Monday, June 30, 2008

Junior Nationals – Victory, Complacency and Idiocy

This was a great experience for all of the competitors. Some of the "elite" players who expected an easy time were surprised by players from Indiana, North Carolina and by some much younger players who were unwilling to accept that they were supposed to lose. For the younger players, this is where all of the extra practice paid off, like for Megan, who earned a silver medal on Saturday.

It was a great event.

The USJF Junior Nationals is in Chicago this weekend. If you couldn't make it to Boston this weekend, I suggest you don't miss out in Chicago.

The USJA Junior Nationals just finished and it was a good event. Anyone who didn’t go missed out. In her division Julia, who came from California, had girls from Pennsylvania, Florida, New Hampshire and New Jersey. Of course, I mostly watched the players from California. Crystal Butts went 1-2 against Hana Carmichael to place second in the under 20 division. For someone who is 14, that is not bad, but Crystal was unhappy because she knew she could have done better. There were a couple of players I noticed. Max Kafka from Minnesota got picked up and slammed a couple of times, turning out of throws and taking a hard fall on the mat. He fought back, threw his opponent with uchimata and won the match. Then, his opponent came back and won the re-match and the tournament. Aaron Kunihiro lost to a player from North Carolina and then came back to win his division. Ben Branson, from Indiana, was down by a waza aria against Tyler, from San Gabriel, and came back with a fireman’s to win the match by ippon.

What all of these and many others had in common is that the players refused to back down. They were out-muscled. They were fighting players much older, from well-known clubs, with famous coaches and the came from small towns and states better known for corn fields than judo. They came back from losing and won the tournament.

Thinking back to the Olympic trials where I saw a lot of people who took no chances, who seemed to be hoping for a result of not losing badly, or waiting for the referee to give a penalty to the opponent or save them in matwork by calling matte. What happened between fifteen and twenty-five? Gary Butts thinks it is complacency, that people become satisfied being the junior national champion and don’t strive to be better. Part of it may be that. How does that happen? I think part of it comes from allowing excuses. When Julia lost a match by a koka, she said that the other girls said her knees were on the mat and it wasn’t really a koka. In my opinion, it seemed like enough of her shoulder might have touched the mat to be koka, or maybe not, that’s what judges make is judgment calls. I didn’t tell her that. I told her that she was close to turning the other girl several times, that her matwork was better, that if she applied a little more power she would have turned her into a pin and won the match by ippon. She did end up winning the next three matches by ippon and winning the tournament.

I am sure other coaches told their students the equivalent, that it doesn’t matter what club or state the other player was from, whether they won the last match. Go out there and fight to win. At the junior national level, I see fewer players fighting not to lose than at the senior level. You may see less technique, but you see more guts.

As a former wrestler, Gary has some insight into the difference between the sports, and I saw much of what he mentions first-hand at the Olympic trials. Overall, the wrestlers were in far better physical condition. There were exceptions, but in general, their number one players were in better shape than our number one players. Most noticeable was that there was not much gap in physical conditioning between their number one player and the number five or eight wrestler. In judo, the differences were stark. Again, this was not true in every single case, but in the majority. Wrestling has depth. We don’t.
I heard a speech on TV where John McCiain was citing the problems in the U.S. educational status, in our poor international standing in mathematics and science, our high dropout rate. He quoted Bill Gates , saying, the problem isn’t a flaw in the system, it IS the system.

Speaking of systems and idiocy, the USJA Board Meeting was on Saturday night. It dragged on for hours on items that should have taken minutes. After three hours, Jim Pedro, Sr. got up and left. That was the end of the meeting open to the public and then there was supposedly going to be a meeting closed to the public to discuss issues of ethics. Jim Bregman and I got in a cab to the hotel with the intent of convincing him to come back. On the way, Bregman looked at me and said,

“He’s right, you know. This is ridiculous.”

We fly across country spending a thousand dollars or more out of our own pockets, sit for hours in the evening when we have kids who competed that day and all the next, often finishing at midnight – and why? Because maybe something might get done in the wee hours if we stay long enough and listen to people go on for hours about why they should be promoted to seventh degree black belt because they filled out enough papers and demonstrated kata, or why we should not raise our dues once every ten years. Then, in the end, the promised changes never transpire, with us being told that if we would all only fly to Virginia or Florida or Georgia for the NEXT meeting then surely all will be made whole there. After three years, we finally came to the realization that this was all contrived to make our organization weak by making it difficult for people to be part of the board and unpleasant at that. I have yet to attend a meeting that did not drag on so long in pointless rhetoric that half the audience drifted off out of boredom and in the end even board members walk out in disgust. I have never seen meetings run so poorly as by Jim Webb, the USJA President.

Mitchell Palacio, the former USJF President will be running against Webb for the USJI board representing the USJF and USJA. Even the thought of attending those board meetings makes my eyes glaze over. On the one hand, maybe Webb and the USJI would fit well together. They don’t have enormous accomplishments to brag about either and I believe their board meetings are held in a basement, at the end of a secret tunnel behind a door marked Beware of the Leopard.

In all fairness, though, I think Mitchell would do one heck of a lot better job. Since leaving the USJF presidency, Mitchell has been vice-president and then president of California Judo, Inc. In the last two months there has been a judo camp in southern California with over 65 people co-sponsored with CJI, a state championships with over 600 players, a clinic in northern California with Tony Mojica and a national novice and brown belt championships.

Maybe it’s not that judo organizations have to degenerate into a state of idiocy. Maybe we just elected the wrong people. Maybe we could fix it with the USJI this year and with the USJA next year. As I told the kids this weekend after any match they lost , if there is something you didn’t get right the first time, fix it the next time.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

You have no power over me !

Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here ... For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as have no power over me!

At the end of the movie, Labyrinth, the heroine, Sarah, confronts the Goblin King to rescue her baby brother. She triumphs when she realizes that all of his power comes from convincing others they are less than he and to fear him.

