April 2024 brought a rush of memories to someone we see on the circuit at all major events. He’s a coach for team France and this month marked 20 years working for the French federation. He’s been in the coaching chair for Olympic finals, European titles, for incredibly difficult losses and what we have seen throughout Christophe Massina’s two decades on the World Judo Tour is a committed, passionate and professional coach.
Automne Pavia and Christophe Massina at the Rio De Janeiro Olympic Games, 2016. Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

To be a national coach requires a special set of skills and experiences but it is understood that to be a national coach for one of the most successful nations in the world requires something very special indeed. Christophe Massina has so many memories to work through and learn from but reflecting on them is something he sees as an honour and a privilege.

“I began with the u23 women in 2004, overlapping with the seniors from time to time. There were two coaches then with elite group, Yves Delvingt and Laurent Calleja. I was two years in that role with the u23 team but also worked in the warm-up room at world championships. Yves liked to have complimentary staff alongside the senior coaches and I was happy to work in that way.

In 2005 Cathy Fleury came to the team but I remained in the same position. In Beijing I was in the Olympic Village preparing with athletes and after that Games I asked to change my position. In INSEP I had seen that junior and u23 judoka were separate and I could see the possibility to join them together for stronger development. I then became head coach for junior and u23 women, with me mostly taking care of the juniors and Severine Vandenhende leading the u23 programme. We worked like that for 4 years. We had Automne Pavia, Helene Receveaux, Lucie Louet, Melanie Clement and many more; an exciting team. We were working with Marc Alexandre for some camps and championships too. It was interesting to work with him. He was my coach when I was younger, a very hard personality, a hard coach. With the women I could see that he was totally different. He came with a lot of experience and I could learn from him in a whole new way.

Christophe Massina's first training camp in Japan as a coach, 2005.

In Athens we’d had a disaster, just one medal, a great medal from Jossinet but still just one. It was my first big competition as a member of the coaching team; I was staff but wasn’t coaching at the Games. When coaching in Rio it is a whole different experience. I remembered Athens a lot when I was in Rio.

After the London 2012 Olympic Games I began with the elite women’s team and worked with them for 4 years. Then after Rio I became coach to the men’s elite team and then in March of 2022 I became head coach for the elite women.

I don’t really have a coaching preference, men or women; it’s really different though. Sometimes the women seem more professional in general and when a female athlete trusts you, it’s possible to take them to the moon and back with their career. The relationships can be really hard though.

I can say that the best moment of my career was being with Emilie Andeol for her Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro. I started with her in 2009 when she was in the under 23 team. Through almost a decade we did a lot of work and in the beginning she wasn’t ready for the high level. For her it was one step at a time, concretely. She applied that mentality at the Games: one step at a time. She was at the Europeans in 2013 and after that came her worlds 5th place and then a bronze in 2014. Then she was European champion. Step, step, step, the right step for each moment.

This Olympic gold medal was a real moment, when she won against the Cuban Ortiz, the reigning Olympic champion from London. In just 2-3 seconds I could remember everything from all the years before. There was a lot of emotion. I had been with her every day, in her chair and in her training. We went to Japan, just me and her and a physio, for 3 weeks in March of 2016 and I think that maybe this camp was key and perhaps without it she might not be Olympic champion. She really understood her possibilities and the required mentality. She had 15-20 randori in each training session and she had to be in control.

Emilie Andeol winning the Olympic final in 2016. Photo by Gabriela Sabau (IJF).

With Emilie there was the particularity that she was crying, always, before and during and after the contests. When I first saw it I said, “ok, you can cry before and after but not during. During is for staying focused, keeping your emotions in check, to fully engage with harder, more useful randori, not losing energy for crying during the matches.” She tried. Sometimes it worked but sometimes not. She understood this though and that was important. Sometimes other coaches didn’t understand the crying before matches but it helped her to release the pressure beforehand and then give everything in the fight, keeping hold of the energy needed to compete.

