Monday, February 16, 2009

If I Have to Explain It, Maybe You Can't Understand?

I was reading a post from a karate instructor on "How to be a world champion". I started to respond but it got so long that I thought I would just do it as my next post here instead.

Having been a world champion, and now the mother of a world silver medalist, I can see truth in every single one of his points. Talent is "necessary but not sufficient". I'd say, though, at least 3% of the population has that physical ability to win at the world level.

The "it" that is so rare is that drive that MAKES you win. I like that line from the movie, "the eye of the tiger".

You put a tiger and a cow in the same cage, and even though the cow might weigh more, the tiger knows one of them is going to be dinner and it's not him.

Perhaps this is impossible to explain to someone who hasn't experienced it, kind of like explaining "red" to someone who is color-blind.

Mark Hunter commented that some people think if you were never a champion or don't coach champions you don't know anything and your judo sucks. That's not what I think, and I don't know many people who have won a lot of medals who think that way. There are some, of course, any subgroup in the world has its share of jerks.

The best I heard it put into words was one day at the training center when someone asked me if I thought a particular player would ever beat Ronda. I said,

"No. Because she fights to win to make other people happy, her mom, her coach, while Ronda fights to win because - "

and as I searched for the right word, one of the parents interjected,

"- because it's her right!"

I once heard an expert on Autism comment that,
"People like to believe that inside every child with Autism is a 'normal' child who is trying to get out. I believe that there is NOTHING in there. Not literally nothing, of course, but that in children with Autism there is something missing that IS there in other children."

I don't know if he is right about Autism but I do believe that in people who have become world-class athletes - and I mean people who actually win world championships, not people who go out in the first 30 seconds of the first round - there is something in there that is not in other people.

There is a hunger to win that's almost physical. There is a very irrational belief that it is their right to win.

This is something different than conceit. Conceited people think they can win without training, or without making the sacrifices other people do. I've met a lot of people like that, way more than I have met world champions.

Rob Redmond mentions two things in his blog

* Push - The ability to make yourself do something you don't want to do
* Deny - The ability to not do something that you want to

Real champions have both those in spades. These are the people who are there after practices, doing drills with anyone they can get to stick around, the people who NEVER miss practice. They skip proms, dates, job interviews - yes, I did once have to choose between a scholarship interview and the senior nationals. I went to the senior nationals and won. (Hey, I got a DIFFERENT scholarship! Don't ever think I am encouraging anyone to drop out of school.)

One thing he did not mention - for real champions, judo isn't an excuse to avoid facing life. I have seen a lot of people who dropped out of school, didn't get jobs, didn't go into the real world because they were 'pursuing an Olympic dream', yet they came to practice three or four times a week.

That pushing and denial is hard, but, I think it is perhaps not as hard as for other people because they really, really deep down believe they can win. A lot of those "Olympic dreamers", I watch train and compete and I know that they don't believe they can win.

My friend Bruce Toups used to say, "It's all about the want-to."

That's some of it, but it's more than that. Linda Richardson, a terrific competitor from Wisconsin who won the British Open had it embroidered on her black belt,
"Belief is strength."

That's some of it, but it's more than that, too. It's wanting it, believing you can have it - but what is "it", anyway? Is it a medal?

I saw some of it when Ronda was fighting Annette Boehm, got thrown with tomoe nage and twisted out a few inches from the mat to land on her feet and come back at her. I tried to explain it to Ronda's father when I came back from the world championships and he looked at the bruises on my arms, my knee swollen up and asked,

"Why do you do this?"

I tried to explain it to him, that, when everything worked, when you have trained so much, done that drill so many times that when she turns left that way, you automatically hit right, that everything falls into place just like magic, you are one step ahead in time because you know what happens next, when you just feel like you could fly, you could do anything.

He said,

"I don't get it. Is it better than sex?"

(Hint to you young people: NEVER answer questions like that from your spouse. Feign deafness, fake your own death if you have to. The only reasonable thing to do under such circumstances is to change the subject. Like this.)

After the world championships, I came home, earned more degrees, had more children. Many people can't believe that it never bothered me that for years Mike Swain got credit for being the first world champion from America. People don't believe that Ronda borrowed my medal for good luck, lost it and I don't really care.

Here's what I tried to explain to Ron so many years ago.

I didn't want recognition of being best in the world. I didn't want a gold medal.

What I really, really wanted more than anything in the whole world was to be that good.

At the peak of my career, I got that.

I tried to explain this to my daughter, Jenn, this week and she said,
"Mom, I don't get it and I don't care. Physical achievement has never been as impressive to me as intellectual achievement. I don't feel like I am missing anything."

Well, I'm not too dumb, either, and I am very happy that I can conceptualize how one could mathematically rotate factors in seven-dimensional space, that I understand psychometric theory pretty well and am a fairly whiz-bang programmer.

But, I'm not talking about that right now, and, I guess if you think like Jenn then, for the moment, I am not talking to you.

If you want it and you have what it takes, if all of those slogans you see, "It's not life and death, it's much more important than that," "There are lessons to be learned from competition but fear is not one of them" - if those aren't slogans but how you feel. If the first thought in the morning when you open your eyes is how much you want to win, and it's the thought you fall into dreams of at night, if you feel like you HAVE to do it - then do it and take my word for it that it is worth it all and more.

Think about this ... The one thing I wanted more than I could ever want anything on this earth -- I got it. You know, everything for the rest of my life was gravy, because I didn't die at twenty-six.

I got what I wanted most in the whole world and THEN, got to marry the man of my dreams, have children, get a Ph.D., start a business, coach judo, teach college and a hundred other good things ALL ON TOP OF THAT. As my coach, Jimmy Martin used to say,

"You are one lucky b---- !"

If you have whatever "it" is, you are looking at the long, hard road ahead and wondering, "Is this all worth doing, in the end?"

The answer is this: Yes.

P.S.: For someone who probably explains this all better than me, you could read the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi .


Anonymous said...

Hey Dr Annmaria:

I have a new blog at and i made a post today that is somewhat similar to this one talking about wanting to reach levels. Check it out.let me know what you think

Dr. AnnMaria said...

I've heard about you. I read your blog. We should hang out some time. I'm going to be at Mayo Quanchi doing a clinic the day before Serge's tournament, maybe I can meet you then. Sorry, I can only be in town for one day, I need to get down to D.C. for work.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure I'll be at the Ocean State. Although, i'm not sure about the day before . Oh well, no big deal. I'm sure we'll meet sometime. I've been told i'm like fly manure..i'm everywhere :)

Stephen said...

I'm lucky, I'm a litigator and work lets me express the need. Great post, thanks. I enjoyed reading this.

BTW, did you ever finish reading McKay's book on Integrity?

Thanks for taking the time to post.

tom said...

Just wondering about the genesis of the following excerpt from your blog.

BTW, and for what it is worth I am in agreement with you, Neil Adams and Patrick Roux aboyt contest for chldren

After watching a TV show with vice-president Joe Biden from Wednesday when he had ashes on his forehead.
"Do you think Biden is Catholic?"
"No, I think he is a Protestant who likes to rub ashes on his head. On Wednesdays."