In November of 2022 I moved to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, to train for the upcoming Senior National Judo Championships. The competition will be held on the 11th and 12th of March this year; as I write this, I have less than a month left to prepare. I’m in my 30s, I’m not a particularly good Judoka, and I haven’t been in a Judo competition since I was a teenager.
So why did I do this?
I won’t lie and tell you that the decision was completely rational — a large part of the reason was my regret at doing badly at the Nationals when I was 19. More importantly, I regretted that I was a scrub — I believed in playing a more difficult, completely made up game in my head, not the game that was actually in front of me. My regrets around being a scrub is something that I’ve written at length about in the past. As a corrective, I am currently executing a training program that is about as ‘anti-scrub’ as they come. I’ll talk more about that in a bit.
But there was a second reason — a more relevant one, at least for readers of this blog. I was particularly interested in experiencing true deliberate practice. Longtime readers would know that I’ve spent a great deal of time digging into the question of how to accelerate expertise in real world business and career contexts. One of the first things I learnt when I started going deep on the topic was that deliberate practice may well be the gold standard for practice, but it simply isn’t possible in most career contexts.
Why is this the case? To summarise briefly, deliberate practice demands that you:
- Practice in a field with well-established training techniques. This means that there is a history of pedagogical development, or at least a body of known training exercises that have been passed down from coach-to-coach or coach-to-student.
- Practice under the guidance of a coach, who will give you feedback and break down your training into atomic drills for specific sub-skills. (Notice the implication here: this assumes that the sub-skills are known, and that exercises to improve them exist.)
- Finally, deliberate practice involves modifying and building on existing mental representations of skill, which in turn emphasises the above two properties — you need a coach to correct mental representations, and you need a body of knowledge around training methods so you don’t spend too much time developing new training methods for sub-skills that aren’t yet fully understood.
(There are more properties of deliberate practice that I won’t get into; you may find them in my summary of K. Anders Ericsson’s Peak. I’m merely listing the subset of properties that make it so difficult to apply.)
The point I’m making is this: as working adults, we don’t naturally work in environments where deliberate practice is possible. Many skill domains that we are interested in don’t come with coaches, nor established training programs. My favourite example is the following: suppose you want to get better at office politics. Being political is a skill; some people have better political instincts than others; anyone who has worked for any amount of time would know that certain people may accomplish things in certain organisational contexts that others, who are perhaps equally technically skilled, cannot. I know that I may sound callous saying this, but I don’t think I am — I’m merely stating a known observation that most high-level execs have some amount of political ability, since such skills are necessary to get things done in large organisations.
So if you do want to get better at this skill — how are you going to do deliberate practice? Where do you go to find a coach? Are there existing training techniques and known sub-skills to practice political savvy? Can someone break things down for you so that you may practice facets of this skill safely?
The answer is that no, you cannot: people who get good at org politics tend to do so by trial and error, observation, and osmosis. Over the past couple of years, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I may never experience proper deliberate practice — at least, not for the duration of my working life.
Except that now I had a perfect opportunity in front of me, and I could. About two years ago I became friendly with a Judo coach in Malaysia, someone who fought in the World Championships in 1993 and made it to the 13th position in his weight category, a record that no other Malaysian has beaten in the decades since. (This is more a testament to the low level of Judo in Malaysia than anything else, sadly). In October last year he reached out with some news. He told me that the Nationals was in March, and asked “would you like to move to KL for one last hurrah?”
I said yes. This essay covers what I’ve learnt so far.
The Anti Scrub Plan
The first component of my training plan was to come up with a way to win.
Judo is a young person’s game. It is best to think of it as a long-gestation sport, with a wicked learning curve: like ice skating, or gymnastics, Judo takes perhaps three years of daily training to reach black belt level, but closer to five-to-ten years on average to reach a high level of proficiency. On the international circuit the majority of professional athletes start young and choose to retire in their 30s.
I came into this training experiment in my early 30s, so I had my work cut out for me. I was mostly going up against stronger, younger, fitter opponents. To make things worse, while I’d played Judo for about five years when I was a teenager, I received recreational instruction for most of those five years. I quit the sport for a decade, right as I entered university in Singapore; I returned only in 2020, right before the start of the global lockdowns. I never bothered with belt promotions beyond a green belt. On the face of it, I have zero chance of beating my competition in the Malaysian Nationals.
