Darren Warner, Welsh Judo: The Real Performance Pathway

I remember my first experience of Judo as if it was yesterday. Although almost forty years later, the fear I felt as I clung to the side of my father, watching as other children threw each other around the mat is still with me. The enjoyment etched on their faces as they gave it their all without a care in the world. I remember how petrified I felt, clinging to my dad when the harmless little old man came up to me and said: “Hello little one, come with me”.

Fast forward forty years, after what many would already consider to be a lifetime in Judo, it is perhaps easier for me to understand what’s important at each stage of the Judo pathway. From timid child to passionate teen, I did Judo every night because of the friends I made, the competitions we went to and the coaches we had. I look back at this stage of my life with such fond memories and that’s all I’m really trying to do now – I’m running the governing body to recreate this experience for others.

From that first moment, the importance of the coach was never lost on me. Perhaps no role is more important than that of the first coach; ensuring you feel safe and creating an environment that allows you to fall in love with the sport. This seems miles apart from the world of performance but for me, the two are closely entwined. My father, the tall one whose leg I clung to earlier, would point out that my first memory of Judo isn’t really my first one at all. He’d tell you it all began two weeks before that, sat on our sofa, watching the Olympic Games. It was Olympic success that ignited my passion – the role models on TV who I instantly wanted to be. It was this inspiration that encouraged this scared little boy to just give it a go…

The vision for Judo, developed in Japan in 1882, is of an educational system for physical, psychological and moral development with the clear objective of building better people for a better society. Lofty goals but it is here I believe that performance plays such a crucial role. Our elite athletes are needed not just an inspiration, but also a role model of how to become the best version of yourself. When I arrived at Welsh Judo it was this that I felt was missing. In my opinion, the clubs were doing a great job but we hadn’t had an Olympian for over forty years!

After a lot of hard work, that’s changed now. At the Olympics in Rio, Natalie Powell broke through the glass ceiling to become our first Olympian for forty-four years and by the end of last year, she had become Britain’s first female World number 1. Obviously, I’m happy with this, but not necessarily for all the reasons people think. When her plane touched down from Rio, she drove straight to Bangor to begin a tour of the country so kids could meet their idol, try on her medals and hopefully have the dreams she once had…

It’s with this insight that perhaps it will come as no surprise that Welsh Judo now puts so much focus on performance sport. It’s our elite athletes who fuel the fire, ready to hand the next budding champion over to that all-important first coach.

Good luck to all our athletes in every sport competing at the Commonwealth Games. I can’t wait to see how successful you are, but when you win your medals and you’re stood in the media zone talking about how amazing it felt, please remember your real job begins now…

Darren Warner
CEO Welsh Judo

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