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James Doolan – Higher Level MMA

A new series of articles I’m bringing you is different to my usual content. This series over the next few weeks will be covering the men behind the fighters who step inside the octagon. I have a series of articles to bring you from coaches from all ends of the globe. To dive into their mindsets and philosophy’s when preparing their athlete’s and running a gym. First up is Higher Level MMA’s head coach and gym owner James Doolan.

James Doolan is the head coach of the highly successful ‘Higher Level MMA‘ in Bathgate, West Lothian in Scotland. The gym is the home to UFC featherweight Danny Henry as well as Lightweight Steven Ray. Higher Level have produced 3 UFC fighters and many World, European and Domestic MMA champions. The facility is regarded as the best in Scotland offering 4500 square feet of state of the art training.

Doolan was introduced to combat early on in his life. He progressed through all disciplines earning himself a black belt in BJJ, A Karate black belt, and Taekwondo black belt. The coaching success of Doolan is highly down to his experience and time competing across all martial arts. The Scotsman"s main focus was to compete and gain the experience to transition into the coaching role. Doolan started coaching early on at just 16 under his instructor, then opened his own club at 21.

With the intention of just having one bout. Doolan then competed 28 times inside the cage with a record of (17-9-2). Competing on shows such as Cage Rage, Bamma, and Cage Warriors. Every coach has their own unique style and way of building a strong team. Let"s descend into what head coach James Doolan has to say.


Could you tell us a bit about your background? How you first got involved in combat sports and when you began coaching?

Doolan – “I started karate about 8 years old. Some of my family members were training. I was getting bullied a little at school and my parents sent me to a local club. I progressed through karate, taekwondo, kickboxing, and boxing into Muay Thai at 17. Then BJJ and MMA in my early 20s which is what I still train in now at 41. I have black belts in Karate, Kickboxing (4th degree), and BJJ (1st degree). I competed in every art I’ve trained in. I ended up with over 60 fights and was a British kickboxing champion, Scottish Muay Thai champion, 3 times British MMA champion. I fought for the ISKA world Muay Thai title and was lucky to fight on Bamma, cage gladiators cage rage, cagewarriors, superior challenge in Sweden cage force Japan, and at home I headlined on top and Celtic Park."

“I started competing because I wanted to coach and knew it help me as a coach. I planned to have 1 fight and that was it. I started coaching at 16 under my instructor at the time and opened my own club at about 21."

As the owner and head coach of Higher-Level MMA. You obviously deal with a lot of athletes and can"t always give your full attention to everybody. How do you build that team of coaches in the gym? In Addition, to having your full trust in them as at the end of the day they are representing you? 

Doolan – “As the student base in my gym I started to run a development program for my coaches. I have an HND in sports coaching and a degree in Sports and Exercise science this helped me with coaching coaches. I split my coaches up into 2 groups, participation coaches and performance coaches. Participation coaches run classes and sessions at the gym. Performance coaches work on an individual basis with athletes to help their skill set and performance. All of my coaches have completed over 100 hours of supervised coaching with feedback working with beginners right through to my UFC fighters before they started coaching on there own. All are comfortable coaching for performance and participation."

“The 4 coaches I have now could easily run there own gyms and teams. All of them are now time served and have been involved with fight preparation from grassroots to UFC.  I’m fully aware our team and gym reputation relays on these coaches, so have handpicked them and developed them with this in mind."

How much of your training that you do with your fighters is physical and how much of it is mental? Do you ever play the role of a mind coach for your fighters as well as passing the knowledge down?

Doolan – “After a while, usually around early professional fights the technique and conditioning side of coaching gives way in importance to tactical and psychological coaching. It really depends on the individual athlete however and works on a fight to fight basis, some of my fighters have a natural mentality suited to fighting and I’ll never need to discuss the mental side of the game with them, I don’t want to tamper with what they inherently have, other guys I need to speak to daily. It’s up to me to work out what each athlete needs and then how to go about supplying it. The experience I’ve had fighting definitely helps with this."

How does it make you feel as a coach, knowing you can really change your student"s lives? Not only in martial arts but in their personal life also?

Doolan – “This is the biggest thing for me, martial arts had such a positive effect on my life I’m aware of what I can do for people as a coach. My job is to make every student who comes through our doors standard of life better. It’s to help them get fit, lose weight, fight addiction, better there mental health, distress, gain confidence or whatever or help my athletes earn a living and provide for their family’s. Martial arts coaches should be aware of the effect they can have on people’s lives."

Fast forward to fight day. An example, Steven Ray as he prepared to take on Michael Johnson in Singapore. How do you prepare the athlete themselves backstage before a battle, what are you saying to them? 

Doolan – “By fight day everything has been done in the gym. I hate seeing coaches try and teach fighters stuff in a warm-up room."

“Backstage we get loose following a routine we have done in the gym as it provides familiarity, each fighter warns up different, Stevie Ray for Micheal Johnson performed some movement exercises to get loose, shadowboxed 3×1 minute intervals, hit pads for 3×2 minute rounds then sat and composed his thoughts while we waited on the runner. Other fighters take longer and do more intense warm-ups (Danny Henry spars 2 hard rounds) but this works for Stevie. Again it has to suit the individual. The coach has to know the individual."

“In terms of what I say, I just repeat what we have discussed in the weeks leading to the fight. Everything positive everything designed to install confidence in the fighters. Every individual needs different stuff, with Stevie I remind him why he is there, who he’s beat before to get there’s and importantly for him who’s watching at home. Stevie fights for his family. Again like I said by the time you get to the locker room the work and the preparation are all done."

Every coach has their own unique style and philosophy when it comes to fighting and coaching. How would you describe your coaching philosophy?

Doolan – “My coaching philosophy is simple. I want to help every student I come into contact with maximizing their potential through martial arts. I provide an environment for learning and development for every individual, I help them set and achieve goals working towards self-improvement."

 In your view, what makes a good cornerman. Are there rituals that you stick to every time you"re in your fighters" corner? 

Doolan – “I have no rituals other than to make a quick check of the bucket we take out. That’s it. A good cornerman must have a comprehensive knowledge of the sport. They must know their fighter on different levels, they must care about their fighter, They need to be a good communicator and decision-maker. They need to be aware that sometimes they will need to make decisions the fighter may not agree with. A good cornerman has to play the role of several different people, teacher, advisor, psychologist, parent, and cutman to name a few."

What do you feel is the most important attribute for a good student/fighter?

Doolan – “Most important for a student would be consistency in training. For a fighter it’s a little more complicated and hard to narrow it down or one attribute, maybe knowledge."

Are there any coaches that inspired you to do what you do day in and day out and how so?

Doolan – “I’ve been fortunate to be friends with John Kavanagh for a while. We used to bring him to Scotland when he was a purple belt, he cornered me before and has always influenced me, the late Karl Tanswell also. I’ve worked with Firas who’s great. I’m a massive fan of great boxing trainers Ray Arcel, Eddie Futch, Cus D’Amato, Teddy Atlas, Virgil Hunter and coaches from other sports Alex Ferguson, Phil Jackson, the Brand brothers, Dan Gable. I like to study coaches as much as fighters."

Make sure to check out Higher Level MMA on social media.

Follow me on Twitter at @LGS_MMA and follow us @OT_Heroics for more great content!

Also, be sure to check out the Overtime Heroics Forums page to join in on the discussion!

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