There is no better feeling than throwing your opponent to the ground effortlessly with a foot sweep or hip throw before they had even known you had attacked. In fact, a perfect throw happens so fast that even the person executing the throw will get right up and forget what happened for a split second. That is called an ippon or perfect throw in Judo. An ippon happens only when your mind, body and spirit all work together in one flash of a moment.
I have had the privilege of training and competing on four Olympic Judo teams: 1980, 1984, 1988, and 1992, as well as coaching the 1996 Olympic team and training and competing in five World Championships: 1977, 1983, 1985, 1987, and 1989. These experiences have taken me around the world and given me in-depth, real-life competitive training and knowledge of modern-day Judo.
When I look back at my journey and reflect on all my experiences, there are some key takeaways that I would like to share with you that might be helpful for your journey.
DREAM BIG AND HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOURSELF
When I was 8 years old, I used to throw my pillow around on top of my bed dreaming that I was winning a Judo match. I would hold it down for 10 seconds then pick it up and throw it again and again until I got tired or my mom yelled at me for making too much noise. I did not know that Judo was in the Olympics nor did I care at that point, but I guess I was ahead of the game. In my 8 year old mind, I was just playing around beating my pillow in imaginary judo matches, but this pretend play is exactly the same as Olympic visualization techniques used by elite athletes: watching, dreaming and envisioning not just winning but defeating your opponent. But really, visualization techniques are just big dreams that we dream over and over. The first step to making these dreams become reality is believe in your own power to do so. Maybe confidence comes naturally to some people. Maybe it is encouraged by the role models that surround you like positive parents, teachers, peers and coaches. Either way, you need to visualize and dream about what you want, and then believe in your own power each day when you look in the mirror. The dream cannot succeed without the confidence, and the confidence cannot exist if you don’t have a dream to motivate you. Find your dream and your confidence because no one else can do it for you.
SHOOT FOR THE MOON, FALL AMONG THE STARS
I remember the night clearly. Two USA Judo teammates and I were sitting in a small bar in Tokyo after a major event. At the time, we were all in the top 10 of our categories in the world ranking. We all had won some major events, but none of us had reached the podium to earn a World or Olympic medals yet. We dreamed our goals out loud and we all agreed that if we won an Olympic Gold medal and World Medal that would satisfy us for life . Then, someone spoke up and said, “Is it the beer or do you think that’s realistic.” Then we all laughed together and said ok , ok if we win one or the other we would be fine since after all it’d be the same people fighting at the top spot. In the end, several years later,I became the first man from the western hemisphere to win the world Judo Championships. My other friend won an Olympic silver medal. And the guy who started the whole dream conversation never won an Olympic or World medal but became a very successful real-estate businessman (and now pays the bill whenever we meet for a drink and talk about the same old stories!). In the end, we all became very successful because we dreamed big. We gave it our all and shot for the moon. No one earned the elusive Olympic/World Medal combo, but I believe we are all satisfied with our own success. So aim high and dream big because regardless of where you end up, the things you learn on your journey set you up for great things whether or not you achieve your goal.
GET OUT OF TOWN AND INTO THE WOODS
When I was 16 years old, I defeated an older and much more experienced opponent to qualify for the world Championships in Barcelona, Spain. My breakthrough. At that moment I started to believe I could make the 1980 Olympic team and so did my coaches and mentors. They all said I should pack up and move to Japan to train after high school.Now, training Judo or any combat sport is not for the faint hearted, and things get pretty rough on the mat when the goal is to slam, choke, pin or arm lock your opponent.
But nothing is more unnerving than moving to country and immersing yourself in another culture and way of life. To me the decision was easy, but the sacrifice was tough. If I wanted to make the Olympic team and win medals, then I needed to train with the best at Judo. I think it’s the same in other sports or fields; you must seek out the best and go to them for help. Whatever comes with all that, just accept it and keep learning so that you can reach the next level and keep growing.
KEEP THE FAITH
It was early 1987 about 5 years after my dream session with my teammates in Tokyo. I was 27 years old and had yet to win worlds or Olympics. My best was silver at the world championships but I was stuck at silver in many world events. Silver sucks because you lose the match right before they hand you the medal on the podium. At least a bronze means you won your last match! Then, on top of that out of nowhere, this young, up and coming Japanese player who later on became a judo legend named Koga threw me twice for ippon (a full point) Now, I can count on one hand the number of times I was thrown by ippon and he is 50% of them. Things were going the wrong way fast. I had pretty long hair back then, and I decided to cut it really short like all the freshman had to do when they lost or did something bad at Nihon Universit
ALWAYS ASK WHAT’S NEXT?
Winning medals and championships are great achievements, but should be celebrated only on the day they are won. Successful people never look back. They wake up to the future and find more goals to achieve. The Budo spirit preaches to win humbly and lose graciously, and to never disrespect an opponent because if they had not pushed you to your limits, perhaps you would have been stuck in mediocrity.
Of course I am proud of my accomplishments, but my medals are stuffed in one of my sock drawers as a reminder to myself that other things are more important, and my focus is on the future-not the past.