It’s Not About Where You Start
I was a hyper kid who needed to play constantly. Hoping to channel some of that energy, my parents signed me up for soccer. Unfortunately for me, the team I got assigned to had experienced, skilled players.
During my first practice, the coach ran a couple drills. He then pulled me off to the side, put the ball at my feet, and moved about 10 ft. away. He told me to kick him the ball.
I missed him wide by the length of a Ford F-250. I was terrible. I couldn’t kick the ball straight. If the ball rolled my direction and I tried to kick it, half the time I’d flat out miss.
I didn’t progress very quickly during the season either. I rode the bench almost every game. One time, however, the coach put me in at right back on defense. In my age group, this is where you hide the “retarded” kids. Back then, that’s what your teammates would call you when you had no skills. No PC in the 70s.
This ball sailed my direction and I went up to head it. Totally out of control, I hit the ball right after I hit another kid’s head. I saw stars as I fell to the ground. I had a headache immediately. I was really bad. Unathletic would almost be an understatement.
But that summer, my mom signed me up for an all-day soccer camp at University of San Diego. Eight hours a day, for five days, different coaches taught me how to kick, pass, trap, dribble, head, throw the ball in, and shoot. It was awesome!
I played in a different league the next year. The level was lower, but I managed to score a bunch of goals that season. I was a forward now. You couldn’t keep me off the field. I just loved playing soccer. I didn’t feel like that inept kid anymore.
I share this because whatever level you’re currently at in your athletic career, it has no bearing where you can wind up. It’s not about where you start and only you get to determine how high you climb.
If you’re in a place where it feels like you suck, or you’re stuck, or you’re not seeing results from the efforts you’ve been making, I understand that place.
Building confidence and mental toughness skills is definitely part of the solution. I also believe that “doubling down” on your training efforts, and seeking out coaches who can help, should be part of your strategy too.
You Never Forget Your First Beatdown
I grew up in San Diego, California, and we had just moved east of my neighborhood to be closer to my grandparents. I was starting 6th grade, a new kid at Springs Ranch Elementary School.
We had a bully in our class who was constantly picking on weaker kids. “Fat” kids were his favorite. When we’d play Four Square at recess, every time he’d lose and walk to the end of the line, he’d make sure to knock into someone.
One day, he pushed one of my classmates to the ground. Even though the kid was taller and bigger, he didn’t fight back. You could tell it hurt him and he was really embarrassed. What was even worse, no one stepped up for him either.
Bullies have a way of scaring everyone around them into inaction.
I remember feeling really angry that this kid could basically terrorize everyone at will, and nobody would do anything. So without much thinking, I ran over and shoved him as hard as I could, both hands on his chest. Said something stupid like, “Why do you have to be such an asshole?”
Some Bullies Know How To Fight
By the time I realized I was in a fight, he had hit me two or three times in my eye. I had never been hit in the face before. I had no real idea how to throw a punch.
It jacked up my vision…like one of those Road Runner cartoons where an anvil falls on Wile E. Coyote’s head and he sees multiple pictures at the same time. I was looking straight at this kid. But there were six of him.
Unfortunately for me, someone had taught this bully how to hit. He punched me quickly and he was accurate. That’s not a skill every 6th grader has. That’s probably why nobody ever challenged him.
I didn’t fight back.
My friend walked with me to the bathroom where I got to watch my eye swell shut. It was unbelievably embarrassing. I wanted to cry, leave school, and run home. Not sure why I didn’t.
Adding insult to my new injury, the bully was in my class. I got my ass kicked on the playground, in front of everyone, then had to make that mile long walk-of-shame back to my class and to the front of the room with a throbbing black eye = awesome!
Our teacher was one of those perceptive types. In front of everyone he said, “Mr. Brehe, what happened to your eye?” I mumbled something and kept looking down at my desk.
When I finally got home, my eye seemed worse. An ice bag somewhat numbed the pain but nothing made the feelings of inadequacy, weakness, and shame go away.
