A member of my club, Denver Judo, asked me to consider writing an article about mental training in preparing for competition. I have been thinking about it for about a week now and have decided to give it a shot. I will start by saying, though I took some psychology classes in college and enjoyed and did well in them, I am certainly no expert on psychology. What I can, however write about is how I dealt with the mental and emotional side of training and competition. I am not going to say anyone can follow my process to become a World, or Paralympic/Olympic Champion, this is just what worked for me.
I don’t remember the exact words he used, but a former college teammate once told me after a match that he had been standing on the other side of the mat when I walked out to fight and he said I had the most intimidating “Game Face” he had ever seen. He asked if I always looked like that when I fought, and I replied with something along the lines of I guess, I just psych myself up to fight and go out determined to win. I had never given it much thought at the time but I always went out on the mat prepared to do whatever it took, within the rules, to win, no matter how much it hurt or how tough or good the other guy was, I was prepared to give all I had and then some to win. I have always said that I didn’t always win because I was better than the other guy, especially when I lost. I often won because I was able to dig deep and push past the pain of exhaustion and sometimes injury to push myself beyond what I thought possible to win. Sometimes, of course, I pushed that hard and lost but many times throughout my career it came down to out gutting the other guy.
When I was in college, one of the guys I trained with for a few years was one of my best friends. I was a little further along when he started judo but he was good so it wasn’t long before we were training together in judo, in the weight room and on the track. I always felt and believe to this day that he was a much more naturally gifted athlete than I was. I was a weight class above him so I was a little bigger but he was tall and lean and had been a cross country running in high school so he pushed me, but he rarely beat me in practice, the weight room, or the track. He would claim that in the weight room I had an unfair advantage because I am short and have short arms so I didn’t have to move the weight as far, but I usually beat him on the track too, despite the fact that he was a much better runner than I was. We would agree on how far we would run, usually 3-5 miles, and we never actually “raced” but we were both very competitive so it always turned into a race. We ran on an indoor track that was 8 laps for a mile. We would usually start off at a nice easy pace to get warm then we would pick it up after a few laps. Then when we got to the last mile we would push hard to finish as fast as we could.
Once he complained because I was on the inside lane and would come out of the turns ahead of him so that gave me an unfair advantage when it came to the last mile, so we agreed that from then on, we would switch after every mile so he could be on the inside too. So on the miles when I was on the inside I would come out of the turns a little ahead then on the next mile when I was on the outside, I would push a little harder so I always came out of the turns a little ahead and he would be so furious, so on the next lap he would pick it up and I would stay with him then on the turns push a little harder to come out ahead. So that led to us pushing harder earlier so we were in great shape. Once I wasn’t feeling well so I told him to go ahead and I would just take it slower and get in my 4 miles. He took off and got way ahead of me so my goal on that run was not to let him lap me which I knew he wanted to do. After a while I started feeling better so I picked it up and then my goal was not to let him turn the far corner before I made it to the straight away he was on. Then after a little more I decided I would not let him out of my sight and eventually I caught him and passed him. Once he saw me coming, I started pushing really hard but I was able to catch him and finished ahead of him. It was not my great physical ability that allowed me to beat him on so many runs. If it came down to physical ability, he would have beaten me every day of the week and twice on Sunday, as I still believe he was physically better than I was. I beat him because I got in his head and psyched him out. I would make him push so hard so early that when it came down to an all our sprint, I had more in the tank than he did. You might say that I was obviously in great shape and I was but we were both physically exhausted by the end of those runs but he was also mentally exhausted as well, along with my absolute unwillingness to lose to him. No matter how much it hurt, I would push harder and harder to win. He once told me that he was unable to beat me because somewhere down deep on a cellular level, I was unable to lose to him.
Now to be fair I have to admit that the only time we ever fought in a tournament, he won. It was the Louisiana State Championships hosted at our club and I pinned him but back then if you got both you and your opponent out of bounds you got out of the pin and he pulled me out at the last second so I was up by a waza ari (half point) and later in the match he came in for a throw and I hipped him out to stop the throw and when I felt him let up I let up and he gave a huge second effort and threw me for ippon (full point) and won the match. So despite him rarely catching me in practice and not being able to beat me in the weight room or on the track he can to this day say that he beat me when it counted! I often talk about the importance of the second effort when a throw is blocked and I also talk remember the lesson I learned about anticipating and stopping that second effort I learned that day.