But there are certain quirks of the sport — at least as it’s practiced in Malaysia — that give me a fighting chance. To explain this, I need to explain the sport of Judo itself.
There are four ways to win in Judo. The first way is the most spectacular: you may throw a person for a full point (ippon) — an instant, match-ending win — provided their back hits the ground with proper force and control. This is the most spectacular way to win a Judo match, and the type of victory that I wanted the most as a teenager. If your opponent lands on their side, this is a half point (waza-ari) and the match continues. Two waza-aris equal an ippon.
The second way you can win is to hold your opponent down with a pin. A 20 second hold down is an ippon; a 10 second hold down (which could occur, if, say, your opponent escapes) is a waza-ari. Again, two waza-aris is an ippon — one thing that happens with some regularity is that a competitor throws their opponent with a sloppy throw, gets a waza-ari, and then holds them down for a mere 10 seconds to get a second waza-ari, and thus a win.
The third way to win is to get a submission from your opponent. In Judo, this means either an arm lock or a choke — and this must happen on the ground, for flying arm bars and standing chokes are no longer allowed. Of course, if your opponent passes out from the choke or has their arm broken from the lock, the match also ends and you win. This doesn’t happen that often, thankfully. Most competitors are quick to tap. The one time I didn’t tap, when I was 17, I remember leaving my body and floating above the dojo, and then zipping across the city, enjoying the view of Kuching’s night lights arrayed below me, before somehow the city lights rearranged themselves into the face of my coach, who had dragged me to the side of the contest area. It took me a few seconds to realise he was asking “Hey, are you alright?” I had passed out. “Is it over?” I asked. “I can still fight.” But I had lost.
The fourth way to win is to have your opponent incur three penalties, or ‘shido’, after which they are disqualified, and the match goes to you.
You would think, looking at this list of winning conditions, that a competitive Judoka would pursue all four methods of winning equally (in practice the second and third ways are considered the same strategy, since they require attacking on the ground). But an interesting quirk of Malaysian Judo is that most competitors do not. They mostly attempt to throw. Some Malaysian judoka try for a pin, armlock, or choke, but mostly as a follow-up to a successful takedown. Absolutely nobody pays attention to penalties, except to avoid them.
Why this is the case is a combination of aesthetic preferences and some history. Judo was originally created as a martial art by Japanese polymath and educator Jigoro Kano in 1882, during the Meiji era. Kano, who picked up Ju-Jitsu as a young boy, synthesised and then merged a few different Ju-Jitsu schools into a new martial art. He set up his dojo — the Kodokan — in a small temple in Tokyo; he named his new art Judo.
Kano became the first Asian member of the International Olympic Council in 1909. His influence grew to the point where he became the primary spokesperson for Japan’s bid for the 1940 Olympics through the 30s, near the end of his life. As a result of its founder’s influence, Judo’s history became intimately tied to the Olympic Games: Kano, for instance, hosted an informal demonstration of Judo at the 1932 Games. But he was famously ambivalent about including Judo as an Olympic discipline. Kano had originally created his art as a form of physical and moral education, and thought that treating Judo as a sport would corrupt its original goals. In a 1936 letter to judoka Gunji Koizumi, he wrote:
I have been asked by people of various sections as to the wisdom and the possibility of Judo being introduced at the Olympic Games. My view on the matter, at present, is rather passive. If it be the desire of other member countries, I have no objection. But I do not feel inclined to take any initiative. For one thing, Judo in reality is not a mere sport or game. I regard it as a principle of life, art and science. In fact, it is a means for personal cultural attainment. Only one of the forms of Judo training, the so-called randori can be classed as a form of sport... [In addition, the] Olympic Games are so strongly flavoured with nationalism that it is possible to be influenced by it and to develop Contest Judo as a retrograde form as Jujitsu was before the Kodokan was founded. Judo should be as free as art and science from external influences – political, national, racial, financial or any other organised interest. And all things connected with it should be directed to its ultimate object, the benefit of humanity.
Judo was introduced to Malaysia and Singapore by Japanese emigrants, who set up dojos in the late 50s. When Judo was voted in as an Olympic sport in 1960, these early Judo men set up the Malaysian Judo Federation. So it is no surprise that Malaysian Judo was and still is strongly influenced by the Japanese view of Judo — that is, Kano’s view of the art as a form of physical and moral education. That originating influence has lasted to this very day.
