Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Observations on Coaching an Athlete to the Olympics

I've had a lot of respect for Jim Pedro, Sr. for a long time, but it increased considerably over this trip to the Olympics. Jimmy has had athletes in the last FIVE Olympics. This year, he had Ronda, who won a bronze medal, Daniel McCormick (who placed 9th)and Taraje Williams-Murray. In 2004, he had Ronda (who placed ninth), Taraje, Alex Ottiano and Jimmy, Jr. (who won a bronze medal). In 2000, he had Jimmy Jr. (who was the 1999 world champion) and Alex. In 1996, he had Jimmy, Jr. (who won a bronze medal). Despite having had athletes on the last five Olympic teams and having coached EVERY American who has won an Olympic medal in the past 16 years, Jim Pedro, Sr. has never been selected as the Olympic Coach. He has never been allowed to stay in the Olympic Village. Instead, every four years, USA Judo selects three or four other people, most of whom have zero athletes on the team and none of whom have ever coached an Olympic medal winner. WTF???

Ronda lived at Jim's house for nearly two years, and he has moved her in from time to time since then when she needed that extra help to avoid all distractions. When the whole story about Fletcher Thornton having molested a bunch of underage players came out before the Olympics, Jim had Ronda move into his house where there was no Internet access, no cell phone coverage and not even a home phone. THEN, he arranged for a judo player from Slovenia around her weight to come also and had them train three times a day while he monitored every aspect of her performance.

Last year, there was a trip scheduled to a training center in Japan. I expressed my concern (I am sure he would put it that I nagged him unmercifully about it!) to Jimmy that unless she had a coach - HER coach - there to watch her during practices, to identify the problems she had with specific players and develop strategies to work on those when she came back it would be a waste of time, just Ronda training with random Asian players. Jimmy said,
"If Ronda wants me to go to Japan with her, all she needs to do is tell me. I don't think she needs me."

The next practice, Ronda walked up to Jim and said,
"I want you to go to Japan with me."

He booked a ticket.

Yet, Jimmy managed to focus on what he could do to help Ronda win, when any normal human being would have been eaten up with the unfairness of it all. It was possible to get passes for friends and family to get into the Olympic village.

I am sure Jimmy would have liked to have gone, since it was only open to athletes and coaches during the last Olympics in Athens. Ronda was focused on competing when I saw her Tuesday (she fought Wednesday) and she did not get around to getting his name on the list, so he ended up not being able to go over there before he left for home. Normally, he would have taken her to task for that, but as a coach, he understood she needed to make weight, work out and think about the tournament. He put what was best for her ahead of what he wanted, even though he had flown thousands of miles to get here and was on the outside for the fifth time.

I can only imagine how Jimmy must feel about a system that never picks the only coach who has produced Olympic medalists, yet, I never heard him say one negative word about Israel Hernandez, the coach who was in Ronda's chair during the Olympics. Talking down the other coach only hurts the athlete's confidence - sort of like divorced parents putting each other down. There must have been great temptation for Jimmy to yell out instructions to Ronda during her matches, but Jim realized that is a real distraction for the player. Several times, Kayla Harrison, one of Ronda's teammates from Massachusetts, stood up and said she was going to go talk to one of the staff members from USA Judo and try to get Jim coaching credentials to get down on the floor. In desperation, she offered to get one of the athletes to give him their badge so he could go down on the floor and talk to Ronda. Jim told her,
"I am NOT going to go down there. If Ronda needs me, she knows I am here."

Before her bronze medal match, Ronda did come over to the stands where we were sitting, and Jim was able to yell instructions to her before her match.

After Ronda won the bronze medal, she came up in the stands to hug first me and then Jim. Israel also came up in the stands to shake Jim's hand and thank him for the opportunity to coach Ronda in the Olympics.

Several points came to mind after this experience:

  • Jim was able to put Ronda's needs before his own both before and during the tournament. This is probably one reason he has had so many Olympic athletes come from his program

  • Even at the time when he had the most reason in the world NOT to help her out of resentment, i.e., she was fighting for a medal in the Olympics, coached by someone else and he didn't even have a pass to get to the floor to talk to her, he STILL went out of his way to give her any advice he could because he cared about her winning more than his own feelings about the situation.

  • This time was not as bad as four years ago in Athens, when even the coaches from other countries commented that Ronda was looking up in the stands at her coach for guidance. There is a big difference between 17 and 21 and she was more self-assured this time.

  • There is something fundamentally rotten and corrupt in our selection of coaches for the Olympic team and it is so endemic that people just accept it. "Yes, the guy who has coached all of our medalists from 1996 -2008 and has had players in the last five Olympics is not an Olympic coach and never has been. That's because it is so political." Doesn't that bother anyone but me? Maybe there is a reason China won 18 more gold medals than we did so far. The only thing I can really do as an individual is not join USA Judo, not sign up my little daughter, not go to their junior Olympics or support them in any way. So, I don't. It may be only a little I can do to protest unfairness but I do what I can.

  • If you want to coach an American athlete to an Olympic medal in judo, it seems all you can do is care about that person greatly and not expect to get anything back. Not that I do not greatly appreciate the help Israel Hernandez gave to Ronda as one of the Olympic coaches, because I know he sincerely did everything he could to help her. Still, it is a little too bad that the photo of her hugging her coach in all the papers is of Israel and not Jimmy.

I think I will call him in the morning as all I can really do is let him know I really appreciate what he has done for her - that, and send him cigars!


Anonymous said...

Maybe he hasn't been selected because he is not a USJI certified coach?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, and maybe USJI did not take action on Fletcher because they did not have a written, signed in blood affidavit with double pinky swear...

Dr. AnnMaria said...

For many years, Jim was a USJI certified coach, so that is not the reason. He may still be, but I am not sure.

As for the signed in blood and double pinky swear to finally take some action against Fletcher, I can work on that but I rather suspect they wouldn't approve my choice of the person's blood to use. Oh, no ... we would really like to do something about him molesting those girls but our by-laws require that the blood be Type O negative. You can see how our hands are tied, but we really are SO concerned about protecting our members.

Stephen said...

Thank you, that gave me things to think about.