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Colton Brown Draws On Traditions of Judo to Achieve Wins On and Off the Mat

The American judoka realized early on in his career judo is a sport that addresses and requires mental health practice.

TOKYO — Right from the start, Colton Brown could sense the difference between judo and his other sports. It wasn’t like basketball and football, where trash talk was celebrated, contempt was intentional and respect existed but not as prominently.

Judo can trace its origins back to the 19th century, when a Japanese educator named Kano Jigoro created a system of unarmed combat. He didn’t allow strikes of any kind; instead, he required combatants—those who wanted to win, anyway—to use an opponent’s force against them. Competitors removed their shoes before competing. They bowed to their opponents. They also schooled in the tradition, majoring in advanced respect classes, training their bodies, of course, but with equal weight on bolstering their minds.

Brown’s father introduced his son to this practice while growing up in New Jersey. Jeff Brown became his coach, waking the boy before sunrise, training way past sunset. Years would pass before Colton made the connection between the traditions in judo and the focus on mental health for athletes across sports. But that very link would come to define the rest of his career.

Full circle: These concepts started to combine for him in the same place he would return for his final Olympic competition: the world’s most celebrated judo arena, the sport’s temple, located right here in Japan.

Brown struggled at first, though, before anyone used the phrase “mental health.” He spent so much of his life traveling, overseas, stuck inside both hotel rooms and “my own head.” Eventually, he came across the books that changed his life, that explained the sport he loved and the history behind it. All inevitably led back to the same place: Nippon Budokan, site of the 1964 Olympic competition, the sport’s most sacred place. “If you get really, really good,” Jeff told his son, “you’ll be there one day.”

Colton Brown of Team USA prepares for his bout with Raphael Schwendinger of Liechtenstein during the Men’s Judo 90kg Elimination Round of 32on day five of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Nippon Budokan on July 28, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.

Colton Brown of Team USA prepares for his bout with Raphael Schwendinger of Liechtenstein during the Men’s Judo 90kg Elimination Round of 32on day five of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Nippon Budokan on July 28, 2021.

His son did get good, really good, and after graduating Piscataway High in 2009, he moved to Japan for four months. He had never visited another country before, let alone lived overseas. But he trained alongside Japanese judokas, learning the moral code in play, how this was one sport where competitors wanted to win but not at any cost. Brown had never experienced such grueling workouts, nor fallen so hard for history and tradition in a place where children learned judo in school along with math. Then he went to Budokan, but as a spectator, at first. “Best experience ever,” he says. He would never have become an Olympian without it.

The sojourn did not yet translate to mental health, not then. Brown, like many athletes, even, especially, elite ones, spent so much time in that head of his he should have paid monthly rent. In 2016, before one match against a champion from Turkey, Mihael Zgank, thoughts raced through Brown’s head as he stepped onto the mat. This guy’s a world medalist. Oh my gosh, he’s super strong. I shouldn’t be here. He’s probably going to kill me.

Olympians display such strength, such will, that they can seem invincible. More think like Brown than not, wrestling with their minds as much or more than their opponents. In that match, the Turkish champion beat Brown in roughly 30 seconds. This only handed the voice in his head a larger megaphone.

Around then, Brown knew he needed a major change to reach his full potential. He began seeing a sports psychologist/performance coach at least once a week. This person helped him to draw the connections that changed his life and extended his career. Some of the advice seemed simplistic, at least at first. Control what he could control. Live in the present. Forget about what happened in the past.

He dove deeper, though, training more than his muscles, working on breathing, focus, mindfulness. At first, he couldn’t tell if these practices made any sort of difference. There wasn’t some sort of a-ha moment that affirmed the life that he now led. But after four months or so, he sometimes noticed that he had changed, in subtle ways that led to larger ones. Where before his mind would stray during matches—like, say, when he went up by a score and started to worry about a comeback, only to lose, because he worried—it no longer did. Now, he focused on his grip, his breath, the immediate present rather than the future result. By shifting that emphasis, his future results improved. “I realized that judo was really a sport that addressed and required mental health,” Brown says. “They go hand-in-hand.”

In 2016, Brown qualified for the Olympics and flew to Rio, where he finished ninth. He planned to open his own gym back home in New Jersey. But first, he knew he needed to complete his loop. Using the same tools, he pushed through the pandemic, 12 more months of training, ignoring the future he had placed on hold.

His daily rituals had transformed more than his career; they helped him approach and deal with the rest of his life. He turned his phone off every night and allowed his brain to rest, meaning he woke up less chaos, meaning his stress levels continued to drop. He tried a novel approach to communication, making things like phone calls, making eye contact in person and listening, like really listening, to those who stood in front of him. Every day, he told himself, “I’ve done everything I could do.” Because he had.

This path could only lead back to one place, of course, to the Tokyo Olympics, to Budokan and a familiar opponent that would help Brown gauge his progress. “It felt like I was coming home,” he said, “to the place where I fell in love with judo.”

He arrived in Tokyo in late June, walked into the famous arena and felt a surge of “energy.” He felt grateful, to still be fighting, for the poetic symmetry and the chance to end his career the way he wanted. Every night, Brown ran through visualization exercises. He could see the inside of Budokan, his matches, his mental clarity, all of it.

For this Games, he trained at the Kodokan, the iconic venue where judokas held their practices. Brown took the elevator up four floors, placed his shoes neatly next to the racks at reception and strolled up a wooden staircase laden with significance. As is custom, he stopped in front of Kano’s chair, the one the sport’s originator himself once sat in. Brown bowed, leaning into the connections that brought him peace.

He thought of exactly that when Simone Biles decided not to compete in some of her gymnastics competitions to tend to her mental health. He watched a predictable cycle unfold: international news, followed by shock, followed by a few unenlightened critics who called her soft or screamed that she had let her country down. “They weren’t thinking of her as an athlete,” Brown says. “They were thinking of their own personal benefit, whatever joy they got from watching her. That’s wrong. At the end of the day, we’re all human.”

And yet, for all the critics railing against these critics, Brown saw something else that looked a whole lot like progress. A wider view showed that the vast majority of folks weighing in on Biles were doing so with unconditional support. Had Naomi Osaka not withdrawn from the French Open for similar reasons, Brown does not believe the support for Biles would have been as seismic. He sees those as bricks toward understanding, the same bricks he culled from his sport and to build his judo future.

That’s a beautiful sentiment—and one Brown carried into his competition. This time, he wasn’t paralyzed by nerves; he woke up smiling, happy, anticipating the day ahead. He went to Budokan early and sat by himself in the stands, thinking back, to the way he had evolved his mind and the role of Japan—and judo—in that transformative process. “The best headspace I’ve ever been in,” he says.

He didn’t worry about winning. Didn’t worry about losing. Wanted only to show the best version of himself and enjoy every second of whatever time in judo he had left. He loved the idea of the question he felt grateful to be able to answer: if a judoka knew a particular fight would be their last, what would they present to the world?

Brown won his first match easily, and then fate stepped in, again. There was Zgank, the opponent who had dominated him in 30 seconds five years ago. This time, the match did not end early. This time, Brown grappled to a 0-0 draw, pushing the match into the Golden Score, an additional three minutes. Zgank prevailed, 1-0. Brown lay back, on the mat, trying to remember every detail. Slowly, he stood up. This is it. He stole another glance around.

The question lingered, stronger than ever: If this were your last match … ? “I knew that I belonged,” Brown said, meaning he had simultaneously lost and won the fight that really mattered. 

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