She has the heart of an Olympian, the courage of a lion and the humility of someone who knows she’s not perfect, but focuses on what she can make better, as much for herself, as others.
I first met Josie Horton, (or ‘Judo Josie’, as my kids affectionately know her), when my daughter became old enough to join the brilliant judo classes that Josie runs at school. From the outset, the class was a hit for our family.
An ex-Olympian, (last competing in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona), Josie retired reluctantly from international sports in 1996. She was still very young. And she was hugely determined. She channelled her sporting attitude and energy into founding her own business, Young Stars; teaching judo to schoolchildren at the same time as battling a pretty debilitating health condition, brought on largely by having over-trained as an athlete for many years and physically exhausted herself.
Josie is an incredibly inspiring lady. Even more, unthinkable, challenges were to come in the form of a horrific freak accident earlier this year, leaving her minus a limb and very nearly killing her. But as many of us have learned about Josie, she is simply unstoppable. She is a brilliant role model, not just for the children she teaches, but also their parents and the UK's small business community to which also belongs.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect when Josie agreed to me interviewing her for this blog.
But given team elXtr’s recent interest in exploring whether a sporting mindset makes for a good business mindset, I knew there was nobody that I wanted to talk to more.
It was a privilege to spend time with her. In truth, her honesty, her passion for her business and the children she teaches, and her astounding determination to always make things better and to never give up, simply blew me away. Truly humbling.
Here’s the write up of our conversation.
Do you think that entrepreneurs and athletes have a lot in common?
Josie: Yes. I absolutely agree with your earlier blog that they have very similar mindsets. I think anyone recovering from a serious illness or accident, like me, can also apply that mindset and it will speed them to a greater recovery.
If you have this mindset, it’s a bit like a blueprint that you can then adapt to suit what’s happening in your life, whether that’s starting your business, going for gold or something else.
What are the ingredients of this mindset?
Josie: Well, I’ve counted up 7 of them. They’re pretty straightforward:
1. Passion, first and foremost.
You have to want what you’re going for 110%, because nothing else will keep you going. You won’t succeed if you don’t love what you do, or want it enough.
Part of being passionate is being disciplined, with yourself and with others. You have to manage your time and your energies, sometimes making hard choices about who you can help or spend time with and who you can’t. That’s not always easy.
Passion also influences what you take on and how you improve.
2. Being open-minded.
Don’t think you know everything. You don’t. There is always more to learn and sometimes, it won’t be from obvious places that you need to learn it.
3. Prepare thoroughly.
You can almost never prepare enough.
In sport, that means not just physical training, but also mentally training yourself.
In business, it means absolutely knowing your market and your customer; standing in their shoes and honestly asking yourself ‘what would they be asking me?’
And above all, remember it’s not about you. It’s about them.
If you’re not prepared, you won’t convince anyone to choose your business instead of a competing one – even if you’re actually a lot better than your competition. Great performance on the day and ‘in the moment’ only comes from great preparation.
And of course in life… well, you can never prepare for everything. I never dreamed that I would have to cope with losing my leg, my independence, potentially at one point, my business, and with that, my sense of identity.
But then it’s the other ingredients of your mindset that will get you through – as well as what you have built using your winning mindset.
4. Be flexible.
You have to be willing and able to adapt, both mentally and physically.
Make sure you stay open to possibilities and opportunities and you don’t become intractable or too set in your ways.
Staying in touch with your customers, gauging their reactions and how different groups of them may behave differently to others, is important. I find that no one school or set of parents is the same. And every child that I teach is different – so I have to adapt to ensure that I give every child the best opportunity to unlock their potential. There’s never a one size fits all. And methods that other instructors use may not work for me or for the kids. Good gut instinct is important here too.
5. Never stop thinking how to get better.
Never stagnate. Don’t accept a plateau. But do listen to your body, your customers, your instincts… and then take a holistic and measured approach.
This isn’t so much a physical as a mental exercise. If you hit a brick wall, as a sportsman or as someone in business, often your first instinct is to want to smash that wall as fast as possible. You may be furious about it, frustrated, overwhelmed – all sorts of emotions often motivate your immediate reactions. Do not allow your emotions to dictate your actions. Stand back. Take a breather. And look for all possible and reasonable solutions.
If you can’t manage that on your own, find others who can help you to see your options and solutions – there’s no weakness in that.
There have been moments in my life, such as when I was forced to give up my dream of being a gold medallist and very recently, when I had to learn to walk all over again and manage a life without a leg, when other people, friends and medical professionals have made all the difference to my self-belief and my ability to rationally see new and different solutions.
My business also pulled me through my recent challenges. I’m determined to be back instructing children this Autumn, so that’s been a clear physical goal in terms of getting better.
