I wasn’t very good at judo. When I started, it took me three years to win my first competition.
In the first event I lasted 15 seconds before I was thrown for Ippon! The second event I lasted 30 seconds. And then, finally, the day came three years later when I won a tournament. It was a little local event where I beat two other girls. I remember standing on the podium and thinking ‘wow, this is it. This is what I want’. I didn’t want to sing. I didn’t want to dance. I wanted to throw people. And I wanted to be the best in the world at it.
When I was 16 I moved to Boston and started training with the Pedros. People like Ronda Rousey were beating the crap out of me every night! But taking this serious step took my judo to a whole new level.
Looking back on my career I feel I have four things which separate me from everyone else in the world. One is conditioning. You would not believe it, but I trained with 15 year old boys. This was because we lacked bodies. We don’t have the training partners and resources that the big judo nations have. These were my training partners in the build-up to the Olympics. But, despite this, my conditioning was incredible. At the Olympics I was ready for 20 fights in a row.
Number two was my gripping. We (the Pedros) have a formula for all gripping situations. Gripping is the foundation to my judo. It’s crazy how overlooked the importance of gripping is. It’s the first thing you do in any contest, and you must have good grips in order to throw your opponents. So, it should be an absolute foundation for anyone who does judo. To have successful judo it’s critical to have a clear Kumi kata strategy.
Ne waza is number three. I never, ever, ever missed a Ne waza randori. I take groundwork very seriously. There are three ways to win on the ground, and if you seriously work on your transition into some well drilled Ne waza techniques you have a very good chance of winning a fight. I pride myself on having one very strong Shime waza, one very strong Kanstsetsu waza and one very strong Osaekomi waza, that I will drill from different transitional situations.
And number four is my mentality. I trained my mind as much as I trained my body. Every night I would spend ten minutes visualising being Olympic Champion or being World Champion, or whatever my challenge was for that year. I would live every situation on the day of that competition hundreds and hundreds of times; eating breakfast, the weigh in, stepping onto the mat, having the gold medal placed around my neck. I was always fully prepared mentally. These feelings and emotions became habit. They became normal. I apply this mental approach not just to judo but to all aspects of my life.
I found going to Rio and defending my Olympic title was the most mentally challenging thing in my life. It’s easy to start slipping into negativity and thinking ‘what if…’. So my focus was always to bring it back around into positive visualisation. Every time a negative thought slipped in I would kill it with a positive thought. ‘No. Kayla Harrison. Double Olympic Champion.’
As for my Tachi waza; it developed slowly. I became a master of the basics. I was never flashy and didn’t have outrageous throws. But I worked really hard on getting the basics right; throws like O goshi and Koshi guruma – which are two of the first throws you are taught as a child.
O goshi is a great throw for women or those with a low centre of gravity. It’s all in the hips and being below your opponent’s hips. I always drill O goshi with huge resistence from an uke, and put 100% into the throw on every single repetition. As a result, when an opponent fights it off in competition, I am used to the resistant feeling and just need to persist with the driving action in order to throw them.
Koshi guruma came from the O goshi, and I love doing it off the grip.
When it comes to Ashi waza, Ouchi gari was always my favourite. It was my bread and butter. When I moved to the Pedros they helped perfect it, which took it to a whole new level.
Elements of my judo came from being inspired by world class judoka. I grew up watching Fighting Films DVDs, like 101 Ippons. I clearly remember each time a new FF coaching DVD was released. I would be ‘Oh my god, Koga – A New Wind has just come out’. These DVDs truly helped inspire me. Whilst my high school friends had crushes on people like Brad Pitt, mine were on Koga and Huizinga!
I find it amusing that I am now the one who Fighting Films have done a coaching production on. I have not left a stone unturned in revealing to you everything about my judo and what helped get me to the top. I hope that in some way I can be an inspiration to those judoka who may feel they have a long way to go, or that I can just give a few little tips here and there to those who are more experienced.
I look forward to seeing you on the mat!
Double Olympic Champion, World Champion