This week, my daughter, Ronda wrote in her blog about a referee, Fletcher Thornton, who has had many affidavits filed alleging molestation of underage female athletes. Some people told her she should not do that, calls might go against her in judo matches if she spoke out. I am proud Ronda is my daughter. I looked and the blog is not there now. A lot of pressure has been put on Ronda to take it down, from people who should be a whole lot more concerned about whether children were molested than about coercing Ronda to take down her blog post. The post is still on the Judo Info site and has been read by more than 5,000 people.

The NBC site mirrors Ronda's blog every day, but they did not have the courage to mention it that day. Fourth Place Medal website did ,though, good for them.

I am just listening to the Judo Podcast where Serge Boussyou stated that after his daughter's match, he was talking to someone and Kei Narimatsu came up and told the person, "You are not to talk to him."

I am proud that Serge is my friend.

After Ronda's blog, two other people wrote about cases of minor female athletes being molested. One person was a victim and one had been involved in investigation of another case of child molestation.

Speaking out against injustice, whether danger toward minor female athletes or inadequate review of refereeing in the Olympic Trials is the first step in stopping injustice.

I have said this many times - one of the things you need to learn from judo is COURAGE.

In the podcast with Serge and Rhadi, they talk about COURAGE. If you think a call is wrong and you are a referee, you need the courage to stand up and say, "That is wrong."

Serge says,
"Do you know why the referees have all of the power in USA Judo? Because we let them have the power."

Serge is exactly right, and it goes beyond judo.

If you see something that is wrong, whether it is a child being abused, a coach who is treated disrespectfully, an athlete who loses an Olympic spot due to a poor call - speak up. If you are in a sport where people can knock you down, choke you unconscious and dislocate your elbow, you should have learned to face down your fears.

Speaking up for what is right will make the community better and it is just plain the moral thing to do. Aristotle said,
"Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the one that guarantees all others."

If you have the intelligence to see the right thing, the morals to want to do the right thing - but you are afraid to do what is right - then what good were all of those virtues, really?

Think about this - are you letting things that are wrong continue because you are afraid? Think about it again. Maybe, like Sarah, you will realize that they have no power over you. Face down your fears.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Independence, Butterflies, Judo, Children and Sex

At 9 p.m. tonight I dropped my two youngest daughters off at the airport. For the first time in twenty-two years I will not have any children in the house for over 24 hours. Julia is ten years old and has been lobbying to be allowed to go somewhere by herself. She asked about a hundred times if she could go to the Mayo Quanchi camp. I considered it, but when I found out that Ronda would be in Spain and could not go with her, I vetoed that. Our compromise was that she went back to Boston five days early for the USJA Junior Nationals. She is going to stay with her oldest sister, Maria, and "help" Maria and her husband with the new baby.

Letting go does not come naturally to me. I don't feel guilt about it, either. In my opinion, too many people adopt a model of "low maintenance parenting" wherein if their child wants to try something against the parent's better judgment and causes too much trouble, Mom or Dad will shrug and let Janey fly to New York to visit a boy she met on the Internet or allow Joey to live on a diet of Red Hot Cheetos and Yoo-hoo, rationalizing, "Children are resilient."

I believe that it is a parent's responsibility to care for their children in every meaning of the word. When people ask me,
"What are you so worried about? What could go wrong if your child is staying with someone else?"
My answer is,

"One hell of a lot more than when they are staying with me."

While I am reluctant to have my children more than 50 feet away if I can help it, I realize that independence and thinking for oneself are crucial to a good life. There is an old story often used as an analogy to adolescence. A woman was watching a butterfly trying to get free from its chrysalis. The poor thing was struggling and seemed in pain. Taking pity on it, the woman gently pulled the chrysalis away. What she didn't know is that struggle is what pumped the fluids into a butterfly's wings. While the rest of the butterflies were fluttering around, that one spent the rest of its life with stunted wings on the ground - until somebody stepped on it.

Okay, well maybe I made up that last part. It's just a bug and the story is probably all a lie and scientifically inaccurate anyway. The point, though, is that sometimes struggle is necessary and developing independence is a good thing.

As for judo, one of many factors stunting our growth, I think, is a lack of independence. This happens at the level of developing clubs and programs. So many instructors in judo have the overt or implied attitude that, "You could never be as good an instructor as me. You could never have my knowledge."

At 30, 40 and even 50 years old, we see many coaches as assistants to their sensei. In karate, I see instructors encouraging their students to get out and start their own schools. Often, if a judo player does that, the instructor is outraged, "How dare he/ she think of competing with me for students?"

If you develop people who can go out and start their own programs, then good for you! You should be encouraging your students to do that, not putting yourself forward as so above them that they could never compete with your greatness. Get over yourself!

In their twenties, I see too many judo players who could be good held back by coaches who refuse to let them think for themselves. This is NOT the same as saying they need to move away. As soon as a player shows a tiny bit of talent in this country, you have the vultures circling saying,
"You need a coach of elite players to grow. You must come to me."

(Imagine this in a Darth Vader voice.) That's a whole different topic.

No, what I mean is that when I listen to most elite players talk about judo, I can hear their coach's voice. In fact, very often, they are saying, verbatim, words I have heard their coaches use. If their coach believes that gripping is the be-all and end-all of judo, they focus on that. If their coach emphasizes conditioning, they are the most conditioned athlete in the room. All of that is fine, but you need to be more than your coach. If you are Jimmy Pedro the Third, or AnnMaria, Junior or Mike Swain 2.0, you are not going to be anything more than an imitation, and I see a lot of that.

At the Trials last weekend, I heard several coaches lament that a player would win,
"(Insert name here) ... just needs to do what they're told."

When you are ten, that is true. You are being told not to lean backward on o soto gari, turn your head when you do seoi nage. As an adult, you need to think for yourself. Yes, a good coach helps immensely. However, if you have ten or twenty years of experience, this is something important to you that you have been doing much of your life, you have traveled around the world, you are the person in those positions on the mat - then you certainly ought to have thoughts to contribute.

