Do As I Say, Not As I Do

One of my pet peeves when it comes to Judo is how much time is wasted on irrelevant training: practicing skills that in the best of cases will do nothing to improve our game, and in the worst of cases will be counterproductive to bettering our game. Unfortunately, because of our allegiance to traditional methods of training and our lack of skepticism, few of us in the Judo community even recognize the presence of irrelevant training on our mats.

As a Judo educator, I constantly try to point out the disconnect between what the experts tell us to do- the demonstration- with what they actually do in competition- the performance. Geof Gleeson, the author of Judo for The West and Anatomy of Judo, may have been one of the first to recognize and publicly address this disconnect. He pointed out the Japanese tell us one thing then proceed to do something else. This disconnect has nothing to do with variations of technique, and all to do with the systematic alteration of basic technique in order to teach principles, so we are told.

My favorite target is O soto gari because the disconnect couldn’t be any greater than with this technique. See for yourself. Watch the great Yasuhiro Yamashita demonstrate his famous O soto gari in this video: Then watch him annihilate his opponents in this video: Why demonstrate, and more importantly, why practice O soto gari one way for thousands of repetitions over countless hours if you are going to perform it in an entirely different fashion during the game of Judo?

Following the 2009 U.S. Open, there was an international training camp featuring the great Isao Okano, 1964 Olympic champion. The camp was well-attended for a change; some 120 players for the first day, and an impressive 60 players on the second day. In addition to Okano, clinicians for this event were world champion Mike Swain, Olympic medalist Kevin Asano, and two younger Japanese competitors. This camp would present more examples of irrelevant training.

As I sat and watched from the sidelines, I caught a glimpse of Tokuzo Takahashi, the winner of the 100kg division, demonstrate his Uchi mata. First, players had to practice the high pull like they were trying to hang clothes on a clothesline that was higher than shoulder height. Then the forearm had to be like this, the hand had to turn this way, the thumb had to be pointing that way, and on and on. Because Takahashi plays out of Los Angeles, I was familiar with his Uchi mata, and I knew that most of what he was demonstrating would not be present in his actual performance of the technique. So, I pointed this out to a former student of mine who was showing interest in starting up a club in his hometown.  Sure enough, when Takahashi participated in the randori sessions after the teaching session my former student was able to tell me, “Coach, you’re right!” Almost all of the fundamental, biomechanical principles had changed between the demonstration and the performance. This was beyond a mere technical variation. Why?

Mike Swain was up next. He proceeded to tell us that in spite of his being known for his Tai otoshi, he actually scored more with his O uchi gari. So first, players had to practice the “uchi komi” version of O uchi gari! Wow, I had just learned a new term and a new concept! Again, the forearm was here, the pinky was there, blah, blah, blah. Then Mike showed the version that actually works and scores. But why the “uchi komi” version, so biomechanically different from anything that works? Why the irrelevant practice? Why, why, why?

The final clinician to demonstrate the disconnect between demonstration and performance was a young Japanese competitor who had won the All-Japan Weight Division Championships at 60kg. He demonstrated his Morote seoi nage with the classical “hang your clothes on the clothesline” high pull, followed by “pull your opponent to you.” In the randori session, he showed the real thing. You guessed it: the biomechanics were different! No high pull, no pull the opponent to you but rather the more effective move into and under your opponent, and pull the opponent straight over, not up. This was clearly not a technical variation, but another example of the disconnect between performance and demonstration, reality and fantasy.

I have made similar comments on YouTube about this disconnect, and have been ridiculed by the “experts,” mostly mudansha ranked players with limited Judo experience, who regurgitate everything they hear without being skeptical and questioning what really goes on in Judo. In some way, I understand how it might be difficult to question what a world champion tells you. But question is what we must do if we are to improve Judo performance, especially in Judo-poor nations.

So, go to the videotapes and see for yourself. Analyze what is going on during the game of Judo. See if that corresponds with the way you practice the game. Ask yourself if other sports have an “uchi komi” version of techniques. Ask yourself if other sports practice skills one way only to radically depart from that way once in competition? Do they alter techniques in order to convey principles, or do they teach principles while practicing techniques the way they will be performed? To come to the correct conclusion about Judo training you must understand the difference between basic techniques, variations of basic techniques, and biomechanical irrelevance. Once you understand that, you too will see the disconnect.

12 thoughts on “Do As I Say, Not As I Do

  1. I do see some value in Uchi komi in the sense that you can practice at home (on your brother or wife or whatever) and become more comfortable with a throw that you want to use. Or if you’re just starting out and Judo is completely foreign to you.

    I’ve experienced knees to the groin from a white belt just learning ouchi gari and thought “Maybe they could’ve benefitted from a little uchi komi”

    For the most part, I found your article full of good points and a very well written. San Jose Judo Club, Pearl City Judo Club in Hawaii, SF Judo Institute, and Portland Judo Club all do Uchi Komi and they make everyone Kiai (even black belts), and I always thought it was a little much.

  2. I know what you think about uchikomi. I agree with it to a great extent. It is that the majority of the uchikomi taught are not how they should be taught.

