Road To The 2020 Games: A Day In The Life Of An Elite Judo Athlete

Olympic Rings

For every elite-level athlete, competition day is the culmination of years of training, mental preparation, and a little luck. Through sheer force of will, these athletes must push through jet lag, unfamiliar diets, hotel beds, and language barriers. They fly all over the world for potentially only four minutes on the mat. Why? For the remote possibility of making the Olympic team.

To explore what a competition day is truly like we had the chance to sit down with Jack Hatton, the current #1 ranked athlete in the USA and multiple World Tour medalist on the International Judo Tour, and spoke to him about what a typical competition day is like. He’s currently ranked #20 in the world rankings and is training and competing overseas in preparation for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

Jack Signing Autographs

For Jack, competition days are the most important as athletes must perform to their best ability in order to garner World Ranking List (WRL) points. These WRL points are everything to an elite judo athlete as they determine your rank on the WRL. When the Olympic Games finally comes only those who are in the top 18 in the ranking list will automatically qualify for the Olympic Games. Given this, a single bad competition day can be the difference between Olympic dreams or nightmares.

How does your competition day start?

“I check my weight before anything because it will decide how much I get to eat and drink before 9 am... I need to be 5% of 81.0 kilos for the second weigh-in.”

Jack starts his competition day by getting up around 6:30 am. Typically, the first matches of the competition start at 10 am, leaving plenty of time to eat, pack and prepare for the tournament.

Although Jack has already officially weighed in for the competition the night before, Jack will check his weight first thing as there is another weigh-in at 9 am. This is second weigh-in is a relatively new rule created in 2014. Even though all competitors weigh-in the night before, four will be randomly selected from each weight class for the 2nd weigh-in, with the cut-off being 5% of their fighting weight. For example, Jack’s weight class is 81.0kg and therefore he must be 85.1 kg the next day. He usually will wake up at 84.0-84.5kg, so he must eat a light breakfast.

What is your view on eating come competition day?

“It’s really important to get food in you before competing in order to digest and replenish energy stores from making weight last night...No matter how small the breakfast.”

Jack prefers foods that are familiar to him, which is not always an easy task depending on what country he is in. At home in Boston, he will pack healthy, familiar foods or drinks in his luggage to avoid a bad competition breakfast when overseas.

Jack’s ideal competition breakfast is oatmeal, fruit, seeds/nuts, eggs, coffee and plenty of fluids (Pedialyte, Gatorade, water, etc). The amount of these foods/fluids depends entirely on what his weight is that morning and will fuel up until he reaches 85.0kg.

After breakfast, Jack and Team USA will take a shuttle over to the competition venue and set up camp on the athletes warm-up mat. Jack’s warm-up routine is by far one of the most important parts of his competition and for us one of the most interesting.

How do you warm up before your matches?

“My warm-ups have two parts - mentally warming up and then physically.”

Jack Warming Up

For his mental warm-up, Jack is a creature of habit. He puts his music on and gets the blood flowing by running around the competition mats before the judo spectators get there. “I like to get out on the mats just to get the feel of the arena without any distractions.” It is important for Jack to familiarize himself with the space and walk himself through the match ahead of time. He will bow onto the mat, bow to his imaginary opponent, visualize himself winning, and even bow to his “opponent” afterward before walking back to the warm-up area.

Once he is back at the warm-up area, Jack and a teammate will begin a high-paced physical warm-up for approximately 45 minutes before his match. Jack’s core warm-up consists of dynamic stretching, uchikomi (form practice), kumikata (grip fighting), and nagekomi (throwing). He will add in things like movement drills, various plyometrics, or even wrestling drills based on how his body is feeling. Once satisfied with a good sweat, he will stay warm until his match.

Jack also makes a point to sit down and relax after getting a good warm-up. Since spending time outdoors is a favorite activity, he said, “I sometimes will close my eyes and picture myself in nature. It helps to relax me and puts me in a good place.”

How has your preparation played a role in your success?

“When I feel like my preparation at home wasn’t good, it makes it harder to get that confidence you need on game day. I believe confidence comes from preparation.”

I asked Jack if there was a correlation between how he feels during prep time and how he performs on the mat? He said on the days he feels off mentally, he attributes it to the preparation at home leading up to the competition.

Jack likes to remain calm but focused. If he is too tense before a match he feels like he can’t identify things as clearly, misses visual cues, and doesn’t anticipate opponent’s movements as well.

How Long Does a Typical Competition Day Last?

“It was my first Grand Prix medal and I definitely worked for it. Each match went into overtime and I had about 45 minutes of mat time.”

Competition Day

Competition days can very long or extremely quick. If you lose your first match, you are knocked out immediately as IJF Judo competitions are single elimination until you reach the quarterfinal. That means 50% of the competitors are done within the first 45 minutes! Making it to the quarterfinals is the goal as your chances of fighting for a medal go up dramatically.

The most matches Jack has had in one IJF tournament was the Croatia Grand Prix in 2017 where he had  5 matches and won bronze. Jack reminisced say “It was my first Grand Prix medal and I definitely worked for it. Each match went into overtime and I had about 45 minutes of mat time.”

Judo matches are 4 minutes of regulation time and then unlimited overtime until one of the competitors scores. If an athlete makes it to the medal rounds, then the full day of competition lasts from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm.

Do you reward or punish yourself after a tournament?

“You’ve got to have a short memory in sports”

A Bronze Medal at the 2017 Zagreb Grand Prix in Croatia

Jack says not really. He tries not to punish or reward himself but rather reflect and improve. “There’s a fine line between useful reflection and being overly critical on your performance. Something I’ve always struggled with as my own worst critic but am getting better at it with more experience.”

One routine Jack completes after a tournament no matter what, regardless of the end result, is he writing in his journal. It’s judo specific journal, where he writes down what happened and how he felt. He reflects on it later and evaluates how things have changed over time.

With the conclusion of the competition, Jack stressed his final goal to accomplish while traveling and competing: to experience the culture and scenes around the city he is in. Stating that though it is not always the most glamorous of travel, because you are often holed up in hotels, trying to make weight and prepare, he always makes an extra effort to get out of the hotel and explore whatever city he is visiting.

Wrap-up

Speaking with Jack really helped us put into perspective what goes into a typical competition day from the meticulous preparation, the importance of eating, and the maintenance of mental focus throughout, we really enjoyed his insight into the Olympic journey.

While competition days are a single day, they can not be looked at in a vacuum. Months of training and traveling happen in-order to make these days possible. Judoka will often be traveling across the world for tournaments which comes with pressing mental and physical issues.

Did this change your perspective on what these athletes go through? Do you think you could do this as a career? Let us know below!

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