It isn't an either- or proposition that you know everything, which most teenage elite athletes believe, or that your coach knows everything, which many elite athletes in their twenties seem to believe. I was extremely fortunate that my own coach was only five years older than me. When I won the world championships, he was 31 and I was 26. Partly because we were close enough in age, he didn't adopt that "O-sensei" attitude. I would argue with him and we would usually agree to try one way and see the outcome. For example, he wanted me to compete at 52 kg and I thought I could win at 56 kg. We agreed I would try the heavier division and, if I didn't win, I would cut weight. Some of his ideas, like all of the matwork uchikomis, seemed a perfect fit for me right from the start and I never objected.

In the end, you need to believe in yourself. A good coach brings you to that belief. Whether your coach was a world champion or not, you need to believe that you can go out and compete better than your coach ever did, that you can take everything he or she taught you, add more ideas of your own and be better than anyone in the world. To me, when it comes to winning on the world level, two points are obvious.

1. Belief is strength.
2. There are no stupid champions.

People need to learn to be independent, to think for themselves, to believe in themselves.

As for what I am going to do with all of the children gone, I told them that we are going to have sex and do naked cartwheels in the living room. My niece, Samantha, objected,

"I don't believe that Uncle Dennis could do a cartwheel if he lost a hundred pounds."

My daughter, Maria, added,
"I wouldn't see Dennis doing cartwheels under any circumstances. But maybe he has secret tricks I don't know about."

Well, I have to go now, Dennis is waiting in the living room.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

No, Your Coach is not God and You are Very Far From Jesus Christ

The perils of self-satisfaction OR
Just me being evil again

Last night, I asked someone if he had many visitors at the club where he trained. His answer was,
"No, no one comes to our club because they are not tough enough. We train harder than anyone else and no one else can keep up with us."

True to my reputation for rudeness, I responded,

"That's not true. I have been to your club exactly once and there were about a dozen visitors there.

He looked taken aback. It truly is rude to correct someone to their face and it is one of the many things people don't like about me is that I refuse to buy into other people's myths.

Now, their club is very good, no question about it. The one practice that I attended I was quite impressed by the knowledge of the coaches, their teaching and the way the practice was run. However, it was not true that they are so tough beyond all others that no one comes to visit because there were visitors the day I happened to drop by, and I rather doubt that was just an amazing coincidence that the day I came was the one time in the history of their club that they had visitors. And, in fact, they had visitors from two clubs, because I brought one myself.

My point, and I think I have one, is that ever since the Olympic Trials I have been turning over and over in my head what was the difference that made one person go out and win and another not. In most divisions, there was more than one person who was capable of winning, technically, physically - and yet one came out ahead and the others didn't.

I know that I see things that most other people don't. That is what makes me a good statistician, being able to detect patters, to look at a page of numbers, even without a statistical test, and say, "That's statistically significant. The number you see here is so much different than what you would expect by chance, it has to be."

In judo, I often see two people go out in a match at the beginning, both trying to win. At some point in the match, though, one person will give up. Taraje Williams-Murray, in one of his video blogs talked about how Jimmy Pedro, Jr. will break people in a match. He just keeps grinding on the person until they give up. I do that to lots of people in matwork to this day. I can feel them give up, thinking
"Oh, she's got me, this is too hard."

Janet Dewey put it well. She said,

"There comes a time when you need to stand on that line and show what you're made of."

That is my point. There is honesty in competition. If you are truly better than the other person, you will win. This isn't always true if it is close, but if you want to be a successful international competitor, you need to be head and shoulders above the rest of the competition in the U.S. That is your goal. You don't get there, though, just by claiming it.

How do you, then? I don't know. I have some hunches, though.

1. You never make excuses. You never blame the referees, for one. This is NOT saying that the referees are not ever wrong. Everyone is wrong sometimes, even me. However, the odds are (I am a statistician, after all) that just as many calls will go for you as against you. There are also a few referees who are blatantly biased. It has probably always been that way. I took that as a challenge. I fought matches in the finals of the senior nationals where I knew if the referee had the slightest chance he would give it to my opponent. I went out determined to make him give it to me. Actually, that is kind of fun on two levels. First, the person who can't stand you has to award you the match, and second, it forces you to set your goals high, to be so much better than the other person that even if you need three ippons in the match, you will get them.

2. You face reality. I am a huge proponent of honesty in all things. My youngest daughter lost a match a while ago. She was fighting someone much bigger, was behind by a koka, the other girl got out of Julia's pin and won the match by a koka. Later, we talked about why Julia lost. She said she was tired and the other girl was strong. We talked about not giving up in a match. The reason Julia lost was not because the other girl was older and bigger. It was because she gave up when she had the pin and her opponent was trying really hard to get out. Judo is hard. Deal with it.

3. You take an honest look at your practice every day, every round.
Coincidentally, I took a few players to visit another club that told me no one visits them because their practice is so tough. (No one? I was there with two players. What are we, invisible ninjas?) Their club does well in tournaments and I was interested to see their practice. They fought really hard and none of this sissy stuff like crash pads that I use - the coach was too polite to say that, but he implied it. Yes, his players went very hard every round and did their throws hard on the tatami. I also saw at least four of them sit out a good 10 - 15 minutes of the practice each with hurt ankles, twisted fingers. I saw the same thing happen in the trials with people. If there was a 90 minute practice and you showed up 10 minutes late, taped your ankles for 10 minutes and sat out "injured" for 10 minutes, you did two-thirds of the practice.