    However, I do find values in uchikomi, both static and ido (moving). For example, I have been doing a type of seoi nage uchikomi that’s different that anything else I learned in the US, and I am now able to perform standing seoi nage in randori, and the entry is just like what I do in uchikomi practice. Also, the o-uchi-gari entry we do is exactly the same as how we use in randori. However, this type of uchikomi I have never been taught in the US. I guess that makes these two realistic uchikomi?

  3. Maybe they are realistic, maybe they aren’t. Since I don’t know what it is that you are doing I can’t comment intelligently. How about sending me a video? If it is true that the biomechanics are not being altered, then my guess is that you are doing relevant training, but not as relevant as if you completed each throw. I know, crappy mats make it difficult to do such training.

  4. This is a very thoughtful and interesting discussion of uchikomi, and I know the argument has been ongoing for some time; at least since Geoff Gleeson. I have to agree that the uchikomi forms and the actual shiai forms of many (most? all?) throws are different; Yamashita’s osoto gari is a particularly clear example. But I’m not quite ready to concede that this renders uchikomi irrelevant or unnecessary. Aside from its value as a warm-up, both physically and mentally, and as a way simply to drill into the judoka’s head the memory of the 40-60 throws we need to know, I think that uchikomi slowly but profoundly teaches the body about balance, weight shift, leverage, grip, and the interaction of all these things.

    While, as I said, I agree that specific throws often do not unfold in shiai as their uchikomi would suggest, I think the practise of uchikomi provides a necessary physical and motive foundation — dare I say a “mind/body connection”, maybe? — which is essential to getting throw to work against a resisting partner. I really doubt that it is possible to become a proficient judoka, and especially one who can throw with a wide variety of techniques, without a foundation of uchikomi.

    Perhaps this is just traditionalist bias on my part, and it would certainly be interesting to see research about this, maybe charting the contest performance in detail of judoka who have been trained without uchikomi. At any rate, an important question that I suspect gets to some fundamental issues about the nature and practise of judo.

  5. I agree with Gerry. But, the problem is much more prevalent that many wish to admit. I believe a great deal of it is the model we have been given by the Japanese. Their model works for them, but there is an element that many will not admit or do not realize. I would say that over 90% of Japanese judo is done in a randori. Thus the learning is of a survival nature. If you find something that works, you stick with it and throw people below your level who fight back, but you can still throw them. This kind of absorption can only be done with many, many training partners. I should also add, that the Japanese do produce some great athletes, they also have huge numbers who NEVER MAKE IT!

    This all does not address the question…what is really happening when a throw is successful? As instructors it behooves us not to stick our heads in the sand. This does not mean we ignore tradition, but it should be questioned…people once believed that the World was flat and argued how many angels could sit on the head of a pin…

  6. Bill Montgomery makes a great point, about the large numbers of judoka in japan and the survival-of-the-fittest approach. I remember reading a book years ago by a gent named Hal Lubbert; something along the lines of “Insights on Judo–Kuzushi” if I recall correctly, in which he made a similar point and went on to detail lots of training suggestions which he thought flowed from that. Alas, the book seems to be out of print, but I remember being quite fascinated by it.

    And I remember coming to Japan and being surprised at the number of high-school, and even jr high school, black belts who really only knew half a dozen throws. Not “experts” at all in our sense of the word, but quite effective at scoring in shiai with their few tokui waza. I guess it gets back to the question of what is the purpose of judo training; and if it’s mostly about tournament success, then I’d probably agree that tons of uchikomi is not an efficient way to get there. Nonetheless, since I think judo should be about more than just shiai, I wouldn’t want to dispense with uchikomi for the most part.

  7. I think you need to ask yourself what the purpose of uchi komi is. We’re told that uchi komi helps you learn Judo. But how does uchi komi address the pedagogical, biomechanical, and tactical aspects of learning Judo? Ask yourself if there is something more efficient than uchi komi to achieve those aspects of learning Judo. Hint: the answer has little to do with whether you do Judo for shiai, pleasure, or self-defense, because learning is learning, principles are principles, and Judo is not so special that it shouldn’t pay attention to them.

  8. Valid questions, I’d agree, but from both the pedagogical and biomechanical standpoints, I’d say uchi komi is pretty useful, from the perspective of the attributes I mentioned in my earlier post. I really can’t see developing the balance, movement, speed, and muscle memory necessary to get good at the gokyo without doing lots of uchikomi. It just seems to me that, as with any other physical skill, vast amounts of controlled repetition are necessary to develop the abilities required. However, I’d definitely concede that once that base is in place, competition success — which of course is not about how prettily we can demonstrate the gokyo — certainly requires a lot of other practice.

    While I agree with you that the stagnant approach to learning judo can get very boring, I worry that eliminating uchikomi as a foundation might be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I’m all for lots of innovative activities in judo practise, but I also think the rigor and patience involved in doing a zillion uchikomi is an important part of the maturing process that judo provides (along with, as I’ve already said, the physical benefits I think it brings).

