A few weeks back I released an article titled Being a Funded Vs Unfunded British Judo Player, to which I received a very wide, positive and supportive response from many people within the British Judo community and, plenty of individuals from across a wide birth of sports. So far it has had just shy of four thousand reads! In said article, I focused mainly on the funding of trips and, what that looked like after I made the decision not to centralise back in 2013. I was almost exclusively ‘self-funding’ from that point. I have thought long and hard about whether I wanted to share some of the things I outlay in this post, however, I found a lot of connection, and relief, in listening to others that honestly talked about having similar experiences.
In 2013 I was also removed from my Athlete Personal Award (APA), which is effectively personal financial support. To reiterate a point that World Championship and Paralympic medallist Sam Ingram raised recently is, UK Sport, who provide the APA award, state that this money isn’t meant to be seen or used as a wage or income replacement. I agree with Sam’s comment that that statement is not the actual reality of many full time Judo players. Full time training is incredibly physically and time demanding, the APA award helps many athletes survive financially and, enables them to live the required training lifestyle in order to work their way up to competing with the world’s best.
I find that there is a culture, in Britain and in Judo, of just ‘cracking on and getting on with things’ and ‘not moaning.’ Largely I think that these attitudes are good things and can definitely aid an individual getting as far as they can in life. Relating to this though, I will discuss in this week’s post the negative effects I began to experience at the end of 2013, after the knowledge that I would now have to self fund all trips and, no longer receive my APA award. In the letter I received notifying me of my removal from the APA scheme it was clearly stated that I was losing my funding strictly because I chose not to centralise, it was not an issue of performance.
For now, although I believe that there is much still left unsaid on the subject, I will not go into depth on why I chose not to centralise. I stayed at Camberley Judo Club because I absolutely believed that it was the best place for me to be.
I have been grateful for the growing wealth of Judo podcasts coming out of the Judo community in Britain. Particularly over the last year I have been an avid listener of the More Than A Fighter and the Judo Talk podcasts. Honestly, I got quite emotional listening to Judo Talk with Ben Fletcher. Ben discusses (52-59 mins) his experience of trying to be a self funded athlete after also choosing not to centralise. How hard he found it having to take on more work to fund his career and, how that ultimately effected his training and performance. It played a large role in Ben’s decision to switch and begin competing for Ireland. He then outlays how good it is, with Ireland, to have that support there and, to feel included in a team. With Ireland Ben has qualified for the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games.
The relief I felt when I heard Ben say those things was incredible. It was the first time I think I’d heard anyone just outright say, “that was really bloody hard.” I, along with many others, made our decisions not to centralise and then just got on with it, because we had to. Full time Judo is a busy and demanding life. I think it’s only through the slowing down of the lockdown periods that I’ve had time to fully reflect on everything that has happened since 2013. I stress that many others were in the same boat but, I can only speak for myself. For most of that time, as a self funded player, I operated near, on, or passed cracking point. I found a lot of it to be a real struggle. I spent much of that time asking myself why I wasn’t doing as well as I was before. Why I felt like I wasn’t as motivated as I had been. I had always prided myself on my work ethic yet, felt like I had become ‘lazy’ because I didn’t feel like I could muster 100 percent for every training session as I had previously. It felt daunting and hopeless that I no longer had access to trips from the British team, I had to somehow raise incredible amounts of money to get out to all the tournaments. I am not patriotic in the classical sense but I am very proud of where I come from, it felt like the pride of being on the British Team and being British number one was ripped out from underneath me. Financial insecurity set in almost overnight and I feel like I lived constantly in some state of panic; I found it far easier to listen to those voices telling me how well all my peers outside of Judo were doing in their working careers and family lives; I was still living at the Judo club. Regardless of all I think the hardest thing about it all was, for the first time in my life, I began to question whether I wanted to do Judo at all anymore; this was something that I began to ask myself more and more frequently. I love Judo, it is in my bones, during a couple of my toughest points though I thought well, if I really have fallen out of love with the thing that I live for, what is the point in anything?
I am not the toughest person in the world, no, but I do consider my self pretty resilient. With reflection I can see that I still have a huge passion for Judo. Yes, I wasn’t perfect but, I certainly was not ‘weak’ or ‘lazy’. I was training as hard as I could 3 times a day, teaching multiple sessions everyday, an hours drive away, to raise money. Trying to eat as well as possible and, living a life without many home comforts- in a shared room in the Judo club. I was on the go until 10pm each night. It was not a question of more willpower, it was simply just too much. Not so long ago I voiced some of this to highly successful coach Mark Earle. Mark said, “Danny, international and full time Judo is hard enough without having to go through all of that self funded stuff.” For me, little comments like that, re-reading my training diaries and, hearing others like Ben Fletcher vocalise a lot of what I experienced, felt and thought brought a lot of relief and closure. Of course I would have preferred the NGB support and opportunities, if I had a magic wand I’d go back and change that in a heartbeat, we live and breathe our fighting careers. I suppose though, to a degree, on not possessing the ability to alter the past or other people, I am somewhat grateful for the struggle; I learned an awful lot about myself in that time and, ultimately, believe I am a much stronger person in many aspects because of it. I am also proud of my fellow team mates, my coaches, all the self funders and, everyone that held fast to what they believed in, embracing the sacrifices and struggle in which doing so entailed.
