Colton Brown, 25, is ranked 20th in the world in the men’s judo 90-kilogram division. Brown, who reached the Round of 16 at this summer’s Olympics and served as the USA’s team captain, is a 3-time NCAA national champion, 5-time national medalist, 21-time international medalist and 9-time world cup medalist.
Colton discusses his journey with judo including his initial reluctancy to participate in the sport, his experience competing at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and how working with a sport psychologist benefited his performance during challenging times.
Q. Explain exactly what judo is.
A. Everyone thinks it’s like karate or Taekwondo, but in judo there’s no punching or kicking. I guess the sport that you could most compare it to is wrestling. The whole objective of judo is to take your opponent down. You can win by either a pin, an arm-bar, a choke, or if you slam them on their back, which is equivalent to a knockout in boxing.
Q. When did you start judo?
A. I started when I was 7, but I got injured. I broke my leg playing football so I didn’t do sports for a few years. My dad kind of forced me to do judo. He was like, “Alright, you’re not gonna sit around the house.” When I was 12, I started doing it competitively, so it’s been about twelve years now.
Q. Why did your dad choose judo?
A. When I was young, I didn’t hang out with the popular kids. I think from a self-defense standpoint, he didn’t want me to get beat up or anything like that. So he was like, “Just in case someone decides to mess with you, you’ll at least have an idea of what to do.” That’s why he originally did it.
Q. When did you know you were really good at it and could possibly go far?
A. When I was a kid, I cried every day when I was at practice. Every single day. I hated judo. I hated it with a passion.
Later that year, after all the crying, I competed in the Junior Nationals in Florida and I ended up winning it. At that point, I thought it was the biggest deal in the world…until I figured out that nobody in this country knew what judo was. [Laughs] But it was a huge deal to me. After I won that tournament, I was like, “I kinda like this.” Then I took it upon myself to actually start going to practice and training.
You know how when you’re a kid you say to your parents, “I can’t go to school. I’m sick.” And they’re like, “No, you’re not sick. You’re going to school.” That’s what I used to do with judo. But after that, I started training and taking it seriously.
Q. What was the biggest challenge in your whole journey with judo so far?
A. A year ago today, I hurt my back doing hill sprints before a tournament in Scotland, but I competed anyway. Eventually, I was in practice one day at a training camp in France and I couldn’t walk. When I got home, I went to the doctor and got an MRI on my back and they told me I herniated two disks. This first happened last October and I didn’t get the MRI until March.
The way judo works is you have to be in the top 22 in the world in your weight class to qualify for the Olympics. It’s a two-year process, so every weekend for the past two years I was in a different country. I was two months away from qualification and I was #24. I had to be top 22 by May. The doctors said, “Well, you herniated two disks in your back, so you can’t do anything right now.” And I was like, “That’s not an option.”
There was one tournament left. I had to compete in Cuba in April at the Pan-American Championships. In order for me to make the Olympic team I had to come in 2nd. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Four years really comes down to this, and it’s the worst timing possible.
Long story short, I saw a sport psychologist. That was the first time in my career I had sought one out. I started seeing her about three times a week for a month and it really helped because I couldn’t train. So I wanted to get as mentally tough as possible.
So I got to the Pan-Ams in Cuba and I had to fight a guy in the semifinals who I was 0-8 against before that. But I had to beat him in order to get to the finals and make the Olympic team. And he was in the same position as I was; We were neck and neck. The match went to overtime and I ending up beating him.
I think it was completely mental. Actually I know it was completely mental. Overcoming all of that was the biggest challenge.
Q. Talk more about your experience working with a sport psychologist.
A. I’ve always heard about it because it’s offered to us through the U.S. Olympic Committee. So if you’re on the national team you can see a sport psychologist and get all of those benefits. But I was like, “I don’t need that.” Then after going through that whole experience, I have the utmost respect for all things ‘Sport Psychology’ because that’s the only thing that got me through it.
She would talk to me about a lot of visualization. She would always have me write on these note cards and keep them in my competition bag. She would say, “Write about your day leading up to the moment you walk on the mat. Then when you walk on the mat, write how you see yourself.” Because what would happen is I would sometimes lose focus in the middle of matches. So I would start the match out winning and then end up losing. She helped with that.
Ever since I’ve been seeing her things have been good. She would even have me visualize training because sometimes I would go through practice like I didn’t have to work that hard. She taught me to view it as a competition and to be in that mindset constantly. She got me to relax when I needed to be relaxed, but when I walked into a practice or competition setting, it was like a switch. I don’t know how she did it, but through all those exercises we were doing she really, really helped me.
Q. How did it feel when you found out you officially qualified for the Olympics?
A. It was a feeling of relief. It’s been such a long road. A lot of injuries. A lot of ups and way more downs. A lot of blood, sweat and tears. Everybody says that but it was very true for me. So I felt really relieved, but it never really set in because once that happened, then the news and media stuff started happening. Then we had to figure out our training schedules. So after that date, on average I probably had five interviews a day on top of training. So I never got a chance to take it in and I kind of regret that. But the next four years I’ll do it a little differently.
Q. Describe your experience at the Olympics.
A. It didn’t hit me until I walked out at the Opening Ceremony. Serena Williams was in front of me. All the basketball players were there…Klay, KD, Carmelo. It was surreal because it was all the people we look up to and see on TV. I was sitting there like, “Wow, I’m actually talking to all of these guys. We’re on the same stage.”
It was an honor and an incredible experience. Walking out into the stadium in front of all of those people before you even compete, that’s when I got the Olympic fever. It all went by so fast. You train your whole life for one moment and it was really worth it. The three weeks felt like a blur, but it was the best experience I’ve ever had in my life.