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No-nonsense perspectives on startup growth

3 reasons why your team needs a sumo wrestler

And a few why you maybe don't...

3 reasons why your team needs a sumo wrestler
Jesse Moerkerk
Story by

Jesse Moerkerk

Author Sumo in the Office and TNW2021 speaker

Jesse was a sumo wrestler in Japan. In his book 'Sumo in the Office' (Dutch) he talks about seven lessons he learned in the world of sumo. Jesse was a sumo wrestler in Japan. In his book 'Sumo in the Office' (Dutch) he talks about seven lessons he learned in the world of sumo.

I used to be a sumo wrestler in Japan. Yup, I’m not kidding. I lived in Tokyo, in a house with 30 of the strongest sumo wrestlers in the world. We did everything together: lived, trained, and ate.

My time in the sumo house has taught me a lot. Not only how to become a good sumo wrestler — or how to gain 11 kilos in six weeks — but also the mindset to be successful in your professional career.

I could write a whole book on why sumo wrestlers make amazing colleagues (which I actually did), but I’ll just stick to the top three reasons in this article.

So here’s why you need a sumo wrestler in your team.

1. Sumo wrestlers are humble

Nothing makes you more humble than getting a good beating by a half-naked wrestler in a clay ring. I had my fair share of defeats during my time in the sumo house. But with defeat comes humility. And in that humility, I found growth.

It wasn’t just about accepting that some are stronger than me (ok fine, everyone in the house was). Mostly, it came down to admitting to myself that I wasn’t as great as I always thought I was. And being able to admit your mistakes to yourself — and others — is a superpower.

Humility takes strength and ultimately gets you a lot of respect, both at home and in the office. Sumo wrestlers are humble, know their position within an organization, and understand that admitting mistakes is precious.

Because mistakes that are denied, covered up, or blamed on someone else will never be repaired. In humility, you’ll find a winning strategy. For yourself, your colleagues, and your entire organization.

Sumo wrestlers
I and a few of my fellow sumo wrestlers.

2. Sumo wrestlers are flexible

You might not know this, but sumo wrestlers are flexible, extremely flexible. Jump into a split and touch the ground with their nose? A cakewalk for a sumo wrestler.

Unfortunately, despite the rigorous training program, I never achieved this physical flexibility. However, mentally, I was like a loose rubber band after my period in the sumo house — i.e. as flexible as one gets.

By immersing myself in a foreign culture, the extreme hierarchy in the sumo house, and the (for me) elusive decisions that were made, I became a world champion of swimming with the flow. I still apply this in my professional career on a daily basis.

Why? Because you should waste as little energy as possible on things you can’t control.

There’s one important caveat though. In Japan I let myself be carried along endlessly since I had no choice. But in my Western work environment, I often hit the brakes. Hard. Because even fresh rubber bands can snap. And a snapped sumo wrestler on the floor is no fun for anyone.

3. Sumo wrestlers are curious

Curiosity is an essential skill in the office. After all, without curiosity, you cultivate an environment of misunderstanding. The same goes for a Dutch guy trying to survive a house full of sumo wrestlers.

In a biotope of 30 students who are governed by a strict Japanese hierarchy, every day something happens that you — as an outsider — just don’t understand. I waited endlessly for appointments that eventually didn’t happen, was regularly woken up in the night to be given another bedroom, and sometimes was allowed to sit in a certain bathtub and sometimes not. All without any explanation.

When things like these happen to you, it’s very easy to view your lack of understanding negatively. But curiosity and continued questioning will always show you that everything has a reason — and that this reason rarely has a negative origin. In the sumo house, the answer was usually incredibly simple: hierarchy. 

Sumo wrestling taught me to always stay curious and investigate. And, especially at the office, to look for the cause of certain decisions or behaviors. This saves a lot of frustration and the cooperation with colleagues gets better every day.

So, every team needs a sumo wrestler. They create an environment of more mutual respect and understanding. They are not afraid to admit their failures and they’re perfect at setting and monitoring boundaries.

Ok, granted, there might be some drawbacks to hiring 350-pound sumo wrestlers. So I’ll provide a small list here at the end to balance it out, but do know that these trivial drawbacks do not outweigh the benefits.

  • They WILL empty your canteen. Think Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar but times 200
  • You will have to replace your office chairs from time to time
  • Covid’s one-and-a-half-meter-rule feels very different when you have sumo wrestlers in the room
  • They often take an afternoon nap after lunch
  • And they prefer to do all the above half-naked…

If you want to hear more about how sumo culture benefits the office, come to my talk at TNW2021 this week, where I’ll be joined by 150 other amazing speakers.