This view has had larger implications on the sport than you might think. For starters, it meant that whilst international Judo changed over the next few decades, Malaysian Judo resisted many of the sport innovations that have taken over in other parts of the world.
So, for instance: since Judo is a martial art with a code of values, then winning by penalty is dishonourable. Since Malaysian Judo inherits from Japanese Judo, and Japanese Judo draws from many old traditions, many senseis here also inherit the belief that the best — most honourable! — way to win is to win by ippon. If Judo should be preserved as the Japanese intended it, then newaza (or ground attacks) should be de-emphasised when one is young, for old-fashioned Japanese senseis believe that newaza may always be learnt later; you should master throws when you still have the suppleness of youth. (My old coach, when I was a teenager, was deeply Japanese-influenced; I love and respect him deeply but he was always keen to emphasise working on newaza later in life, despite being rather good at it himself!)
To restate this simply, many Malaysian Judo senseis continue to believe that Judo is a martial art, and coincidentally an Olympic sport that is a game of throws. My current coach, who learnt his Judo from competitive training centres in the West, draws from a different worldview. This worldview goes like this: Judo may have started out as a martial art, but it is now a sport, like any other sport. The goal of a sport is to win. There is no one way to win that is better than the others. And so because there are no restrictions on winning methods, you should study the rules to figure out all the viable winning strategies, and then train all viable strategies equally. You should learn how to throw. You should learn how to deny a throw. You should learn how to waste time. You should learn how to read the referee. You should learn how to play the referee. You should learn how to win on the ground. In order to win on the ground, you should learn how to take people down to the ground — legally, and with a minimum of risk to yourself. And finally, you should learn how to play tactically, if no scoring opportunities are available to you.
What I learnt rather quickly was that there were training methods for all of these things, that have been developed in competition training centres in the West — and are actually widely known amongst the coaches, referees and athletes that compete at the highest levels of the sport. The methods just weren’t that well known in this part of the world.
My coach’s plan for me was simpler than this, of course. I was an older, rustier judoka, and I only had three months to train. We would focus on all the aspects of the game that the other clubs do not, and we would focus on prepping for a game plan that my coach drew up specifically for me. This would give me the best fighting chance I would ever have. The odds would still be low, but it would be a grand experiment.
I moved to KL on the 1st of November, and started training one day later.
Deliberate Practice in Practice
The first thing that I learnt about deliberate practice is that deliberate practice (DP) exercises are granular, and designed to closely simulate real world contest situations.
These are all obvious things, if you’ve read even a cursory amount from the DP research literature. But what I didn’t expect was how clear the feedback from these drills would be. It’s one thing to know that “DP exercises break skills down into specific sub-skills, and are designed to train each specific sub-skill before building everything back up again” and quite another to experience the effect it has on feedback in practice.
I’ll give you a simple example. There are times in a Judo match when you realise that you cannot throw your opponent, and your advantage might lie with attacking them on the ground. In order to do this you need to:
- Bring them, legally, to the ground
- Be fast enough to get to a dominant attacking position on the ground
- If necessary, to keep them on the ground (which means to keep them on all fours)
- Execute the newaza technique (be it pin, choke, or armlock).
Naturally, there are drills designed to train each of these four aspects of the skill. But doing well in the drills and being able to execute the technique during free sparring are two very different things. What might not be so obvious, however, is that the existence of the drills makes it easier to diagnose failure in a live setting, since each drill represents and trains for a specific sub-skill. I discovered that it was rather easy for me (or my coach) to review game tape and go “ok, so my problem is ... X”, where X is some sub-skill that is broken down by some existing drill.
A second thing that I learnt about DP is exactly what ‘granular exercise’ meant. My friend Lesley, who once coached the Singaporean Women’s Ultimate World Championship team, has this thing where she says that you want drills that either train atomic skills or full scale, competition scenario simulations, but nothing in-between. This has held broadly true with my current training experience.