Listening to the More Than A Fighter podcast, many episodes raised this point but, in particular Lewis Keeble’s and Lucas Rowe’s, brought more connection and actually made me feel pretty bloody grateful. I resonated with both lads thoughts and feelings when they were removed from their APA funding (they were both at the national centre). A clear pattern has emerged that involves people walking away from the sport shortly after they lose their personal funding, that was absolutely obvious to me from listening to many of those More Than A Fighter episodes. Decades of investment gone. What made me feel grateful was the realisation that unlike many of the other self funders across the country, Camberley Judo Club, and our coach Luke Preston, were heavily there for us when we were in the same difficult position. When I was taken off funding Camberley let me live and train full time at the club for free, did their best to find us work, supported us morally, spent all of the money raised towards a new dojo on tournaments and training camps for us, ran fundraising events and tried to find us sponsors. I loved being on the British senior team, representing Great Britain at events and being a funded athlete. Those were goals I’d worked towards and made many sacrifices for virtually all of my conscious life. Knowing how I felt though, and hearing others experience the same, God knows what I would have done if Camberley wasn’t there to shoulder me when that support was pulled away.
When I think back to 2013, I returned from a six month layoff due to an elbow reconstruction and, within a few tournaments, I took my first World Cup medal and contested my first Grand Prix medal (5th). I’m the only -73kg fighter during the current performance teams time in position that has fought for a Grand Prix medal. I’m also the only -73kg player that has been in a direct Olympic qualification position in all of that time. I don’t say that as a knock to anyone, and certainly not to any of the current lads in the weight, not at all, just to emphasise how much bloody effort and sacrifice it takes to get to that point on the ladder, let alone to go higher.
For me, contesting my first World Tour (Grand Prix) medal gave me the feeling that I was, at last, breaking through to within touching distance of the higher tier senior international results. Although disappointed I didn’t come home with the medal, that is the most positive I have been after a tournament, it was intense motivation to carry on working as hard as I could. Those mens middleweight categories are fiercely competitive. I’d been doing Judo for twenty years at that point and was in my fifth year of full time training at Camberley Judo Club, something I’d given up a good job, education, relocated away from my family, slept on floors, spent time on the dole, and was living in the Judo club to be able to do. Many full time Judo players never reach the level of getting into a World Tour medal fight; it takes decades of blood, sweat and tears just to get to that point of the journey.
In actuality it turned out to be a bitter sweet period for me because a matter of days after that Grand Prix in Croatia I was notified that, because I hadn’t chosen to centralise, I was being taken off funding. Funding that I’d been on for 2 years through the London 2012 Olympic period.
At the end of that year, with that funding being removed and having to find money to pay for all trips, it really felt like I was told that we don’t give a damn about you anymore. We don’t care about you or how hard you have worked, all the sacrifices that you’ve made for twenty years, the fact that you’ve consistently improved year by year, are British number one and, are breaking through internationally in the highly competitive -73kg category. It felt like I’d given everything that I could, fought tooth and nail for years on end to even get onto the British team at all, then to be senior number one, then to start performing well internationally, then to get onto funding so that I had a bit more financial support; then, all of that was pulled away and it felt like I was totally back to square one. If I could use one word to sum up how that felt it would be ‘deflated.’ A lot of those other negative thoughts and feelings that I have previously discussed began to set in shortly after.
Worth mentioning that at that time in the -73kg category, both only one year older than me, was Jan Gosiewski and Patrick Dawson, both also winning multiple World Cup medals. Both lads chose the self funded route too.
With time, and slowing down a little, I believe I enjoy Judo now more than ever. I do some coaching but, from a competitors standpoint, I’d like to get back to aim to compete internationally again, something that I don’t believe is a totally unrealistic target. Honestly though, I really don’t want to go through all of that self funding stuff again. That is my only major apprehension. I maintain a passion for regular training and living cleanly and, I still love competing, I really want to get back out there. There is a great team at Camberley, younger and older, that I enjoy being competitive with. I also believe, like all maturer players are, I am of benefit to the younger fighters. I want nor would expect anything for free but I fail to see much hope in the self funding route.
To finish, I will again reiterate another point raised by Sam Ingram; I appreciate the standpoint someone may take on what I’ve discussed as ‘moaning about money.’ I appreciate that point, on the pecking order of human importance competitive sport is pretty low down. Something a number of us self funders have said, between ourselves, is that we wouldn’t mind if no-one was funded, at least that way it would be a level playing field. Not that I think that is the way to go about it though, definitely not. I also appreciate that I could have finished Judo at anytime and gone and got a working career, no one was forcing me to stay in competitive Judo, I chose to do it. I am a motivated and driven individual, I believe I could go away and earn plenty of money if that was my primary purpose for getting out of bed in the morning. Ultimately though, nearly 15 million pounds of National Lottery players money has been allocated and spent on high performance Judo over the last two Olympic cycles. Money, financial support and selections, I have come to believe, are absolutely essential for anyone wanting to be a world class Judo player. The most important piece of all, for me, is a player working under a quality coach yet, without financial support and selections one cannot hope to get out to the international events and live the required lifestyle necessary to work their way up to, and perform at, the worlds toughest events. The fact remains that international Judo is fiercely competitive, with much of our opposition supported well and treated like professional athletes. Would you expect a non-paid football team, who has to pay for all their own travel and expenses, to get into The Premiership?
Both working under quality people and the financial support, whatever that looks like, are vital for anyone serious about trying to get the best results that they can. Because, at the end of it all, that’s the underlying principle of what high performance sport is geared towards, the best results.
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