Better Learn Some New Skills
I realized that I had no idea how to defend myself. I also decided that whatever it would take for me to learn some skills so that I could go back, start a fight with that asshole, and throw him a beating…well that’s what I was interested in.
Boxing was the first idea that came to mind. I also thought maybe Karate or Kung Fu might be useful.
The Yellow Pages were full of half and full page ads of martial arts studios that would teach you Chinese, Japanese, or Korean styles of self-defense. They were compelling and always had a picture of some dude flying through the air with his foot about to hit some other guy in the face.
That’s exactly what I wanted.
After calling several dojos (training centers), I learned that none were in my area.
As it happened, a few days later I noticed a younger kid at school wearing a jacket that said, “Byakko Judo Club.” I had no idea what Judo was. I looked up the club and called. It was in my neighborhood so I asked my Dad to take me. The club was in an industrial park in Mira Mesa, not too far from Miramar Naval Air Station.
The dojo was on the end of a string of plain office spaces that had glass doors to enter, but had 20 ft. high rollup garage doors in the back. When you walked in, there was a trophy case filled with awards, then a small office, then a mat area that covered about 2,000 sq. ft
This Isn’t What I Signed Up For
When we sat down for the introduction, the man who would eventually be my first coach said the most disappointing thing ever, “There’s no kicking or punching in Judo.”
I didn’t say a word but my discouragement must have been obvious. I remember thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me? How could this shit ever be useful?”
I wanted to leave immediately. I think my Dad knew I just wanted to learn to fight, but the no kicking or punching aspect of Judo appealed to him.
That day, I suited up in a borrowed set of white, heavy cotton pajamas (Judo gi) and walked onto the soft-but firm, canvas-covered, ethafoam Judo mat. The coach helped me tie my white belt. And there I was.
In that class, I was held down with some different pins I had never experienced. It was a weird feeling when the coach told me to try and escape, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t get free from the 80 lb. kid holding me down.
I learned my first throw, Osoto Gari, on a big maroon-colored, cloth crash pad that was like a foot-and-a-half thick pillow. You could slam someone on that pad and it didn’t hurt.
I don’t know if it was that practice or the next few, but I was hooked. I still played competitive soccer but I couldn’t get enough of this new sport/martial art. I was learning so many ways to throw another person to the ground. It was fantastic!
Shortly after I started Judo in 1982, we moved to another neighborhood. I never got the chance to exact my revenge. The skills I learned in the first three months of classes would have been more than enough to take the bully. But that didn’t happen.
Dedicated athletes will undoubtedly suffer some beatdowns. Being intentional about how you frame those events is a key part of becoming more resilient, becoming tougher, and accelerating your own success.
Seeing The World Through A Black Eye
It’s a real contradiction that getting beat up and being thoroughly demoralized was the start of a pursuit that would last a lifetime, and take me from a white belt beginner to a 3rd degree black belt, five-time National Champion, two-time World Team Member, and Olympic Team Alternate.
That black eye led to an obsession where I was blessed to compete and train with the world’s best in thirty-two countries. The challenges and tests I faced on my Olympic journey taught me persistence, self-discipline, resilience, and confidence. I rely on those skills every day of my life.
Judo is the second most-practiced sport in the world. It’s hyper-competitive. To be world class, you’ll be tested and pushed beyond your limits, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
When you’re having a bad day in Judo, it’s not like a tennis match where you’re missing your shots, or a soccer game where you just can’t control the ball. A bad day in Judo means you’re getting your ass kicked : slammed to the mat, choked, armlocked, and pinned.
I learned to embrace suffering and endure. You’ll need to learn those same skills to be successful in your sport. It helps, however, to have coaches who have been there and understand how to support you during those times. Being able to take a perceived negative experience and look at it through a different lens, is often what athletes need to maintain their confidence and motivation.
How Can I Help You?
My competitive Judo career lasted from age twelve to thirty-one. I spent the next twenty years coaching Judo, wrestling, and soccer.
I’m not a sports psychologist and have no formal education in psychology. At the Olympic Training Center, I worked with several sports psych professionals, but I don’t have any meaningful letters after my name.
