World judo champion Nicola Fairbrother re lives the light-weight world final in 1993:
Below is an excerpt from the biography Don Werner: Our Sensei Moderately Satisfied, written by judo world champion Nicola Fairbrother and Karen Roberts, junior judo world champion.
The Doubts, The Sensei and Being the Best in the World.
I am two minutes away from being a world judo champion.
The world title is within my grasp.
I must hang on for another two minutes.
Two minutes away from a journey I began fifteen years before.
But it’s not looking good….
Two long minutes to go to become the world judo champion.
I’m on the backfoot, making the first error a sportsperson often does under pressure, I have started to defend. My opponent moves in. Another attack. And another. She wobbles me. I stay on my feet but only just.
If there’s a situation that tests the mettle of any fighter, it’s going up a large score early on in an important match. Your opponent has nothing to lose and for the next few minutes, they are going to come at you hard, which is more than enough time to get thrown. The less they have to lose, the more dangerous they become. The choices come in fast, and it returns again to that same ultimatum: attack or defend? But my thought process is narrowing.
Psychologists will tell you, that my cognitive load is at full capacity, my working memory is saturated; there is no room left to process any new information, I am just surviving on instincts, and can no longer strategise. The thought I might become a world judo champion, followed by the consequential thought I might lose my world title shot, has shot my anxiety levels through the roof, this cognitive stress clogging up my orbitofrontal cortex impairing my ability to make decisions. Others call it choking. Whatever, my performance is rapidly deteriorating.
Keep going like this, and there’s little doubt I’m going to throw away the world title.
Wait! Let’s back up a bit.
It is 1979. I am 8 years old, and I’m at my first ever competition. A long way from becoming a world judo champion.
“Osae-komi!” shrieks the referee.
I jump to my feet immediately, at which the man in the leather jacket grasps his balding head in mock or real exasperation. At nine years old it seems pretty real to me.
“You prune head! That means hold down. Now you are going to have to do it all over again.”
We grip up, and trip up again. I land in another hold.
“Now. This. Time. Hold. Her.”
Each word is punctuated.
Like he is talking to a very young child.
Which he is.
After I had held the girl down, my mum recalls going up to the man in the leather jacket to ask what they should do now?
“Well you wait for the finals,” Don had replied. “What do you think you do?”
And so for my mum, the first of many afternoons of waiting in dingy sports centres for hours on end, for contests I would win or lose, as she supported my dream.
This was my first ever judo event and Don was there then. He would be at many, many more in years to come.
Don Werner, my Sensei since I was a child has rarely missed a contest of mine over the years.
I’m not sure how he physically managed to achieve this, juggling a squad of over forty competitors, over multiple mats areas. But, without fail, ten seconds before I was due to fight he would materialise.
He would nod at me, and inside I was calm and strong.
The best coaches can do this.
Their belief makes you believe.
Their calmness calms.
Their knowledge makes you know.
Just an nod, and you are ready to fight.
Having Don as your judo coach felt like a having a force that wrapped around you and brought out your stronger self.
It was Don I would turn to during a contest when I needed strength or motivating.
Or if indeed like half-way through the 1993 World Championships final when it was all going belly-up…
World Judo Champions are won thanks to many people – at the top of my list is my Sensei, Don Werner. Without Don there is not a chance in hell I would have won that contest.
Don sees me look over – he knows I’m in trouble.
He taps the sides of his head with his fingers.
Think, it means.
Think what you are doing.
Keep your cool.
By now, we had developed a code of signals that cut through the noise of any sporting arena. Coach and competitor connected, through this invisible communication chord. Everything else, the screaming crowd, the screech of the PA system, the voices fade to a background hum.
Right now, Don is telling me with his finger tap to his temples: think it out, be clever.
More importantly he is implying I know how to win this match. Don could have been jumping up and down. He could have been clasping his head or banging his fists into the barrier. But he wasn’t. Instead he was intensely calm.
He thinks I can do it. His calmness calms, his belief has reinforced my belief. He has lightened the anxiety that is clogging my brain. Think it out, be clever. Instead of thinking about winning or losing, my focus pinpoints on something that is within my control. What do I need to do? Instead of being on some imaginary medal rostrum, I am back on the mat. As my brain chugs back into life, and the referee calls Hajime, I know exactly what I need to do to win the world title.
There are distinct drawbacks in charging towards your opponent. You leave spaces, you move off balance, you become vulnerable; it’s a risky tactic. But, it’s clear defence isn’t working. If I want to become a world judo champion I need to change and so I switch and go forwards. She doesn’t expect it. There is a shift in control.
Over the next minute, I regain the control of the contest. During the matte, as we walk back to our marks, I have time again to check with Don. He confirms my own thoughts. Two outstretched hands pat the invisible air.
Keep it like this. This is the way to do it. Nothing silly.
I know I am going to win, about ten seconds before the buzzer sounds. My opponent is getting frustrated.
She jabs out her hand again looking for my lapel, I catch her sleeve and pin it.
The seconds tick down until the final bell.
The long two minutes are over, the fifteen-year journey has reached its end: I am the World Judo Champion.
MODERATELY SATISFIED: DON WERNER OUR SENSEI
Read more about Don Werner Sensei in this biography written by two of his pupils Nicola Fairbrother and Karen Roberts