Monday, November 24, 2008

You Can't Follow the Crowd to the Top

I attribute my competitive success to equal parts dumb luck, hard work and a willingness to look reality square in the face, and, if necessary, spit in its eye.

If you want to win, I think you need to realize that you have to be different. One reason so many of our coaches in every sport are unsuccessful at producing players who win at a high level is that they have no idea what it takes. It's damn hard to be a good coach for international players. I don't even try to do it, mostly because I am not willing to give up the time from my work and my ten-year-old daughter.

(You can see her, Erin and Nick working out here

Even when people do give the time and effort, they still often botch the job badly. Often, it boils down to arrogance. Coaches who did not win the Olympics (which is everyone in this country) often deep down believe that they are great players and no one is better than them. This is a great attitude that you MUST have during a match. Unfortunately, some people haven't lost it twenty years after they retired. If you cannot conceive of the fact that this player you are coaching might be better than you, then you can't really give a reason why he or she could possibly win the Olympics, world championships, etc. when you didn't. The only acceptable explanation is luck - luck of the draw, having a good day. Pretty hard to train someone to be lucky.

I'll give the dumb luck reasons that I think helped me a lot.

1. I started judo in the Midwest, I came from a family with a lot of kids close in age, so we fought a lot, and my parents didn't have any extra money to send me out of the area to compete. That might sound like the opposite of lucky and it is certainly outside of the common belief that we must go to Europe, Asia, etc. multiple times to train. Since I was a pretty tough kid, I won almost all the time and I never got the beaten down attitude that many American athletes have by the time they are 18 and are getting dumped in the first thirty seconds of some tournament they only got to attend because the number one and two ranked players couldn't afford to go. I was that number one ranked player who couldn't afford it.

2. Because we didn't have much money and there was no way in HELL my parents were going to pay for me to go travel around to judo tournaments and not work, I had to get a job, go to college and, to go to judo, get accepted in a study-abroad program at Waseda University. I spent a year working out at Waseda University with the men's team and at the Kodokan in the women's division. Because I did not come from a "good, famous club" in the U.S, I had no idea men and women in Japan didn't train together. I got beat in the mat by the guys at Waseda, which was kind of like getting beat in the mat by some of the bigger stronger guys at home. Then, I went to the women's division and tore into all of the women on matwork because no one ever told me that the Japanese women were supposed to be better than me.

3. I had no idea what was proper, polite or even much clue of what rank meant. (This guy is a 4th degree black belt - okay.) I was AMAZINGLY lucky that Margot Sathay was there at the same time I was and offered to give matwork sessions for any women that showed up. Five of us showed up regularly. Two were Margot's friends. The other three all ended up winning world medals - me, Michiko Sasahara and Hiromi Fukuda. Re-read this again - FIVE people showed up at those sessions and two of them were Margot's friends. And Margot's matwork was incredible. I was 17 or 18 and she kicked my @$$. No one of any age or size had ever beat me like that. And she was OLD (like, 35, which seemed half-way to dead).

This is where the hard work and reality part slipped in. Every day, I went to practice twice, once in the afternoon at Waseda and once at the Kodokan. Sometimes I went three times if Margot had a practice before the regular practice, other days, the dojo was available nd it was just us. Some people argue we need judo available in college, that it needs to be around students' schedules, etc. I needed to go to college, I wanted to go to Japan and study judo, so the only way to do both was to get accepted in an exchange program. Then, I took the train to Waseda, went to class and judo practice, took the train to the Kodokan and then back home. Yes, it was long and hard, but no one told me I was supposed to be practicing "smarter" and have everything at my fingertips. I thought it was supposed to be hard and it was so there was no point whining about it. If there was money left over at the end of the month and I could buy a box of cookies, I was pretty satisfied with life.

4. I ended up not in a judo mecca but in San Diego. I was living at the Olympic Training Center, found out I was pregnant (I had been married for years so don't get all self-righteous about it). The OTC is no place to bring up a baby, so I moved to San Diego and took a job as an engineer. Because I could not go to five clubs for randori every night, I spent hours working on drills, just like Nick, Erin and Julia were doing above. On the weekends, I had the chance to fight the best southern California had to offer at Tenri and at Orange County Kodokan which hosted a regional training program. During the week, I worked on the boring stuff no one would do if they had a choice. I came up with new techniques and drilled them over and over - matwork counters, combinations, transition drills, armbars from the top and bottom.

Here is where the hard work and reality part came in. I realized I needed to train every day and at JUDO in addition to running and lifting. It wasn't possible for me to quit my job, so I had to work out wherever I could. Since there were a bunch of big guys at the Naval Training Center, armbars and chokes were a lot easier to pull off than throws, and besides, my knees were trashed, so I focused on matwork.

Then there was the part about if you have had several knee operations, have a baby, live 100 miles from the nearest major club, can't afford to travel around the world and have to work full-time, you cannot be competitive. I just decided to ignore that nonsense. I wasn't the most popular kid around - my family didn't have lots of money, I didn't come from the 'right' club, so not too many people bothered to take me aside and give me advice. When they did, they were people like Hayward and their advice was along the lines of "When you get in that choke and it doesn't work, switch to a pin by sliding back and laying on your stomach."

When I look back, here is the funny thing - everything you were supposed to do - travel abroad young, get too as many tournaments as you can as a young competitor, train with well-known, high-ranking senseis, live near a "name" club where you train regularly - I did none of those things that the majority of people trying to be successful international players did because I was not lucky enough to have the opportunity. That "bad luck" was a major advantage for me.

Too many American players try to replicate successful European and Asian players. That can be taken too far. You need to think about what you are doing, why and how you expect to benefit.

In the movie, Cool Runnings, the captain of the Jamaican bobsled team whacks all his teammates on their helmets. When one demands to know what he is doing, he answers:

"That's what the Swiss team does and they win."

To which his teammate replies,

"Yeah, and they make those little knives, too, but I don't see you doing that."


Loren said...

I would really like to know how to develop drills and such.

I really do enjoy learning more about judo your way!

Stephen said...

Yeah, and they make those little knives, too, but I don't see you doing that.

I love that line!

Dr. AnnMaria said...

Thorndike's law of transfer:
The closer the situation in which a skill is learned to that in which it will be practiced, the more transfer will occur. So... look for situations likely to occur, e.g., two people in matwork, one tries to crawl out of bounds. Start from that position and enact that scenario as a drill. And never never never do that stupid back to back starting matwork again.

Loren said...

Way cool! Thanks!

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