Someone commented today that she didn't want to go to a tournament. I told her she should stay home. This is a debate I have had several times with some of my former teammates. There were a few times when I did not want to go to a tournament but yielded to pressure from other people - because "You're our best chance at a medal" or "You're on the U.S. team so you have to go".
All of those times, I lost. I might have placed third or fifth but those places don't really count to me. Before you go off shrieking in the night - that is for me personally. If I say I felt like a failure if I came in third place in an international tournament, you can tell me all of the same things people told me back then, coming in third is a major accomplishment, look at how much work it takes to get that far, lots of people would have loved to be in that position. That's them. If you placed seventh in the world championships and you are thrilled - well, that's nice for you - and I mean that without the least bit of sarcasm - but I would have cried for a week.
At the root of it, competition is a personal thing. For the vast majority of us, we will expend far more in time and money than we will ever get back in any tangible way. The only reason to do it is that we meet our own personal goals, whatever those might be. Mine was to win in any way possible within the rules. I don't count cheating as winning. If it was, you could just bring a gun and shoot everyone. You'd win every judo match that way.
My friend, Mary, who was a bronze medalist in the world championships, argued with me about this. She suggested that if I hadn't gone to those tournaments where I lost, perhaps I wouldn't have won. She believes that in losing I probably learned some mistakes I was making that made it possible for me to go on and win later on.
Maybe. I don't remember it happening like that, though. What I remember is I was not at my best - for whatever reason - over-training, stress, sunspots - who knows. At the elite level, the difference between number one and number five is usually a sliver. I was just a half-step too late. Everyone has those days and I think I knew it. I should have listened to myself.
One of my other teammates, Christine, who coincidentally, also won a bronze medal in the the world championships, also disagreed with me. She told me that she thought having lost made me twice as determined to win in the future, drove me harder, remembering how much I hated that feeling of losing. She might be right.
Two other people, both of whom also won a lot of international medals, told me I might have been lucky to have lost at those tournaments. Both of them had very long winning streaks and felt that at the very peak, at the world level, they played overly cautious because they were overly afraid of losing. They both suggested that maybe having lost a few tournaments was actually good for me. After going a year or more unbeaten, I'd lost a match, saw I didn't die after all and gone on. They both said they thought they might have won a world or Olympic gold medal in the end if they HAD lost earlier on. I have no idea.
So, in sum, if I had to do it all over again, I would not have competed on those rare occasions when I did not want to do it - but maybe that would have been the wrong decision.