By Mark V. Lonsdale, Head Coach
I received an email some time back from an individual declaring, “I want a black belt in judo.” That was the total extent of the email, to which I assume I was expected to respond. My less than patient response was, “Then get off the computer and go find a judo dojo.”
But the lesson here is that too many people want the reward but have no understanding of what it takes to earn it. The email I would have preferred, should have read, “I have been reading about the philosophies and practices of judo and feel this is a martial art that I would like to try.” Or, “I have been training in judo for five years but there is no one in my area to test me for black belt. Can I come to your club to be evaluated, and if I am worthy, get promoted to Shodan?” Or, “My 12 year old daughter saw Marti Malloy and Kayla Harrison on television and expressed an interest in representing the United States in judo at the Olympics. Can we come by and discuss this with you?”
That said, it is not unreasonable to assume that many students and parents think how wonderful it must be to have a black belt, and then go in search of a martial arts studio. Others just go out and buy a black belt and declare themselves Masters of the Universe in whatever style and organization they pull from thin air. I was reading an individual’s online resume recently that had him listed as a 10th dan in almost every martial art including judo.
To the point – it is important for judo instructors to understand the various expectations, and misconceptions, that prospective and current students may have concerning their judo training.
Modern judo training is not a “one-size-fits-all” sport or recreation. Successful clubs and instructors have come to realize that judo students have a wide variety of reasons for taking up judo, and an equally wide variety of expectations as to what they hope to gain from judo. Those expectations may also change as the student comes to understand and appreciate the full range of judo philosophies and practices.
Thinking back to my early days in judo, when it was one-size-its-all, I recall how I thrived in the rigid, traditional training environment. As a twelve or thirteen year old I felt like a young warrior in training, following in the footsteps of the Japanese samurai. And to this day, I am grateful for the discipline, respect, and tenacity that judo instilled in me. But now, as a professional trainer and educator, I can see where those early training methods left considerable room for improvement, and some are not appropriate in a 21st century dojo. Just look at the scandal over the treatment of the Japanese women’s Olympic team.
Judo training back then was a process of “monkey see, monkey do” – and I was the monkey. We learned by watching, and sensei seldom asked if we had questions. Techniques were demonstrated once or twice, and then we did them endlessly until we mastered the move and the throws became reflexive. Uchi-komi were dispensed by the hundreds and we threw a lot and got thrown even more on hard tatami. No crash pads or soft gym mats back then. But I don’t ever recall getting hurt from being thrown, except one time when a very heavy black belt threw me with soto-makikomi and cracked my ribs. My shins were forever bruised from randori and shiai and muscles ached from hard work, but that was accepted as part of becoming a judo warrior.
The first time I recall a sensei taking time to teach anything in great detail was when I had to learn nage-no-kata, in anticipation of promoting to Shodan. In fact, up until then, I believe I learned more techniques from books and training partners than from my sensei. My favorite books back then were Kazuzo Kudo’s two-volume set, JUDO IN ACTION (now a collectors’ item). It wasn’t until I was on the national team that coaches and former champions took time to demonstrate and discuss competition techniques, tactics, and newaza in more detail.
Back in those days of hard judo, the sport was thriving and clubs had strong memberships. But this was before the arrival of other highly commercialized martial arts and strip-mall dojo. So in the past thirty years, judo clubs and memberships have been on the decline, as much as 80% in some regions. As US judo politics and infighting became detrimental to judo, the sport failed to change to better meet the expectations of the modern student, even as clubs withered and died. What we see today is that the instructors and clubs that saw the proverbial writing on the wall, and adjusted their training methods to suit their students, continued to do well.
So, can a better understanding of judo expectations aid in student retention and reverse the decline in judo?
Every student and parent that walks into a judo dojo has a different perception of judo, and varying expectations as to what they hope to get out of the training. For example, one evening two teenage girls came into my club begging to be taught how to fight. They went on to explain that a gang of girls at their high school was planning to beat them up the next day. Judo was not the immediate solution at that time, but it illustrates how some people see judo as a form of self defense. (And yes, we did take care of that bullying problem at the school)
Parents often see judo as a good sport for children that may be shy, lacking in self confidence, a little overweight, or lacking in basic coordination – and they are correct. I have lost count of how many times parents have told me about the positive effect that judo has had on their children; changes that ranged from just learning left from right, to overcoming shyness and becoming more confident. Kids that had never shown any interest in sports or physical activity suddenly discovered a love of judo and coming to training. The dojo is one place that they would never be teased or bullied as they found their inner tigers.
