In this new series, Arden University takes an in depth look at some of our incredible students, revealing details about their inspirational journeys, their lives, and their involvement with Arden. In the first of these profiles, GB Taekwondo’s Bradly Sinden speaks to Arden.
In Taekwondo, clinching is a pretty commonly used blocking technique. Finding yourself 'in the clinch' means you’re going to be up-close-and-personal with your opponent, your hands thrown loosely around their waist in an effort to stop them from landing scoring kicks on you. “Sometimes it used to be when people got chest-to-chest it’d be like a little break,” says GB’s Bradly Sinden, Britain’s first able-bodied male Taekwondo World Champion. “But I’ve got the conditioning to fight all the way through the six minutes. I’m going to push and make my opponent feel uncomfortable. Giving people breaks isn’t going to help me.”
These ideas of persistence, determination, and pushing yourself through bad places, are something 22-year-old Arden University student Bradly keeps coming back to. Whether it’s in sport or in his studies, for him, taking a (well-earned) breather isn’t an option. When it comes to the clinch he keeps going every time.
Outside his studies Bradly is first-and-foremost a full-time athlete. He’s heading to the Olympics this summer and, as part of Great Britain’s Taekwondo programme, he trains five-days-a-week, often competing in tournaments at weekends. “Even now, when I see people who I haven’t seen in years, some of them are like ‘Are you still doing Taekwondo? What else do you do?’ and I’m like: No, that’s my full-time job.”
He’s constantly working on his conditioning, analysing his diet, and even working out how much water he can feasibly drink if he wants to meet a certain weight-class. He sees the physio every single day for a check-up. He estimates that each week he spends an incredible 15 hours simply practicing kicking. Presumably, he also sleeps at some point.
From the outside, it’s hard to fathom how truly exhausting it must be to have a 9-5 steeped in the unrelenting intensity of Elite Level sport. How tempting it must be to spend your precious free hours nursing countless injuries - to veg out in front of Love Island with a monstrously large pizza and your feet wrapped in ice. Why anyone opts against simply (and quite understandably) keeping every evening free when you know you’ve got a tough morning of ‘being repeatedly kicked in the head’ coming up is a genuine head-scratcher.
What I’m saying is, if I did Taekwondo every Monday-Friday I’d never even make it to the pub, let alone Tokyo 2021. But that’s where Bradly Sinden is inspirationaly different. Alongside the demanding nature of his exceptional career, and alongside his Olympic ambitions, he’s also managing to fit in distance-learning; preparing for his future by studying a Finance and Accountancy degree with Arden University.
“I’ve always just really enjoyed maths,” he says. “Anything that gets the brain working draws my attention. Even with Taekwondo, my brain’s very algorithmic, it’s like: alright, if this happens then that follows. That’s what maths is, and with accountancy it’s like: if you earn this much money you get taxed that much. It’s always something I’ve enjoyed, and that’s why I wanted to study it at University.”
Bradly got started with Taekwondo when he was just four-years-old. It was actually his sister having the lessons - Bradly was just meant to wait there with his mum - but his inability to sit still propelled him into the sport.
“I wasn’t the best behaved kid. I was like a hyperactive wrecking ball. I wasn’t supposed to join in, but after a few lessons I could count in Korean, and was practicing the kicks on the side. The coach came over and said if he can behave, he can do it. So they let me have a few lessons.”
From there, consistency becomes the watchword - regularly picking up bronzes and silvers at various competitions. At the 2017 World Championships, Bradly was asked to drop down and compete at 63kg (he usually fights in the 68kg category) and, despite picking up an injury to his glute in the quarter final, he won the Bronze medal there.
More memorable performances followed, including a meeting with Korea’s Lee Dae-hoon in 2018 where he beat the World Ranked number one; a remarkable achievement given Lee had gone undefeated for two and a half years. “It was surreal. He’s the best Taekwondo player there’s ever been, but I saw then, if you take the right plan, he’s beatable.”
In 2019, Bradly won three competitions back-to-back and was selected to compete in the World Championships in his preferred 68kg category. But he got injured right before the competition and was in-and-out of training, only able to properly kick for about two weeks before the competition.
“We knew one of my key strengths is conditioning - my fitness to push that fight. So we said even though I can’t kick, I can move. I can push myself with this conditioning for when I do get in the ring. Kicking’s a muscle memory, but if you don’t push your fitness you can lose that quick. We knew going into this World’s we’d done all we could for conditioning so I knew in the fights I’d have that engine to keep going.”
Focusing on fitness clearly worked, as he put in a string of excellent performances in front of a Manchester crowd, including again beating Lee Dae-hoon in the semi-final despite going 6-0 down. “I took two early head shots. My head was just saying ‘we need to rush’, but I was like no. If you change your game plan it’s just going to spiral. Stay calm and stick to it and you’ll come back, and that’s what I did.”
“At one point we get in the clinch and I can hear him breathing heavily. That gave me confidence, because he’s one of the fittest guys in the world. So I smiled and went let’s do this - we’re going to fight to the end and see who comes out on top.”
