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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So now I know my heroe(Ronda)is going to olympia,this is a very good new today.Well,we(Italy)d'ont have trials here,an athlet cost a lot of money for the government and they want to be sure only the one has a good chance to get a medal must go in it.
Personaly I think trials have something romantic,but also for a top
judoka like Ronda could be nice to have trials one year before not just two month.As always greetings and of course congratulations