    I guess this could get into a far deeper discussion about the nature of judo, of learning, of goal-orientation versus process-orientation, etc. Sounds like the sort of thing that should be undertaken after practise over many a beer! Here’s hoping we might get that chance someday. Ussss…..


    (I could see this also turning into quite a discussion on the judo forum, though parts of it have already been debated at great length there, I’d imagine.)

  9. Coach:

    I just read your blog “Do As I Say Not As I Do.” I recall reading a similar post of yours years ago, think it was actually a rebuttal by Sensei Cunningham to your assertions.

    Anyway, I completely agree with what you’ve written in your blog. People do teach technique differently than they perform technique. Years ago I made up my mind that there are multiple types of Judo taught in many Judo clubs. There’s Uchi Komi Judo, there’s Randori Judo, there’s Shiai Judo, and there’s Kata Judo. That’s why it can take students so long to develop deep skills. You have to learn 5 different martial arts.

    For me, the single biggest challenge throw has been O Goshi. My old-time senseis insist on teach it a certain way, then forcing us to practice it in static uchi komi for dozens and dozens of reps. I always look like a clumsy white belt when I practice O Goshi this way. And I get a lot of beratement for being an advanced student (now a black belt) and not having very good form with O Goshi. I ignore most of the criticism, because I can. At the age of 48 I’ve learned to listen to what makes sense, ignore the rest, and not care too much about the stuff in the middle. I still practice O Goshi with the rest of the class, I just don’t have any practical purpose for the effort other than to keep peace and harmony in the dojo and build my cardio.

    Interestingly, I can perform a good O Goshi during randori. In fact, randori and shiai is the only time I can perform it, and I do so regularly and score with it. Not that I’m any kind of expert, but the first principle of O Goshi from uchi komi that I throw away is this idea that you practice O Goshi moving in a straight line, back and forth directly in front of uke. When has THAT ever worked? Maybe folks with short legs can pull that off but I can’t. I’m 6′ 2″ and 200lbs. Most of my uke’s are 5′ 9″ and 230 lbs.

    O Goshi works for me when I’m moving. When my angle of entry is more like 30 degrees or 45 degrees, even completely sideways. Face-to-face? Forget it. O-Uchi to O-Goshi, now you’re talking. And yeah, I don’t like to “hang clothes on a clothesline…” especially as the taller opponent. I prefer to attack uke as the means for generating kuzushi. I just don’t have the flexibility and athleticism at my age to do it the other way. It’s not pull then enter…

    I got this from one of your posts a few years ago on Judo-L. I think you put out the idea that its not: kuzushi, tsukuri, kake …like 1,2,3 in that order. You said tsukuri can lead to kuzushi. It doesn’t have to be kuzushi first then tsukuri. But… people don’t teach that way. They teach:

    1) hang clothes on a clothesline
    2) move in … somehow… better be darned flexible
    3) throw

    In that order.

    Keep posting!!

  10. Coach Lafon. Tonight was the first ever night I wore my black belt to class, and I brought this subject up. Interestingly, my opinion, plagiarized quite eloquently, was well received. tonight we only had 4 students show up, all black belts, and the subject matter was, movement as a setup for throws. Not one single instance of static uchi komi. I was quite happy. Odd, when there are no mudansha around, that these ideas seem to be more easily accepted. You’d thing there was some kind of secret society. Or, it could have been me. I tend not to be too shy most nights, but tonight was fun. And more like real Judo. I quoted you (without credit, sorry) about seoi nage and backing into the throw and pulling uke forward instead of that silly “hanging clothes on a clothes line” uchi komi bit, and they were all supportive of (your) suggestion. Well, goodness comes from all sources, no harm no foul (usually) so it looks like I’m well on my way to thinking differently, just like you prescribe. So thanks a million. The word gets out.

  11. Even in this blog, I keep seeing arguments in favor of traditional uchi komi drills. I don’t hate them, but like yourself, I wonder if time couldn’t be better spend. Sure, at some point, you have to teach a white belt how a throw works, but why not expand the thought process and spend more time with teaching techniques that will truly carry the day. Combos and counters, for example. Get to the meat of the problem faster. Why wait 5 years to show how to chain movements together? I think the classic argument about Yamashitas O-Soto is perfect. Yamashita ruled the earth with his O-Soto, but continued to teach a form that didn’t have a place in randori or shiai. No offense to him, I’m sure he felt obliged to train his students the way he was trained, but really, how much time is lost with classic teaching techniques?

  12. I disagree with the assertions. Mr. Lafon is correct to a point. If your Uchi Komi is designed correctly then it is very effective. My approach to Uchi Mata, Harai Goshi, O-Uchi Gari and O-Soto Gari are all the same. The same foot paterned, the same kumi kata, so yes Uchi Komi is an effective way to train. Static Seoi Nage is not realistic for my body so it is harder to use Uchi Komi for that.
    Mr Kano did not intend for Judo to be one size fits all, so that traditional thinking is somewhat out dated. Look around, every division over 81kg does a different style of Judo, the rest of the Judo world does different variations, so Judo must evolve.

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