Thursday, December 13, 2007
What Makes a Champion?
"When I was 13 and 14 years old, no one but you thought I was going to be anything special. What made you think I would succeed when other people didn't? What was it you were looking at?"
Ronda wanted to know, she said, because she was going to be coaching some day and she wanted to learn all she could about it. Here are a few things I look at:
When a junior player is winning, is it early physical development, or is it technical ability and mental toughness? Often, the winners in the 13-14 or 15-16 year old divisions are physically men and women, fighting in a kids' division. If I see someone who is still physically a kid but winning anyway, on technique or pure determination, I know that as soon as that kid grows full strength, he or she will be walking through the division like nothing. Ronda was a skinny, scrawny little kid. The picture above is a year before Ronda qualified for the U.S. Junior World Team for the first time, two years before she made the U.S. women's team for the first time at 63 kg. She was a little girl beating women. That was one of the things that set her apart from the other junior national champions. The other girls who were placing in women's divisions were physically already fully grown. I knew that when Ronda put on another 15 pounds of muscle and developed the strength and coordination of an adult that everybody had better run.
Can she take being roughed up in a match? Judo is a tough, physically demanding, sometimes painful sport. There were other junior players who were bullies and sometimes they would throw Ronda and land on her, grind her into the mat and generally beat her up. One day, as I was watching this at practice, Ronda's sister, Jenn became upset that I was so calm,
"You're a bad mother! How come you don't do anything? Those girls are hurting her!"
I told her that Ronda wouldn't die and that she would get them all back in the end. Ronda learned three things from those practices. First, that she was tough and that a little pain wouldn't kill her. Second, that no one was going to rescue her or feel sorry for her, so she better figure out how to take care of herself out on that mat. Third, she learned not to be a bully, because she saw how it made her feel.
I really want to emphasize here that I am NOT talking about me as an adult throwing around a kid. I've seen that kind of behavior and I think it is pure child abuse. I also don't condone that kind of behavior in children. However, they weren't my children and it wasn't my club. When kids act like that at my club, I pull them aside and tell them it is not acceptable.
As for those other kids, they all ended up quitting. That's another thing I have noticed. People who are bullies, people who win by cheap shots, by physically trying to hurt the other person - they never make it in the long-term. That may work in the kids' divisions and it may even work on the local level, but the higher up you go, the more likely you are to run into someone like I was as a competitor, that won't give up unless you break something on them, and maybe not even then. At that point, you had better have some judo to fall back on and you better be able to take it as well as dish it out.
She never accepted that anyone had a right to beat her.Many people don't expect to win. When they get behind by a score, they are relieved, because, to them, the uncertainty is over. They expected to lose, and they are losing. Whenever Ronda got behind in a match, or couldn't throw a person, she was pissed. One time sticks out in particular. She was 13 or 14 and Kazuo Shinohara came to our club. He must have had sixty pounds on her, plus he had been U.S. Grand Champion and a bunch of other titles. Ronda REFUSED to ever accept losing. She cried all the way home,
"Mom, I tried and tried to throw that guy, and I just couldn't do it - and he was old! I suck at judo! I'll never be any good."
Here is where I think I am different from most people. I did tell her that of course she was going to be great and no she did not suck, she never sucked at judo and never would. I did NOT tell her that she couldn't expect to beat a sixth-degree black belt who had been All-Japan champion. Quite the opposite, I told her,
"You'll get him, beanie. He's old. You're young. He's never going to be any better than he is right now and you get better every day. Just keep working on that left uchimata and o soto gari. His days are numbered."
Now that is one of those lines I repeat all of the time.
"NO ONE has a right to beat you."
It is so totally true, and yet most people don't believe it. I see players go out to fight and they are already convinced they will lose because the other player is Japanese or European or a black belt or from a certain person's club.
Can a person come from behind? Whether she was a green belt in the black belt division, or fighting two divisions up in weight and down by a yuko, Ronda always expected to win the match. If someone scored on her she was furious. When she was young, I pushed her as hard as I thought anyone that age could go, so, during a match, she had all of that behind her. It was as if she was thinking,
"Do you have ANY idea how hard I trained for this tournament? How DARE you throw me for a yuko! "
If you want to know who will win, watch how people practice. Since Ronda was too young to drive, I was with her at almost every practice. When she was 16, shortly after she had started training at Pedro's, she was back home for the holidays and I took her to a local dojo where there were a couple of players from Japan. She trounced the young woman pretty well, and then I guess her teammate, who was 60 kg decided he had to uphold the honor of their university because he went after Ronda. Remember that line from the song,
"You can stand me up at the gates of hell but I won't back down."
It was kind of like that. In the middle of it, Jimmy, Jr. called to find how Ronda was training at home. I told him,
"Well,right now her and some Japanese college guy are playing King of the Mat."
"Are you going to step in?"
I looked out at them and said,
"Nope. She's holding her own. I'm just going to let it go and see who wins."
After over ten minutes, the instructor called matte and ordered everyone to change partners. In case you are wondering, and I know you are, I would call it a draw.
Here is another key point for coaching. This may make it sound like I just let people pound on Ronda right and left. That's not true. I never took her anywhere unless I was sure she could hold her own. There have been times when I called her off the mat and told her not to work out with someone because he was too much bigger and I didn't know him - or sometimes because I did know him. There haven't been many of those times and Gene LeBell and I still argue sometimes to this day and Ronda is 20. Gene thinks I worry too much and treat her like a baby if I don't want her to randori with a 200 pound green belt. It is my belief that you are most likely to get injured when there is a big disparity in size and not a lot of skill.
Ronda always went after the toughest player in the room. One day, when Ronda was 14 or so,Justin Flores was visiting and came to a regional practice in LA,sponsored by Nanka. Afterward, he commented on one of the players and I said,
"He's never going to make it."
Justin asked why I said that, mentioning a number of events the young man had won as a junior. I answered,
"When we were doing matwork and I called 'time!' he practically ran away from you. He was one of the best guys in the room, you try to train with the best people to get the hardest rounds, so you told him, let's go again, and he argued that you had just gone the last round, right?"
Justin nodded. I asked him how often Ronda tried to go with him whenever we came to San Diego to visit them. He said,
"Are you kidding? She's like a little tick! I can't get her off me. Every time I turn around she's in my face wanting to go again. About the only person I work out with more is my brother. Everybody else runs from me at practice."
Here is the last thing I look at:
How do they train when no one is watching? I'm a little person and more than once, I have sat up in a corner of the bleachers or on a pile of mats or stood at the edge of the door out of sight and just watched. There are those people who are going after the hardest people, doing the fastest uchikomis and climbing the ropes when they are being watched. The second they don't see anyone around they want to impress, they are slacking off. When Ronda was at Hayastan Dojo and the only one sitting in a chair was her big sister, doing her biology homework and not paying the slightest attention, she would still train until she was still soaked with sweat when she walked in the door at home 45 minutes after practice.
This is another of those things I say all the time,
"If you want to know who is going to win in the end, don't look at who won the junior national championships this year or who placed third in senior nationals. Go to the extra practices and clinics and see who is there. If you go to ten in a row and you see the same kid, that's the one to bet your money on."