THE IMPORTANCE OF TEAM BUILDING IN JUDO
By Mark Lonsdale, Judo Training Development
How do you take individual competitors from a dozen geographically diverse clubs, who may have only seen each other at a national championship, and turn them into a highly motivated cohesive national team? How do you take competitors accustomed to representing their clubs and forge them into a national team competing for their country at international championships? Well, it takes more than just a sweat suit and a team patch.
Even in a predominantly individual sport such as Judo, being part of a team is an essential component of effective athlete development. As with most sports, a young athlete first strives to make their club team and then the state team, on their way to making the national team. Even in school sports, athletes train harder to move up from junior varsity to varsity; from the B team to the A team; or from 2nd division to 1st division sports. Every high school athlete is motivated to train harder to be selected for college sports teams and the associated benefits of a sports’ scholarship.
I can still remember the first time I was selected to represent my high school at a regional swim meet, about the same time I began representing my club in junior judo tournaments. Even at age thirteen, there was no question that being part of a team, and not wanting to let my team mates down, made me train more and compete harder. Then, at age 16, I was selected for the New Zealand judo team and entitled to wear the Silver Fern on my team sweats and blazer. For those of you not familiar with New Zealand’s national sports symbol, the Silver Fern is the crest worn by the famed All Blacks rugby team and respected by rugby fans worldwide. So for a young Kiwi, getting to wear the Silver Fern was a very big deal. I was equally honored twelve years later when I first wore the US flag on my shirt to represent the USA in pistol shooting.
But as a teenager competing nationally and internationally in judo, I knew I was part of a team representing my country. However, in hindsight, and after thirty years in sports, training, and high performance team building, I have come to realize that, while I was part of a team, the team building at that time was virtually nonexistent. As a team we wore the national uniform but there was no national coach back then, no financial support for training or travel, no formal national squad training, no motivational lectures, no team building drills, and no mental preparation for championships. In reality, it was still my parents and my club sensei that deserved the credit.
It wasn’t until I received an invitation to live and train in France that I really came to understand the importance of team building in judo. I did not know what to expect arriving on the doorstep of the prestigious Racing Club de France, after flying from the World Junior Championships in Rio to Barcelona (the cheapest ticket I could afford), and then hitch-hiking from Barcelona up to Paris. Everything I owned was in my backpack, including one rather ratty judogi, my sweats, running shoes, and a sleeping bag. I felt like the true judo shugyo-sha in my faded jeans, New Zealand tracksuit jacket and worn-out, mismatched flip-flops.
But I was immediately welcomed by the club manager, given an ID card, a one-room apartment on the 4th floor, shown to the dojo on the 2nd floor, and issued a team judogi and a Racing Club sweat suit. I was then introduced to the internationally renowned head sensei, Maitre Shozo Awazu, now 9th dan, and the head coach Serge Feist, now 8th dan, who I had met competing in New Caledonia. I was then given my training schedule: club training four evenings a week, plus training with the French national team three or four days a week at the National Sports Institute, INS (now called INSEP). Oh, and my first tournament, the Coupe de Paris (Paris Cup) was the next weekend. This was an individual event where I literally won all my fights by ippon in less than two minutes, but where I also dislocated my clavicle in the semi-finals of the Open category. But this did not get me out of training. I was assigned a sports doctor who would tape and strap my shoulder every day before training, and then after training would insert a large-bore needle into the joint to suck out the accumulated blood and fluids. This went on for several months, did not interrupt training, and allowed the clavicle to drop back into the socket for re-taping.
But for all the pain I was in judo heaven – all expenses paid and on the mat training 16-20 hours a week. When the French Team Championships came up, we went in with a very strong team, including notable champions such as Jean-Paul Coche, Patrick Rychkoff, Patrick Dalia, and Bertrand Bonelli. Racing Club took first place and I earned my first French national title – Champion of France by Club Team. Needless to say the Racing Club administrators and managers were ecstatic since competition between clubs in France was fierce and there is a lot of prestige involved in being the top club.
The next week, expecting to be sent packing, I was informed that my performance had earned me a place on the Paris Judo Team – so the whole process began again, but this time for the French Championship by City Team. In the mean time team training continued. The club training was tough enough, with each session ending with at least six to eight hard randori with the RCF Seniors, but the national team training was brutal. Under the watchful eye of such greats as Henri Courtine, 8th dan, and Serge Feist, 6th dan back then, we had over 80 black belts on the mat every day, all fighting for positions on the French national team. The harder they trained in randori, and the more throws they executed, the more they drew the attention of the national coaches and selectors. So, where back home I had been a national U20 champion, in France I was fighting for survival. But the only thing you had to do to earn the respect of the French coaches and athletes was to keep turning up for practice. Over a period of time you were recognized, acknowledged, and then accepted into the squad as an equal.
It is only in retrospect that I now appreciate the team building that went on during this phase of my judo training. First, the importance of being issued a team judogi and team sweats should not be underestimated. That branding instantly makes you part of the team, but with the expectation that you needed to continue training to maintain that status. Second, training with the same team members almost every day, and then going out to eat after training, brought the team closer together. Third, your health, fitness and training expenses were taken care of. Forth, having a respected national coach to serve as a stern father figure completed our little family. There was no missing training or slacking off because the coach saw everything, and more importantly, you desperately wanted his approval along with the acceptance of your peers.
