Neil Eckersley: Judoka, Olympian, Artist

Neil Eckersley doing his famous "Ecky-Gatame" which helped him to win an Olympic bronze in 1984.

After retiring from international competition, Olympic bronze medalist Neil Eckersley dedicated himself to painting and coaching. He recently did a coaching stint in Norway where he co-founded MIND-SET, a mindfulness coaching program designed to help with the sports psychology of young athletes.

Q: Can you give us a broad overview of your judo career and what you did after retiring?
I started judo at the age of nine. I later decided to become a full-time athlete training six days a week between six to eight hours a day. I won a bronze medal at the 1984 LA Olympics. After the 1988 Seoul Olympics, I retired from international competition. I went straight to work for my sponsor, Colin Draycot, as a plant engineer in Leicestershire. I worked in this role for over five years before slowly going back into coaching. I also studied at university before I took on the role of British Junior Men’s National Coach. For a 12-month period I was Assistant Senior Men’s National Coach for major international events.

Q: Recently you were coaching a team in Norway. What was that experience like?
I had been away from judo coaching for a number of years when an opportunity in Norway came my way. The position really interested me because it was to develop both club and regional systems in the western region of Norway, and to develop a full-time conditioning program for combat sports within an education system for an elite sports schools called WANG. Here the students train in the morning before the school days starts.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about MIND-SET?
MIND-SET is a psychological program that I developed during my involvement with WANG, a sports school based in Stavanger, Norway. I developed this program purely by accident. Once when visiting the school for a meeting – it was during the exam period – I noticed some of my players looking very anxious. I felt this was unusual considering they were very strong-minded students. I asked the head teacher if the school provided a psychological program to help young athletes during exam season. Remarkably, the answer was no. He then asked if I would consider developing such a program. And that’s how the MIND-SET was born. My partner, Anita, has a qualification in mindfulness and was running her own mindfulness program at the time. We worked together to adapt the program for my students at WANG. It involves visualization, mindfulness, goal-setting and relaxation. We are now actively looking for ways to develop this program in the UK.

Q: Are you doing any coaching in the UK right now?
Not at the moment. We have only just moved back, and I’ll probably take a break from coaching after the heavy responsibilities and commitment in Norway. I have every respect for club coaches. They are the unsung heroes of our amazing sport.

Q: So, you are focusing on art?
My art career is developing and especially after my exposure from both the IJF World Championships Art and Sport Exhibitions and, most recently, the Beijing Winter Olympics, where I was part of their artists-in-residence program. This project was developed and supported by the International Olympic Committee.

Q: Were you in Beijing for the Winter Olympics?
No, I was not able to travel to Beijing due to the Covid-19 restrictions. The IOC made the decision to have a virtual exhibition of the artists’ work instead. I was also invited to visit the IOC headquarters in Switzerland to take part in the first The Olympic Values Education Program. This was a live webinar to promote the Olympic core values and how they helped shaped my life both as a judoka and an artist.

Q: What plans do you have for judo? Do you plan to coach abroad?
I’d like to get involved in coach development or working with club or regional development because I have a great deal of experience in due to my last role in Norway. I have no plans to coach abroad. I’m really enjoying living back in our amazing home in Lancaster where I have my art studio. One of the main reasons for returning back to the UK is my father, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I feel it is now my time to support this amazing man who is supported me throughout my judo career. I also want to support my outstanding mother who is one of my heroes. Her resilience, understanding and patience dealing with my father’s has been incredible.

Q: Do you still train in judo regularly?
Not since we moved back but I’m starting to miss that feeling of being in the dojo. It’s not easy for me to just turn up to a club and train. There’s always an expectation that I will contribute to the class whereas sometimes, you just want to train. To me it’s all about finding the balance between expectation, respect and responsibility.