But I wasn’t very good at it. I think I lost a fight when I was 13 or so and I wanted to learn how to fight from there.  I didn’t understand how much getting fit and getting strong would help with confidence. There was circuits every training session, 100 odd sprawls, break-falls, squats and everything in between. It was really unbelievable conditioning.  It wears and tears you and after a few years of training football and MMA, it got too much; I over trained and pulled a muscle on my back. After some time out I was walking home from work and saw a sign for Jiu Jitsu. I called in to see what the craic was and that was the beginning of my BJJ for me.

The reason for starting Jiu Jitsu was to find a hobby after being out for a while with a back injury. I was committed to 2 days a week and never missed sessions after that.


LL: What does Jiu Jitsu mean to you now and how has it shaped you as a person?

M:  I like to think I can pick up any sport and get into it, and maybe be just as devoted, but I’m not sure there is the same reward system anywhere as Jiu Jitsu that would keep me interested. Jiu Jitsu has a constant reward system and that keeps me focused.

When people exercise their pupils dilate as a way for the body to show someone you like them and there’s a connection, it happens when you do Jiu Jitsu too. At the end of a roll, you have good conversations with people, it can be about the weirdest things, but it’s a good conversation. Completely different from when you meet someone on the street, you say hello, and then you’re not sure on how to lead the conversation on.


LL: Yeah, I think its because you’re on the same wavelength at that point. Each persons endorphins have been released at the same time and there’s a sense of happiness from both parties, even though one of you may have been submitted by the other. 

M:  Exactly! It now takes up most of my life, with teaching and with my own training. It’s my 9 to 5.


LL: I know that recently you have quit your day job to pursue teaching Jiu Jitsu to kids, can you talk a bit about what that was like?

M: I’m qualified as an accounting technician and have been doing that for about 6 years. The next step was chartered accountant, which I can still go on to do. I’m working a few hours here and there to cover in my old workplace when everyone’s out doing their exams and having that has given me the confidence to go out and teach Jiu Jitsu as a full time thing. I am now teaching the Growing Gorillas Jiu Jitsu program targeted at kids ages 5 to 17. I’m treating it like I would usually a full time job; I want to make the best out of this opportunity so I’m very organised about it all. I’m not chasing the Jiu Jitsu lifestyle as such, I’m trying to build a really good kids program with the best care for the kids and for the parents. I’m making it my own success. I want people queuing at the door waiting to get in. I haven’t packed in my job so I can go and train full time, I’ve just essentially changed jobs, it’s not holiday mode for me. I found it difficult when I had to tell people I work with what I was going to be doing. But they have always been supportive, and said if it doesn’t work out I’d always be welcome back. I have nothing to lose in a sense, I’m only 22, so I can still explore my options.


LL:  It’s a very unique situation, as you can commit everything into making the Growing Gorillas a massive success then if it doesn’t work out you still have a very solid backup. People spend a lot of time and effort working towards the job you’ve given up in accounting so having that as your safety net must be comforting. 

M: Yes, I’ve been doing it for so long and it was difficult on my last day. It was very emotional because they were like family to me. It was very hard to tell a professional accountancy firm that you are leaving to teach kids martial arts. I’m also studying psychology and that’s what I’m really interested in. That’s what I want to do in 10 years time when I have the qualifications and experience behind me. The Growing Gorillas program will help me on that path along with the transferable skills that accountancy has given me dealing with people at a professional level.


LL: You mention the Growing Gorillas program, can you briefly explain what it is and who its for?

M: The program was created by Travis & Kisa Davison, coaches for Straight Blast Gym International and its main focus is to instruct children in the values of respect, confidence, and leadership skills, so they can be successful on the mat and in life.

It’s basically for kids and young adults from ages 5 up to 17. It’s Jiu Jitsu with more games and helps promote the fun aspect of it. The kids seem to pick it up quicker than the adults, it’s insane. It’s funny how they get bored with technique so quickly. You can show them a move, look around 2 seconds later and they have stopped. When you ask them why, they usually say they have finished it! That’s why you have to mix it up with games, keeping them on their hands and feet. It’s certainly keeping me on my hands and feet too!

The kids don’t realise they are doing exercise which is great. They’re just being kids playing around and moving, but they learn so much. You need the slower paced technique side of the classes as well. Because you don’t want to exhaust the kids too much. They don’t know when they’re exhausted, they just fall down. Then domino effect comes into play. One kid doesn’t want to play and then another and then another. You need that balance of work and play for everyone to keep things interesting.

