After 37 years in judo, I have seen so many judo players come and go that the faces and the stories all blur together after a while. Having been trained as a statistician, I detect patterns as a matter of habit and so the patterns remain long after the individual names and faces have been forgotten. One pattern I have seen is the large number of players who were considered to have great talent and potential who never made it.
Cael Sanderson, the only wrestler ever undefeated in four years in the NCAA and an Olympic gold medalist lays out a great description of one failure pattern on his website. He says, there are the parents (and coaches) who believe the key to winning is to take a young child and,
"...have them run sprints around the block dragging cinder blocks, or feed them raw meat, lock them in a closet with a badger, have their five year old do 100 push-ups after they finish their 4 hour workout..."
He goes on to say that is a fine plan if you want to have the best eight-year-old wrestler around but not the ticket to an NCAA championship or an Olympic gold medal.
He is right. Coach Sanderson is amazingly perceptive for someone so young, because I bet that I am close to twice his age, and even though I know everything he says is true, it is sometimes hard to follow that prescription. My youngest daughter is nine years old and I know how to make her win the junior nationals this year. If I took Julia out starting tomorrow and trained her like I made Ronda train at 14, she would beat every little girl in America into the mat. Who will that benefit? It will make me look like a good coach. Will it really make Julia's life better? On the contrary, I think she would be pretty unhappy. Winning for ten minutes doesn't make up for being miserable all year. So, I train her at the level that I think is appropriate for her age. In 2016, if it is what she wants, she will take the Olympic spot in any division she wants it (except 70 kg).
I used to be angry but now I am just amused.
Years ago, when someone would tell me that, yes, I may have won the nationals, U.S. Open, worlds, etc. but I did not understand modern/standing/technical/men's judo or whatever it is that they were supposed to be so great at, I would get offended. Now, I just laugh to myself, although sadly. I have seen so many of those people come and go who were going to be "the first American Olympic gold medalist".
A very few of these, like Mike Swain, Jimmy Pedro, Jr., Lynn Roethke and Margie Castro had legitimate shots at winning a gold medal, but the overwhelming majority of "the best thing coming" had no more chance of an Olympic medal than Julia's cockatiel, and, usually, a far less pleasant personality as well.
When I look at all of those who failed and the few who succeeded in winning at the world level, I see a pattern. Those who won recognized these facts:
- The rules apply to you. You are not blessed by God with unmatchable talent. You have to work harder than anyone else if you really want to be the best in the world. Every day. Not some days. Not except for the days you have senior prom, a hot date, SATs, final exams and on Tuesdays. A member of our U.S. team told me once that they don't work harder any more like people my age did. They work smarter. I told him that someone who worked smarter AND harder was going to kick his ass. That's pretty much what happened.
- You need to stalk the people who are flat-out better than you. Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, in an article on advice to young scientists said, "Never be the smartest person in the room." When I think back, this is probably the single quality I see that distinguishes those who make it from those who don't. As a competitor, I fought people like Steve Seck, Jimmy Martin, Blinky Elizalde, Tony Mojica and Miguel Tudela several times a night. They threw me over and over. Blinky armbarred me 1,000 times. Jimmy would try to make me give up and we would go 15-minute rounds until I had two black eyes and matburn about everywhere I had skin. There were a thousand people in Los Angeles I could beat but I went not to where "they could give me a hard time" but where they could beat me. When I was at the Kodokan, I met Margot Sathay, in her mid-thirties, seemingly ancient to my seventeen-year-old self. She was the only person, male or female, in my whole life who just outclassed me. She wasn't just better than me. Her matwork was unbelievable. The gap between her matwork and mine was like the difference between me and Kenny the cockatiel (pictured above perched on Julia's computer - he doesn't even have arms.) I went to the Kodokan every day, even when they didn't have regular practice , just to go as many rounds as I possibly could with Margot. What about the need to be successful, the need to have your techniques work? I hear a lot of players make that argument for not going to the hardest practice they can get to every night. You need to be able to throw people sometimes, too, to work on your defense. Guess what, if you really are the next best thing coming, you don't have to seek out people you can score ippon on ten times every round, you are already surrounded by them.
- Study the people who have succeeded. Someone asked me recently how I could argue that other athletes should be training at the West Coast Judo Training Center when I did not have Ronda training there. That's a fair question. My answer was, "Because she is training to win the Olympics in six months." In her week off, after three weeks in Europe, she has gone to six judo practices, including five from Friday through Sunday, and probably done 20 rounds of randori. If you are twelve or fourteen years old and you think that is what you should be doing, you didn't read the first part of this blog. You especially didn't read the first word in this paragraph. STUDY. When Ronda was 16, she had a very long argument with Jim Pedro, Sr. Those of you who have teenagers understand this means she would not shut up about it for a couple of weeks. Her big complaint was that he did not have her doing the same training that Jimmy Pedro, Jr. was doing even though she was also training to win the Olympic Trials. What Jim said she failed to understand is that she was doing the training Jimmy had done at sixteen.
- Put your ego on hold. Anyone who thinks that he or she can be best on the planet at anything has to have an abnormally high opinion of him/herself. At the same time, you need to want to win so badly that you are willing to do all of the above. Study other people, get thrashed at practice, even in front of other people you might otherwise wish to impress (e.g., cute people of the opposite sex, or maybe the same sex, if you lean that way), do all the things you don't want to do like getting up and running sprints uphill at 5 a.m., moving to Massachusetts where it is colder than Mars. There's the paradox - you have to give up that image of how great you think you are if you ever want to actually be the greatest judo player in the world, even for a moment.
I think that last part is the very hardest to do, and it is the real reason that most people never make it.