By Mark Lonsdale, Judo Training Development

 Let’s begin with a discussion on what coaching is not. Even the best coaching is not a substitute for dedication, fitness, technical proficiency, hard training, and competition experience. As with the correlation between teacher and student, the relationship between coach and athlete is 10% coach and 90% athlete. In other words, the student must do the learning and the athlete must do the requisite hard training; and judo, in particular, is one sport where sports science takes a backseat to intelligent, well structured, hard training.

So why does an athlete even need a coach?

Think of a training plan as a road map and the coach as a guide. Athletes know that they face a long, arduous journey from promising competitor to national or world champion. Without a coach, that journey is a process of trial and error, fraught with many missed turns, delays, bad decisions, injuries, and seemingly insurmountable plateaus. With a competent coach the journey is mapped out in a clear and defined manner, and tailored to the individual athlete. It is the coach’s past experience, either as an athlete or coaching other athletes that will help guide the way and avoid those costly pitfalls – costly in both time and dollars.

Can an athlete succeed without a coach?

The answer is only to a specific level of competition. Individual athletes accumulate experience as they train and compete, but that experience only extends to the current level of their training or performance. This may be as a medalist in a regional championship, or it may stop at one of the many frustrating strength, stamina, technical or tactical plateaus found in training. But to move up to the high performance level of other elite athletes requires a team effort – coach, athlete, sponsors, physiotherapist, and other support mechanisms.

The coach, on the other hand, should have high performance experience that goes well beyond the athlete’s current levels of fitness and performance. The coach should have the experience to map out a training plan, set attainable goals, and guide the athlete through the next several levels. But as with the athlete, the coach can only coach to the limits of his or her experience, so athletes may have to change coaches as they move from regional to national level competition; or from national to international teams.

For the coaches that want to take their athletes all the way to the World Championships or Olympics, they need to be constantly expanding their coaching knowledge and experience well ahead of their athletes’ progress. This can be done through national and high performance coaching seminars (sorely lacking in the US) and by scouting international championships. An aspiring high performance coach can learn a lot from other international coaches, or by just watching national team coaches and their elite athletes at work at international training camps.

Slide drawn from Mark Lonsdale's coaching development program

Slide drawn from Mark Lonsdale’s coaching development program

Even at the club level, the instructor or coach is utilizing his or her experience and teaching skills to shorten the learning and training process. By explaining a technique more clearly, or doing a technically perfect demonstration, the instructor is helping the student to better understand any given technique. For example, an instructor that is able to combine good technical judo, with modern teaching methodologies and age-appropriate exercises, will have more success than an old school instructor who leaves it to the students to find their own way by trial and error. It has also been proven that an athlete given multiple attainable goals will progress faster than an athlete given only one long-term goal that may take years to attain.

Returning to the initial analogy of being a road map, the coach’s job is to lay out a training program and metrics (measureable progression) that reflects best practice within that given sport – in this case judo. So apart from having an in-depth understanding of his or her athlete, the coach must have an equally comprehensive understanding of how the current champions became champions. By studying these elite athletes, and more importantly, the techniques and methods used by their coaches, a state level coach can evolve into a successful national or international coach.

However, simply following another athlete’s training program may not work for everyone. A coach must treat every athlete as an individual with unique strengths, weaknesses, and requirements. Part of the road map includes identifying which weaknesses need to be strengthened, without wasting time on those attributes that are already strong. Training a judo competitor also requires an understanding of the techniques and tactics unique to his or her weight category. Judo played in the lighter categories is very different to judo played by the heavyweights. This is why it is difficult for a 100 kg male coach to be an effective randori partner for an under 57 kg female athlete.

This mapping process leaves room for considerable experimentation but does not in any way detract from proven “best practices” such as training at least five times a week, substantial amounts of nage-komi, newaza, grip fighting, and hard randori; while allowing adequate time for rest, recuperation, and regeneration. As most coaches are aware, over training can be even more detrimental than under training.

To clarify, shortening the training process does not mean easier training for the athlete. In a sport such as judo, where competition comes in the form or short high-intensity matches, the level of training must be equally intense. As the old military adage states, “for as we fight, so must we train.”

To conclude, and as stated earlier, judo is one sport where sports science, while important, takes a backseat to dedication, determination, perseverance, hard training, and sacrifice. But through all this, the coach is there for the athlete as a mentor, guide, trainer, motivator, friend, and periodically a shoulder to cry on.

Takamasa Anai, All Japan Champion, and Mark Lonsdale (USA), LA Tenri competition clinic 2012

Takamasa Anai, All Japan Champion, and Mark Lonsdale (USA), LA Tenri competition clinic 2012


About Mark V

Dedicated shooter, seeker, traveler, teacher, trainer, educator
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