In the moments before he steps on the mat at a judo competition, Phil Leeman puts on his music and mentally goes over every move, grip and throw, right down to the bow at the start of the fight.
Mental focus is just as important as technique in a competition; Phil describes judo as “physical chess.” He’ll need a strong focus this weekend when he fights in the under-17 national judo championships in Lethbridge, Alberta.
Leeman is ranked third in Ontario in the U17, 66-kilogram class. His toughest opponents will be the two Ontario judoka ranked above him – Luke Heatherington and former teammate Johnny Nagy.
Leeman and Heatherington have traded points this season, while Nagy has beaten both of them. That doesn’t mean that he can’t be beat, however; the last time Nagy and Leeman squared off, they went the full three minutes and into golden score, where the first point wins.
“If we go that far into a fight, I feel that I can beat him,” Leeman said. “A guy might be better than you, but if he makes one mistake and you see that mistake, you can beat him.”
Leeman is frequently one of the youngest competitors in his age category, being the victim of an unfortunate birthday. Judo Canada places him in the under-17 class, even though he won’t turn 14 until August. However, the age difference doesn’t faze him.
“I normally fight guys older than me. Being 14 and fighting guys who are 15, 16 doesn’t really bug me,” he said.
Although he has no interest in stepping in the octagon, Leeman enjoys watching mixed martial arts, particularly Canadian welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. Leeman would like to see the Quebec fighter confirm speculation that he will try for an Olympic medal as a member of Canada’s wrestling team in 2012.
“Representing your country at an international level is an honour,” Leeman said.
Competing in the Olympics is something Leeman would like to do himself someday, although that’s a few years away. Leeman got his first taste of international competition in March at a tournament in Germany, which was followed by a week-long training camp. It was an opportunity to study different techniques and styles and try them out against opponents from a number of different countries. Not surprisingly, the Japanese judoka were head and shoulders above the competition; more surprising was that Kazakhstan dominated as well.
Leeman trains at Kaizen judo club in Waterloo four times a week and does weight training twice a week on top of that. He also helps out with his sister Olivia’s class, teaching or correcting technique where he can. Leeman just finished his first year of high school and discovered he had to step back from judo a bit to get his school work done, but keeping a balance was easier than he expected.
His coach, Bob Zettl, wants to see Leeman work on his technique, build strength, work on his mental focus and most importantly, get more experience in international events. Leeman has progressed with each tournament he’s participated in, and getting exposure to international competition was an important step.
“He knows what he has to do now,” Zettl said.