Looking back, this is a lesson I would have expected to learn from one of the multitude of coaches I’ve had in my athletic career. Instead, I learned it from a man who was never a competitive athlete nor a coach…my Dad, Dave Brehe.
It was the summer of 1998, and I was fighting in the Tre Torri Judo Tournament in Corridonia, Italy. I had moved up weight classes from -71kg (-156 lbs) to -78kg (-172 lbs) the year before. I really believed I would have a breakout performance in my new division.
It didn’t turn out that way. It was more like a breakup performance. I eked out a first round win and then lost in the second round. It never felt like I was in the tournament. I was in the bleachers before the lunch break.
I was pissed, frustrated, and shaken. This wasn’t a top level tournament. I had been preparing for months, and working hard to earn the money to even make the trip. This loss hurt my ego and my wallet.
Different from most other National Governing Bodies (NGBs) that oversee Olympic sports in our country, USA Judo rarely invests money in helping athletes develop at the senior level. This would require a smart plan, competent coaching, and providing funding for overseas training camps and competitions.
USA Judo’s development program looks like this: raise your own money, find your own coach, and develop yourself. If you happen to progress to the point where you can succeed at high level events and potentially win in the World Championships or the Olympics, then they’ll kick you a few dollars.
It wouldn’t surprise me if USA Judo filled out GoFundMe applications for the elite Judo athletes training today.
I paid for the vast majority of my international training and competition opportunities during my career. USA Judo usually paid the travel expenses for coaches and managers. Most of these staff were volunteers who could provide little in the way of elite-level Judo guidance. Describing the situation as “frustrating” would be an understatement.
After my tournament performance, I was feeling pretty shitty about myself. We still had a weeklong training camp planned. If I could have slipped out, caught a bus back to Rome, and flown home, I would have.
Normally, the two-a-day workouts would have been an opportunity I relished. Training camps are where Judo champions are forged. You could be on the mat with 250-400 black belts from twenty or more countries. It’s a fantastic opportunity to experience different Judo styles and test yourself against real bruisers.
A Pep Talk I’m Not Going To Like
I decided to call home and talk with my Dad. At that time, there was no Internet and no cell phones. Mobile phones were the size of bricks and cost about three month’s pay.
Making an international call from a payphone was problematic because the only Italian I knew was “grazie” (thank you) and “prego” (please). It was also about $5.95 a minute.
I’m fortunate to have a Dad who’s also my best friend. That’s not because he’s my #1 cheerleader. It’s tough and uncomfortable hearing what he has to say most times. He’s always held me to account. I know he’s in my corner, but that didn’t keep me from wanting to muzzle the messenger.
His advice throughout my life, however, has been a combination of hard-to-swallow medicine and sound guidance. He’s helped me in more ways than I’ll ever be able to recount.
I told him the situation. He asked me a few questions. Here’s what I remember him saying:
…or something like that. Some of the details might escape my twenty-year old recollection.
“Enjoy the process?” I’m pretty sure I said something like, “Well that’s bullshit!” At that time, I didn’t understand the true value of his advice. One thing was for sure, back then, I wasn’t enjoying much of anything.
It’s Always Me That Has To Change
It took me a lot of personal work to learn that if something isn’t going the way I want it to, I’m the one who has to change. This can be unsettling and hard. But when I started behaving this way, my life improved.
My “go-to” emotion as an athlete was almost always anger. When my Dad gave me the what-for in Italy, I was pissed. I really wanted some validation for my whining. Thankfully, I got none.
I’ve come to understand that anger is almost always a cover for fear. Had I been more self-aware, I would have realized that I was interpreting my early exit from the tournament as an indicator that I couldn’t cut it in the new division. I would have faced the question I was silently asking myself, “If I can’t win at this event, how am I going to qualify for the Olympics in two years?”
I definitely needed to do something different. My Judo adventure had become a misadventure.
When I started my senior career and was training full-time, my sense of self-worth was directly tied to competitive performance. If I did well and medaled at a tournament, I felt like the hard work was paying off and I was on track. If I performed poorly, I didn’t just feel bad, I felt borderline depressed.
Depressed is a word I try to avoid using at all costs. In my mind, depressed is the equivalent of giving up, feeling sorry for yourself, or something worse. Now I know that’s a misrepresentation of a serious medical condition. Those were my associations back then.
After a bad tournament, my loss-hangover could last days or weeks.
A distinction I had yet to fully embrace was that the path to success is not a straight line, up and to the right. Becoming world class in any endeavor is a long, challenging journey with many setbacks. During the down times, when things are not working for you, and it feels like you’re sprinting backwards, it’s even more important that you keep focusing on where you want to wind up.
This doesn’t mean that you’re closed off to feedback. It just means that your when your self-confidence feels like a boxing speedbag, one way to protect yourself is by being very clear about what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Then, work from the future backwards.
Start acting as if you’ve already accomplished your goal. Picture what it would be like, having just attained your dream. Know it and feel it.
