Blazing a trail and giving back at Belfast’s ZKJ DOJO

07/12/2018 – The ZKJ Dojo, located just outside Belfast in Northern Ireland, has long been associated with nurturing and building combat sports champions. The organisation’s Founder, Danny Corr, is himself a decorated fighter – an inductee in Northern Ireland’s sporting Hall of Fame and a pioneer of mixed martial arts. Today, the focus of the Dojo is firmly on the next generation, with two young people in particular – Courtney and Jack – leading the way both in the elite combat sports world and, equally as importantly to the Dojo’s work, outside of the gym too.

Fight for Peace and the Dojo began developing a partnership back in 2014, when the latter became one of the first organisations to travel to our Rio Academy to take part in training in the Five Pillars methodology – the start of what we now call the Fight for Peace Alliance. According to founder Danny, this collaboration has had a key role in shaping the direction the Dojo has taken over recent years – Jack and Courtney being examples of the impact its holistic Fight to Unite programme is having.

“Fight to Unite is a direct result of the training programme in Rio and the consultancy from Fight for Peace over the past few years. Now our whole gym is taken over by a youth focused ethos and we offer free programmes to young people based on the Five Pillars”, explains Danny. “Being partnered with Fight for Peace has worked for us, it has been hard work like anything else, but we are turning that corner now.”

Fight to Unite offers young people aged 12 and older an integrated programme of activities combining mentoring and support, education, leadership and employment opportunities alongside martial arts training. The programme is run in partnership with the Northern Ireland Youth Forum, a link initially forged through both organisations partnering with Fight for Peace. Courtney, a World Championship silver medallist, and Jack, ranked eighth in the world and third in Europe, both came through Fight to Unite, and today are employed as part of the programme.

“We applied for a Comic Relief fund together with the Northern Ireland Youth Forum and the result was Fight to Unite, which we run jointly and which has sports coaches and youth workers working hand in hand to support young people in the community.” Jack coaches combat sports to groups of young people, working in tandem with a youth worker, while Courtney also coaches on a seasonal basis, specifically working with groups of young women. These commitments run alongside education for both. Jack is studying at university while, having been out of school for a period of time, Courtney is enrolled in a technical college where she is working towards getting the A-Levels she needs to enter university.

Coaching is a key part of a philosophy of young athletes giving back and acting as positive role models for younger members at the Dojo. While all of the programmes offered are free, members are encouraged to volunteer in leading sessions and nurturing those coming through the programme. This in turn builds self-esteem, leadership skills and confidence among the older members.  As Danny explains: “Being asked to coach gives people a bit of pride in themselves and what they are doing. They may have come from backgrounds that aren’t particularly good, so when someone gives them a bit of responsibility, they react really well.”

The Greater Belfast area in which Fight to Unite operates sees many young people exploited and groomed into selling drugs, and faces devastatingly high suicide rates – especially among young men. The Dojo has seen relatives of three of its members lost to suicide in 2018 alone. “The biggest issue is self-esteem, with social media they are all trying to prove themselves. So building self-confidence is a very important part of the personal development work we do”, says Danny.

Looking ahead, Jack is balancing his coaching with elite competition while Courtney, currently recovering from a knee injury, will be back in action at the European Championships level next year. Having supported 500 young people in the last 18 months alone, Fight for Unite, the result of a strong partnership and a great deal of dedication from the Dojo and the Northern Ireland Youth Forum, is sure to produce a raft of further champions, in and out of the gym. “We just ask for the commitment of our members, and we give it back to them”, says Danny. “We are getting young people who are wanting to go off to university, or who want to compete and coach, it works well. And it also produces great fighters too!”