In her sport, training atomic skills means practicing things like throwing technique (e.g. pass a disc back and forth 100 times in three minutes). Training competition simulations means setting up, say, a zone defence scenario that may occur in competition, and then have players practice that repeatedly, for 10 minutes at a time. What Lesley takes care not to do is to do the kind of ridiculously elaborate, formation passing drill that so many other Ultimate coaches like to do, where the entire team runs a set passing pattern up or down the field. “What’s the point?” she says, “It’s not as if that’s going to happen in a match, ever.”
In traditional Judo, a huge part of training consists of ‘uchikomi’, or repeatedly entering into a throw and sometimes lifting, but without ever finishing the technique. My coach mostly ignores this exercise. (“What’s the point?” he says, “It’s not as if that’s going to happen in a match, ever.”) Instead, drills consist of atomic skills (perform a throw at full force, into a crash pad), or simulations (you have 30 seconds on the clock, both of you have no scores, but you are down two penalties, what do you do?) There are a huge variety of atomic skill drills, or simulation drills, but there are no exercises in between.
A few months after Lesley told me about her training philosophy, I discovered that the US Marines believe the same thing. From Warfighting:
Training programs should reflect practical, challenging, and progressive goals beginning with individual and small-unit skills and culminating in a fully combined arms MAGTF. In general, the organisation for combat should also be the organisation for training. That is, units, including MAGTFs, should train with the full complement of assigned, reinforcing, and supporting forces they require in combat.
Collective training consists of drills and exercises. Drills are a form of small-unit training which stress proficiency by progressive repetition of tasks. Drills are an effective method for developing standardised techniques and procedures that must be performed repeatedly without variation to ensure speed and coordination. Examples are gun drills, preflight preparations or immediate actions. In contrast, exercises are designed to train units and individuals in tactics under simulated combat conditions. Exercises should approximate the conditions of war as much as possible; that is, they should introduce friction in the form of uncertainty, stress, disorder, and opposing wills. This last characteristic is most important; only in opposed, free-play exercises can we practice the art of war. Dictated or “canned” scenarios eliminate the element of independent, opposing wills that is the essence of war.
When you take all of this in, it’s not that surprising that DP is the gold standard for practice. And how can it not? You’re training for real competition scenarios, with clear, unambiguous feedback, under the guidance of a watchful coach. Most importantly, many of the scenario drills isolate what is tricky or rare in normal competition scenarios, so that you get in an adequate amount of practice for those scenarios. This is, of course, common sense: advanced driving courses focus on rare and tricky driving scenarios, so that trainees know what to do when they find themselves in such scenarios in the real world. Similarly, advanced Judo training isolates relatively rare scenarios — on top of strong base foundations — so that you know what to do when you encounter them in an actual match.
I sometimes wish that such clarity of training and feedback exists in other skill domains. How much easier it would be to get good at organisational design, or org politics, or software architecture, or, hell, the art of business, if you could isolate and train for specific scenarios the way it is possible to do in sports? I suspect that, to some degree, you can — my coach told me that coming up with new drills is relatively easy if you are well-steeped in the skill. You merely have to ask yourself: “what captures something that players will have to do in a real match?”
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your frame of reference), my current experience underscores how productive it is when others have worked out the sub-skills and drills necessary for you to improve. Some of these drills are not so easy or obvious to come up with — at least, not if you are a novice in the domain. Lesley’s ‘100 disc throws in three minutes’ drill is a fine example: she tells me that it works at so many levels for the sport of Ultimate (“you can get so much practice in a tiny amount of time; you can add variations and constraints to focus on different sub-skills; because the task is to throw as fast as possible, you’re practicing at game speed, so your mistakes are game speed mistakes.”) None of these benefits were obvious to me when she first told me about the drill. I’m not convinced I could come up with it if I were an Ultimate coach.
The final lesson I’ve learnt from this training camp is simply that deliberate practice is painful to do. This is actually rather well known — read any accounting of DP and you’ll see phrases like “DP pushes you to the edge of your ability” and “DP should feel tiring and draining to do”. But it is one thing to read about this pain, and another to experience it.
With Judo, the pain is compounded. Judo is both painful in a physical sense — Judo is a fighting sport, after all — but more deeply in a psychological sense. The flip side of DP having clear, unambiguous feedback is that failure is also clear and unambiguous. And since I had so much to learn, and so little time to do it, I experienced tremendous pressure and continuous, crushing failure from day one.