What I do have is a tremendous amount of practical, hands-on experience helping others build their confidence, resilience, and mental toughness abilities. I have expertise that you can leverage to achieve your athletic dreams faster, and in a more meaningful way.
My commitment is to be a part of your team providing service, support, and guidance. I absolutely expect you to reach higher, achieve more, and experience a more rewarding journey.
I Didn’t Make The Team
My lifetime goal was always to compete in the Olympics and win a medal. I didn’t make that happen. It took me a lot of introspection, reflection, and even some counseling to rewrite the script of my life. That script previously had me starring as the “loser,” the guy who failed.
Today, I look at my Judo career as a true gift. I learned so much, developed valuable skills, and made lifelong friendships. I got to experience the world. I persisted when most people would have quit.
I have a handful of medals and trophies in my basement, but if you read the dates on them, you’d laugh. Coaching should never be about the coach’s career after it’s over.
I became a better person through my Judo experience. If I can share my know-how, understandings, and hard-earned lessons so that you can achieve your dreams and become a stronger, tougher person in the process, then we will be fulfilling the purpose of this site.
The following is a list of some achievements I earned in my Judo career. Know that they were surrounded by plenty of losses, setbacks, and disappointing moments. I think it’s important to give you some idea of my sports background, but if we’re really cooking with gas together, your future list of achievements better dwarf this one.
- Assistant Wrestling Coach – Rampart High School – (2015 – present)
- USA Judo Certified A-level Coach
- Assistant Coach for the Senior and Junior Judo programs at the Olympic Training Center (2000 – 2008)
- Co-founder and Head Coach for Timberline Judo Club
- Member of the USA Judo Junior Development Coaching staff
- I’ve coached several elite athletes who have qualified for Olympic, World, and other international teams. These athletes have placed in national and international competitions around the world
- US Soccer Federation – Level E Coach
- Blue belt – Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
- 1996, 2000 U.S. Olympic Team Alternate
- 1997, 1999 U.S. World Team Member
- 1997 U.S. Open Champion
- 1995 World University Games Team Member
- U.S. Sr. National Champion – ’98,’96, ’95, ’91, ’90
- U.S. Sr. National Championships, Best Technique Award -’95
- U.S. Olympic Festival Gold Medalist -’95, ’89
- Quebec Open Gold Medalist -’91
Silver Medal Finishes
- U.S. Open -’91
- U.S. Olympic Festival-’94, ’90
- U.S. Sr. National Championships -’92, ’95
Bronze Medal Finishes
- Pan Am Championships – ’98, ’97
- Guido Sieni Trophy, Italy -’96, ’93
- Tre Torri International, Italy -’96
- U.S. Sr. National Championships -’97, ’94, ’89,’88
- U.S. Open -’94,’93,’92,’90, ’89
- U.S. Olympic Festival -’93, ’91, ’90
- Ontario Open, Canada -’90
5th Place Finishes
- Pan American Games, Canada – ’99
- Austria Cup – ’99
- Hungary Cup – ’90, ’94
- Kodokan Cup, Brazil – ’92
- Sungkok Cup, Korea – ’91
- Kano Cup, Japan – ’90
- Czechoslovakian Open – ’90
One of my goals was to be a world-class athlete. I defined that as being capable of beating the best Judoplayers in my divisions. The following are some wins I’m most proud of:
- Georgy Tenadze (USSR) – Olympic Bronze, World Bronze, European Champion
- Anatoly Laryukov (RUS) – Olympic Bronze, European Champion
- Vitaly Makarov (RUS) – Olympic Silver, World Champion, European Medalist
- Bertalan Hajtos (HUN) – Olympic Silver, World Silver, European Champion
- Christophe Gagliano (FRA) – Olympic Bronze, World Silver, European Medalist
- Sergio Oliveira (BRA) – PanAm Champion, Olympic Team Member
- Jorma Korhonen (FIN) – World 5th Place
- Alvaro Paseyro (URU) – World 7th Place, Pan Am Champion
I look forward to joining you on this journey towards a more mentally tough, more self-confident you!