Mongolia’s Success In Judo

Gold medalist Tuvshinbayar Naidan

If you have followed this blog for any amount of time, you know that I am a fan of keeping things simple. I firmly believe that an athlete’s strength and conditioning needs can be fulfilled without an elaborate facility or routine. I also believe it is important to observe and learn from other successful athletes. With that in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the videos that follow. The two clips analyze the success of judo in Mongolia.

The Mongolian Way

Plenty can be learned from studying this footage whether you are interested in judo or not.

At first glance, you may be wondering what’s the big deal about Mongolian athletes excelling in judo? Before you close this entry, let me explain…

For starters, the entire country of Mongolia has a population of less than 3 million. To put that number in perspective, the small state of Massachusetts has more than twice the amount of people. In other words, the Mongolian athletes must be doing something right if so many are excelling from such a small population. These athletes have also managed to succeed without the elaborate facilities that are common in more densely populated areas.

What is the Secret to Their Success?

Fortunately, there are no secrets. For starters, these athletes work extremely hard practicing their sport. They do not get sidetracked by too much supplemental work. The bulk of their time and energy is expended on the mats. That is where they master their techniques and also develop the ability to execute those techniques in the face of fatigue.

Many of these athletes have also developed strength from their surroundings. For example, in the second video, you will hear from one of the Mongolian champions (Khashbaataryn Tsagaanbaatar). At approximately the 4:30 mark, he states the following:

“My muscle was developed in everyday life.”

The narration continues by stating that many of the Mongolians have developed their legs by living in nature.  They are regularly on the move and quite active outdoors. The Mongolians are hard working people who live the opposite of a sedentary lifestyle. Physical activity and work is part of their lives.

As for conditioning, these athletes work hard with the basics. If you refer to the 6:50 mark of the second video, you will see them about to begin a challenging mountain run. The air is both thin and cold but it does not deter them. These are not soft athletes who have been spoiled with lavish amenities. On the contrary, these Mongolians are hardened athletes who are physically and mentally strong.

In many ways, their training reminds me of another judo legend. Long time readers of the site may recall seeing a short documentary about the legendary Masahiko Kimura (see here). Kimura is considered by many to be the greatest judoka of all time. His training approach was also rooted heavily in sport training and low-tech conditioning. He did not just train the body, but also the mind. He pushed his athletes to levels that most people would struggle to comprehend.

Mental Toughness

Such an approach is certainly not required or suggested for general fitness, but is often necessary for high level combat athletes. Developing mental toughness is just as important as any physical quality. The body is only as strong as the mind that controls it. Once your mind starts to break, it is only a matter of time before the body does too. Training in harsh elements such as the cold allows one to develop the body and mind. It is impossible to separate the two when you are battling fatigue and the harsh elements around you. Speaking from experience, some of my most challenging conditioning sessions take place in the winter. I do not need any fancy exercises to create an extremely challenging session (ex. see here).

In summary, plenty can be learned by studying successful athletes who have thrived in rudimentary environments. Once all the gadgets and gizmos have been stripped away, you can see what really works and what is ultimately responsible for the success of such athletes. Hard work with the basics will always be a recipe that produces results.


“I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.” – Lao Tzu


  1. After spending some time in Mongolia, I would add one thing to your comments: Mongols also learn to ride horses at an early age and spend quite a bit of time on them. Mongol saddles sit several inches above the back of the horse, and the stirrups (little more than a plate you put your foot on) are high so that your legs are bent at a 90 degree angle when you are sitting; any gait faster than a trot and they stand in the stirrups. The net result is that they develop a great deal of leg strength, balance, and “root” which stands them in very good stead in wrestling, one of the “four manly sports” along with horse racing, archery, and another that’s difficult to describe but is used for small game hunting. I suspect the horsemanship also improves their judo. Again, it’s about the lifestyle that precedes and sets up the training.

  2. I work in -21 degrees Celsius & believe you me that’s cold. Even in thermal underwear & socks long shirt / pants, jumper, freezer boots / pants / jacket, balaclava, beanie, gloves & sitting on a forklift – you’d better believe that you feel it. i have a break when I can’t feel my toes anymore. At -5 degrees Celsius I literally have to take most of that gear off.

    What am I saying? I’m saying damn those judoka are tough.

    As an aside the benefits of working in that environment is that if the boss wants to give you a hard time he can’t physically hack it. When he runs for the warmth I call out for him to go over it one more time 😛

  3. There’s various studies around that indicate that cold weather training might lead to increased incidence of heart attacks. Now I haven’t read properly up on this, and I’m not saying this applies to everyone or that there isn’t some narrow mechanism that only applies to a subset, but I think this might be a high risk, high reward kind of thing when it comes to training.

    I’m not saying people shouldn’t do this, but I think there’s a strong possibility this is a training method that should maybe be scrapped as a thing from the past. People can make up their own minds however of course, it seems to be the perfect thing for building tough athletes for instance, I just think there might be safer ways to go, even if top level athletics are inherently risky.

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