But in addition to that, I decided a few years back that I wanted to improve my business skills and also be (responsibly!) more in control of my business. So I taught myself how to do my own books and do the basic accounting for my business. It’s been a great discipline for me. It’s also meant that in low moments during my recovery, having financial deadlines to meet and important tasks needed to keep my business healthy and in action has preserved my focus and given me a clear and immediate purpose. I have the comfort that my accountant always signs off on what I do, but I’m always determined to learn new things that will make my business, and me, better.
6. Be yourself; be human.
Your personal brand is everything, in business as much as in sport. Protect it. Act with integrity, honesty and empathy in everything that you do. If you don’t, you can lose your sense of identity and that can bring everything you’ve striven so hard to achieve crashing down on you.
And don’t allow anyone else to compromise your personal brand and integrity. Live by your values – the ones that you’d want others to apply to you.
7. Be ready to make mistakes (and to apologise)
It’s OK to make mistakes, in sport as well as in business. Failing is an important part of learning and getting better. So you can’t be afraid of it. Even the best sport-stars and entrepreneurs fail. The measure of how strong and how good you really are, and what you’re really capable of, is how fast and how well you get back up and deal with it.
Be big enough to admit mistakes where they affect others too. An apology that is well-made and genuine can actually increase your credibility and the trust that others place in you, including your customers.
Can anyone develop this mindset?
Josie: Yes, they can. If they want to. But they have to really want to. If you’re not committed and passionate about why you’re doing something, you’re never going to get there.
I’ve applied this mindset to my years of training as a martial artist, to starting my own business (which was scary at times, especially as I had no experience of how to do this) and to my recent recovery process.
Did you ever see yourself as an instructor and an entrepreneur?
Josie: No. Never. I wanted a gold medal. And just like any athlete, I wanted it really badly. It was the ultimate prize and at the time, I saw it as the ultimate validation of all my efforts.
Growing up and whilst I was still competing, that’s all I ever wanted. I started judo when I was eight. It was my life.
You had to retire from international sports before you achieved that dream. What happened?
Josie: I over trained. I didn’t take a holistic approach to the way that I was training. I’d reached a plateau with my performance and so I was smashing myself (against what might as well have been a brick wall for all the damage that it was doing me), rather than looking at what other solutions might have worked better.
At the time, it was awful, mentally, because I still felt that I should be winning and I should be able to break through my limitations. I was relentless at trying to find solutions, from different diets to alternative therapies. But I was only tackling the problem with physical solutions.
When everyone realised what I was doing and what might have worked better, it was too late. My body was burned out and my immune system couldn’t cope. I ended up with glandular fever and chronic muscle fatigue.
Training techniques are so much better these days and a more balanced and holistic approach is a higher priority. Maybe if I’d known then what I know now, things might have worked out differently.
But you can’t look back.
I love my job and what I do now.
And what you do now is run your own business …
Josie: Yes. At the suggestion of a friend, I started teaching judo on an informal basis in a few schools. After a while, I decided that I wanted more control and more certainty. So I set up a company, Young Stars. I bought a van and the mats etc and by the year 2000, I was properly trading as my own a business. I’ve never looked back.
Working with children is just amazing. When you’re teaching them and they suddenly just nail a move, or they make something up that you’ve never seen before, it’s just brilliant. It’s a challenge that I never imagined but I can’t think of anything more rewarding.
And then this year, you’ve had to cope with a very different, physical challenge…
Josie: Yes. In February, I had an awful, freak encounter with a London bus which meant my left leg had to be amputated below the knee. I’m told I’m lucky that I didn’t lose a lot more of my leg; and more fundamentally, that I survived at all. Between my friend, who immediately tied a scarf round my leg to try and stem the bleeding and the Royal London Hospital team, who were also amazing, they literally saved my life.
Ever since then, every day has presented new challenges in terms of the healing process and learning to be mobile and independent again. It’s a hugely frustrating experience because the healing can’t be rushed. Take it too fast, and the injury doesn’t have chance to properly heal. I’m having to fight my impatience and make sure that I approach this the right way.
Josie: Well clearly I’m not going to stop being an instructor and I’m determined to be fully mobile again by the Autumn. Prosthetic technology is great and I should be able to manage fine in time.
A couple of people have suggested that I also consider coaching and speaking about overcoming mental and physical challenges – to children as well as adults. I think I’d really like that and it would be a good way to use what I have learned and experienced to help others.
But I know I’m lucky to be alive…so I’m going to make the most of it and make sure that I get myself back to being able to do all the things that I know I can do. It’s all about having the right mindset, the right focus and the right goals.
You can get hold of our infographic of Josie's '7 ingredients to a winning mindset' here.
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