4. You look at people as training partners instead of inferiors. I think this is a huge deficit in American judo. I have been to so many camps and clinics where "elite" players in the area did not show up because, "It's just a bunch of kids. I'm going to lift weights." Two funny things about that. First, Ronda is usually at those events, which is half the reason I go, because I like to spend time with her, as well as all my other daughters. Ronda can give just about anyone in America a hard round or two. Second, any judo workout is better than none, unless you're doing some completely stupid thing I cannot imagine. Yet, Jimmy Pedro, Jr. will have a camp in Boston with Ronda, Rick Hawn, Aaron Kunihiro and others, which many people will not attend. The next week, Serge Bouyssou will have a camp with a lot of tough competitors, which many people will not attend. This weekend, there will be a three-day camp in San Diego with Ronda, Rick Hawn, Aaron Kunihiro and 47 others who are signed up. A lot of people will not attend. Yet, at the next event, those same people will tell me how they trained as hard as they possibly could.

Actually, no, you didn't. When you go out there to fight, you know that in your heart, and the one person it is hardest to lie to is yourself.

For some people, it is more important to be able to look down on others, to say no one can teach me anything, my coach knows it all, our club is the greatest, than to win. Those people do win from time to time. They usually aren't completely deluded. They have some talent, their coaches have some knowledge and they do train. However, I think the people who really win in the long run are those who are constantly are searching to get better, who are the least self-satisfied people in the room.

AND ANOTHER THING: If (insert player's name here) would just do what I say, they would win. I heard more than one coach say that last week. Actually, I think one of the reasons that Ronda wins is that she does think for herself. I believe, for Americans, that there is a negative correlation between doing what you are told and international success.

More about that later, I need to go to work.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Olympic Trials – Agony of Defeat, Joy of Victory and, for ten-year-olds, Bored of Watching

All of my kids accuse me of constantly repeating myself. This accusation is true. It is also intentional. Watching the tournament this weekend reminded me of a profound comment someone made at the last Olympic Trials in 2004.

“This is a day when some people’s dreams come true and other people’s dreams are crushed.”

The Olympics will be like that, too. Even the people who came in ranked number five or number eight probably had dreams. They imagined that somehow they would win it all, beat the number one player three times, then go to the Olympics and win that and how great it would all be. It didn’t happen. Sitting in the front rows, we could see the tears, the grief in each player’s face after they lost a match and it was done. In the Olympic Trials in judo, unless you are ranked number one, the first match you lose, it is all over. I saw players protest decisions by refusing to leave the mat. They just couldn’t believe it. Grown men walked off the mat and sobbed.

I know that feeling, like a black hole just opened up and sucked all of your dreams into it. Wanting never to feel that way again is what drove me to practice when no one else did, to get up and go one more round when every muscle in my body was telling me that was a really bad idea. There is a time and place for everything and the time to be afraid of losing is when you don’t feel like practicing, when fatigue, boredom - or just plain the desire for a normal life - tempts you to do less than your best.

The players that won often danced, shook their fists in the air, jumped up and down, laid on the mat and just stared at the ceiling for a second, savoring the moment. When he won the second of the two-out-of-three fight off, Daniel McCormick’s mother danced in the stands.

By comparison, I guess Ronda was boring and our whole family was equally boring. Julia was certainly bored, as she told me approximately 4,137,689 times during the tournament. I did give Ronda advice, some of which she may actually have followed, or it could be merely coincidence.

“End every match the second you get the opportunity. This isn’t a tournament to look pretty or impress the crowd. Don’t do sumi gashi or anything else where your back touches the mat even for a second. You know they don’t all love you here. Don’t give the referee the slightest chance to give it to the other person. “

Ronda’s first match lasted about four seconds before she threw Natalie for ippon. Her second match was maybe thirty-five seconds, including the 25 seconds she pinned Jennifer. Her third match was a little longer, she threw Katie, pinned her, gave up the pin to go for the armbar and the referee called matte. They went to the mat again and Ronda armbarred her.

We clapped and Julia said,
“Can we go back to the hotel and go swimming now?”

What is the difference that makes the difference? What makes one person lose, another person win against all odds and a third make winning look easy?

Three words:

Preparation. Opportunity. Luck.

Big emphasis on the first two, and most of the luck just involves being born with the right arsenal. How do you get prepared? Well, of course there is the training. Do I seriously think anyone showed up at the Olympic Trials without training? Maybe not without training at all, but there was certainly variation in how long and hard they trained.

Some people decided within the last six months that they were going to make a run at the Olympic Trials. Some of those people were really young, so that is understandable. They placed in a senior tournament and were on the roster. Good for them. Still, the odds were against them compared to someone like Ronda who had this tournament down on her calendar for the past four years. So, there were differences in how long people prepared.

There were differences in how hard people trained. I have been to countless clubs where the instructor announced at the end of practice,
“We will win because nobody trains harder than us.”

That’s a nice thing to believe, but they can’t all be right. They can’t all be training harder than everyone else.

I wasn’t at the training center practice this weekend because I went to watch the trials, which most people from home did. I wonder how many of those people who were back in LA went to practice. I will find out from Michael next weekend. Speaking of next weekend, there is a three-day camp in San Diego. Ronda, Aaron Kunihiro, Rick Hawn and a whole lot of other good judo players will be there. I wonder how many people will miss that.

If you miss opportunities to practice, if you miss opportunities to practice with players who can challenge you, how can you say nobody trains harder than you? All of those people who showed up trained harder than you. You might be able to say,
“No one trains harder than me – when I show up.”

I knew almost everyone who competed this weekend and I felt bad for those who lost. However, I actually felt bad for some of them a year or two ago when I saw them making the decisions that would inevitably lead to this moment. They chose to skip camps because it was their mother’s birthday or their wedding anniversary. They selected a place to train based on where their friends and family lived.

Valerie Gotay, who just made the Olympic team, explained to me that she probably would not drop by the camp even though she would be in San Diego, because she had not seen her two children in five months. Let that sink in a moment.

