Candid Conversations: Sport in Today’s World is a series exploring what sport looks like during the current season we are in.

Sport is such an integral part of daily life: from general fitness and exercising, to keeping mentally healthy; socialising and creating community with others, and even just for the sake of enjoyment – be it watching live fixtures on TV or taking part yourself. During this series we will be talking to different people from across the sector about their sporting experiences in a real, raw and honest fashion, to understand what their sporting life looks like in today’s world.

Joshua Iyalla is three-time English Taekwondo Champion and has also represented England in the 2019 European Championships. Iyalla also currently studies Mathematics at the University of Leeds where he is in his second year and is one of the select Sport Scholars studying at the University. Balancing the demands of university and sport are never easy, but his focus and tenacity earned him winning runner up at the Leeds Gryphon’s Awards in the category of ‘Most Exceptional Athlete’ during his first year of University. We sat down with him to talk more about how he got his start in the sporting world and what it is like training during the pandemic.


How did you first get into Taekwondo?

It started when I was about seven years old. I was being bullied at school and [taekwondo] was so I could learn self-defence and build confidence but it just grew from there. I became really passionate about it around the age of 15/16, at which point I tried harder and began to seriously. It was around GCSE time and at school all my teachers were encouraging me to knuckle down with my studies, try my hardest and put my all into everything and it was this mentality which I just carried over into Taekwondo. I adapted my mindset and as I started to train harder it just clicked that I could really do this. I then made it on to the England squad.


That’s an incredible story! How has your focus and drive for Taekwondo impacted other areas of your life?

It has changed every aspect of my life. There is nothing now that I say I can’t do. If there is something I want to do, I am going to do my research about it, I’m going to really try my hardest and I am going to fail and fail and fail until I get it. Even in my university studies – I probably spend more time doing [maths] than I should! If there is something which I don’t understand or can’t do yet, I will go and do my research and try different methods and eventually I’ll get the answer. It can sometimes be an extremely long process, but I’ve learnt to keep on working without getting disheartened until I get there.


Taekwondo has clearly had a huge impact on your life, but as you mentioned you are also studying Mathematics at the University of Leeds. What was it that drew you to Leeds to study?

University level study has always been my plan as with Taekwondo you can’t have a huge career as with other sports such as football. I chose Leeds as they have a really good mathematics course with the perfect facilities and then I knew the sports scholarship was also available. Also, Leeds’ sport facilities are of a really high quality and so my decision was ultimately a result of the combination of the location, the course, the university itself and its reputation and the sports training facilities.

josh illywa taekwondo champion

You mentioned that Taekwondo isn’t as popular as other sports such as football. How has this affected people’s perceptions of the sport and what would you want to see change so that the sport can be more widely recognised?

Other people’s perceptions of Taekwondo…I don’t think they have a perception of it to be honest. It’s not mainstream enough. The only time you really hear anything about it is during the Olympics, but other than this huge main event, people just don’t know about it. I’d love to see the sport become more mainstream, that would be really cool! It is a contact sport and people do love to watch contact sport. But honestly, I don’t know what to say. People seem more interested in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship is a Mixed Martial Arts production organisation). Even though Taekwondo is a fairly new sport it would still be amazing for it to be more widely recognised.


Moving on from your roots and how you go to this point in your sporting career, obviously the consequences of the global COVID-19 pandemic have invaded every sphere of our lives, but how has this affected you and your training.

I’m very fortunate as when we first went into lockdown in the spring, I was able to move from my accommodation at university back home in Leicester but because my brother was a severely vulnerable person, we were in complete lockdown and didn’t leave the house for six months. I was luckily with my family for which I am grateful and even though there were no classes over the summer break, I was still getting on with bits of work here and there. First lockdown was easier than it is now as I obviously have online classes to attend and a greater workload – it’s harder but I’m still coping. In terms of training, I’ve spent a lot of it learning new skills. I’m really lucky in the fact that I have a home gym, but because I only have equipment for upper body – a pull up bar and dumbbells – I couldn’t really train my lower body. I recognise that I am incredibly fortunate and if I didn’t have this training would become incredibly stressful and I really wouldn’t know what I’d do. I hope to think that I’d find a way to train somehow but having the proper equipment makes it a lot easier to do so.


What about the wider sporting world? From your point of view what are some of the impacts on the sporting sector as a whole?

Aside from the huge funding crisis and competitions being cancelled I feel like a lot of people have simply lost motivation for their sport. They’ve lost interest in sport. Even recently, I was talking to a friend and he wasn’t even sure if he’d come back after the pandemic is all over. Not having the ability to train or even do your sport at a recreational level is incredibly damaging to your motivation. Online classes are always useful either. You can’t access the same level of help, you can’t see properly what you are doing and there is a disconnect between yourself, the instructor and others in the class.


What would you say to someone who wants to get involved with Taekwondo but are perhaps are unsure or don’t want to compete?

Loads of people do it for fun! When you are sparring with your opponent you dictate the tempo which you want to go at – so when I train with the England squad, it is always very intense, yet I would never [spar] like that recreationally or with my club. It’s not all intense fighting! Getting involved with Taekwondo at the moment really isn’t ideal to be honest. When you do a sport, you want to do it with people, get to know them and feel a part of the community. Because everything is online now that connecting just isn’t there. But that aside, when we are able to go back to normal, if you want to get involved you should just do it! You’ve got to do it! There simply aren’t any excuses – it’s so therapeutic and something so confidence boosting about doing a sport: even regardless of the sport, even if you are just doing it casually, it is so empowering to see yourself getting fitter and fitter and it makes you feel so good about yourself


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