One of my players recently told me that they once trained in another martial art where they disappointed their coach because they didn't live up to the coach's expectations. "Have you ever felt that way?" this player asked me.

The short answer is no. The longer answer is no, because I was lucky enough to have had coaches who didn't just look at performance or results but valued other factors as well.

A good coach should not just look at whether a person can win a gold medal. Of course competition achievement is important. We compete in sports to win, so winning is important. But it's not the only thing. A good coach should look at a player holistically and value that person for the totality of who they are and not just whether they can win a gold medal.

When I was in high school, I wanted very much to be in the badminton team but in this part of the world, badminton is one of the hardest sports to break into because there are so many good players.

I didn't make the badminton squad so I had to find another sport to play. Many of my friends encouraged me to join rugby because I had played it recreationally and they felt I was pretty good at it (as a kid, I had played American football in the United States). I was tempted to try out for the rugby team because I knew I could be good at it but I was really small compared to the other rugby players.

I ended up joining the softball team (I had also played baseball in the US, so it was similar). My school team was a national champion in softball and there were many good players in the team, much better than I was. But I worked hard to justify my place in the team. My coach didn't pay particular attention to me, which was understandable. He had a lot of other much better and more experienced players in the team.  

During the training season, I had to take off for a few weeks to visit my parents in the US (my father was doing his research fellowship at a university there, at the time). When I came back, one of the players told me that the coach had brought up my name during one of the pep talks for the team. He said that when it came to commitment and dedication to the sport, "you guys should emulate Oon".

All the while, I thought the coach barely even noticed me. But coaches are generally more observant than players realize. They know what's going on. They know who's working hard and who's making excuses. They know.

I had earlier said no to my player's question about whether I had ever let my coach down but come to think of it, there was actually one incident where that probably did happen. In one of the summer breaks at university, I made a trip out to Los Angeles to seek a top-level coach to train under. I ended up at the LA Judo Training Center (now long defunct) under a former US national coach named John Ross (now deceased).

I trained there full-time, meaning twice a day. In the afternoons, my coach's assistant personally taught me technical stuff. And in the evenings there was randori. I did that every day with only Sunday being a rest day.

After a few weeks of this, there was one particular Friday when I felt really worn out. I'm not sure how much of it was mental but physically I was really tired. I told my coach I wanted to take a day off so that I could have two days off in a row, just to recuperate.  

My coach was very old school, so he would have none of that. He gave me a speech about how hard he worked when he was learning judo and how champions don't take days off etc, etc. But I was adamant about it. I felt my body was falling apart and I needed one extra day off, just that one time. Eventually he gave in and said, "Okay, take your day off!"

Although he had given me permission to skip training for that one day, he probably was disappointed that I even considered skipping training. But that would be the only occasion I can think of where I'd ever let any of my coaches down. I generally do not allow myself to miss training except for what I call "life or death" situations (which thankfully, never occurred).

My coaches knew how committed I was. For example, early on when I was still new to the club, I got savagely armlocked by one of the brown belt students. During newaza, he rolled me into a juji-gatame position and yanked my arm back without giving me a chance to tap (at that point I didn't even know what an armlock was). I heard a "crack" sound and felt a sharp, piercing pain on my right elbow. I screamed and he let go. But it was too late. The damage was done.

I told my coach, "I think my arm is fractured". He replied, "No it isn't," and told me to just wrap it up and keep training. "But it really hurts," I said. Don't worry about it, he muttered, and gave me some cloth bandages to wrap my arm with.

The way I looked at it, I had two simple choices. I could pack up and go home or I could continue training. I had traveled all the way from Austin, Texas to train full time in judo for the summer. I had just arrived. I wasn't about to give up just like that. So, I wrapped up my arm and continued training.

Once when my coach saw me wincing in pain trying to do some technique with a damaged arm, he tried to encourage me by telling me a story about how as a young man he had fractured his shin in training. He said he used a small wooden stick as a splint and tied it to his shin with bandages so he could continue training. I'm not sure if that was a true story or something he had just made up for my benefit but it didn't really help.

My arm was in pain that whole summer. Even when I returned to Austin to continue my university studies, my arm was in pain for the next few months. It wasn't until two decades later that I got my arm examined. I was having an MRI done on my knees when, on a lark, I asked the doctor to x-ray my arm as well. He came back with the results and said he noticed some tiny bone fragments floating around my right elbow. "Have you ever fractured your arm?" he asked.

So, no, except for that single incident when I wanted to take a day off, I never felt I had let my coaches down. In the various top-level clubs that I had trained at as a competitor, there were many other players with better results. There were also many who were clearly more talented. But there was nobody who trained as hard as I did. Nobody.

During that summer I literally lived in the dojo. I didn't have much money and couldn't afford to stay in a hotel so my coach gave me a sleeping bag, and I slept in the dojo. When I wasn't training on the mat, I was analyzing judo videos. When I wasn't watching videos, I was reading judo books. When I wasn't reading judo books, I was busy devising my own my training plan. I even printed out my training program into a small booklet and sent it to a judo friend in Germany. He was so impressed with it he asked for permission to photocopy it so he could share it with others.

Although nobody, not even my coaches, could have possibly known the great lengths I went to, to improve my judo skills, they could sense it. They could feel it. They knew my commitment to judo was complete and total. That's probably why all my coaches liked me.

The player who asked me this question said that the experience of disappointing their earlier martial arts coach still haunts them. "There is always that fear of history repeating itself... even now," the player said.

Although I don't know the circumstances of what had happened back then, if I had to make a guess, I'd say this player had the misfortune of having a lousy coach. Just as good coaches can have a positive, lasting impact on a player, bad coaches can create a negative, long-lasting impact.
Different people have different reasons for taking up judo, and consequently their goals and aspirations are different. The main thing I look at when assessing a player is whether that person is progressing well towards their own stated goals.

But I also look at how committed they are to training and how they treat other members in the club. Are they prepared to make sacrifices in order to achieve their goals? Are they helpful towards others? Do they contribute to the betterment of the club? These are all important things, especially in a sport like judo where work ethic and moral values are emphasized.

I told this player, who is very earnest about training, making good technical progress, and really considerate towards other players: "Don't you worry about disappointing me."