Caden Cunningham didn’t doubt himself when he stepped out for his European Games debut six months after an ACL injury. Despite the scale of the occasion, the 20-year-old taekwondo practitioner felt ready to face the continent’s most able opponents.
“There are some great fighters in Europe and I had some great fights in the European Games,” he tells the BEAA. “But I know if I’ve got a good, clear mindset going into a comp – relaxed, not tense – there are not many people in the world who can beat me.”
He was right, and won gold in the men’s +87kg event. Cunningham’s confidence comes from a conscious process: from a young age his father encouraged him to spar with bigger, stronger opponents until doing so felt natural. It developed an inbuilt belief that, after gearing himself up pre-competition, enables Cunningham to perform at his best.
“There’s a lot in how I was raised, and how I was thrown into different situations,” he says. “My dad would take me to different martial arts or different taekwondo clubs and make me spar the bigger, heavier ones – the scarier ones, in a sense.
“I was getting beat up, but soon enough I stopped being scared of anyone who was bigger, anyone who was older, anyone who had better accolades, and that helped when I joined the seniors and am fighting Olympic champions, world medallists, world champions, and beating them regularly. Every comp I go to I beat someone with that [record], and it’s not a thought process I have to deal with anymore. I don’t have to think: ‘Right, calm down. I know they’re good but it’s not a case of that.’ For me now they have to beat me.
“The way I see it is no one can hurt me any more than I can hurt them. Almost like trying to gee up my ego and pride to go out there and just be like: ‘Right, I’m the strong one. That’s all it is.’”
Once, while growing up, Cunningham was paired with Lincoln Strong, a future MMA fighter several years his senior. “He was older, stronger, better, and he kicked me up,” Cunningham remembers. “That was the first time I’d been kicked and dazed, but I went home and was like: ‘Right, let’s train for him.’ I beat him a month or two later.”
That self-assurance was put under pressure when Cunningham sustained the first major injury of his career, tearing his anterior-cruciate ligament (ACL) at the 2022 World Championships. He was sidelined for half a year.
“We had objectives to hit for my rehab, which made it easier,” he says. “I had something to do. In the first week of the injury I was in a lot of pain and in that first week you can’t do anything other than try to straighten your leg; you can’t walk about. That was probably the hardest. But after that when I had goals to beat, it was easy to motivate.
“I forgot about the taekwondo side and thought: ‘Right, this is what I need to do within four weeks. How do I do it in two? If this is what I need to do in six weeks, how do I do it in four?’ That made it a lot easier for me… I just saw that as my career for now: this is how I’m going to be the best I can be, by nailing this rehab.”
He returned to competition at the end of May, competing at the 2023 World Championships and then winning the Rome Grand Prix shortly after. His step back into the ring delivered a new psychological challenge.
“I had in my mind a little bit that I’d had no time on a scoring system. Before Rome I did this year’s Worlds, won two and lost my third. That was where the first test was for my knee. There wasn’t shakiness in my leg but in my mind; my mind was telling me: ‘What are you doing? The last time you did this you hurt yourself.’
“Once the Worlds were out the way it gave me confidence that I’d had three fights against tough opponents, pretty explosive fights, so I know my knee will hold up to it.
“I fed that into my brain: your knee is strong, there’s nothing to worry about, now go out there, fight, and kick people in the face.”
The advice to a recovering athlete, then? Get out there and kick people.
Image: JFowles Photography