With the opportunity to bring home a World Championship in front of his family and friends, he was understandably pumped. Bradly admits the final wasn't his best performance, but that's largely irrelevant. Most importantly, he did enough to win. He found a way. He was never going to let anyone beat him on the day. Not on hometurf. Not when he’d come so far already.
I ask him how it felt, to fulfil one of your dreams so early in your career.
“Surreal,” he says. “I don’t think it clicked until a few days after: what I’d achieved. Having my coach there, having it in front of a home crowd so my mum could watch it there instead of in front of a TV screen, being able to celebrate with all my teammates, it was amazing.”
He was surprised on the day to see his Nana in the crowd for the final. She usually doesn’t attend Bradly’s fights, she gets too nervous apparently. Speaking about his family he is polite and deferential. He's quick to thank his mum for her sacrifices, and especially now, with his family not being allowed to travel out to Tokyo, he says it’s great he got to experience that big occasion with them all there.
I understand his Nana’s position though. Taekwondo is a nervous sport. It is restless, taut, and fidgety. Raised legs seem to hang in the air for a punishing eternity, hinging slightly like creaking gates in the wind, waiting to slam shut and strike a decisive blow. You clearly need patience in this sport, but, besides that, what makes an excellent Taekwondo fighter?
“There’s a range of attributes, really. Flexibility... Mobile hips... Some people are just tall. But I think the main quality you need though is just grit and determination.”
There it is again. The drive, the persistence. The desire to make the most of every second to achieve a goal.
“You have to give 100% Monday-Friday,” he continues. “Say you have an injury so you can’t kick off one leg, or you’re restricted in some other way, you can sit down and think “Ok, what can I do today to get the best out of my day?” With Taekwondo, yes, I’m doing my job, but I’m getting kicked in the face if my heart’s not fully in it.”
Maybe it’s the nature of the sport, but Bradly seems to spend a lot of his time carrying injuries. He mentions various parts of his body that have been under duress while he goes into fights, and he talks of going through months of competitions with a hamstring injury. He’s aware that when a career asks so much of your body you’re going to be on borrowed time. That’s partly why he’s taking the degree.
“With all sports injuries happen. Hopefully you’re lucky enough to go the whole way through without an injury, but you could get a career-ending injury just around the corner and not have something to fall back on.”
Bradly admits he’d only heard about Arden a few weeks before he joined. He’d looked at other part-time courses in accounting, something he’d always been keen to study if Taekwondo didn’t work out, but some other universities were asking him to commit time across four days a week, others had fixed times for learning that would move about, which would have left his schedule all over the place. He knew he needed to find a distanced learning approach that worked for his unique situation.
“With distanced learning, having that flexibility, those options, means I can be free if there’s times where there’s really big events, like the World’s. It means I can have the degree work around Taekwondo, rather than the other way around.”
Why now though? I ask. Why try to juggle these two completely different worlds when you’re in the middle of an exciting career? Why not wait until Taekwondo is all finished?
“Because nothing’s guaranteed,” Bradly says. He talks again about the lingering spectre of injury, or the worry that a dip in performance levels could leave him without a career anymore, without an income coming in. He wants to get the degree done now. He wants to be as ready as possible to go straight into a job as soon as he can after the fighting stops. Once again, he doesn’t want to be waiting on the side.
“When I started full-time Taekwondo I needed to become consistent and I needed to get to the top, so I didn’t want to take anything that would distract even a tiny bit. My thought process at the time was that I’d have to miss 82 afternoons to go into a place of learning: I didn’t want to do that. However, if I’d known about Arden I’d have probably gone straight into it. I’m not missing anything. It’s not hindering anything.”
He’s still not sure exactly what field of finance he wants to go into, but he’s looking forward to seeing the different parts of the degree over the coming years. He’s excited for modules on Tax and Tax Laws, but at the moment he says he’s mostly just enjoying the challenges of the lessons.
I ask him if there are ever times where, in combining a gruelling job with a degree, he finds his motivation slipping. “There are hard times. There’s going to be times where I come in where my hands are banged up so I can’t really type, but with distanced learning and that flexibility, having those different options of when I can do the stuff really gives some freedom.”
It’s a potentially scary proposition for an employer - an accountant who can kick your head in if you’re not balancing your books - but, kicking aside, Bradly’s looking to combine his particularly impressive mindset, and the mental attributes he’s improved through Taekwondo, with what he’s learning at Arden once his career has finished.
“As part of the course, we learned about personal development. Talking about motivation, determination, personal communication skills, and they’re a lot of things that athletes have as fundamentals.”
We finish by talking about how it feels to be going to the Olympics, especially with the disruptions of the past year.
“It’s a dream come true. It shows hard work and dedication pays off. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what your background is, if you put the work in you’ll get the reward. Being selected for it, especially with the extra year on top, it just shows it’s all paid off. To top it off would be to win that gold.”
You certainly wouldn’t bet against him. And, who knows, if Bradly does clinch his way to a gold medal he may even allow himself the briefest of rests. Then again...
To find out more about blended and distance learning courses at Arden University, visit: arden.ac.uk.