Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Difference that Makes the Difference

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much, Doc. You've validated our approach with both our boys. Much appreciated and especially coming from someone of your caliber, it brings my wife and I relief especially after watching how hard some parents are pushing their 9 year old companions to our oldest son (I won't even talk about the contemporaries to our 4 year older...).

Anonymous said...

Ciao AnnMaria what do you think about teaching judo to difficult guys,I mean people with problems with justice,family trouble,social unsuited and so on?Do you have any judo teaching experience in this?
Grazie come sempre Ric

Anonymous said...

What you say sounds good but I don't think Jim Sr. told Jimmy not to worry about running and conditioning when he was a kid. Doesn't it really depend on the kid? And just based on Jimmy's own interviews it sounds like Jim Sr. was relentless in his insistance on excellence. He clearly built a champion on and off the you disagree?

Dr. AnnMaria said...

I called Jim to ask him but he was teaching judo. Often, stories get built up about people after they won which weren't quite the way they happened.

The ONLY reason I remember the Pedros as young players is because after I had just had my first baby, so I was quite interested in parents with their children, who shows up at camp at the OTC but some guy named Jim Pedro with his two kids, a little boy named Jimmy who was about 13 and a girl named Tanya who was around 15. There were a couple of other young players there, and there was one in particular that I thought was being pushed way too hard for their age - but it wasn't either of the Pedro kids. In fact, there were only two reasons that I noticed them at all.

The first is that Jim was very outspokenly proud of the little boy. Someone made a comment at lunch about him having given this little kid a black belt and Jim shouted that, "He's way better than you'll ever $^^(ing be!"

The second, and the main reason, is that he wouldn't let his daughter stay at the OTC dorm. He stayed in a hotel room with the kids. People talked about how overprotective that was and how unreasonable he was and I remember saying that if I had a daughter I would do the exact same thing.

So, no, from the camp where I saw them and from the limited number of times I saw them at tournaments, it never seemed to me like he was pushing his kids unreasonably. There were other people who stood out as far more extreme, and their kids all ended up quitting judo, which is pretty much my point.

Jimmy's view (as the son) may also be quite different from his father's. I just asked Ronda and my niece to help clean up downstairs and I am sure they are at this moment text messaging their friends and making it sound as if I asked them to build the Hoover Dam out of mud with their bare hands. I can tell you one thing they are sure as hell NOT doing and that is cleaning!

Anonymous said...

What do you think about the concept of tanden? Do you use it in everyday life, in walking and moving?

Anonymous said...

Great blog! It's very important to understand that you're working with human being not a machine.

Anonymous said...

AM, thanks for the response. I think this is really an important subject. All parents want to do the right thing but because there isn't a manual I think that the same mistakes are made over and over again...ahh the makings of another blog or book by AnnMarie and Jimmy.

Seriously this topic I think could fundamentally change and grow judo at all levels if somehow it could be put into a plan for parents of kids who really want to grow in judo but don't know how to do it right. Every other sport has a "path" laid out for them...tball. mighty mites, little elague etc. Judo...go to dojo, go to tournament etc.

Thanks again for your comments on this worthwhile I will be looking forward to the book. :)

Dr. AnnMaria said...

I talked to Jim Pedro, Sr. this afternoon and he said he did NOT have Jimmy or his other children doing running and weight-training when they were kids. He said that he always told them to be kids because they had the rest of their lives to be adults, that the only time he had any kids run is that if they were overweight, which was never a problem with Jimmy.

He said, "Kids run around and play all day. They don't need to do any running. I had Jimmy in the weight room with me from the time he was five only because I was lifting and I wanted to spend time with him. I gave him a barbell that weighed about a pound and he could lift it and we would be 'lifting weights' together. I never actually put any weights on the bar. He didn't do any strength and conditioning training until he was older. I did push every kid on my team hard in practice. I wanted them not to make excuses and not to whine. I did not tolerate anyone hurting Jimmy. There is a world of difference between getting thrown cleanly over and over by someone older, which happened, and by having a much bigger kid slam you and land on you which I would NOT have tolerated. If he came to me whining he got thrown I would tell him to quite crying and get back out there."

I told Jim I have pretty much the same attitude with my little one, although when she comes crying that her finger hurts or her head hurts from getting thrown, I will "kiss it and make it better" and then tell her to go back and work out some more.

Jim's response was, "Well, I don't care WHAT you say, I am NOT going to kiss Big Dan McCormick."

Anonymous said...

Thank you again for the comments. Tell Jim to pucker up and share the love :)

Anonymous said...

What do you think about the concept of tanden? Do you use it in everyday life, in walking and moving?

Dr. AnnMaria said...

Seika tanden and other sort o f zen/ new age/ mystical ideas seem pretty far-fetched to me. Although I have heard stories otherwise, the only supposed demonstration of this principle I have seen is with people much larger than me. So, a 220 pound man would say "Push me now" and I could push him and then say, "Now I am exercising the principle of seika tanden" and I couldn't.

It seems like there are a lot simpler explanations, such as if you are prepared for someone coming at you, you are going to be more able to defend, if you want to demonstrate this supposed principle you just exert more force when you are using your magical powers and so on.

I think I use having good balance, well-developed reaction time, physical condition and the ability to mentally focus a lot every day.

Anonymous said...

Usually, to have more stability, do you contract your abdominals in randori and in normal life to maximise your efforts? Judo focuses much in abs, do you think that every move should startfrom there?

Matt said...

Hey Dr. Demars:

Unfortunately, My training partner injured his knee and we have to pull out of the tournament and your clinic

it stinks but hey stuff happens..gotta make sure my best training partner and friend is healthy

Hope to catch you another time,

Jason Struck , RKC said...

good words.

when people ask me about a supplement to take (i train athletes and regular folks), i always ask: "What did you have for breakfast?"

No one wants to start at the beginning, do they?

Anonymous said...

Four degrees, one world championship and your still don't know what you want to become - nice tout. In addition to the aforementioned: one over-inflated EGO. Claiming who you could whip in a real fight - that's funny. Judo is a good grappling style/art (pretty good in a clinch), but it's no where close to a real fight. MMA style is a lot more closely related to a real fight. It's too bad you never tried MMA - it can really humble a person. Even if you were in your prime, you would get humbled by a lot of MMA girls and almost all the trained men in a MMA match.

Patrick Parker said...

Dr. AnnMaria,

Each month on my blog I promote three blogs that I read and really like. This month I linked to yours.

I have really gotten a lot out of following your blog and reading what you write here. Thank you for sharing your experience this way. Keep it up.

Dr. AnnMaria said...

Thank you, Patrick.

As for the MMA aficionado all I can say is:
- I try to avoid real fights because people are allowed to stab you, shoot at you, hit you with bricks and all sorts of things that are not particularly fun. I got in real fights when I was younger and stupider until it dawned on me - this pretty much sucks.

- As far as fighting the men in MMA, why would I do that? That's kind of like telling the person who is the lightweight champion of the world in boxing, "The number two heavyweight boxer could beat you." Probably, maybe not and so what? Saying that doesn't make the lightweight boxer any worse, nor does it make the heavyweight boxer any better and it certainly doesn't make YOU any better. In my experience, men who need to insist that women could not win the men's divisions are always men who have not won themselves.

You know what men who have won world titles generally say to women who have won world titles?

"Good job!"

Because they know how much it takes.