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The Elite Athlete:

What Does It Take to Win

by Willy Cahill

Budo Dojo Magazine
Spring, 1995


Cover Story

One of the most important aspects of judo is knowing when to continue with intensive training and when to stop. Judo athletes work out all year round, never taking a break, not even for a couple of weeks.

DOJO magazine cover

As an elite athlete at your best, you will hit your peak three or four times a year. You can have a good game in team sports all season long, but in individual sports there is no one to lean on -- all you have is yourself. You must maintain your health in excellent overall physical condition as well as "judo condition" -- which includes staying focused, and, most of all, staying on-weight.

Elite athletes must be at their best at the beginning of the calendar year, because this is when the trials are usually held. Thus, the elite athlete must stay in top shape even during Christmas vacation, when dietary temptations make this a difficult task. Major judo competition starts in the latter part of January, where the trails could be for the Pan American Games, the World Championships or the Olympics. The top five players in each weight category compete to see who will represent the United States at these championships, which usually begin after summer.

The players ranked number one in their weight categories begin their international training the first week of February, usually in Europe, competing at the most difficult tournaments and attending elite training camps. The players rated number two will compete at other tournaments, which could also be in Europe.

In 1984, the US Olympic Judo team traveled to Europe for seven weeks without a break, competing in seven European cities on weekends, and training during the week at European training camps. This was very tough on the athletes as well as the coaching staff. Now we send more teams to Europe and they stay for shorter periods of time, usually no more than two weeks.

Similar training is also done in the Far East -- usually Japan or South Korea where the training is very different compared with the Europeans, and of course, the number of judo players in Japan is much higher than in any European city.

Athletes and coaches should go over the tournament schedule and set up a training plan in preparation for point toumaments. Use the monthly local tournaments as a training ground, trying out different moves. Attempt techniques you would not normally use and keep practicing until you feel confident enough to make it work. Once it works in a competition situation, move it up a notch to a tougher event until you feel confident to use it at the nationals.


Cross Training

Athletes should cross train during the year so they don't get bored or stressed out with their own program, and coaches should encourage their athletes to do more cross training during the off season. For example, weight training should definitely be part of cross training. Start by using heavy weights early on, then change to lighter weights with faster repetitions when getting closer to competition date.

Distance running should be part of training early in the season. Three weeks prior to the event, switch to sprints, first for 40 yards, then 100 yards. The amount of repetitions should be at your discretion, but speed should be the focus of your cross training at this point.


Technique Work

Your techniques should be executed with speed and power. Newaza (ground work) should be a mandatory part of your training; practice both offense and defense on the ground, with at least ten four-minute matches at each workout. After the ground work, you should be ready for at least ten four-minute matches of randori (free fighting). One of these ten matches should be with someone heavier than you, and one with someone lighter. The purpose of these matches is not to win, but to see if you can defend against a heavier opponent and keep up with a lighter opponent.

Always end your workout by throwing your workout partners to get the feeling of finishing all of your throws; the minimum number of throws should be 50.

The last three weeks is the most important part of your training. This is the time when you should really reach your peak, with everything in ready and working condition.


Mentally Tough

In order to be the best, you must be ready physically for the tough competition. But just as important, you must be mentally prepared before, during, and after each match. Mental preparation will keep you focused for each match, even when you are physically tired. You must be mentally and emotionally prepared for each match to go all the way to the championships.

In that spirit, the following poem based on the words by Theodore Roosevelt is something that each athlete should remember:


"Victory or Defeat"

It is not the critic who counts,
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled
or the doer of deeds could have done better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena;
whose face is marred by sweat and dust and blood;
who errs and comes short again and again;
who knows the great enthusiasms,
the great devotion and spends himself in worthy causes;
who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of
high achievement and who at worst if he fails,
at least fails while daring greatly,
so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid
souls who know neither victory or defeat.