People tell me that they cannot move somewhere else to train because they don’t have a job there. I am pretty sure that most cities in America have some type of employment available. If you trained three days a week instead of six or seven because you lived in a city with only one club and could not drive anywhere else to train on the weekends, well, then you were not as prepared as you could have been. You could have moved. You could have traveled somewhere else every weekend to get in five or six more extra hours of practice. People do it every week without dying or going bankrupt.

Mental preparation is one of the biggest lacks that I saw. When Ronda walked out on the mat, she expected to win. So did Taraje and it showed in how he fought. Other people, who I think could have won (and even one or two who did win) went into a throw hoping it would work or maybe even thinking it wouldn’t. Other people went in damn well expecting and intending to throw and they did. Often, the former had better technique than the latter. Some people won on mental toughness and brute strength coupled with technique. I don't think that's a bad thing.

I have some thoughts on what causes that difference but Dennis has informed me that if we are taking him out for Father’s Day he would like to go to the sushi place down the street and he would like to go now, so I will have to post those later.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Olympic Trials count down

I will be glad when it is over. I feel that way about every tournament Ronda fights in. When she wins, I am happy for her, but up until then, I am just nervous, worried she will get hurt, worried she will lose and feel bad.

Maria and Jenn, my two old daughters, think this is funny. Jenn tells me,
"You should worry about the other woman."

Yes, Ronda wins a lot and I expect her to win again this weekend. No, no one in this division in the U.S. has beaten her ever. Still, they don't give you a koka to start the match just because you beat her the last six times. She needs to go out and make it easy for the referee to give her the ippon.

Tomorrow, I will pick Julia up from school, drive to Las Vegas, take Ronda away from all of the media people and the genuine well-wishers and the phony well-wishers who secretly hope she breaks a leg. We will have our perpetual mother- daughter argument.

"How's your weight?"
"My weight is fine, Mom. Don't worry. I'm a kilo over. I'll lose it overnight."
"Maybe you should go out and run."
"Mom, I'm FINE! I've made weight a hundred times without you being there. "

Me, disapprovingly ...
"Ronda, you really shouldn't be a kilo over the night before."
"MO-O-OM! You're so annoying!"
"I'm just saying..."
"I'm FINE!"

"I hope you aren't taking this tournament too lightly. You know, they don't just lay down for you because you're Ronda Rousey."
"Mom! I've been training three times a day. Does that sound like I'm taking it seriously?"

I'll be glad when it's over and we can go to the Coca-Cola store and drink floats from around the world. Then it will be the Kunihiros' and the Fujimotos' and the Flores' turn to worry.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Other Judo Blogs

In my not-very-humble opinion, most judo blogs are boring and not kept up very often. Many blogs are by people in judo, but not really ABOUT judo all that often.

When I started writing this blog, I alternated between posts on retirement, judo, marriage, the meaning of life, etc. Several people wrote me to say that they really weren't interested in my life outside of judo. My daughter, Jennifer, on the other hand, told me that my blog was boring because it was all about judo. I am working on a very long post which is an expose of Jennifer (moo-ha -ha ---- for those of you who do not recognize it, that is the stereotypical evil scientist laugh.)

AnnMaria's random list of blogs that usually are about judo and not the author's daffodils.

Judo in my life by Jason has a lot lately about Jason's inability to do judo due to injury. However, he has a good attitude - if I am too injured to compete, I'll fly to Vegas, watch the Olympic trials and use all those long iced drinks they give you to ice my injured part. Good thing he injured his wrist and not something else.

Tad's blog is interesting to me because he is a relative (to me) beginner and just starting to compete. Some of the mistakes he mentions make me smile because they are such common mistakes early on. It's also interesting to read his posts because he is a heavyweight, like Jason, something I have never, ever been, and heavyweights do judo differently.

Speaking of heavyweights and good attitude, there is Rhadi Ferguson's blog. People seem to love Rhadi or hate him. We don't always agree but I have never seen Rhadi be anything but a sincerely good person. I find his hype kind of amusing, while it drives some other people up the wall. Come on, it's business. No one advertises saying, "Buy our stuff if you want, not that we're claiming to be better than anyone."

Speaking of attitude, I think that is another reason Rhadi and I get along. His wife is a physician and did not pause in pursuing her career while Rhadi was training for the Olympics. It is probably no surprise that I get along a whole lot better, on the whole, who are married to well-educated, professional women.. If you need a woman three steps behind whispering how great you are, probably you and me aren't going to hang out.

Ronda's blog, almost last, because I have to get to bed, but certainly not least, is usually really funny and she often has good insights about what really training to win the Olympics looks like. If you think you are training hard enough and sacrificing enough, you should probably read it. The current post, on her applicant process for the next boyfriend, has the most butt-ugly picture ever so I hope she updates it soon.

The person who throws you to the mat is a girl - how can you not like a blog with a name like that? I also really liked the ko uchi video on here. On the occasions that I threw people when I was competing, I did ko uchi makikomi a lot. For some reason, people always feel free to tell me how bad my technique is and how I am doing everything wrong. In the hallway is a picture of me doing ko uchi in the world finals in the exact same position of these guys on the video,with my back leg straight and lunging toward the opponent.

============== WINNING ATTITUDE ====================

I mentioned attitude as to why I liked several of the blogs above. In judo, there is such a thing as a winning attitude. You need to manage to be simultaneously arrogant and humble. You need to be arrogant enough to believe that you CAN be better than everyone else in the world, and you need to believe that you ARE better for the minutes you are out on the mat.

In all the months and years leading up to that point though, you need to be humble in the extreme. You need to always believe that someone, somewhere out there is training harder than you, knows more than you, is in better condition than you. That humility will make you always seek out people who can teach you more and even listen respectfully to people you think are complete morons because they might have one good idea you can use. It is humility, not arrogance, that causes some elite competitors to help other players coming up. Yes, they realize someone helped them, but there is also the enlightened self-interest that if this player gets better he or she can push me harder and get me better, too..

