MASTERS JUDO – USE IT OR LOSE IT
Expectations & Limitations (Part 1 of 2)
Mark Lonsdale, Judo Training Development
Senior judoka in their forties, fifties, sixties, and even seventies are an important and respected part of the judo community, and more than a few are still active in randori and competition. In fact, at many U.S. Nationals there are more judoka competing in Masters (over 30 years of age) than in the Senior or Junior divisions. Some of these veterans are former national champions but others are just dedicated judoka who have maintained good health and sufficient physical conditioning to be able to compete in shiai or kata.
For those not totally conversant with Masters, or what the IJF and Europeans term Veterans, there are nine international categories ranging from over 30 years (M1/F1) to over 70 (M9/F9). A male or female player in their 50s could be M5/F5 (50-55) or M6/F6 (56-60). But for local and regional competitions categories are often combined to ensure adequate fighters in each pool.
To better understand the expectations and limitations for competing in Masters, it is necessary to first look at this topic from the competitor’s perspective, and then from the coach’s.
COMPETING IN MASTERS
The first and overriding consideration, apart from age, is general health and fitness. As the old warriors like to quote, “You are only as old as you feel.”
If a judoka has been on the mat doing judo, consistently for the previous decades, then they will have a solid appreciation for their levels of personal fitness and ability in club randori. In many cases, Seniors (18 to 30 years) who give up competition or even hard randori do so because of injuries. But in talking to a significant number of judoka in their 40s and 50s, it is interesting to note that the injuries were often not sustained in judo. Many have knee, hip and shoulder injuries from other sports such as football. In fact, when I became serious about judo as a teenager, I gave up rugby for just that reason.
For adult judoka who may have left judo for ten or fifteen years and then returned to the sport, they will need to proceed with caution. For the individual who has not maintained a good level of flexibility and fitness through regular exercise and hard work, the potential for injury is high. While one may remember a number of the judo techniques and be comfortable with light randori, the muscles, tendons and ligaments may have lost their elasticity. Aches and pains from muscle use are to be expected, but tears in tendons can be extremely painful and debilitating.
Therefore, the longer one has been away from judo or regular conditioning exercises, the slower one should proceed on the mat. The first few months should be dedicated to low impact conditioning, warming up thoroughly prior to judo, stretching, and building aerobic capacity before attempting heavy resistance training or hard randori. One problem is that old judoka tend to remember how they used to train and fight as Seniors, and now think that they can do it again. Not true! That big uchi-mata could very easily tear a groin muscle, or being on the receiving end of a soto-makikomi could separate ribs.
Warm-ups are crucial to injury prevention. Twenty or thirty years ago the common practice was to stretch extensively before training, but we have since learned that warming up before stretching carries many benefits. The benefits of the warm-up include: increased body and tissue temperature, with increase blood flow through muscles; increased heart rate, preparing cardio-vascular system to work; increased rate of energy release from cells; increased speed to which nerve impulses travel; decreased viscosity of joint fluids, improving range of motion by as much as 20%; and decrease risk of injury to the muscles.
After warming up, stretching sensibly is the next step towards injury prevention. Apart from contributing to general physical fitness, stretching aids in performing skilled movements; increases mental and physical relaxation; improves body awareness; reduces the risk of injury to joints, muscles, and tendons; reduces muscular soreness; increases suppleness, and stimulates the production of chemicals which lubricate connective tissues.
After 20 minutes of age-appropriate warm-ups and stretching, the key to performance development without serious injury is to listen to your body. Following the usual uchi-komi drills, a veteran can begin with three or four newaza randori to see how things go. Then progress to very light standing randori with students of a lower grade and strength. This will allow time to develop the necessary technique, speed, and timing before moving on to stronger opponents.
Since Masters’ matches are only 3 minutes, the first goal in club randori is to be able to do four to six 3-minute randoris without becoming overly fatigued. Each fight will be tiring but recovery rate should be less than three minutes between fights. If you have pre-existing injuries, or receive new injuries, it will be necessary to assess whether they are contra-indicative of competition or can be remedied, taped or braced.
