The hardest thing in the world for an athlete is to get out of bed in the morning. Show me a man who jumps out of bed and I’ll show you someone who has never trained for top competition. It’s the brutal preparation that makes one flinch when taking the morning’s first heavy, unsteady steps toward the bathroom. Yes, it’s that time of year again, and this time it’s Stuttgart, a town known for its terrific automobiles, as the safest city in Germany, and its proximity to Erwin Rommel’s birthplace. Mind you, I don’t know how safe it will be for the poor little Greek boy this time around. I will be there at the end of May, defending my world judo (70 and over) title, but they say third time is unlucky, or is it the other way round? The miracle of Miami was followed by the victorious battle of Brussels, and here’s hoping it won’t end as the slaughter in Stuttgart. But back to training.
‘What’s peak condition?’ asked an exercise psychologist in the New York Times. The answer was: ‘It’s one step from falling off a cliff.’ That’s about right. One pushes very hard two months before, after having settled into a routine of two hours per day. You push and push in the ‘dry’ training — crawling on your hands and knees on a mat, pulling or pushing a weight — then you grip fight with someone younger and stronger, and finally finish by fighting a much better judoka than yourself. I vary my routine with karate three times a week. My sensei, Richard Amos, is the best I’ve met in 40 years of Shotokan martial arts, and it is this that my judo coach thinks has led to the successes of the last two years. Old men remain strong but immobile. Circling non-stop, foot sweeping, an occasional uchimata keeps them honest. In last year’s final I got lucky. I was losing badly as I was dead tired from the semi-final, but then my Canadian opponent made a mistake and paid for it as I won by ippon, the equivalent of a knockout in judo. The art of coaching, of course, is to keep the athlete in a delicate balance between under- and over-training. The body needs to be stressed to the ultimate, but not enough to injure it. Injuries are what every athlete fears the most — after defeat — that is. For example, after 50 or more years of competing in various sports, and some of them on the highest level, I only just found out that one should massage one’s ribs very hard before starting the heavy stuff. It opens up the rib cage, facilitates the breathing, and helps avoid injury to them. A professional masseur and wrestling coach watched me go onto the mat having stretched only arms and legs, and immediately stepped in. ‘You’ve got to do resistance stretching,’ he told me, ‘it’s the secret weapon.’ So, for any Spectator reader who is interested, or about to go into sporting combat, beat up on your ribs beforehand and they will withstand the beating to come. You’ll also breathe better, which for me, a smoker, is the only thing that worries me.
If you are training to do judo or karate, you need to do judo or karate. It’s as simple as that. I remember one year back in the Fifties when the Americans Tony Trabert and Vic Seixas went down under to play the final of the Davis Cup against the two great Aussies, Hoad and Rosewall. Billy Talbert, the Yankee captain, had his boys running, jumping, they even tried some tricky ballet moves (mind you, it could have been a publicity stunt) while Harry Hoppman had Lew and Ken just hitting balls at each other rather viciously. Australia won easily. Now we know better. Weight and cardiovascular training are done before the season. Sure, talent counts a lot, but a well-trained, less talented athlete will beat an under-trained, talented one every time, or so I believe.
Truly talented athletes tend to train less. It’s like brainy kids in school. And speaking of the latter, I went to dinner with the wrestling coaches of my old prep school, Blair Academy, the number-one ranked wrestling school in America. The headmaster, Chan Hardwick, has turned the school into a top institute of learning, and drinking with him and the coaching staff brought on a bit of melancholic nostalgia for the school days I tried so desperately to get over with when I was young. A.E. Houseman knew a thing or two about youth and glory, and one of the coaches who teaches poetry and I discussed it. Hence, I got very drunk and stayed up late. Still, it was worth it. How I remember those days. Making weight, the smell of liniment, the butterflies and fast heartbeat until you enter the mat, shake hands and cross over, then it’s ‘Ready, wrestle’, and the torture stops. You go in crouching, shoulder against shoulder, you fake an attack, pull his head down, try a takedown and so on.
The same applies now. The butterflies will not start until I land in Germany, and the heartbeat only starts to race the night before. Sleep is rare. Then the mouth goes dry just before the match and your knees feel weak. You actually don’t feel good and are about to tell your coach that you have to default. But all these symptoms mean only one thing. You’re ready. Then comes ‘Hajime!’.