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Judo in the time of Covid-19: Shany Hershko
22 Apr 2020 08:25
Shany Hershko is one of the success coaches of Israel. Capturing the World title and Olympic bronze with Yarden Gerbi was a key performance for Israelian judo. He works every day on a new generation and despite the Covid-19 period he must prepare the generations as well in a mental way. JudoCrazy’s Oon Yeoh spoke with Shany Hershko about his work, his preparations and the current situation that keeps all of us on hold.
JIC: Is it true you have no memories of your life without judo in it?
SH: I started judo when I was six years old and I really only remember aspects of my childhood after that point when I started judo. Maybe it’s a coincidence, I don’t know… but I would say that statement is basically true.
JIC: Did you like judo straight away?
SH: You could say it’s love at first sight. I did a lot of sports as a child but judo was the one that I enjoyed the most.
JIC: What was it about judo that appealed so much to you?
SH: There are many things that I like about it. I’m a competitive person and I like the fact that whether you win or lose in judo, it all depends on you. The fight has clear rules and there is no such thing as a draw. You either win or lose. And even if your opponent is stronger or more skilled, it’s still possible to beat them if you are smart and fight them well. Judo is a great sport. It makes you strong, not just physically and but mentally too.
JIC: You were in the Israeli national team?
SH: As an athlete I was part of the national team in the 90s. I was successful domestically but at the international stage, I didn’t have much success. This paved the way for me to becoming a coach though.
JIC: Tell us a bit about Wingate National Sports Centre. Is it also an educational institute where people study sports science or something like that?
SH: Wingate is the national home of Israeli sports teams of all ages. It’s where our top players, from cadets all the way to Olympic athletes, go to train. We have an academy of excellence that combines studies and training for elite athletes, and many athletes and coaches take courses there. I also did my studies at Wingate.
JIC: What’s the Israeli approach to identifying talent?
SH: We have a system that identifies prospects as young as 10 to 12 and we invite them to join the academy at Wingate where they can have specialized training. That way, we have the best training together from a very young age.
JIC: Are national athletes fully-sponsored by the government?
SH: Our funding program is achievement-based. We have special funding programs for each age group, and senior athletes receive full-funding including a monthly scholarship if they have good results. Olympic-level athletes are well-taken care of in terms of funding.
JIC: Do the seniors only do judo or they study also?
SH: The focus of senior athletes is judo and everything revolves around their professional training program. Of course, we also encourage them to learn and be prepared for the day when their competition career is over but it will be a study program that does not disrupt their training.
JIC: What do ex-national players usually do after their competition career is over?
SH: Israeli judo has a lot of options for those who wish to stay involved in the sport. Yael Arad, for example, holds a professional role on the Olympic Committee. And past champions who want to take up coaching roles will have no problems in doing that. Oren Smadga, as you know, is coaching the men’s team. Yarden Gerbi, at this stage, is not officially involved in coaching but she often comes to training to support our athletes. I hope at some point she will choose to be officially engage in coaching. I’m sure she can do it superbly. We are waiting for her!
JIC: How did you end up coaching the women’s team?
SH: In 2010, there was a National Selection Coaches Committee set up and I was selected to be the head coach of the women's team. I was delighted to have this opportunity and feel really proud that Gerbi was able to become a world champion, a truly exceptional and historical achievement for Israeli sports.
JIC: What do you think is the main difference between coaching men and coaching women?
SH: Well, I’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced both because I was also the personal coach for Ariel Zeevi for the 2012 London Olympics. I would say that much of it is the same, whether coaching men or women. Just a few small differences. Yet those small differences are significant. I would say that women’s emotional memory is longer than that of men. So, you have to be more open and know how to use emotions to encourage them and to make them push harder.
JIC: How would you describe your coaching philosophy?
SH: Just four words: “Invent and not imitate”.
JIC: You have been quoted as saying small countries cannot try to be like the Japanese. Can you explain what you mean by that?
SH: It’s related to my point above. But this really requires a long answer so I hope you will bear with me. My family’s history is tied to World War II, the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. As you know, Israel, as a small country, has to constantly find original and innovative ways to succeed. I try to apply my country's heritage to my strategy as a national coach as well. Before I explain my comments about Japan, I would like to clarify that I have the greatest respect for Japan, the home of our amazing sport. I think the Japanese have beautiful judo and I wish we could win competitions with that amazing style of the Japanese but in my opinion, that’s not possible. Judo has a long history in Japan and they have a lot of people doing judo over there. The breadth and depth of their technical base is staggering. We cannot compete with that. We are a small country with relatively fewer judokas. So, we have to pool our judokas together, build a personal program for each and prepare them systematically in technically, tactically, physically and mentally-specific ways.
JIC: And you believe this way can allow you to beat the Japanese?
SH: Well, we’ve done it. Look, it’s never easy to beat the Japanese but if you hope to do so, it’s certainly not by playing their style of judo because they can do it better than you can. You have to have your own way. My greatest success so far has been with Gerbi, and in her career, she has won three major fights against the Japanese. In both the 2013 and 2014 World Championships, she had to overcome a Japanese opponent in the semi-final and she did it. Then at the 2016 Rio Championships, she had to defeat a Japanese player for the bronze. And she did it too. She’s proof that it can be done but through our own way, not by copying the Japanese.
JIC: In Israel there is centralized training where seniors, juniors and cadets all train together. Centralized training is a contentious issue in many countries. Sometimes players don’t like this because they’d rather train in their home clubs. What are your thoughts on this?
SH: I believe there are many ways to success, not just one way. So, I always try to respect different opinions. But once you’ve decided on a way forward, you should persevere with it. There will always be critics and detractors. Fortunately for us, our federation president, Moshe Ponti, is a former athlete himself. He has fought at the highest levels — Europeans, Worlds, Olympics — and he is fully supportive of our approach. For Israel, centralized training has led to a lot of successes so I believe this is the right way.
JIC: During a week, how much training do the players do and what are the trainings like?
SH: During a typical week, we have 10 sessions over six days. We usually do three to four sessions of physical training, two to three sessions of technical training and three to four sessions of randori.
JIC: Do you make extensive use of videos to analyze athletes?
SH: In every battle, intelligence is a very important tool to improve your chances of winning. The use of video in the sport of judo is sometimes critical to victory, and this is especially true when you are talking about the highest levels of competition. When your athletes have very strong opponents, even the smallest things can be the difference between victory and defeat. Video analysis is where you can find those small things that can help your athletes win big.
JIC: What do you think of the decision to postpone the Olympics?
SH: Of course, I was looking forward to the Olympics this year but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, where players can’t train and where there is danger to the health of everyone involved, the decision to postpone was the smart and the right decision to make.
JIC: How are you training your players during the lock-down?
SH: Once the crisis erupted in Europe, I knew it was just a matter of time before it would hit Israel as well. So, we started preparing for it before any lock-down was implemented. I divided the Olympic athletes into pairs who would be quarantined together. In each pair’s home, we created a gym with full judo and physical training equipment. They would also be remotely guided in their training by the coaching staff through the Internet. So, over the past weeks, our athletes have been training in “capsules” that allow them to have full physical training, proper judo training and detailed coaching. It’s still not the same as the centralized training that we normally have at Wingate but through this approach, we are able to minimize the disruption to training by the corona virus.
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