I read this amazing book over the weekend, Falling Hard: A Journey Into the World of Judo, by Mark Law. I’m not a martial arts fan at all, but began reading it because I knew Mark when I worked at The Daily Telegraph. The book is a history of judo told through Mark’s experience. He picked up the sport at the age of 50 and quickly became consumed by it. It’s funny and absorbing. By the end, you’re itching to put on the white pajamas and throw someone over your shoulder.
One of the main characters in the book is Yasuhiro Yamashita, arguably Japan’s greatest judoka, Olympic gold medalist and 9-time All-Japan champion. Yamashita is one of the few sportsmen to speak openly about the mental and emotional challenges he faced during his career. It’s a great story about the demands of success.
Alongside all the trophies, he faced moments of intense doubt and despair as he strove to keep his place. He was also a riveting combination of technique and humanity, which made him loved in Japan.
At 17, he was sent from home to Tokyo to live with his coach, who said: “When Yamashita came to Tokyo in his second year at high school I was worried about the media treating him like a genius at that time and there has been virtually no one who has succeeded after such treatment. I warned him straight away: ‘If you become arrogant I will break your nose, OK?…The successful players are the obedient ones. But I didn’t want Yamashita to become just a machine in order to win or to be a robot player who only moved as I ordered. I always wanted him to be someone who thinks, decides, and fights for himself”
Yamashita’s opponents said he possessed a “rhino’s torso and a cat’s feet” and said it was “like fighting a refrigerator.” He spent four hours a day running, weightlifting and doing mat work with just two Sundays a month off, but believed that mental strength, concentration and effort were more important than physical condition.
Law writes: “With the approach of a major competition, Yamashita followed the samurai tradition of scrubbing his apartment and his body so both were spotless should he die in competition. Then he hung the name of his greatest rival upon the wall to stare at.” Yamashita said: “It was often said to me, ‘losing doesn’t occur to you, does it?’ It is not true.”
To overcome his pre-match nerves, he said “I would pick up wastepaper to clean up the road. If I bumped into a beautiful lady or if it was a fine day, I would interpret these as good omens…If I find myself yawning before a contest, I take a deep breath to refresh my body. When you are nervous you always feel like going to the toilet. Do not resist this feeling. By going to the toilet you can get the poisons out of your system.” Sometimes he would go for a walk with a team-mate and sing or just sit on a bench and watch the passers-by. At home, he would climb a small hill behind his house. “I felt I could gain vital energy by taking in the fresh air and listening to the birds.” He liked to sing My Way to the birds.
Yamashita was also a great believer in gathering intelligence. He would watch his opponents’ training sessions, but conduct his own in private, whenever possible. He would watch video endlessly and regard every encounter, whether in the bar, reading the paper or watching television as an opportunity to gather information. “In order to build up the analysis, I would listen to everyone’s opinion. Before the fight I imagined how the fight would be conducted.” This is basically what negotiation classes teach. Except in most negotiations, there’s no risk of a cauliflower ear.