1964 US Olympic Judo Team
President, United States Judo Association
May 2001

By Rebecca Smith, The Way, Incorporated

jitakyoei Judo in the US: Interview with James Bregman

Q: Who had the most influence on you? Who was your role model growing up?

bonsai12 Judo in the US: Interview with James Bregman

My parents were my greatest influence. They were not allergic to hard work. They were great role models – they demonstrated clearly if you worked hard enough you could be successful and overcome any obstacle in your path. In the Judo community, my role models demonstrated physical capabilities and athletic prowess.

Q: What inspired you to become an Olympian?

I grew up in a ghetto and had asthma as a child. I was beaten up a lot for being white or being Jewish. I didn’t have my sights set on being an Olympian, I had my sights on becoming physically fit and doing something athletic that wouldn’t cause me to go into an oxygen tent. Being outside was impossible, I couldn’t breathe. I needed an indoor sport with heavy contact. My parents gave me a lot of opportunities to do a number of things. I did gymnastics, tap dancing and baton twirling. I took to Judo like a fish to water. I felt very comfortable doing it, I understood how to do it. I don’t know if I was gifted athletically, but I was driven to do this. I was highly motivated to learn the discipline and techniques.

Q: Can you give me an example of courage in Judo?

There are many examples in Judo. An early example of courage was at the 1964 Olympics when Anton Geesink beat Mr. Kaminaga of Japan. It was the first time that the Japanese had ever been beaten at the Olympics. Anton’s fans started jumping out of control. He took command of the situation by shooing them off the mat and restoring total control. He was extraordinarily dignified. What was at stake was the decorum and demeanor of the entire venue. It could have turned into a Brazilian soccer game. There was no security as we know it today, but there was a heavy mantle of tradition. Anton Geesink took total control by taking a position and decisive action.

Politically, there is courage that transfers from the sport to stand up for what is right. To risk reputation, affiliation, background and tradition and say what has happened here is wrong and needs to be rectified. That courage was displayed by Alan Coage and Jimmy Wooley at the 1976 Olympic Trials. When they were halfway through the trials, the officials changed the elimination criteria. You cannot change the rules with 10% of the race left to be run. There was an athlete’s revolution. Jimmy and Alan simply went out in front of God and everybody, including CBS TV. They bowed onto the mat, shook hands and walked off the mat.

That took tremendous courage because the Olympic berths they were seeking were at stake. Their Judo careers were right on the line. The USJA sued a number of people.

The result, through that act of physical courage by the athletes and through courage of the political organization behind the athletes forced the retrials. It forced an articulation of what the criteria would be to run the retrials, and a commitment from the USOC to oversee the running of the re-trials.

But the real courage shows up every morning at 6:00 a.m., when the ten guys you are training with show up, day after day, after day. When you have a commitment to your training partners and they show up, that takes daily courage and commitment. The real courage is what you do on a daily basis and how you conduct yourself to the standard you have set.

Q: Can courage be developed or is it an innate trait?

I think courage is both, and it is highly individualist. Courage is developed as a matter of routine. Showing up for practice every day sounds mundane, but it takes a lot of sacrifices, like giving up sleeping late, having a great dinner or fun. Instead, you’ve foregone pleasantries to do something extremely arduous and difficult. By doing that, you engrain and inculcate in yourself a discipline, and that discipline leads to courageous acts. Courage results from discipline and knowing where you are going and how to get there.

Courage is also having a fundamental understanding of what is right and what is wrong. A fundamental sense, not legally, because legal definitions of right and wrong can be abstract, but a gut level between two human beings. You give your word – I accept your word. It takes courage to honor those commitments. Cowards play with rules.

In the business community it takes tremendous integrity and courage to take a loss on a contract and get onto the next deal. You have to bite the bullet, live up to your commitment, take the loss, and do business the next time. But if you’ve given your word, you should honor that.

The real courage is what you do on a daily basis, how you conduct yourself to the standards you have set. That will lead to doing the right thing and the next right thing and the more times that you do the next right thing, the more ingrained proper conduct becomes. It starts with little things and ends with big things.

It has to be a direct transfer – how you conduct yourself in a competition or corporate environment. Maintaining the composure and decorum and the approach to the daily grind of working it all out is the courageous act. It’s not recognized. Nobody thinks of courage in those terms.

We think of courage as heroic one-time acts, either in war or politics. Everyone focuses on the heroic act, which is a consequence of a lot of smaller courageous things that people have done in their lives.

Q: Has there ever been a time when doing the right thing had negative consequences?

bonsai11 Judo in the US: Interview with James Bregman

It takes a lot of courage to break away from a family or a group of people. When you are setting up a new dynamic and entirely new criteria, and you don’t know where it going to go. It could fail, it could succeed, and it could get messed up. So it takes tremendous amount of courage in any situation where you have large risk and unknown results.

To incur large risk with unknown results takes courage. It doesn’t take courage to know what the result is and go down that road to achieve it. But all of those young men and women in athletics, when they get out there and seek an Olympic berth or competency in their sport, they have no idea what is going to ultimately happen at the trials, they have no idea if they will prevail, if they will make the Olympic Games, but they have the courage to try, to risk failure. That takes a lot of courage.

Q: How do you find balance between training, work and family?

