“There is nothing that I don’t fucking love about Jiu-Jitsu”
In the run up to his superfight at Polaris 3, I spent the day at East Coast Jiu-Jitsu in Dublin with head honcho, Darragh O Conaill. Darragh is a success story for his native country. As a competitor he is a European champion and has had international recognition for his role on BJJ Kumite. He is also a successful businessman with his academy. This is coupled with his skill as a teacher, where he has created arguably the strongest and most competitively successful team in Ireland, producing his own European champions. I spent the day kicking it with the man in an attempt to discover whether it was possible to succeed at the highest level in all three areas.
The morning at the academy begins with Darragh the businessman, albeit in a pair of shorts and a fitted hat. Before all the fun begins there is the admin; vital yet unglamorous tasks have to be attended to, such as ordering stock, updating memberships, cleaning the toilets and handling all the social media.
The academy itself is beautiful, it looks like a large scale academy you would expect to find in Southern California, but the three heaters blowing directly onto the mats remind you exactly where you are. Darragh appears to have the business side of things on lock. He has 160 students, with new students arriving and checking out classes daily with a high rate of return.
When questioned on whether this came naturally to him, he explained that he picked it up incrementally – at first it was just ‘teach the class and pay the rent’. Then as more students began to join via word of mouth, his responsibilities increased. Then he had to set up a beginners class, which in turn necessitated setting up Gi sales. Interest from parents led to multiple kids classes and a website had to be created and maintained to market the product.
Travel to different academies worldwide has taught him vital lessons, in addition to being schooled by mentors Saulo Ribeiro and Rafael Lovato on creating a profitable business. But even then, not everything was applicable to Irish customers. His success has mostly been derived from reacting to new situations as they have presented themselves.
At 11 o’clock, Darragh becomes the competitor. This begins with an hour of yoga. This is something that he has incorporated into his routine as a form of injury prevention, which has allowed him to perform at the highest level as he navigates through his long day of teaching and training.
The first class begins at noon. Whilst he teaches the class, this functions as his training too, so he dictates it towards what he feels he needs to work on. The session is focused on simulating scenarios one might encounter in the competition through systematic drills, and specific sparring.
This training could never be confused with the ‘gentle art’, it is literally kill or be killed, either from young purple belts berimboloing you like crazy, or having your lights begin to dim as your very last breath is squeezed from your chest via Darragh’s signature baseball bat choke.
Darragh had a good measure of success at the brown belt level with a European title and multiple wins at the IBJJF London Open. When questioned on his transition from brown belt to black belt and whether it had been impeded by responsibilities as a teacher and an academy owner, he explains that it has definitely made the process slower. At this year’s Pan Ams he fought Yago de Souza from Cicero Costa. He admits that he was bettered by someone who was faster and sharper than himself, Yago, a beast of a human being, went on to claim the title. The key difference here is that Yago’s sole focus is his training, every single day, he has no additional responsibilities, no business to run or students to looks after. This is a luxury that Darragh simply does not have.
During the morning session there are high level purple belts on the mats, but is this enough to succeed at the highest level when a competitor like Yago is able to train with fellow black belts every day? Darragh is a competitor on the highest stage and is trying to win the same accolades yet he can’t just focus on himself and he doesn’t have access to other top black belts all the time. He freely admits that he has considered whether it would be better moving to America or Brazil.
“But how I learn is from the experience of fighting these guys, now I know how fast this guy is. So now I know how fast that I am expected to be next time that I compete.”
He concludes that he is still able to, “…get to a really good level, but it is a longer process, competitively it is a disadvantage but it is my choice.”
The afternoon’s focus is back on the business and time for doing the mundane shit, as he puts it “We’re gonna do three things at once.”. Time for the things the Jiu-Jitsu videographers don’t document; Gis for new students have to be taken to be washed, mats have to be cleaned and toilet paper has to be bought. This is coupled with answering questions for this article, before jumping straight into a podcast for Show the Art.
Maintaining energy levels is most difficult aspect in creating a balance, he explains, finding the time and the energy to do everything that needs to be done. Having energy cannot be understated; as a teacher you have to be excited in front of students:
“You can’t come in and be like ‘fuck it, do an arm-bar’ as everyone will have a shitty experience. It is hard to find the energy to go and buy a gas canister and waiting in line but that is a piece that is essential for the whole process to run smoothly.
“Doing 45 minutes of straight rolling in preparation for the Polaris super-fight, and being so exhausted, but still having to do the rest of the day. Finding the energy to do the rest of it is one of the more challenging aspects, but not as challenging as putting a suit on and going to an office.”
The evening is time for Darragh to assume the role of teacher, mentor and role-model for his students. He teaches three classes a day, but with a growing academy and a popular children and teen program, it has been essential to delegate some responsibilities to his students. Thus, these two programs have been passed on to trusted blue and purple belts to run, as well as help from long-time students manning the admin side of things, working the front desk in the evening.
Sometimes when big competitions are coming up or super-fights, he will instruct one of his students to take the class and he will jump in as a student himself.
This trust that he has placed in his students has paid off in their own success, with many of his students establishing their own academies and making Jiu-Jitsu their full-time occupation. When questioned, he is characteristically coy on his own influence, not only in the success of his students, but also the firm hand he has had growing the Jiu-Jitsu scene on the Emerald Isle. He explains that if anything it is his love of Jiu-Jitsu and his work ethic that has inspired his students.
“They can see how much that I love it – they see the lifestyle that I live, I don’t have to go to a real job and wear a suit and they love BJJ just as much, so they want that too”.
He goes on to say that he has lots of friends that don’t know what they love, they don’t know what they want to do in life and thus end up settling. So when he sees people who really love Jiu-Jitsu the way he does, he tries to facilitate their path to success. With multiple full-time athletes and five students now running their own spots – his positive influence is apparent.
His own teaching in the evening begins at 6 o’clock, after fun and competitive games during the warm-up, Darragh switches to a meticulous and no-nonsense style of teaching to a packed class. His technique is packed with layers of detail which ensures that students of varying levels of experience are able to access and gain an insight.
His teaching is based around the competition, the use of the points system, a breakdown of where scores occur and common ways people give away points. He preaches the importance of competition, as such he encourages everyone to compete, and going even further, believing it is something that everyone should do. The competitive success of the team can be seen as a direct result of this ethos which is propagated and instilled by all students. But this isn’t to say that students are forced to compete. Whilst this aspect of Jiu-Jitsu is given primary importance, Darragh himself stresses:
“Don’t let tournaments overrule everything – it is Jiu-Jitsu itself that makes you a better person, not competition.”
Throughout the class he uses positive reinforcement as an effective tool with his teaching, ensuring that students are constantly praised for their successes. Even though the class is large, there is a distinct focus on individualised learning as he takes students aside during the rolling to provide them with additional details and explain why certain things have just happened during sparring.
At the end of the day as the beginners class finishes and the last student asks the last question, Darragh, the teacher, the businessman and the competitor reflects on whether it is possible to excel in all three areas. He thinks it is, but admits it takes a long time – much longer than if you were focusing on just one of them. What is apparent from my day with him is that he has found a balance where he is able to do what he loves every single day.