Those who are just plain arrogant don't make it too far in our sport. They are too impressed with having won a regional tournament of a bronze medal in the senior nationals, and sometimes not even that. They may just be the toughest brown belt in Tortilla Flats, Alaska. Unfortunately, those never-quite-made-its are often drawn to coaching because it is yet again a chance to get admiration.

It is a big loss that some of those who were great technicians, like Robin (Chapman) Chow and Delores Brodie are not teaching much outside of their own clubs. These are just two of several women (and men) I could mention with multiple international gold medals who wave off their accomplishments. They developed such a habit of looking toward their future accomplishments instead of their past ones they are in the background modestly while others with less ability but more arrogance are bringing up more athletes like themselves. It really is too bad.

Not that you asked me - but when has that ever stopped me? My advice is:
If you WERE a player, look at what you have to offer as a coach and go out there and offer it. We need more good coaches desperately and if you apply that drive to be a success you had as a player, even if you aren't the greatest coach on day one, you'll be a good one, and you'll keep getting better.

If you ARE a player, look for someone who tells you that you can be better, who pushes you outside of your comfort zone. Don't settle for an environment where everyone tells you how great you are. Search out people who will push you to be better than you think you could be. Sometimes those people are right on your own mat, but they aren't going to push through the crowd to help you. Lose the idea that anyone owes you anything. You'll be a better player and a better person. Most of you are, at best, a moderately good player in a minor sport. That's better than being a 300 lb couch potato whose main claim to fame is his level on Doom - but, check yourself, it's not like you found a cure for AIDS or brought about world peace.

My niece tells me that I'm never satisfied, like it's a bad thing. She's right. I am never satisfied. I won the world championships at age 26 and then I went and got a Ph.D., became a professor, wrote scientific articles, got married, had some great kids and then I founded a business. You know why? Because how much would it suck if my whole life had peaked at 26 and it was all downhill from there?

Think about yourself, if you are 16 or 23 or 28 and you think you are Joe Balls because you won some tournament, come on. If it's all downhill from here, that's pretty pathetic, isn't it?

There's nothing wrong with trying to get better every day and not being satisfied. I may relax and think about what I have accomplished and feel smug some day, but I rather suspect that will be a day when I am rocking on the porch at the Daisy HIll Retirement Home asking the nurse, "What was my name again?"

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Coaching, caring, competency, confidence, consistency, courage and money

Jim Pedro, Sr. is always telling me that the most important element in coaching is caring. I think that is only part of the picture.

He is positive that the reason that more athletes don't win in America is that we have a lot of coaches - and a high proportion of people in political positions - who care about themselves more than they do the players. As an example, he points to people who will pay $1,500 to send an athlete to the Junior Panamerican Championships (or some similar tournament) to compete in one or two matches and maybe lose both of them, but won't pay half that for the player to go to a junior nationals and a training camp because it doesn't impress people near as much to say,
"I have five players who went to judo camp this summer,"
as to say,
"I had two players on the U.S. team to the junior Panamerican championships."

As with most things, he is right about that. Still, there is more to it. There are judo camps that are not all that great. As a parent (not as a coach), I do think it is perfectly okay to take your child to a tournament in Costa Rica just because your family wants to go there. If I had a kid in high school, you better believe I would be taking her to the high school nationals in Hawaii next year.

Caring is what makes you get up when you don't want to and drive some ridiculous number of miles to Fresno (as I did last weekend) and Barstow (which I will do tomorrow). Even you folks who live in Fresno and Barstow must admit that these are not widely-regarded as the garden spots of the universe.

In fact, when I asked Coach Ernie Smith, who had Belinda Binkley, Delores Brodie and Chuck Jefferson all make senior international teams how he ever got so many good players from a town the size of Barstow he answered,
"I tell them if they get good, I'll take them out of Barstow."

You have to also have competence. I realize that I do not know nearly everything about judo and I am always trying to learn more. However, I am competent. Even though I am an old grandmother and weigh as much as the right half of most male judo players my age, I can still beat most people my weight and half or a third of my age on the mat, even after six knee operations. I can tell you why your grip is not working and you are getting thrown, why people get out of your pins, how to avoid being armbarred and demonstrate six matwork counters, all without stopping for breath. I have been in judo 38 years and for much of that time I have STUDIED it, watched videos, grilled other coaches, watched players, tried, failed and tried again. Unfortunately, too many judo coaches settle for being less than competent. They teach the two throws that worked for them when they competed, have the players do lots of exercises and uchikomis, fund players to tournaments out of their own pockets and feel genuinely bad when their players lose. They don't understand why their players lose. They tell them to train harder, pull more, improve their technique and turn.

When my kids were in soccer, there was a team whose coach had a metal clipboard with magnets showing where the defense and offense were supposed to be, by position. My kids' team had a mom who was coach who said, pointing at offense,
"You kids, kick the ball in the net over there."
Then she pointed at the defense,
"You kids, don't let the other team kick the ball in the net here."
My kids' team won because they understood what the hell she was talking about.

Terry Kunihiro (a good referee from San Gabriel Judo known mostly these days as Aaron's dad) once told me that he taught little kids judo by telling them to turn and pull.He is exactly right and it is too bad he can't find more time to teach the little ones because he is really good at it.

By the time the athlete is 13 or 15, you need more. Terry, and the other competent coaching staff at San Gabriel understand that, but, unfortunately, it is not a universal recognition. So many coaches who had seven- , eight- and nine-year-old national champions are shaking their heads and saying,
"I just don't get it. We must be doing something right. All of our kids won two years ago."

Jim would say these people are not competent because they just don't care enough to change, study and get better. Maybe. I think some of them just don't understand what is going wrong. They are plain confused.