It is extraordinarily difficult to find balance. It is very hard to maintain and a lot of times you do a lot of things wrong in one or two or three of those area. It’s a constant juggling act.

We are all human and we are all frail. You do the best you can in a work setting, in a home setting and in Judo activity. You spin around those three corners of the triangle and have to run from one to the other. If one is falling down, you have to get back to it and get it straightened out.

It is very difficult to seek help, especially for an athlete in an individual sport, you are dependent almost solely on your own performance. One of the things you have to understand is that you don’t have to be alone, you don’t have to do this all by yourself.

Particularly in Judo, you are standing very much alone on the mat. You can’t seek help – Judo people tend to be very self-sufficient. It is an isolating kind of sport. A lot of time, the burden of the sport becomes enormous. You can burn out that way very quickly.

Q: What advice would you give young people?

I would suggest that they not do it the way I did it. I would suggest they put more balance in their lives and that they set their goals on a daily basis and take one day at a time.

Q: What is the role of loyalty in Judo?

You develop loyalties because you have coaches, teammates, and acquaintances. You have people you interact with, so it is very normal for human beings to develop likes and dislikes and loyalties. I think loyalty is a very important factor in a training setting when a team of people decides to do something as a training unit, you have to support the team and have loyalty to the team and those loyalties build into life-long friendships.

Loyalties are a result of mutual trust and benefit. Mutual trust will lead to uncommon acts of courage and it can lead to success, however success is defined. Success, not in a monetary sense or political sense or public position. But success, in the sense that you have lived a decent life and you have honored the commitments you set out, and you have been loyal to your principles. That’s where the rubber meets the road in Judo. Somehow in this sport, you develop a sense of principle.

Sometimes you can be shown logically that having a particular loyalty to some ideal is not beneficial. It’s not beneficial for you and it’s not beneficial for society and it doesn’t make sense in that particular relationship. So you really have to be able to adjust your loyalties based on knowledge and understanding.

If you are in an abusive relationship with another person of any kind and they have some control over that situation which becomes intolerable, you have to be true to your principles and your needs and adjust that loyalty.

You have to first be loyal to yourself. That is the fundamental key in getting this integrity thing figured out. It is having a sense of center and principle that allows you to fulfill your needs as a human being. You can’t do something that is internally inconsistent with your core values.

Q: What is your source of strength?

Traditions, core values, family, parents, children and loyal friends. Although Judo has evolved into a modern sport, there are, if you choose to find them, elements of the sport that are very spiritual and there are elements of the sport that result in insight and understanding about a lot of things. It all depends on how the student is taught. You can get a spiritual uplift out of almost any activity – if the setting is right, if the instructor is right, and if you are receptive.

Certainly you can do Judo and never have anything spiritual happen in your life. You can go to church and never have anything spiritual happen in your life. Much of the spiritual benefits of these things have to be pointed out by self searching and are derived by insight while doing the art. Some of the younger athletes would think I flipped out – it wasn’t in their life or part of their training. But I didn’t get through four years of Japanese and martial arts training without coming away with some of that “spirituality.”

We’ve lost a lot of tradition – that doesn’t mean a blind adherence to doing things. It means seeking spirituality and doing Judo to the point where you really understand that any klutz can smash someone to the ground and win. But not any klutz can execute a technique and have it feel like the person is throwing themselves and feeling that you are an instrument of the universe, simply in the right place at the right time, executing the right move in an unconscious fashion and having that experience.

That same transference has happened to me when testifying before congress, in negotiating deals with business corporations. It doesn’t happen all of the time, but it happens enough that I have to let go and let God do this. Unless people have ever experienced that, they think I am a spiritual wacko – other people who have experienced this in other areas are not religious in any way.

But there is a dynamic in this universe that science is not able to explain. Once you have tapped into that cosmic consciousness, you know it’s there. You can’t figure out how you got there and you can’t replicate it all of the time, but in those cases where you are doing a physical or intellectual activity and that electricity gets plugged in, you’re not doing it anymore, you’re in a higher zone. Different people call that different things, but you’re not doing it.

Q: What is the most important lesson you have learned from your sport?

Never give up. Just keep trying, keep doing the best you can on a daily basis, win, lose or draw, get up the next morning, keep trying again. Life is a journey, we don’t know where it is going to go, we don’t know when it its going to end, but you’ve got to do the best you can going down the road.

And the reality is, there are some good days and some bad days there are some heroic days and some really dog days. You must maintain a sense of optimism and equilibrium.

In any athletic activity, it’s the discipline and loyalty and the principles of the activity that transfer to business life. The corporate culture needs to be nurtured to foster a certain set of guiding principles. If your company doesn’t have that corporate culture, a very high level of integrity and a high level of performance, it falls apart. The hardest thing to do is to sustain these efforts over a protracted period of time. Camelots come up and go down.

I actually said something that shocked me later on. I talked to a reporter after I’d been successful at the Olympic and World Championships, and I said, “You’re asking me about fame and all of this good fortune and accolades and it is all very ephemeral. It will all go away, it is not going to last.”

Fame and fortune is ephemeral. But what I got out of Judo is what is going to sustain me. It sounds trite, but Judo is a way of life.

gokyo2 Judo in the US: Interview with James Bregman