This was a lot harder on me than I expected.
Deliberate Practice Demands Mental Toughness
Everything I’ve said about my experience so far sounds wonderful and nice and intellectual satisfying to discover. But it really wasn’t.
I started a training log at the beginning of this Judo experiment. It took me about a month before I started showing signs of breaking. My entry from the December 4, 2022 was the first instance I could find of the word ‘quit’; it read:
Today was supposedly a light and easy class, but it was anything but. I felt increasingly battered and tired as time went on. During Randori, I let A pin me and get me, and J as well. I couldn't do anything against anyone during standing Randori too.
This is a real problem. This is the first time I considered thoughts of quitting and giving up. I'm only 33 (-2 days because of my stomach bug, so 31 days) into my training, and I'm already considering giving up. I am mentally weak. This is a mental strength issue.
The honest truth is that I do not believe that I can win. I do not believe that I can get good enough by the time the competition rolls around.
Why do I think this?
I think this because training is terrible and I don't seem to be improving fast enough. Also, my sleep and my work is not going well, which does affect how I view training.
I think a number of factors led to this entry:
- My sleep schedule was screwed up, leading to my being unable to wrap up the case library beta experiment and making me feel like I’d let this Judo experiment compromise other aspects of my life.
- Of course, the general lack of sleep didn’t help.
- I wasn’t used to the specific type of hard physical training that is Judo — sure, I was a competitor when I was a teenager, but it has been a decade since I experienced that life.
- Loss in Judo is more personal than in other sports. Defeat in a sport like tennis feels bad, but defeat in a fighting sport is crushing in ways that most people do not comprehend. My coach liked to say that “at the end of the day, Judo is a fight, and humans respond very differently to losing in a physical fight.”
- I experienced daily, visceral failures, of exactly the form that is rather difficult to deal with. Career or business failure is one thing — it is often diffuse, drawn out over many months. Visceral, physical failure where you are dominated, choked, or arm locked multiple times in a day is a different thing entirely. Perhaps when I was a teenager I was used to this, but the intervening decade of life and work — with its attendant diffuse successes and failures — had caused me to forget it.
- And on top of that, I lacked the mental fortitude to ignore pain in order to fight well.
That last point is an interesting one. Different sport cultures treat pain and injury differently. Combat sports is one where fighting through pain is lauded; martial cultures generally praise things like ‘fighting spirit’ and ‘mental fortitude’. Fighting well when the odds are stacked against you is what they mean when they say this. I did not display any of this. I remember one simulated match, late in November, where I came into the contest area with a sore back; everyone could tell that I had given up even before the match began. I simply did not want to be there.
What did all of this mental weakness actually looked like in practice? What it looked like was that I would come into the dojo on some days looking absolutely defeated. I often felt sorry for myself. I dreaded coming to training. I expected to fail during drills, and did. My body language looked — as my coach put it — ‘like a wounded animal on the mats’.
And it was all quite humiliating. One of my more painful memories from the period was my coach pulling me aside and chewing me out: “You are mentally weak, you know that? You’re not going to progress if you don’t fix this.” I nodded dumbly. It was difficult to admit to myself that I was mentally weak. I mostly saw myself as a resilient person — had I not overcome all sorts of business and organisational challenges in the past decade? But here was incontrovertible proof that I was weak — that I could not cope with the very training that I signed up for.
Things came to a head in January. During a grip fighting drill in late December, my training partner — a larger, stronger player — accidentally hit me in the face. I fell to the ground and spat out the chipped portion of a tooth. The dojo started spinning shortly after; I had to lie down to stop things from spinning. It turned out that I had a concussion.
Post concussion symptoms persisted for a few days afterwards. I would feel nauseous during training, would suffer from brain fog the longer I worked out, and often had to ask for breaks. After a few days of mostly feeling terrible (I was so out of it that I was chewed out by my coach more frequently than normal) I asked for two days off, and went to see a doctor shortly after.
The doctor cleared me rather quickly. As it turns out, post concussion symptoms mostly aren’t dangerous; the CT scan turned out fine. But the event marked a turning point in my training. My coach came to realise that he had neglected mental training with me, mostly because he never needed it as a player (I expressed wonder at this when he told me; he really is made of some stronger stuff). “The good thing about this is that we are humans, and we can change.” he said, “You now know that you are mentally weak, and you can work on that.” He started work on mental strength with me shortly after.