I think lack of confidence is one reason we don't have more coaches and more female coaches in particular. We aren't developing a new generation of leaders in judo because we eat our young. By that I mean when a new coach or referee comes on the scene, a young person who wants to learn and move up into "the elite ranks", the response of the existing powers-that-be is often to try to put that person in his or her place. When I first started coaching, I must have heard hundreds of times,
"Just because you won the world championships doesn't mean you can coach."
"Judo has changed since your day. The things you won with won't work any more."
"You've never coached anyone who won junior nationals, what makes you think you can coach?"
"There is a difference between coaching juniors that win and seniors, you're just not at the level of these other people."

For a while, I questioned myself and wondered if I really could be a good coach.

And then it clicked - f@ck that! I mean seriously, who the hell were these people to tell me that I couldn't coach. I DID win the world championships and that proves I know some judo and who the hell were they to put that down? Did they have any actual proof that the things I won with wouldn't work any more? No. Not a damn thing but their opinion and I taught those things to my kids and other people's kids and they DID work and the kids DID win. My coach had never coached anyone to win the world championships until me. Probably my favorite movie line ever was from Volcano, where the scientist says,
"There's never a history of anything until it happens. And then there is."
As a coach, you have to cultivate that belief in yourself, in what you are teaching and pass it on to your players. That is far harder than you think because many people will put you down and tell you that you can't do it. I had the advantage of having won a world championships and I still questioned myself starting out. Anyone else without that advantage who still perseveres and becomes a coach in the face of all the obstacles has my sincere admiration.

It finally dawned on me that many of those nay-sayers were other coaches who did not want the perceived competition. Of course, on the other hand were people like Hayward Nishioka, Jim Pedro, Sr., Steve Scott, Jim Bregman, Blinky Elizalde, Sarko Balian, Steve Seck, Tony Mojica and others who were more than willing to answer any question I had, to show me what worked for them as a coach. It is probably no coincidence that many of those I just mentioned were my old teammates at Tenri.

Consistency. It is easy to suck it up and go to practice for two nights during one week. It isn't even that hard to do it for two nights a week for six months. To do it three nights a week for twenty years like Tony Mojica or Kenji Osugi or Gary Goltz or the other people who are the backbone of judo - that is just plain amazing. Still, how long does it take to get a black belt? How long does it take to train a player to international caliber? Years.

For those of you who think this is too daunting, I highly recommend finding a coaching TEAM like we have at the training center. Between the three main coaches, someone is always there, even if one of has an anniversary, or needs to work overtime. With the number of black belts we have assisting, there is always someone willing to go to the tournaments to coach. So, our players always have someone in their corner.

"The right way is not always the popular and easy way. Standing for right when it is unpopular is a true test of moral character."

As a coach, you have to have the courage to tell people unpopular truths. In the last week I have told:
  • A really good judo coach we could not pay him to do a camp for us because we decided to spend the money on a camp that more of our athletes could attend.
  • A player that we would not fund her because she had not attended enough practices and, regardless of her past accomplishments, I believed the younger players had more of a future.
  • Several junior national champions and some senior point players that they needed to practice harder if they wanted to make it.

The last is probably the most unpopular thing I do and some people will probably hate me forever for it. How can I tell someone who is the junior national champion eleven times over that he doesn't train hard enough, needs to develop more combination, is not physically strong enough to win the men's division? Because it's true. Some people may think that makes me a horrible, uncaring person that I would say something that would hurt a player's feelings.

I would say that there is more to coaching than being a caring person.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Observations at the California Judo Championships

in no particular order whatsoever

Chill. I looked at Julia's pool this morning, saw the name of the girl she fought first match and immediately started worrying about how Julia was going to do against her. I was going to ask some of my friends from northern California if they had ever heard of her and how good she was. Then, I caught myself as I realized:
"Everyone in this division is under eleven years old and under eighty-four pounds. How good can any of them frigging be?"

The training center was a good idea. Looking at the kids like Sarah, Julia, Brent and Anthony, who are regulars, the growth in their judo was noticeable, and specifically on the skills we had been trying to develop for a group and for them individually. All of them came from judo clubs where they had learned throws, pins and more. What they got at the training center was more time on the mat and more time to work with them individually. This is something coaches never have enough time to do. If you have fifteen or twenty kids in one class, you can't spend thirty minutes just working with one player on not following his opponent, on pulling the opponent into him rather than going toward him. If you have three or four instructors for fifteen committed players, you can do it. That is the other advantage we have, is committed players. At the training center, unlike most regular judo classes, there is not a lot of behavior problems or people not focused. If they are, focus is generally restored by a relatively large number of push-ups.

Eric Sanchez is a smart judo player.
He has good technical judo - a nice foot sweep, and did a beautiful kata guruma this weekend (sorry Walter, you have to admit it was a really nice throw) but what really stands out about both Frankie Sanchez, Jr. and Eric in particular is that they win a lot of matches by being smart. I have seen so many people who will be ahead by a lot and then get thrown at the end or get penalized trying to play it too defensively. For example, Eric was ahead in one match by a koka early on. He attacked the competitor just enough to avoid being penalized while minimizing his chances of being countered. When they were on the mat, he stayed there and ate up the clock.

Ross Nakamura has really shown a lot of growth as a player this year. And he is a super nice guy.
Ross used to live and die by that seoi nage. He either threw you with it or he didn't throw you. He lost a lot of matches where he was ahead because he had one setting - full speed ahead. Today, I saw a new Ross. In two matches, he didn't even try seoi. In one, he threw the opponent right away for ippon with a leg pick. In the other, he went to golden score. He tried kata guruma, leg picks and ko uchi. I thought when it went to golden score he would fall back on the seoi but he didn't, he threw the opponent with another technique and won. In his final match, he choked his opponent. I don't remember seeing Ross ever choke anyone, and I know he doesn't like matwork much. What impressed me even more is what he said when I asked him about why he fought differently today. He said,
"The opening for it just wasn't there. I didn't see it. Besides, I have been trying to work on other techniques and transition to matwork."

