By Joshua Hagen
In case you’re unaware of who Jason Morris is, he is a four-time Olympian who took a silver medal in the ‘92 Olympic Games, and a bronze medal at the ‘93 World Championships. He was the head coach of team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and still coaches to this day at his eponymous training centre, the JMJC.
When I was around 20 years of age, I moved to Montreal to train at the National Training Centre, which was then based out of the Shidokan. At that time, Jason used to bring his students to train with us on a pretty regular basis. He counted among his students Nick Delpopolo, Nick Kossor, Hannah Martin, Kyle Vashkulat, Jeremy Liggett, Carrie Chandler, and Liz Burns, among other well-known American judoka. All of his athletes had one thing in common: incredible technical skill. I would of course do rounds with them, and I would regularly ask Jason to do rounds with me as well.
The more they visited, the more Jason would spend time helping me with my judo. The fact was, there were a number of athletes at the National Training Centre, and only a couple of coaches. As a student, I was closer to the bottom of the totem pole than the top, so their attention was directed elsewhere. The result was that Jason gave me a level of attention that I just wasn’t getting from the coaches in Montreal, and was never likely to get from them, either.
At the age of 22, still in Montreal, I felt I had severely plateaued. I decided that my journey as a judo athlete had ended, and that it was time to leave the National Training Centre. Jason was adamantly against my quitting. He gave me a very honest assessment of my judo, and told me he believed he could make me better. I had never before felt this kind of support for my judo career from anyone outside of my immediate family. In the end, he offered, “if you’re going to quit anyway, why not come down to my place for a month? If you feel the same way after a month, you aren’t out anything because you were already going to quit.”
The following season, I trained under Jason full-time, living in his home near Albany, New York. His technical understanding and mastery of judo, as well as his ability to convey what he wanted from me was unparralled. The process was difficult for me as a lifetime judoka. At times, I felt like I was starting over from scratch. Halfway through the season, I suffered the second signifcant injury of my career: multiple fractured bones in my right foot. Not only did Jason ensure that my injury was promptly looked after, he paid my medical bills, knowing that I was totally without means to pay them myself.
The way I trained under Jason was far different from how I had ever trained in my life before. Gone were the endless hours of uchikomi, and in their place was learning based on throwing. A lot of throwing. We would do one hundred nagekomi an evening, with a list of five throws to work on. During the throwing process, I was always given near-constant feedback for slight improvements to be made on each throw. If we trained twice on the tatami that day, we would do two hundred nagekomi. This made for a rapid pace of learning, but more importantly, it greatly impacted how I myself would coach in the future.
Judo, as we all know, is a difficult sport to learn, and its mastery is never complete. The skills, conditioning, strategy, and decision-making required to produce a competitive judoka are of an extremely high level. Leaving too much of the development process in the hands of the student themself is most often going to be too much to ask of them. Being truly coached by an inspired and invested coach with no small measure of genius at his disposal was something I hadn’t ever experienced before. I finally understood the meaning of the word ikigai, not to mention why Jason Morris was able to produce such great fighters, at such an accelerated pace.
As a Canadian, I was unable to work to earn any money in the USA, and my lack of means began to wear on me. That June, I packed my bags and resolved to retire from judo, because I just couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel for myself as an athlete. My road as a competitive athlete ended there, though my love for judo hadn’t dwindled. Jason was still against my decision to quit.
Given the progress I had made that year, Jason thought quitting then was a terrible choice, and told me as much. In that one year at the JMJC, my understanding and love of judo grew to magnificent proportions, all thanks to my inspired sensei. I left the life of the student with only gratitude to Jason and all he had managed to teach me in such a relatively short amount of time, to pursue what I realized was my own vocation, as a judo coach.
At this point, Jason went from being my coach to being my friend and my mentor. We have stayed in steady contact ever since, and he has been an indispensable resource to me always, with most of our conversations revolving around technique and training methodology. To say that I am incredibly fortunate to have such an excellent judoka and teacher to bounce ideas off of would be teh understatement of a lifetime.
Our passion to constantly improve as coaches is what bonds us (much more than our very disparate musical tastes, rest assured). His ethusiasm to develop judoka after all these years is a bright spot in the sport of judo, and the success he’s enjoyed over all these years is impressive by anyone’s standards.
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