Judo-to-MMA Success Story Starring 2-Time Olympic Gold-Medalist Kayla Harrison

Judo-to-MMA Success Story Starring 2-Time Olympic Gold-Medalist Kayla Harrison

BLACK BELT: Going into the judo competition at the 2012 Olympic Games, were you confident? Had you visualized yourself winning the gold?

Kayla Harrison: I always wanted to win the Olympics, especially since 2010 when I won the World Judo Championships. I thought about it constantly. Visualization was a big part of that. Every night before I went to sleep — from the time I won the Worlds until the day I stepped on the mat in London — I visualized myself winning the whole tournament. I visualized [eating] breakfast, going through the weigh-in, warming up, being in the chute, winning every match, winning the final, being on top of the podium and hugging my family afterward. By the time I got there, I’d won it in my mind 1,000 times.

BLACK BELT: So that went on for two years — basically, from the time you won the Worlds in 2010 until you competed in the Olympics in 2012?


Left to right: Jimmy Pedro, Kayla Harrison and James Pedro Sr. Photo courtesy of Kayla Harrison.

Kayla Harrison: In 2009 I fought at my first senior Worlds. I went 1-1 and wasn’t that happy. Right after that, I started visualizing myself winning the Worlds. In 2010 I won. That’s when I realized how powerful visualization really was, and it’s when I started visualizing myself winning the Olympics.

BLACK BELT: You always hear about athletes in other sports using visualization but not so much in the martial arts. Do you think more martial artists should be doing it?

Kayla Harrison: It can be even bigger — whether you’re looking to ace a test in school or reach a personal goal like losing 10 pounds, anyone can practice visualization. In martial arts, it’s especially beneficial. You practice in your mind over and over how to do the move properly. When I tore my MCL earlier this year, I visualized every part of my knee healing perfectly and being able to do every throw. My knee ended up healing in four weeks instead of the typical eight weeks.

BLACK BELT: How rigorous was your training in the years leading up to the 2012 Games?

Kayla Harrison: I trained full time. I did judo twice a day, I lifted weights five days a week and I ran three days a week, so I was doing two to four workouts six days a week.

BLACK BELT: In your judo workouts, did you separate the skills — for example, did you do sessions that focused on judo throws and sessions that focused on judo ground work?


Kayla Harrison: Yes. In the morning, we generally did hard drilling, which included throws, transition drills from standing to newaza, stuff like that. At night, we did a lot of randori. As we got closer to the Games, we did lineups: I’d stay on one side of the mat, and every minute a fresh body would be thrown at me. We’d do that for six minutes because a judo match is five minutes. We did it with gripping drills, randori and newaza. You try to throw first, try to get the best grip, try to get position, or try to get the pin or armbar. That gets you into unbelievable shape.

BLACK BELT: Did you ever get really specific in your training sessions — for example, one that focused on just judo gripping and another just judo footwork?

Kayla Harrison: Yes, depending on which day of the week it was. Some days were devoted to newaza, while others were for randori with an emphasis on throws or transition drills — going from standing to newaza and back.

BLACK BELT: What was the weight training like?

Kayla Harrison: For me, it was all about conditioning. Even in my offseason, even though I was trying to get stronger, I was trying to be explosive and do Olympic lifts. But they would also be turned into a complex, so I wasn’t maxing out on every lift. For example, I’d do five cleans, five front squats and five overhead presses to build strength while staying in good shape.

Go here to order Winning on the Ground, written by AnnMaria De Mars and James Pedro Sr. — and published by Black Belt!

Right before the Olympics, I’d do the “death circuit.” It would be 10 to 12 exercises done as hard and fast as possible. My strength trainer would put them in a particular order — it could be anything from climbing the rope and doing 10 pull-ups at the top to throwing a medicine ball to dumping a heavy bag overhead to hitting the bag for 30 seconds.

BLACK BELT: How about running?

Kayla Harrison: We usually ran one to two miles with 15 to 20 wind sprints. We’d do that …

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