By Mark Lonsdale

Premise: Nothing grows judo more effectively than teaching and practicing good judo at the club level

Back in 2012 I penned a rather well received article making the argument that practicing good judo in the club produced good judoka in competition. This month we will look at how teaching good judo and properly managing a dojo are the single most important components of growing a judo club, and in the process, a national organization. Grassroots judo is all about growing membership at the club level, which in turn benefits the national governing bodies.

A topic of constant and pressing concern within the US judo community is “growing judo or, at least bringing participation back up to former levels. While judo is growing by leaps and bounds internationally as the second most popular sport in the world, this is not the case in the United States. Clubs that once boasted fifty to eighty members have shrunk to fewer than eight or ten active judoka; while others have membership numbers that are inflated by loyal but inactive members. Loss in membership can often be attributed to complacency on the part of the club leadership, poor management models, failure to leverage social media, and failure to promote judo by maintaining the on-the-mat standards necessary for a well run judo dojo.

While advertising and facebook pages have become a necessity, it is the nightly activity in the dojo, on the mat, that convinces the walk-in visitor or parent to try judo or sign up their kids. A healthy, active judo dojo, with a couple of dozen judoka of different belt colors being trained by a black belt, is more impressive than three white belts and a yellow belt under the tutelage of a brown belt. This is not to belittle the dedication and contribution of that brown belt, but prospective members want to see a number of active judoka, of their own age, that they can identify with, under the tutelage of a credible, respected, and competent black belt instructor. Conversely, a poorly managed dojo, evidenced by soiled or poorly maintained mats, kids running around in multi-colored or soiled gi, and the instructor sitting in a plastic chair talking to his buddies, is not going to engender confidence or enthusiasm in a prospective member.     

Case Study: Take a sad little judo club with eight active members, run by an instructor who was pretty much burned out on judo, had been promoted by “time-in-grade” and not technical ability, and not following any national curriculum. White belts had not been promoted in over 8 months and green belts knew next to no judo techniques by name. New instructor takes over, arrives early every evening to lay the mats (tatami-waza), institutes a proper training curriculum, begins training the white belts for promotion, posts the grading requirements on the wall, sets up a club facebook page, institutes modern coaching methods, and begins running regularly schedule testing for promotion. Within months the club grows to forty members. Why?  Word of mouth by the parents, enthusiasm from the students, and a sense of community generated by the facebook page and email shots to the parents and senior members.            

Now, let’s look at judo as a sport viewed from the perspective of the parents. Parents are constantly looking for affordable sports activities that will benefit their children on multiple levels, and most often, to get them away from the television and video games. The obvious sports are the variety of “ball sports” that help develop fitness, coordination, and team spirit. But all too often, the kids that find their way to judo are the ones that are not the most athletic, nor the ones that are “first draft picks” to play on school teams.  

Fortunately, Judo is one of those unique activities that provide a place for everyone, immaterial of age, gender, or physical condition. Because of the foundational emphasis on Discipline & Respect, you will seldom if ever find bullying, harassment, or even teasing in a judo dojo. So a kid that may be a little shy, a little overweight, or not very coordinated, will never feel ostracized or made fun of in a well run judo club. Judo is also designed to improve fitness, agility, balance, and coordination, along with self confidence, tenacity and perseverance.         

As one Sensei, who runs a mixed martial art gym, explained, “Parents do not know the difference between judo, karate, taekwondo, BJJ or MMA. All they are looking for is an activity where their kids can have fun and get some exercise in a safe environment.” And this is true in most cases. But in talking to the parents who have visited various martial arts studios, and ultimately selected judo, they will tell you that they were impressed with the atmosphere in a well run judo dojo, the respectfulness of the students, the professionalism of the Sensei, and the clean white uniforms.

For the same reason that school uniforms make sense, the white judogi (or blue) in judo is synonymous with a clean, safe, disciplined environment in which to train. This is the antithesis of sweaty, bare-chested wrestlers, boxers knocking the heck out of each other, or MMA gyms that are more reminiscent blood sport arenas. While older teens and adults may be attracted to the fight clubs, tattoos, and blood sports, this is not the environment that will encourage a parent to sign up their 6 to 12 year old child; and for most judo clubs, juniors often make up over 80% of the membership.     

When we talk about a disciplined, uniformed, judo training environment, we are not talking about the rigid, old-school style of judo of forty years ago, but of a more modern form of judo training. One of the key elements in modern sports coaching is termed long term athlete development or LTAD. In judo we have always considered it a “sport for life” since it is not merely a grappling sport. It is, by design, a quite complex activity that can be a recreational activity, competition sport, martial art, form of self defense, or simply a pathway to becoming a better, healthier person.       

But in looking at the under-pinning principles of LTAD, we find that any sport or activity can be adjusted or modified to suit the age and expectations of the participants. In the case of judo coaching, the term we often use is “age-appropriate training.” For 5 and 6 year olds this places the emphasis on having fun while developing their ABCs (agility, balance, coordination). As the students progress from 7 to 12 years they are learning the more technical aspects of the sport, being introduced to competition, but still having fun. As teens, the judo students may become more focused on sports training and competition development; and then by sixteen or seventeen they may be heavily focused on becoming elite athletes by the time they are nineteen or twenty. But for those who choose a path other than competition, judoka(s) can move into teaching, coaching, kata, refereeing, or even tournament management.

So, for a judo dojo to grow and be successful, it needs to cater to a variety of student needs and expectations. But all of these are built on a solid foundation of good, basic, on-the-mat technical skills. Whatever path one chooses in judo, judoka will, first and foremost, be respected for their on-the-mat technical ability. Similarly, a class of well rounded judoka with good skills is the best advertisement any club or dojo could have. Advertising, web pages and facebook may get potential members and parents to visit the club, but what they see on the mat will dictate whether or not they choose judo over any other sport or martial art. And nothing grows a judo club faster than positive word of mouth through the parents, students and related family members.     



The judo dojo that are enjoying success in growing judo seem to be those that have well structured programs, are teaching age-appropriate judo, and have a social aspect to their activities. They have departed from old-school, traditional judo and have adjusted their teaching and training methods to better suit the age and expectations of their judoka. They have also created a sense of belonging to their judo community, and nothing encourages new membership, or retains existing members, better than a competent and enthusiastic instructor teaching good judo. When a parent or visitor, of any age, walks into the dojo, the atmosphere and activity on the mat should inspire them to sign up their child, or at least give it a try. Parents should see a clean dojo and well run training session, with Disciplined & Respectful juniors having fun. They should want their children to benefit from what we already know – that judo is the best sport on the planet.

Adults and seniors should also find a healthy, non-threatening training environment, where they can enjoy their workouts, learn judo, gain some self defense skills, and if they wish, test their competitive skills in randori and shiai.  In recent years, Masters Judo has become recognized as an important, healthy and growing part of the greater judo community. There are often as many Masters on the mat at a tournament, both kata and competitors, as there are senior or juniors – further proof that Judo is for Life. 



About Mark V

Dedicated shooter, seeker, traveler, teacher, trainer, educator
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