To then win as a team and be celebrated as a team was the icing on the cake, even though it was short lived glory. No sooner was one championship over than we were back into training for the next. As you made it up the ladder from club team, to city team, to regional team, your coach and team mates were there with you. You trained together, sweated together, suffered together, but shared victories together. And in the back of your mind you were seeking approval of the national coaches and the national team members, which could only be earned through more sweat, more hard work, and most importantly, just turning up every day for training.
Through all this you were reminded that if you were not willing to put in the hard work and daily training, there were dozens of young men (and women) ready to take your place. You were never given the opportunity to think that you had arrived at some penultimate plateau in judo. The coaches made sure that there was always someone who could bounce you around the mat like a rag doll, such as Nobuyuki Sato, the current World Champion, along with his visiting team from Tokai University, the French national champions, or the odd visiting European champion.
But no matter how brutal the training, you fought to hold onto your place on the team, continued to seek the approval of your coach and, at championships, lined up shoulder to shoulder with your team. You knew that you were part of something bigger than “self.” The added bonus was all your training and travel expenses were taken care of; registration and entry fees were all paid by the team manager; sports medical doctors and physiotherapists were on hand; the manager would take the team out for dinner after a big win; and we were welcomed at the national training camps.
This was over thirty years ago, but at the 2013 Paris Grand Slam my whole team was there, including Maitre Shozo Awazu, now in his nineties, to celebrate our coach, Serge Feist’s award of the National Legion of Honor (similar to a knighthood). To this day, we are still “that team” that won three consecutive national team titles.
But I am getting ahead of myself. At the end of my time in France I took the train directly to Vienna to represent New Zealand at the World Senior Champions and meet up with the rest of the NZ team. Again, in hindsight, I now realize how poorly we functioned as a team. Of the two officials with the team, one was an IJF-A referee who spent almost no time with the team, and the other was my father who had the title of ‘team coach’ in name only. He had flown over to watch me fight so was given the job of handling the team’s registration but was neither a judoka nor a coach. As for the team, they were all from different clubs, had not trained as a national training squad, and because of my competing and training in Europe I hadn’t seen them for almost two years. We had all paid our own travel and hotel expenses to attend the World Championships, and even had to purchase our own national team tracksuits. So while there was pride in representing our country, there was none of the elements of team building that I had experience with the French. In fact, after narrowly losing one match, the French national coach came over to me and said, “If you had been fighting for France you would not have lost that match.” That stuck with me to this day, and that is the inspiration for this article.
Being part of a cohesive team makes the individual stronger, making team building a critical component of athlete development, even in individual sports. Striving to make the national team should be the goal of every athlete. But even before that, a competitive judo club can form two or three teams so that club members have attainable goals. Similarly, when I shot competitively for the USA, we had a bronze team, silver team, and gold team, so based on how we did at the nationals dictated which team you were selected for.
This concept of having athletes three deep in each division has proven beneficial for many national judo teams. The idea is to have three levels for Cadets, three levels for Juniors, and three levels for Seniors. This would create a nine-step pipeline for the aspiring young athlete. At fifteen or sixteen the young judoka would be motivated to train harder to make the Cadet silver or gold team. Then at eighteen that same athlete would be working his or her way up from bronze to silver to gold in the U20 category. And then, competing as a Senior, the goal would be to make the gold team, made up of seven to nine males and seven to nine females. This also creates a three tiered roster for the national coaches to track and quantify each athlete’s progress. It also sets several reasonable and attainable goals for the athletes, as opposed to having just one near unattainable goal of making the Olympics.
Building on this concept, the national governing body can then build a public relations campaign around the athletes as they move up through the ranks. As it stands now, even active judoka in the US could not tell you the names of the official national team members for each category, and teams are only announced a week or two prior to traveling to an international event. While this may work in the short term, it does not meet the requirement for long term athlete development where coaches and a pool of athletes have defined and quantifiable training goals (metrics).
In countries that have successful competition judo development programs, all the club level judoka know exactly who are the national team members in each age category. This allows them to either track their favorite athletes, or set their sights on beating them. It is wishful thinking for a fourteen-year old to say that he or she plans to go to the Olympic Games in judo since that is merely a dream and not a realistic goal. It is first the club coach’s job, and then the national coach’s, to turn dreams into realities through long term athlete development and nationally supported multi-level training programs. That fourteen year old should be saying, “I want to make the Cadet bronze team and then work my way up to gold.” That is a more realistic and attainable goal.
It is a well proven fact in sports science that setting a series of small attainable goals motivates the athletes, providing regular gratification as they rise to and then surpass each level. In all sports this begins at the club level and progresses up though local and regional events to the national level. But even at the national level, there is a significant difference in skill and strength between a new Cadet and an experienced U20 competitor; just as there is a significant difference between a twenty-year old competitor in his or her first Grand Prix and a seasoned twenty-six year old World Champion. By creating multi-level national teams this progression becomes more tangible, attainable and quantifiable.
To conclude, at any given time there should be a high performance development program that is at least three athletes deep in each age bracket. Having a multi-tiered national team structure meets a number of important requirements in long term athlete development:
- It creates multiple attainable levels for the athletes in each age category (from bronze, to silver, to gold).
- It motivates the athletes to train just a little harder to make the next level or team.
- It provides the national coach with a pool of alternates for each age category, in the event of injury or unavailability.
- The bronze and silver teams provide a pool of training partners of the same age and weight for the gold teams.
- It creates a showcase for public relations, press releases, fundraising, community interest, and promoting the sport, well beyond just one or two medalists at a single event.
- And most importantly, because of the long road to national team status, it creates a sense of national team spirit that keeps the athletes constantly striving to improve and to be a part of something bigger than “self.”