Judo and Grit

Guest post by Sayaka Torra

2008 Olympian, 7x Senior National Champion, and East Bay Judo Institute (EBJI) Senior Instructor

When I started judo at the young age of 5, I really didn’t have a say in the matter. One day my father (Former Olympic Team Leader and Coach David Matsumoto) told me I was going to start and I complied. The understanding was that I was going to practice judo until I received my Shodan (first degree black belt). Until then, judo was a “non-negotiable” activity. I didn’t argue or complain about going to judo- I didn’t have a choice.

Looking back, I realize that for me, judo was not an extra-curricular activity. It was part of my education, like going to school. And what I learned over the next 27 years through my judo practice would be so much more valuable and profound than the lessons any textbook could ever teach me. Judo became a part of who I am; it taught me perseverance, dedication, sacrifice, hard work, respect, and humility. Most of all, it taught me the true meaning of grit.

When you look up the definition of “grit” in the dictionary it says “courage and resolve, strength of character”. Some other definitions include “firmness of mind or spirit: unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger”. But what does this really mean? 

In recent research, Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has been catapulted to the forefront of the research done on grit after delivering a fascinating Ted Talk entitled The key to success? Grit. 

Duckworth studied kids and adults in various challenging settings to find out who is successful and more importantly, why. In all those various contexts, one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. It wasn’t good looks, or socio-economic status, or innate talent. You guessed it: it was grit.

Duckworth’s definition of grit is, “A passion and perseverance for very long term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years. Grit is about working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint”.

Okay, you say. So what? What does this mean to me and what does it have to do with my (or my child’s or my student’s) judo practice?

Interestingly, despite what researchers have come to learn about grit and its impact on success, they still don’t know the best way to teach it. This got me thinking and reflecting on my own life. Where did I learn about grit? The answer to me was simple: judo.

Judo was founded on the principles of mutual welfare and benefit through hard work, dedication and sacrifice. Being a judo student is a constant process of assessing and evaluating yourself to become a better judoka and ultimately, a better person. By bettering yourself, you ultimately better society as a whole.

Through the practice of judo, students learn the meaning of grit by setting long term goals: whether that’s winning an Olympic gold medal, placing at the Junior Nationals or throwing someone in practice that they’ve never thrown before. Through judo you learn about having courage and the ability to manage fear and failure, whether in the dojo or in a competitive setting. You learn about perseverance and not giving up. You gain confidence and self esteem.

But judo isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s hard; incredibly hard, not only your body, but also on your mind. You are pushed to your physical, spiritual, and mental breaking points. Sticking with judo over a period of years requires an incredible amount of strength, resolve, and character. Quite frankly, it requires grit.

For these reasons, I encourage you to continue your evolution as a judo parent, athlete or coach. Push yourself, your children, and your students to be better than they were yesterday. Help them set short and long term goals and help them to work their hardest to achieve those goals. Make judo a part of their education and enforce the lessons learned on the mat, off the mat as well.

In the end, the skills and lessons learned through judo will help you, your child or your student understand that with hard work, dedication, sacrifice, and grit, anything is possible. It will make them successful people in not only judo, but also in life.

Check out the East Bay Judo Institute (EBJI) here.

Check out the Ted Talk by Angela Lee Duckworth here.