Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Biggest Mistake I Made as a Judo Player

The biggest mistake I made as a judo player was not a technical one  ....

... and I did not realize I was making such a stupid mistake until I was in my fifties. For someone who has a reputation for being smart, that is a really long time to make the same mistake. Seriously, it is embarrassing to say this and I am writing this post to save some of you who might be making the same mistake now.

My biggest mistake may have led to a lot of my success, but I was wrong, in the end

So what was this, you might be wondering. It’s that I judged people simply based on how good they were at judo, how good of a competitor or how good of a coach. I never particularly cared if someone was a good referee, only if they were an honest one. My attitude about referees was “I will beat this person up and make you give me the win.”

That’s a story for another day.

Today’s story is about all the missed opportunities I had for getting to know amazing people better.

When I was competing, my biggest priority in life was winning. If I met someone who was a judo player who was also a physician, an engineer, an army Ranger or the mother of ten children, I was solely interested in how they could help me get better at judo. Yes, I had a job and I did my best to learn whatever language I was supposed to be programming in at the moment, but once I left the office my only focus was on winning.

You are studying how a new protein might reduce the prevalence of early onset Alzheimer’s ? That’s nice, can you help me improve my seoi nage? No? Next!
Dawn and I were great friends
If someone was a terrific judo player or coach, I spent as much time around them as possible so I could learn and improve. If they were just good or even so-so, I really didn’t spend much time with them because I was focused on winning.

Dawn Beers and I were great friends, but would that have still been the case if she was not a talented judo player and a great training partner?  Now, yes. Back then, I am embarrassed to say the answer is, "Probably not."

Maybe that laser focus on winning helped me be best in the world. Probably it did.

Then, I quit competing.

When you have children, they need to be your number one priority.

I thought about quitting when Maria, my oldest was born. I talked to my brother about it, who had children a little older than mine. He told me that if I quit at this point, I’d have to be almost inhuman to never, ever look at her and think ,

“If it wasn’t for you, I could have been world champion. I gave this up for YOU!”

That’s a pretty big burden to put on a tiny human.

Shortly after she was two, I won the world championships, retired from competition and went on to get a Ph.D. I had two more children, started a career as a professor, then founded a company, had another child (there were a couple of husbands in there, I still have one of them).. I would drop by the local judo club when I lived in Jamestown or do a clinic every once in a while. Except for few close friends, I never really talked to anyone from judo.

Then, my daughter, Ronda started judo


I knew how to help her win. I took her to different clubs that I thought could help her, where they had good competitors or good coaches. I really did not pay that attention to anything any of them did outside of judo, not the other competitors, parents or coaches. I tried to organize events and raise money for activities that would benefit our local teams, and later our national teams, because that’s what you do when you are the parent of an athlete in a sport. Certainly the camps and trips that I helped organize and fund benefited everyone who participated, not just Ronda.

Still, when I met people in judo, my focus was on how I could help her. You founded a company that made 9 jillion dollars? Good. Is your kid a really good athlete who can be Ronda’s training partner? No? He cries when he gets thrown but he’s super smart and got into MIT at 15. Really? That’s awesome. See ya around.

You would think that I would have gotten smarter over the years, but not so much

It wasn’t that I had a big mid-life crisis epiphany at 50 but more that I was not really doing anything with judo that focused on winning so much. Ronda was off in a different direction and I was coaching some great kids at Gompers Middle School. When we managed to raise a few thousand dollars, I would not use it to send one kid on our European tour but rather to take a dozen kids on a road trip to practice in Nevada and Utah, hike in the mountains and see a rodeo. I got to know Jose Gonzalez well, who is still a green belt because he won’t learn kata but who has been the heart of the Gompers Judo program since day one.
Teaching matwork at Gompers Judo's first gym

I met Brian Money, from Riverside Police Youth Judo club, speaking of heart, who also runs a special needs judo program.

I got to know Roy Hash better, who is a real Captain America army Ranger with an amazing history.

I heard Hal Sharp tell stories about how he talked his wife into marrying him, about being an accountant in post- World War II Japan.

I got to hear Jerry Hays and Joe Ciokon’s stories about the navy and Hayward Nishioka’s philosophy on life.

The list could go on and on. Sitting here, I am just shaking my head at all of the amazing people I met who I could have gotten to know better but didn’t because they weren’t ‘good enough at judo’.

That’s not everybody, of course. Some of you aren’t all that good at judo and you’re stupid assholes to boot. I’m glad I don’t know you better. You know who you are.

Here’s what I should have done differently

In all those hours-long sessions where I sat around with other players or coaches and talked about nothing but judo, I should have turned to some of those people on the sidelines. I should have asked at some point,
 “So, you have a life outside of practice, what is it?” 
“You’re studying orangutans in Madagascar? That sounds really cool. Tell me about it.”

If I’d had those conversations, I would be a smarter person now, have more friends and know things like whether or not there are actually orangutans in Madagascar



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