Beyond psychology: professor coached Judo at Olympic level

David Matsumoto wasn’t interested in the sport of Judo when he first started at seven years old. But being the youngest of three boys, he was expected to follow in their footsteps when his time came.

“In fact, I hated it for a number of years, until I got better,” the SF State psychology professor and former Olympic Judo coach said. “You’re basically getting your ass kicked in the beginning until you’re good—it’s not fun.”

But Matsumoto stuck with it, and 43 years later, he became one of the four individuals in the USA to be promoted to seventh degree black belt in Judo by the age of 50.

He said the sport recharges his mind to put all his energy into his life and work, and he was able to combine his love of Judo with his research.

As an undergraduate student studying psychology at the University of Michigan in 1979, his interest in nonverbal expression developed. An expert on reading micro-expressions, gestures and nonverbal behavior, he has been studying it ever since.

Later, he coached as a volunteer on the Olympic level and traveled around the world, all while still teaching at SF State.

“I was one of the few coaches apart of a team that got a gold medal in 1999,” Matsumoto said. “To be there, see it happen and to hear the Star Spangled being played and the flag is raising (while) you’ve got your athlete on the podium…it is an amazing experience.”

Matsumoto was then able to study the most extreme display of intense, real and raw emotion outside of the laboratory.

As an official of the International Judo Federation, he was able to survey the 2004 Athens Olympics games up close.

Matsumoto and his team examined physical reactions of players when they know they’ve immediately won or lost. He discovered that even though silver is a higher level of accomplishment, in terms of emotions those second-placers are “generally sadder and have more regret” than the athletes in third.

“Bronze medalists win their last match, while silver medalists lose their last match and are left thinking of what could have been,” Matsumoto said.

He said the need to understand these behaviors is vital to our everyday communications with one another in the real world.

“If we don’t pay attention to it, we are probably missing a lot of the messages people are sending during our interactions,” he said.

Scott Madey, professor of psychology at Shippensburg University, did a similar study at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic games. Madey said it is seen over and over—people are not happy and do not appreciate what they have.

“It is counterfactual thinking,” Madey said. “Silver (medalists) think of a better state they could have achieved, and bronze (medalists) imagine a world that was worse, one without a medal.”

And he said if there is a better understanding of this, people will have an improved psychological state. “One with an appreciation of what we have. It goes across cultures; it is something we all engage in, despite our different lives.”

Heather Reid, philosophy professor at Morningside College and co-author of “The Olympics and Philosophy” questions if the animal-like expressions that Matsumoto studies are truly instincts at all.

“I wonder, how much these natural tendencies (are) biological and how much are cultural,” Reid said. “We see gestures repeated across time for winners, so we might be replicating the actions we have already witnessed.”

Matsumoto looks ahead to studying whether expressions of dominance and triumph occur or not in both summer and winter Olympic games.

“I believe it always occurs regardless of the sport, but we are looking forward to documenting that in research,” Matsumoto added.

Although he said coaching a team on the Olympic level was very stressful, he knew ever since he was a Judo novice that he would one day be sharing his knowledge. He took over a Judo club and changed the name to what is today known as the East Bay Judo Institute.

“Since I was young, my first Judo instructor always instilled in me one of the things we have to do as a student is give back,” Matsumoto said. “As a part of my Judo training I knew that I would also be helping others by teaching what I know.”

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