If you get stuck, don’t be afraid to reach out to a person who won’t sugarcoat what it is you really need to hear!
What Can You Control?
Successful athletes understand that in the toughest competitive environments, when the margin of victory is miniscule, factors that determine who prevails — the weather, tournament venue, the draw, referees’ decisions, luck, etc. — are often completely outside of their control.
These are times when an experienced, well-trained coach can make all the difference.
Great coaches help athletes “keep their eyes on the prize.” They remind you to focus on what you can control, and actively ignore things you can’t impact.
You don’t make the tournament draw. You don’t get to pick the venue. The quality of the mats, the court, or the field and the ref’s calls are not in your sphere of influence.
You can control your warmup. You can plan what you eat and how you hydrate. Most importantly, you can control your thoughts.
Pack Your Own Bag
In his book “Open. An Autobiography,” Andre Agassi talks about how he meticulously packs his tennis bag before every event. Even though he has staff members that help with many of his affairs, this is his task:
One of the greatest American tennis players in history felt that it was vital for him to do this seemingly mundane job. He believed it helped his performance because it gave him a little bit of control, prior to entering the tennis arena, where he knew the battles would be unpredictable.
A Foolproof Strategy For Creating A More Meaningful Career
Learning to enjoy the process of becoming a champion, may seem simple, but it’s unbelievably powerful.
When I started focusing on enjoying the process of becoming a world class Judo athlete, instead of tying my self-worth to my number of wins, I created more memorable and rewarding experiences, than all my previous competitive years combined. I was more fulfilled and grounded. I competed better.
If I experienced a loss or got whipped in practice, an event that I would have previously labeled as “awful,” I pressed myself to construct a more empowering meaning. I learned to give myself “props,” sometimes just for finishing a training session.
You can start practicing this discipline today. Consider this scenario:
You’re doing two-a-days, your body is broken down and your level of fatigue won’t subside. The competition is weeks or months away. The training is long, monotonous and repetitive. Your non-athlete friends are going out; you’re turning in early because you have a dawn patrol workout.
What can you do when it feels like you’re stuck in quicksand, not making any forward progress? How can you flip your own script?
Ask Better Questions
Consider using directed questions. For example, you might ask yourself out loud:
- What do I enjoy about my training process right now?
- What do I love about training?
- When I look back at this time in my life, what will I remember?
- What will I be proud of that I endured?
- What am I thankful for right now?
- How lucky am I to have this opportunity?
- What do I appreciate most about my team and the time we spend together?
- How is this training making me tougher, stronger, fitter, and better?
- Even though it seems like everything sucks right now, what could I choose to appreciate?
- How much would I value this practice, if I were injured?
- What’s beautiful about our training room, the field, the track, the weight room, the road that I’m working out on?
Just taking a few minutes each day to ask and answer these questions — or ones you come up with — can transform your athletic career….and your life.
Let Gratitude Fuel Your Fire
It’s 5:30 am and you just got up to prepare for your morning training session. It’s cold and dark out. You’re already tired from last night’s practice. You know this is going to be a tough, exhausting session. Your mind is already sending you mixed messages.
“I hope this isn’t a long run. I’m so sore. Our coach doesn’t realize how tired we are. We do the same run all the time. This is boring.”
These are opportunities for you to take control of your self-talk and absorb every ounce of benefit the training session offers:
- I’m so glad I get the opportunity to train today
- Practice makes me stronger in every way
- Most of the world is asleep and I’m out here busting my ass trying to get better
- I look forward to the feeling of accomplishment after a tough workout
- I’m grateful for the direction and strong sense of purpose my sport gives me
- I’m not drifting, I have something positive to work toward
- I work hard when no one’s looking
- This is what real champions do
- Every day in every way I’m getting stronger and tougher
- I can’t wait to run. I hope it’s hard. I always push myself
- I always find the energy
- I always give more.
Not only will this intentional attitude elevate your effort level, it might inspire your teammates to train harder too.
Capture Your Memorable Moments…And The Commonplace Ones
If you’re a dedicated athlete, keep a journal. Tony Robbins, one of the world’s great performance coaches said, “If your life’s worth living, it’s worth recording.”
Challenge yourself to write regularly. Date stamp your entries. Describe briefly, or in detail, the hurdles, wins, setbacks, triumphs, thoughts, feelings, goals, wants, and beliefs that you’re experiencing.
Take pictures…especially of the routine places you train everyday: the court or field, practice partners, weight room, sports medicine, cafeteria, etc. When you’re older, you’ll want to remember those details.
Learning to enjoy the process of pursuing your athletic goals, is a true gift you can give yourself.
I hope that when you look back at your career, you don’t just measure your worth as a person, by the number of trophies and medals you brought home.
Instead, I hope your measure of worth will be the person you became while striving to achieve the athletic success you desired. This is no easy challenge. But then again, you didn’t sign up for easy did you?
Get after it,