Gold for Andeol. Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

The mixed team event at the Tokyo Olympics was also an incredible moment for me. Through years and through Covid, I was with the men’s team and we worked a lot with Guillaume Chaine and Axel Clerget. Guillaume won against Israel and if he didn’t then we wouldn’t have come through the round. He cried after that fight because there was a lot of pressure. We worked a lot with Axel against the Japanese and again without his win we wouldn’t have won the final. The men originally said that they’d have preferred the individual medals but I spoke with them again afterwards and they loved their medals. It’s not the victory but the making of history that is important for me. It’s the human aspect, not the medal, the medal is just the end.

Axel Clerget, Christophe Massina and Guillaume Chaine: Olympic mixed team gold.

I think the worst moments are every time I need to make choices between two athletes. It is the most difficult thing in France with such depth of possibilities. Every time it is very difficult for me. This has an impact on relationships and it’s possible to damage our trust. After each time it happens we need a period of healing and recovery. I consider my job is of course a big part of solving this issue but when I need to decide it’s really hard, maybe even heart-breaking. Maybe I have to split my personality, it’s somewhat schizophrenic. I need to change my mentality every time it’s important to decide, maybe like a robot but really it affects me a lot.

I think I have made the right decisions, I hope I did, but I know we may have lost people along the way. I try to ensure there is always justice but for the athletes there is sometimes less objectivity. I’m not alone in the selections and the same problems exist for the men and the women in this respect, but it’s always hard.

It has been very important in our system to keep a positive attitude with those who do not get the Games. Now, for instance, we have Julia, Lea and Coralie to work with and we need them. They have other events and possibilities and they are very strong judoka. They need to be at their best for Romane so that she can also be at her best. It is difficult because all the athletes want to be part of the incredible moments we will experience in Paris at a home Games. We must keep this positive mentality for the whole team. We break this positivity during each championship selection and it always takes a few weeks to come back to this good feeling. Sometimes friendships can be involved and training feels different after a selection but they usually come back well. The organisation of our training, after selections, is still the same, but maybe the feeling is different and so we ensure our attention is given to psychology. We talk a lot. Sometimes they don’t want to talk but we work hard at it.

With Julia Tolofua, silver medallist at the Doha World Championships, 2023.

I’m really happy with my career so far. It’s been a really long time with the French team but throughout it I try to change my possibilities and mentality. I always try to make my own progress and development. Every couple of years I take on a new certification or diploma and for me that’s important. Sometimes something is ok for one athlete but not for others and we must continue to try to find the best way for each athlete. Finding this line, to manage all the individuals while also managing the collective is very difficult in France and is one of the reasons I must stay on top of my own education.

Over the last 20 years I have learned the best thing to have is humanity, always. In France it’s really difficult to stay focused on the right directions. In the fight we must stay human. After selection we must stay human. It’s important to stay true to being me, myself. We are all human and have differences so I have to stay focused on my direction; I can’t fulfil this role with a method and manner that are not mine. There can be different opinions and I try to reflect on and analyse them all but eventually I must stay in one direction. I also learned that ego is not good for coaches, we have to put it to the side. Ego for the athletes is ok, to create possibility, but not for coaches.

I think I learned the most from my brothers and from my coach; they taught me the most in life. They built me. My mentality and my sensibilities are from them. My first coach, Andre Delvingt, showed that it is possible to train a lot of people with different objectives. I carried that lesson with me.

Christophe and his brothers.

Emilie is an athlete who brought my biggest lessons as a coach because the outcome is the evidence that what we did from 2009 was remarkable, it should have been impossible but by working with her specific character and pointing it in the right way, we made the impossible happen. Automne Pavia was also important. She has a kind of rigour; when she decided something, she put all her choices into that to succeed. This was not just the case for medals but for all aspects of her life. She has the mentality to commit rigorously to what is necessary. This was also a big lesson.”

Automne Pavia and Chrisptohpe Massina share an emotional victory at the 2013 Paris Grand Slam. Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

Christophe Massina continues his work with the French team and he does it joyously and openly, constantly evolving but without forgetting any of the lessons from the past. Education is key to evolution for Massina but also the ability to see possibility and opportunity where others may see neither is a skill, an intuition which has carried him and his athletes to the very top of the Olympic podium.

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