Ok, that’s not really about mental training but more about being mentally tough which I believe is a very important asset for competition. I just like telling that story! I think some of my mental toughness comes from being picked on so much as a kid for being visually impaired and having albinism. I used sports as a way to build self-esteem and wrestling and judo certainly help with my confidence in dealing with bullies.
I’m not a superstitious person. I don’t think I will have 7 years of bad luck if I break a mirror or that having a black cat cross your path is bad luck. I had a black cat who crossed my path several time a day when I won the Paralympics. I don’t want to offend anyone but I think such superstitions are silly. Having said that I will tell you that when I was competing I always tried, when possible, to follow the same pre-tournament routine. My coach told me once to take my best performance and try to emulate the routine from that day so that is what I did. It varied sometimes due to where in the world I was but I would get up early to go check my weight, even though most of the time I went to bed at .2 kilos over weight and knew I would float the weight. I would check my weight then hang around and weigh-in, immediately drink some water, then gator-aid, then go eat breakfast, go back to my hotel, shave, shower, brush my teeth, and relax for a few minutes if I had time, then get dressed and go to the tournament venue. Once there I would relax until about 30-45 minutes before the published start time and put on my gi with a hoodie over it and start warming-up. Then I would wait until 10 matches before my first match and start warming-up and then when I got to about 5 matches before my match I would start pacing and talking to myself, either in a corner away from everyone or in the chute if it was an international competition.
At the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, someone asked my wife if I was ready before my first match and she spotted me in the prep area, my coach was in the chute where I was supposed to be and I was back in the corner pacing, talking to myself. Heidi said, yep, he’s pacing so he’s ready. Want to know what I talked about with myself when I was pacing? Everyone always thought I so confident and mentally tough because I had such a serious look on my face when I walked onto the mat and fought so hard to win, but what no one realized is that I was always filled with self-doubt. So when I would pace, I would remind myself how hard I had trained to prepare for this competition. I would say, “you are just as good as these guys”, “no one here has worded any harder than you have”, you deserve to be here”, “you can win!” Then, when the match before mine ended and it was time to walk out and go to the mat, I had psyched myself up and put my game face on. I would say to myself something along the lines of, “now let’s go” and even though I look serious I was always really nervous until the first “Hajime” (command to begin). When I heard hajime, everything else faded away in an instant and I went to war.
This is still a lot about being mentally tough and psyching myself up for each match, so now I’ll tell you some of the things I did off the mat to help me prepare for competition. I took a sport psychology class in college and the things I learned in that class really helped me mentally prepare for competition. One of the things we talked about was visualization. I would spend time every night before falling asleep visualizing myself doing my favorite throw correctly and throwing someone for ippon. I remember before my first World Championships in Colorado Springs, our coach had each of us stand on the podium and put our hands up as if we had just won the World Championships. I remember thinking it was silly but when I was on top of the podium with my hands up imagining the other guys in 2nd and 3rd and the crowd and my teammates cheering, I got really excited. I didn’t win but I did take 3rd and I won the next one in 1998.
I had always thought that kind of thing was really silly but if I had to do it for a class I thought I might as well give it a try and see what happens, and I truly believe it helped me. One of our projects I had was to create a cassette (google it if you are too young to know what a cassette is with me talking myself through my warm-up then talking myself through winning a match. I had to talk myself through some visualization with some soft music playing in the back ground then warming-up. Then the music would pick up as I walked out to the mat. Once I started the match the music picked up more and then a big build-up to setting up and executing my big throw for ippon. Then the US National Anthem would start playing as I was on the podium accepting my gold medal. I listened to that every night before I went to sleep for a while but I had to change and do visualization at night and listen to that in the morning because I was too excited to sleep after listening to the whole thing. I had a really good season after I started doing those and other things.
I think what it did was help me relax and helped me believe I could be successful and this along with pacing and talking to myself reminded me that I had done everything possible to prepare so it was ok to believe in myself. Over the years I have known lots of athletes with a lot of unfounded self-belief because they believe they were going to win despite now doing the work required to win. Mental toughness and mental training can only take you so far, you still have to do the work. If you have done the work, mental training can give you the boost you need by making you believe you can win. Telling yourself you have done the work and deserve to win only works if you have actually done the work, and if you look deep inside yourself, hopefully you can be honest enough to admit to yourself if you have not put in the time and effort.
