This week’s featured article will be taking a look at the sport of MMA from a mother’s perspective. Sharon Coyne Kavanagh is a devoted wife and mother of three children and is also a photographer who specialises in capturing behind the scenes footage of combat sports training and competitions. Two of Sharon’s children, 16 year old Noah and 14 year old Erin both train and compete in MMA and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitions and Noah has represented Team Ireland at the IMMAF Cadet MMA world championships. 

Sharon was first introduced to the sport of MMA when her neighbour, professional MMA fighter Philip Mulpeter opened up IMMAA club SBG Portarlington. In 2017 Sharon’s eldest child, 13 year old Noah was a very shy, quiet and reserved teenager who was extremely introverted and found it difficult to interact with new people. Desperate for Noah to find a sport or activity that would allow him to open up and come out of his shell, Sharon texted Phil one day to ask if she could bring Noah down to the gym to try out a class. Phil recommended starting out with a jiu jitsu lesson and as Sharon brought Noah through the doors of SBG Portarlington for the first time She recalls “I wasn’t very optimistic about the situation, I didn’t expect Noah to join in with the class or enjoy it much but I was surprised at how willingly he participated. I think it was the intellectual and methodical aspect of the sport that gained his interest, to realise that brains were superior to brawn and that it was all done in a very controlled and safe environment. When my daughter Erin began to show an interest in the sport I was only too happy for her to join in with the classes too. I would never discourage my daughter from a sport just because it is primarily male dominated. It’s just as important for girls to learn self defence techniques as it is for boys and although she’s closer to the beginning of her MMA journey I think she will make a great competitor in time because she has shown great discipline and determination and I think competing will prove to be of great benefit to her.”

Having an extensive background in photography Sharon asked Phil if it would be okay to take photos of the teams outing at the midlands open MMA competition, to which he agreed. She then began taking photos at both training sessions and tournaments and soon became known as the club photographer, providing each member with professional snapshots of themselves in action. 

In 2019 Philip encouraged Noah to attend the IMMAA national squad sessions where he was chosen to represent Team Ireland at the first ever IMMAF cadet MMA world championships in Rome. Although thrilled for Noah to be able to avail of such an incredible opportunity, Sharon was also devastated to realise that she would not be able to attend the tournament to support him as she had been booked as the photographer for a wedding during that time. She stated “It was the first of my kids competitions that I hadn’t been at so it was heart-breaking but I took a lot of comfort in knowing that he had the support of his coaches, teammates and father. And even though I couldn’t be there to witness his fights in person I was able to watch them as the couple who were getting married on that day actually paused their wedding day for me so that we could all watch Noah’s bouts online together.”

Throughout his MMA journey Noah has accumulated a range of impressive achievements including gold medals at the European Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Championships, the Gaelic Athletic Martial Arts tournaments, Grappling Industries and a vast selection of medals from many other competitions. While Sharon is incredibly proud of her son’s achievements in the sport she also admits that sometimes competing can have a less than favourable outcome stating “Regardless of the result, competitions are a great way for them to gain experience. As their mother I always want them to win but I’m also aware that sometimes losing a match can provide a great opportunity for them to learn from their mistakes. Whenever they lose a fight I’m always heartbroken for them because I know how hard they’ve worked to be there but I’m also proud that they were willing to put themselves out there on the line and demonstrate their abilities as fighters.”

Sharon’s favourite aspect of being involved at the gym has been watching the progression of the students, not just in their technical abilities but their personal growth and development too claiming “Noah, Jamie Doyle and Dara Ward all joined the club around the same time and over the years it’s been such a pleasure to watch them all grow closer together as teammates and friends. They help each other progress in training, celebrate together after wins and help lift each other’s spirits after losses. Over the course of three years I’ve watched them grow from shy and quiet boys into strong and confident young men. They all have such bright futures ahead of them in the sport and I couldn’t be more excited for them.”

Explaining one of the many ways in which the whole family supports Noah and Erin in their MMA journeys Sharon divulged “When one of them needs to cut weight for a fight or tournament the whole family will cut weight alongside them. If one of us can’t have a takeaway or dessert then none of us will have it and we’ll all sit as a family and eat the exact same meals as the person cutting weight. This is a family affair and we strive to encourage and support one another in everything we do.”

As the mother of MMA fighters Sharon has experienced some skepticism from people who are unfamiliar with the sport stating “It’s so unfortunate that some people still have this brutal, thuggish perception of MMA not realising that in Ireland we have the highest safety standards for MMA in the world. When my kids compete in MMA they are in no more danger than a child competing in a soccer or hurling match. If people really took the time to look into the sport in more depth I think they would see that it builds character, instills great work ethic and discipline and is far more technical and complex than many people realise.”

Speaking of the benefits MMA training has provided her children with, Sharon claimed “Definitely a huge increase in confidence would be the biggest change I’ve noticed in them. They’re much more self assured now compared to what they used to be and can hold their heads high. When Noah began his training he specifically didn’t like being touched and wouldn’t allow people to put their arms around him for a photo at the end of class, whereas now he’ll be the first person to instigate a fistbump, pat on the back or a hug for his teammates at the end of a training session. Especially as a parent I feel much more secure in the knowledge that they are both capable of defending themselves if they ever do find themselves in a dangerous situation but I find the training keeps them away from troublesome situations in the first place. My kids are so focused on and committed to their training that I always know exactly where they are because they’re always at the gym looking to constantly learn and improve. Even during lockdown we invested in some mats for our sitting room at home so that they could continue to drill and train each day. The classes give them the opportunity to interact with people they wouldn’t necessarily come across in their day to day lives too and one of the things I love about MMA is the diversity of the people within the sport. There are people from all different backgrounds and professions but once you step on those mats it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you do or how much you have in your bank account because everyone is equal once they step onto the mats”

Sharon credited her children’s love of MMA to SBG Portarlington owners Philip and Alvina Mulpeter claiming “The endless support and encouragement they show to their students each and every day is remarkable. There is no limit to the amount of time and effort they are willing to spend on helping everyone out in any way they can and I hope they realise just how much their members genuinely adore them. Philip is a fantastic role model for the kids, because he’s strict but fair. He’ll tell you the honest truth but makes sure to do it in a kind and supportive way. And it’s been such a pleasure to watch him become a father for the first time to his little girl Poppy who he absolutely dotes upon. I remember one moment in particular when Noah won gold at the Midlands open competition where Phil put his arm around his shoulder and said “I told you that you could do it. I knew you could do it. You just needed some confidence.” I think hearing that really meant a lot to Noah and it meant a lot to me too to know that he genuinely believes in him and sees his potential.”

When questioned what advice she would give to a parent who is nervous of their child taking up MMA classes Sharon stated “Have an open mind and don’t listen to the opinions of others. Take a trip down to your local MMA gym and ask to watch the way they train and I bet you’ll be surprised at how technical and safe it all is. At the end of the day if your kids show an interest in something it’s best to support and encourage them rather than hold them back. I honestly believe one of the best decisions I have ever made was to sign my children up to classes at SBG Portarlington and I would encourage any parents out there to allow their children the same opportunity.”

The Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association would like to extend our gratitude to Sharon and her family to their ongoing support and contributions to the Irish MMA community and we look forward to watching both Noah and Erin’s progression within the sport in the future. 

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