With the youngest group of kids, we try to incorporate the foundations and movement through games and technique essentially. I found it’s always a learning process when trying to teach a 5-year-old. The biggest hurdle is the language, you run out of words when you talk to a 5-year-old. It’s definitely made my coaching better, if you can teach kids, you can teach anybody. The kids love it and make new friends; it’s great craic all round.


LL: That kind of leads to the next question I had, and I think I know the answer, but do you think this program helps to develop the kids character and mindset?

M: Yes 100%, you see them open up as the classes go along. They would barely talk to you at the start, then now they always come up for a hand shake and say goodbye with a loud “See you next week!” There’s a safe controlled environment where they can come in, let off steam and move around.

The teaching plays a massive part in it too. You need to get across to them when to tap and not panic when they find it tough. And I can see that they pick things like that up quicker than the adults. It’s what Jiu Jitsu does. It helps to put you into uncomfortable situations and you have to problem solve quickly. Knowing what escape to use or knowing when to tap, learning from the mistakes and then resetting and going again.

In my kid’s class, at the end, I do breathing exercises and at that age the kids don’t know they are practicing mindfulness. It’s great to introduce at a young age. No one ever taught me how to do that stuff when I was younger, I had to find it out myself. I now know how to calm myself down after a hard day or after a training session, learning to breath properly helps to control the body and allows you to control your heart rate, levelling you out in a way.

There’s the physiological benefits of Jiu Jitsu that the kids pick up on, it makes them more confident walking about the place. Trash talking when playing games, and having banter throughout the classes.

I was talking to one of the parents about one of the kids and they were saying how the kid was afraid of going to the shop, and doing anything new, but now they’re walking down the street, saying hello to absolutely everyone, strangers and all! It’s hilarious! It’s an amazing feeling hearing the stories and seeing the kids develop. From being shy at the start, to having no issue wresting with someone much bigger than them, seeing their confidence growing through every class.


LL: what advice would you give to a much younger version of you?

M: Start reading and watch motivational videos. They don’t work that much for me know, but at the start I got such a buzz off them. It would fire me up all day long. Write some things down and get after it!


LL: Gi or No-Gi?

M: I used to train only Gi, but I love both. In No-Gi, I get a lot more space, and in Gi, I get a lot more control using the lapel and sleeves. I transition a lot better in No-Gi. I don’t really have a favourite.


LL: What’s your routine when you train for competitions?

M: I’m still working that out. It changed every time. Now with the competition on at the end of the month (sub only summer smackdown in Dublin), I do classes at 6am of conditioning and Jiu Jitsu, then I will do half an hour of drilling. Focusing on different things for Monday through to Thursday – guard passing, retention, takedown defence, mostly drilling the basics – then on Friday I’ll just roll. I’d head home after my early classes and some drilling, take a nap, get refuelled and head in to teach a class. I’m pretty knackered at the end of the day, so early to bed and do it all over again the next.

The first week is drilling and going over what I want to work on for the comp. The second week I hit as many competition classes as I can, doing rounds and working the drilling into my game. The third week is usually tweaking things and keeping up with the high intensity sparring and competition classes, then the fourth week, I’ll tone it down, back with more drilling and technique and maybe lose some weight to get me into the right weight class.


LL: What or who do you draw inspiration from? 

M: I think my mum mostly. She’s unreal. Raised three kids by herself and working 3 or 4 jobs at the same time. She has great work ethic, so when I feel lazy or think I’m doing too much, maybe don’t want to go into training, I just think of her. That usually drives me on.

I also take inspiration from reading. I’ve started to read a lot in the past while. I never read much before, it was usually Playstation or something and I had to get away from that, so I began to read.


LL: Who is your greatest of all time in Jiu Jiitsu?

M:  I really like Rafael Mendes, but maybe also Marcelo Garcia. Yeah I would have two, they are so talented and inspiring.


LL: what is your favourite submission?

M:  Ah, Reverse triangle from the back is my favourite. It’s not my go to move or what I would hit the most, but it is enjoyable when I do. I’m still learning a whole lot when I train or drill, but I’m mostly finding success with armbars or triangles.


LL: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

M: Brown or black belt and working towards setting up my mental health centre. And a world champion! Ha! You need to dream and why not be a world champion while you are at it!




You can find out more information on The Growing Gorillas by checking out the following,

@GrowingGorillasBelfast on facebook, or http://sbgbelfast.com/Growing%20Gorillas.html.