Another thing I did was take the picture of the guy who had fought in the 1992 Paralympic Games in my weight class and tape it to the mirror in my dorm room. I talked to that picture almost every day and told him that I was coming and he would not be making any more teams. By the time we met I had gone down 2 weight classes so I trained with him at camps but never got to fight him. I told him about my talking to his picture and I think it freaked him out a little.
I’ll end with a story I have only told a few people, those being my wife and a few athletes I felt needed to hear it. My wife knows better but others at times have labored under the illusion that I was just a machine, I went out there and fought without any fear or reservation, and that could not be any farther from the truth. When I won the World Championships in 1998 and Paralympic Games in 2000, I was a full-time athlete, working just enough to pay my bills. In 2000, I got married a few months before the games but I married a hardcore judo fighter and we trained together and pushed each other. Once I got back from Sydney, I started graduate school and I finish in 2003. I left the World Games a few days early so I could present my final project. I didn’t do as well that year which I attributed to the fact that I was finishing graduate school, and started a full-time job, we had just bought a house, and my wife was 8 months pregnant. So when I went to Athens in 2004, I was working full-time, and was a new father, so I was still getting in a lot of judo but it was a struggle with work, training, and my responsibilities at home. So when I got to Athens I was a little concerned. I always went in knowing I had done everything humanly possible to prepare but this time I did everything I could but worried that it was not enough.
I remember moving into the village and being terrified because I had not done well at the previous World Games. I did just well enough to qualify for Athens and I have never been happy just to go, I expected to win every time! I think it was about 2 days before the opening ceremony which was 3 days before my competition day, I was working hard but felt like it was too little too late. I was in the weight room talking to Michael Doyle the guy in my weight class from Ireland, super nice guy who I never fought but he gave me a lot of trouble in Sydney (maybe I’ll tell that story someday). He told me he wasn’t able to fight because he had blown out his ACL but his NGB made him go anyway. I felt bad for him but after he left I was on the treadmill think how lucky he was that he didn’t have to fight. It was at this point I realized I had moved into Candyass Cottage (check out that article later), and I shouted out loud WHAT THE ____ IS WRONG WITH YOU? Luckily there were no English speakers in the area, but everyone did turn and look at me. I realized that it was killing Michael that he could not fight. He would have given anything to be able to fight and I was feeling sorry for myself and acting like a baby. Baby is not the word I used at the time but it is what I’ll use here.
It was at that moment that my whole mind set changed and I decided that it may not have been the same as before Sydney but I had trained extremely hard and I was ready. I truly felt as if a 2 ton weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I was still nervous but when my day came I was ready to fight. I had a bye so my first match in the second round was going to be against a guy I had lost to 3 times or the guy he had lost to 3 times. I did my normal pre-game preparation and I beat the guy from Iran, the 2003 World Champion, by a koka (the smallest score back then). It wasn’t a big throw but my wife and I agreed it was the smartest, most strategic match I had ever fought. I ended up getting caught in a choke in the semi-final against China, but beat the 2002 World Champion in the bronze medal match. So in 3 days I went from being mentally out of the running to even win a match to beating 2 former World Champions and taking home a bronze medal. It wasn’t gold but considering where I was 3 days before, it might as well have been.
I know this is getting long but I want to share another thought with you. I try my best to avoid negative people. It can be hard to do if you work or live with or around negative people, but it is important to surround yourself with like-minded people. I have always read that if you want to be successful at something you should surround yourself with others who are successful at what that you are trying to do. The only thing you learn from negative people is that everything sucks and that your dreams are silly and you will never be successful. Negative people are often people who have either given up on their dreams or have never had any and will try to make you feel you are wasting your time. It’s interesting how someone who has never done anything close to what you are trying to do will give you advice or tell you that you cannot do it. Because they don’t have dreams they are jealous and will try to crush your dreams. So avoid them at all cost if possible!
I truly believe that if you have a dream and you are willing to work hard to make it a reality, and you believe you can win, and you avoid negative influences in your life you can achieve anything!
As always, I’ll talk to you soon.
Thanks for reading,