For little kids (4-6 years), they just want to have fun, but in the process we can impart some basic discipline and respect, along with agility, balance and coordination. From six to eight years old, the judo training is more structured and the students begin to learn real judo techniques. The parents are just thrilled that the kids are away from the TV, computers and video games, but in the process they are learning about focus, perseverance, team work, and the importance in judo of getting up after being thrown (tenacity). Other expectations at this age are weight loss, socialization for the shy ones, and possibly even anger management issues. The structure, discipline, and respect that are integral to judo come into play here.
From nine to twelve years students are able to grasp the more technical aspects of judo and enter into more serious training. For teens (13-17 years), they may be drawn to the competitive aspects of judo. They see the other teens that make up the club’s competition team and want to be a part of that group; and the importance of that “sense of belonging” should not be underestimated. Teens are constantly struggling with peer pressure, appearance, fashion, bullying, etc., but as part of a “judo team” many of these issues are washed away. The individual is not judged on ethnicity or looks, but purely on their willingness to train hard and support the team. If the sensei or coach manages the team correctly, then winning or losing at a tournament takes second place to their courage and willingness to step onto the mat and give it their best shot. In judo we reward effort.
Next is the Senior competition group, 18 to 30 years of age, who are wholly focused on competition judo, squad training, national and international championships, and making the US team. Their expectations from judo will run to competitive development, hard randori sessions, training camps, and raising the funds for travel to championships. To meet these needs, the judo instructor will want to develop and hone his or her high performance coaching skills.
Older adults, for the most part, take up judo as a form of exercise and recreation. They are attracted to the safe, non-threatening environment and sense of camaraderie exhibit by other club members. They seek exercise in a clean, safe, well structured environment, as opposed to walking into a “fight club” and getting thrown to the wolves. But again, how the sensei manages the class will have a significant impact on student retention.
As an example on how not to manage an adult judo class, I had a friend in his early fifties who had been an Ikkyu in Aikido but thought he might like to try judo. I pointed him at a local club in his area, but his first night did not go well. Without any real introduction to judo, within the first half-hour, the head sensei selected my friend for newaza randori and literally ground him into the mat. He then made him do newaza randori with a heavy-weight brown belt who was a former wrestler. Once more my friend was put through the proverbial wringer. That was the first and last time he ever tried judo and, unfortunately, indicative of how not to handle a new student.
This same problem is found at other clubs where they see anyone who walks through the door as “fresh meet.” This fight club mentality is not part of judo, unless the class is advertized as national squad training or a competition-focused hard randori training session.
Women may share some or all of the above expectations, but quite often they are seeking a self defense component to their training. At my club we run separate women’s self defense classes, but we also teach what we call “applied judo.” This refers to applying conventional judo techniques in a self defense environment. This usually begins with the applications of osoto-gari, o-goshi, and ippon-seoinage as a defense against a variety of strikes and grabs. We also show how grip breaking techniques can be used to break contact with an attacker, and how the stances and steps (tsugi-ashi) used in judo provide superior balance in a street fight. Then, through judo training and randori, women become more comfortable fighting with their male counterparts. In the process they develop the fitness, strength, self confidence, and mental toughness to survive a street confrontation.
Although not new, Masters/Veterans Judo is going through a revival, so it is important for a judo club to cater to older judoka and competitors. Again, it is important that randori sessions are age-appropriate and that every effort be made to avoid unnecessary injuries. Then there are other aspects of judo, such as kata, refereeing, and coaching that older judoka may choose to pursue. A well rounded instructor should be able to handle all of these needs, or at least facilitate the club members’ attendance at the required training and certification clinics.
To conclude, every effort should be made to make judo training a safe, enjoyable, and all-encompassing experience. It is also recommended to divide students into groups and classes to better focus on the various age-appropriate aspects of judo. Having five-year olds on the mat with teenagers can be dangerous, especially if the mat is small; and adults prefer to train with other adults of a similar level of experience. Similarly, kata training does not meld well with randori training, and some self defense classes are best run for women only. So when a new student walks through the door, take the time to ask him or her what they expect to get out of judo; then be honest as to whether you can meet those expectations.