By Joshua Hagen
The general consensus in the judo community in Canada is that if you aren’t already well on your way towards an Olympics at 21 or 22, then it’s time to pack it in and get on with “real life”. This notion is crazy, and yet it comes up so often in conversations about judo, that I feel like I’m trapped in a Groundhog Day loop. Judo people feel this way because we think judo is somehow special and in a category of its own. Judo is special to us because we love it like no other sport. Fundamentally, however, it’s just another sport, like baseball or hockey or basketball. What if we broaden our thinking for a moment, and think of judo athletes as we think of athletes in any other sport.
If we think of judo as any other sport (and yes, it’s just a sport among other sports) can we really say with honesty that athletes are “washed up” at 21? Imagine if we said that about Marc-Andre Fleury? At 21 his save percentage was .898 and his record was 13-27. He was the number one pick in the NHL draft and has since played in 4 Stanley Cup Finals and Won 2 of them. Manu Ginboli didn’t enter the NBA until he was 25 years old and averaged 7.6 points per game. This was at a time when the number one pick of the NBA draft was regularly a kid graduating high school. Baseball’s Josh Donaldson played a total of 89 major league games before his 27th birthday and won the league MVP at 29. Kurt Warner started his first game at quarterback in the NFL at age 28 and was a First-Team All-Pro that same year.
Judo people also believe that there isn’t a lot of money in judo, and so, on the surface, the idea of moving on to a “real job” makes sense. We’re misguided there, as well, however. Judo is no different from other sports, until you reach the big 4. In AA baseball (two steps below the major leagues) the monthly salary is $1700 a month for your first year and goes up by $100 a month in year two, but they’re only paid for 6 months of the year. These guys aren’t exactly driving Ferarris- they travel everywhere on coach buses! To quote CNN, “Minor league baseball players are among the worst paid professional athletes.”
The third reason I believe people feel pressure to quit judo too young is because we base our expectations on our favourite judoka. I grew up a huge fan of Koga. Many younger athletes get their inspiration from Iliadis. Just because you didn’t have the same success as a late teen as a couple of the greatest judoka of all time, doesn’t mean that you will never be successful yourself. In fact, if in athletics men peak at 27, and women peak at 25, chances are you’d be cutting your career off right before it really has a chance to take off if you were to retire before your peak physical age.
The sad consequence of the misinformed consensus that a judo career should end at 21 is that judoka are under tremendous pressure to get results on a far-too-short deadline. They spend huge amounts of money travelling the world, going to every major event that they can in hopes of moving up the WRL (World Ranking List). When you have dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete and are working every day towards that goal, there is nothing wrong with taking university courses part time. It’s okay to not know what you want to do with “the rest of your life”. If you’re not ready to go to all of those events, save yourself some money, and give yourself time. Go to your first Grand Slam at 23 or 24. If you’re male, your body hasn’t even physically matured by age 21 in most cases. There’s lots of judo left to learn when you’re only 21 years old. If coaches were more honest with their athletes, and more of them took the longer-term approach to training athletes, the depth of judo in Canada would be a strength of our program. Instead, there’s a vacuum of bad advice that consumes any athlete over the age of 20 not ranked #1 in Canada.
 CNN, “Battle to keep minor league baseball players' pay below minimum wage”, July 1 2016
Image: Sergio Pessoa Jr., two-time Canadian Olympian (London 2012, Rio 2016)
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