Once you are comfortable doing several medium to hard randori at the club level, at least twice a week, you can begin considering one of the local tournaments. The mistake you can make here is to assume that the other competitors will be old and out of shape. Some are, but others are former national or international champions who have kept in shape, never quit judo, and augment their judo training with weights and road work. They can most definitely still hurt you if you lack flexibility and conditioning.
An experienced Masters competitor is still capable of throwing hard and stuffing you into the mat with a variety of makikomi techniques, to include, soto-makikmoi, harai-makikomi, osoto-makikomi, kouchi-makikomi, or ouchi-makikomi. In the +100 kg category, and speaking from experience, this could mean a 280-pound Russian, former national team member and 2011 Masters +100 kg World Champion, landing in the middle of your chest and separating three ribs.
Apart from physical condition there is also the cost considerations incurred competing nationally or internationally. Flying from Los Angeles to Miami for the 2012 World Grand Masters cost almost $2,000 when you add up entry fees, air and ground travel, hotels, meals, etc. To compete in the 2013 World Veterans in Abu Dhabi, UAE, this year will cost upwards of $2,500. Three ways to save costs are by using frequent flier miles, sharing a hotel room, and avoiding 5-star restaurants.
In order to adapt to the local heat and conditions, it is recommended to arrive at least three or four days early to get over jet lag, weigh-in, and get back-patches sewn on both judogi. Judogi must meet IJF specifications.
A coach will find it easier to communicate with Masters athletes than with an 8 year old competitor, but at the same time, their past experience may obstruct their ability to accept modern coaching and training methodologies. The coach may get tired of hearing, “It wasn’t like that in my day…,” or, “But when I took a bronze medal in the 1979 nationals….”
Before a coach devotes precious time and resources to a potential Masters competitor, it is important to understand the individual’s motivation. Setting their current physical condition aside for the moment, if the individual is doing it to get back in shape and for the love of judo then the coach may have a good candidate. But if the individual is doing it purely out of ego and is not willing to train regularly, then it will be time wasted for the coach. There are individuals who know that there are very few other Masters competing in their region so only enter tournaments where they can step on the mat and receive a medal without fighting. Or when they do have to actually fight, there is a sudden raft of nebulous injuries to prevent them competing. The only positive aspect of this is their entry fee still goes into the pot for the organizing body, and Masters are seen as important revenue generators even at local tournaments.
Moving forward and assuming the coach has an individual willing to train, the relationship between coach and athlete must be built on mutual understanding and agreed upon expectations. This is best formalized in a written training agreement between coach and athlete, requiring a commitment to a specific number of training days each week, on the mat judo sessions, and dietary recommendations. A judo veteran who is not willing to get in shape, make dietary adjustments, or put in the mat work is a risk to him or herself and a waste of time for the coach.
The next order of business for the coach will be to get the Masters athlete to a level of fighting fitness without sustaining injuries in the process. The usual bumps, bruises and muscle aches are to be expected, but both coach and athlete will need to train smart to avoid more serious tendon or ligament damage. Joints in general will have lost some of their range of motion, flexibility, elasticity, and lubricity; and for females there is always the danger of bone density deterioration (osteo-necrosis). Supplements may be of some help, but a healthy diet, a sensible training regime, and constant reevaluation of progress will be the best course of action.
To this end, the coach should begin with a comprehensive physical assessment of the candidate, as would be used for any elite competitor. This will begin with a thorough physical examination and certification by a doctor experienced in sports medicine, and appreciative of the physical demands of competitive judo. Doctor’s clearance in hand, the coach will then evaluate the athlete’s cardio, flexibility, and technical judo ability, before moving into strength and resistance testing. This assessment will give the coach and athlete a clear understanding of how fast they can proceed with training, or conversely, it may rule out any possibility of competition.
After the assessment phase, the coach and athlete should map out a training program built around the local tournament schedule. As the veteran gets back into shape, local tournaments can be used to re-introduce the competitor to the current tournament rules, mat etiquettes and atmosphere. As with any elite athlete, a big part of mental preparation and overcoming nerves is simply a matter of becoming familiar and comfortable with the competition environment.
In the next article we will look at age-appropriate training programs for Masters and Veterans.