I believe the training worked. I headed back to my home town for a two-week break over the Chinese New Year in January, and resumed training on the 1st of February. As I write this, I am two weeks in on my final month. The training, so far, has been good. The physical work is just as tough, but failure no longer feels as bad. I’ve increased my training volume. And most importantly, I no longer feel sorry for myself.
I fixed my sleep, scaled down Commoncog work expectations, and cut out everything else from my life. The three biggest things that my coach told me to do that made a difference, were, to my surprise:
- I regulated my body language. (“If you’re in pain, don’t show it. If you’re tired, don’t show it. If you’re hungry, nobody should know.”)
- I started to apply the following mental frame, from a video clip of a tennis coach that he sent me: “The difference between the champions and all the other players, is that the champions find a way to win when they play their worst tennis. You have to focus on what you can control. The most common mistake is to try to feel good, or try to play good. But this is not something you can control. My number one advice is don’t focus on yourself, but focus on the strategy to win the points, knowing what you have today. Because when you focus on you and your problems, you don’t focus on the opponent. My second piece of advice work on your body language and your attitude. The body language comes from the way you speak to yourself. So find a way to talk to yourself in a way that helps you have the best possible body language, which will help you also keep positive, and help you keep the focus on the game and not on yourself. The champions, on a bad day, focus only on those two things, and forget all the rest that they have no control over.” I don’t know why applying this frame works, but it does.
- Finally, and most bizarrely, I started building a ritual before each day’s training. I created a three song playlist that I would listen to on loop on the way to the dojo, and I would use the music as a prompt to think about fighting hard for the day. I got this idea from a podcast interview with Josh Waitzkin, who used an Eminem song as an aural trigger for his martial arts competitions. It seemed like a good idea when I first heard of it. I’m pleased to report that it works.
I can’t deny the possibility that perhaps I’d gotten used to the toughness of Judo and the constant failure associated with deliberate practice; I’m not entirely sure. But I’m going to need all the mental toughness I can get — training is only going to ramp up in the few remaining weeks before the competition.
At this point of the essay, I’d like to ask for some leeway. My publishing schedule on Commoncog will be sporadic and delayed for the next four weeks, since the Nationals will be held on the 11th of March. I have many more thoughts on deliberate practice and data driven business operations, but I’ll have to focus on training and on adequate recovery so I do not get injured. Expect slower pieces over the next few weeks.
As always, I’ll tell you how it goes once it’s all over.
I hope to see you on the other side.
A few random bits that I couldn’t find a way to include in the main piece:
- I haven’t fully thought this through, but I do suspect it’s possible to take some of the attributes of ‘proper’ deliberate practice drills and apply it to business or career contexts. The main benefit of this intensive three month training stint is that I have a deeply internalised sense for what makes for an effective drill; I do not think this is something that I could’ve picked up as easily through reading alone. Expect a more actionable and useful piece once I have the time and distance to process my experience.
- About two months in, my coach decided — on account of my slow progress — that I needed to move down one weight category. So going on a diet became an added challenge (“You wanted the full competition Judo experience, well, now you’ve got it!”). As a result, I’ve lost a lot of weight. I started this training experiment at a mildly overweight 80kg, but I currently sit around 66kg with very little body fat, a sizeable reduction over the course of three months (my normal, healthy weight is around 74kg; I am 173cm tall). I have one cheat day a week, and let me just say — junk food has never tasted this good.
- Training volume: five hours every day, starting from 4pm; two to three hours of competition training on Saturdays; two hours of light, recreational class on Sundays.
- I think the main benefit I’ll be taking away from this experiment (apart from the deeper understanding of deliberate practice) is the mental strength work I’ve been doing with my coach. But I’m not entirely sure how this will be helpful in business, seeing as failure in business is so much more diffuse and drawn-out than in sport. It will take time before it becomes clear how this helps me; dealing with high intensity, physically humiliating failure for short periods of time is a different thing from dealing with low intensity, psychologically draining failure over a period of years.
The next part in this series is available here: Creating New Drills for Deliberate Practice (members only), and the follow-up to this experiment is available here: Mental Strength in Judo, Mental Strength in Life.
Originally published , last updated .