I’m going to tell you a story about loss, despair, recovery and the future. It’s not one illustrated by an impressive action shot, there is no specific photo. Maybe the words are enough

Once upon a time… But it’s not a fable or fairytale…

The scene is the arena for the World Championships Cadets in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The personnel are many:

* Teenage judoka believing this is the most important day of their lives, managing nerves, pressure, months of physical preparation, coaching relationships, expectations, hope, goals, self-control.

* Coaches working to get the best performances from their young charges, knowing it is unlikely to be the most important day of their lives, managing nerves, pressure, coaching relationships, expectations, hope, goals, self-control.

* Referees focussed on ensuring they don’t let these teenagers down, managing nerves, pressure, expectations, goals, self-control.

We can add spectators, delegation officials, IJF staff, local organisers, sponsors, worldwide media, online viewers. There are 484 competitors but there are thousands of people involved.

We will fast forward a little bit, through day one and directly to the final block on day 2. The three tatami have been re-dressed, down to one contest area. It’s a bronze medal match between judoka we will simply call white and blue. The names don’t matter, in this instance, nor the weight category. Actually the action doesn’t matter either. The real story is after the referee’s indication of the winner.

Blue won: bronze. White lost: 5th place. The two judoka gave all they had to the contest. They tried to throw, they employed the rules, they moved forward, they displayed their fitness, agility, ingenuity, persistence. They fought it together and at the end they hugged each other. The separation was a waza-ari but what they invested was, to all intents and purposes, the same. This is the nature of competitive sport. Everyone wants to win and everyone prepares to win. Everyone cannot win. The margins are sometimes negligible but cannot be neglected.

Blue celebrated and jumped into the arms of their coach and they shared the relief and happiness that is glued to the shoulders of victory, while white hung their head and allowed the energy to drain through their feet, making their legs heavy.

The coach of white stood, bowed to the opposing coach and then called gently but clearly to the athlete, “stand tall, hold your space, you’re good, you did well, it’s good.” White raised their head, rei; walking slowly out of the contest area. As they made their way to the edge of the tatami, the coach of white gestured and spoke with absolute conviction, “the gap between you was almost nothing, you are among the best in the world,” raising one hand and pinching the thumb and forefinger together to indicate the tiny margin, not mentioning loss or medals or ranking or making any comment about mistakes or other analysis. It was simple, clear and communicated with respect.

What this coach did was remove the judoka from the tiny space they occupied while in the middle of the 8m by 8m square and widen the lens. To immediately broaden the view is to diffuse the loss and the emotions that go with it, to accept that it’s part of a story far bigger than the four minutes of contest time just experienced. The coach did this without fanfare and without mitigation, not allowing the judoka to sink to despair, showing them value and affection, placing those things on the judoka’s shoulders in place of the victory they wanted.

To control one’s own disappointment for the benefit of the losing cadet judoka is a skill and one that should be held aloft as the exemplar to all coaches and perhaps to all competitors. This is truly how to handle loss and how to coach young judoka, really coach them, not simply sit matside. Reflection later, rebuilding later. In the moment, respect, self-control and the instant focus on recovery is what is required. This young judoka has the immense good fortune to be working with a coach who sees the whole career and can place the right emphasis on each moment of it, to prepare the future and educate the athlete’s behaviours as much as the techniques.

“Stand tall, hold your space.”

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