What does it take to make a judo champion? At KL Judo, we think there are eight key success factors. Here they are (in no order of importance):

a) Strength & Fitness
It's a fallacy to say that if you have technique, you don't need strength. You need strength to execute your techniques. Even the best techniques in the world won't work if you are physically weak. So, it's important to build strength. If you are a player who is able to train full-time and do sufficient judo every day, then by all means do extra strength work. But if you are a player who is struggling just to get enough judo training each week, then stick to judo because when you train in judo, you are also building strength. It doesn't make sense to take time away from judo in order to do strength training because when you work on strength training, you aren't improving your judo per se. Never do strength training at the expense of judo training. Do it on top of judo training. As for fitness, judo is largely an anaerobic sport. As such, you should be doing high-intensity interval training. Again, this should not be done at the expense of judo training. If you only have time for judo or HIIT, do judo because by doing lots of judo, you are building up your anaerobic capacity. But if you do HIIT, you are not building up your judo per se. Do HIIT but not at the expense of judo.  

b) Techniques
It goes without saying that you need technique. There's only so much brute strength, athleticism and natural talent can take you. You need to excel technically. When it comes to throws, ideally you should have a throw in every quadrant (front sleeve side, front lapel side, back sleeve side and back lapel side) and groundwork for three directions vis-a-vis a turtled uke, i.e. riding on top of turtle, by the side of turtle, and head on with turtle. There's technically a fourth position, which is underneath turtle (also known as the "guard position" in BJJ parlance). But in judo that is not a common occurance and players general don't like to fight from that position. So, let's forget about that, and stick to the three common and popular positions from which tori can do newaza.

c) Newaza
Although I give equal weightage to the importance of tachi-waza and newaza, the one that takes longer to develop is the former, and requries some degree of natural talent. Tachi-waza is also something that most judokas favor as judo is primarily regarded as a throwing sport. Newaza takes far less time to develop and is more of a sure thing. If you work at newaza, you will get good at it. (You could say there's more art than science when it comes to throws but there's more science than art when it comes to groundwork). It is a fact that many judokas don't really fancy groundwork. So, if you are good at groundwork, you will have a distinct advantage. Also, if you are known to be good at groundwork, your opponent will be somewhat wary about attacking you with a throw because they know if the throw were to fail, both of you would end up on the ground. It makes a lot of sense to be good at groundwork.    

d) Gripping

Everything starts with gripping. When the referee says: "Hajime", what do you do? You grip up. And whoever dominates the grips, will dominate the opponent. If you don't have the right grip, you can't do your throws. In Japan, the players are really good at gripping because they do so much randori (up to two hours a day, at the top judo dojos). Imagine doing this for years, since you were in high school and all the way through university. By osmosis and by trial and error, you will become good at gripping. For the rest of us, who don't live in an environment where we can do two hours of randori a day, with dozens of different training partners, we have to do gripping drills in order to get good at it. There are gripping methodologies and gripping systems developed in the West that can accelerate your learnings about grips.

e) Tactics
Even if you are strong and fit, have great techniques and are good at gripping, if you are not tactically aware and capable, you can lose to a far technically inferior player. Many judo matches are lost due to shido play. Some judo purists may say shido play isn't real judo. But welcome to the real world. Real judo has set rules, and players who know how to play those rules to their advantage, usually win.

f) Mentality
The mental game is important. And this is such a complex topic. Some players lack confidence. Some are overconfident. Some are too egotistical for their own good. Some lack fighting spirit. Some get demoralized easily. A coach needs to know his players and know how to deal with each of them so they can be mentally at the top of their game.  

g) Attitude
Attitude is a broad topic but basically, as the saying goes: "Hire for attitude, train for skill." This applies as much in the workplace as in a sports team. You want to recruit players who have a good attitude. Skill is important of course, but skills can be taught. Attitude is much harder to teach. A person's attitude is usually deeply ingrained in them and is the result of a mix of upbringing, experience and personality. It's not easy (and perhaps impossible) to change a person's attitude. Between a player with exceptional talent but poor attitude and a player with average talent but a great attitude, 10 out of 10 coaches will choose the latter. Nobody wants to deal with someone with a bad attitude, no matter how talented they are. Life is too short for any coach to want to deal with that type of crap.  

h) Coach-Player Relationship
There's a video just published on social media featuring my friend, Rok Draksic, who coaches the Finnish judo team, and his player Martti Puumalainen, who had done remarkably well last year, winning two major events. In it, both say mutual respect is important. The player must respect the coach and the coach must respect the player. This is undoubtedly true but while respect is necessary, it's not enough. There must be goodwill and closeness between coach and player (that doesn't usually exist in a teacher-student relationship). I've heard some people say coaches are not supposed to be friends with their players. I understand the sentiment behind such a statement but I think it's too old fashioned. My personal take is that to get to the highest level of competition, there has to be a friendship. You can't have the deep level of trust needed unless there is friendship involved. And you go through such hard times together, and you sacrifice so much together, that it would be hard to imagine doing so with someone you don't genuinely care for.