The opening for it just wasn't there .... that reflects a deeper level of judo than most judo players ever find. If they do seoi nage, they just attack with it, because that is what they do.

Also impressive to me was the number of younger kids, ten or twelve years old, were standing behind the match with the same attitude of little Skye Bruce who said,
"Who are you cheering for?"
When I answered,
"Ross," she nodded,
"Of course, me, too."
Ross has gone out of his way to patiently help so many of these young kids learn a better seoi nage, that he has his own cheering section. A pretty noticeable accomplishment for someone still in high school.

This tournament really stood out in my mind as a competitor-focused tournament, which I believe is a term I just made up. Too often, one gets the impression that tournaments were organized for the benefit of the officials or hosting organization. It wasn't a single thing that made this one different, but a combination of actions and decisions on the part of the tournament personnel. These included:

  • The tournament director and pooling staff were very open to allowing players who were uncontested to move up or combine two or three uncontested divisions. At some tournaments when players ask to do this they are refused because it was published on the flyer, or that will make the referees stay later. In this case, everyone looked at it from the point of view of that competitor who drove five hours only to see that there was no one to fight. On the other hand, those who did not wish to move up into heavier or older division, sometimes because it was just too much weight, were given a gold medal and congratulated for having the courage to show up.

  • Competitors were allowed to compete in two divisions, and the tournament was even set up to facilitate that with the minimum amount of confusion. Novice and advanced divisions fought on alternate days, as did the 15-16 and senior divisions from the 13-14, 17-9 and advanced. If people would pick two divisions, their most likely combinations were on two different days. Again, the focus was on allowing the competitors to compete as much as possible.

  • The refereeing was noticeably above average. MANY people commented on this to me, of all ages, from competitors to coaches to parents, and I noticed the same thing myself. There were very few matches decided by penalties, especially in golden score. The referees stood out of the way and let the players decide the match. I attribute this to several things. First, it was evident that Hayward Nishioka, the head referee, knew what he was doing and was there to see that the refereeing was good and the right player won. No one had to worry that Hayward was out to "get them" or to prove he was important or anything like that. He is not a political guy and if Sensei Important's player lost and you called it that way, so be it. I think that confidence showed in the quality of refereeing. Referees are human,too (no, really, they are.) We had a lot of referees. Let's face it, people like the Imamuras, Takedas and Tsutsuis from Fresno have a lot of friends, and deservedly so. So do Mitchell Palacio and Hayward Nishioka. Unlike a state championship I attended several years ago, where there was less than three referees per mat, we had a lot of very good referees come out to support this tournament. When there are enough people that you can get a rest, have lunch, sit down for a while, you do a better job. Related to this, there were a lot of really good referees like Low Dong, Dan Takata, Rose Knudsen, Terry Kunihiro and many others who referee A LOT. Just like anything else, the people who do things a lot are very good at it.

  • Just the little things, of which there were a great many. For example, we had a ten-year-old girl (no, it wasn't mine, it was Erin) who didn't have water. She had a match in a few minutes and wanted something to drink. There was a case of water sitting by the table for the referees and Rose Knudsen, the highest ranking referee who was there, reached out and gave her a bottle of water. That may seem like a small obvious thing, but I have been at so many tournaments where the head official would instead yell at the child, "You should have been prepared. This is for the referees." Instead of giving a little kid a bottle of water. This tournament was different. I liked that and I hope more people copy them.

People can be in judo for years and still not know very much.
This was a sad thought, but as I looked at many of the competitors, of all ages, I saw many who had been in judo for six, eight or ten years and still were missing fundamental pieces. These included people who did not seem to have more than two techniques that they could use to throw a resisting partner. I see these people doing uchikomi and practicing throws with the same technique night after night for years on end. Even more people had no idea about gripping. If they could not get those one or two throws to work, they completely failed to understand that the reason was that the other player had an inside grip and was blocking the shoulder so they could not turn in. More often than not, I saw players who had, at most, one matwork move. Seldom was matwork purposeful. The person really did not have a plan. They pulled, pushed and grabbed on the other person hoping something would magically work. I hate to say this, but I think part of the reason is that their coaches never did much matwork. I have heard these coaches say,
"I don't do matwork. I prefer to throw people for ippon."
That's a good Plan A. But sometimes you need a Plan B.

As for my little Julia, she did win today, with three ippons. It was a good day for her. A lot of the things we have been working on for the past few weeks have been working. She threw two people with harai goshi. For the longest time, she would attakc with harai, be off-balance and get countered. She has been working with Haykus, Elanette and Erin for the past few weeks doing throws on the crash pad, throws on the mat and uchikomis to try to correct that and it finally is paying off. She threw another player with a counter, which is something we have been working on at the training center a lot. She demonstrated some knowledge of gripping (for a ten-year-old). One little girl she fought threw anybody once she got a high grip. Julia was able to block her high grip and keep her from throwing. The last thing she did well was transition. Every time she did a throw she went straight into matwork and ended up with three pins - two kesa gatame and one yoko shiho.

Oly Juarez commented on how much better shape Julia was in since the last time she had seen her. On the way home, she read a couple of books and then was writing in her notebook. It occurred to me that over the last year, since I have cut back on my work hours and travel greatly, Julia's schoolwork has improved, her judo has gotten better, she is in better physical condition. So, maybe I am making less money than previous years - more money wouldn't have bought me a better kid.

==============REQUIRED JUDO TIP ==========================
A good way to start teaching grip-fighting to little kids is to teach them how to block a high grip. Young kids often try to get the other child in a head lock and throw with makikomi. Many beginners have this as their only technique. It isn't hard to teach someone a few methods of blocking a high grip - e.g., block their hand coming in like the ippon seoi in nage no kata, punch your lapel grip in first and block their right shoulder. This is simple enough for even novice players to understand, has an immediate pay off in reducing the number of times they get thrown hard in competition and gets them thinking about how gripping can change the outcome of a match.