A Few Hints

My last post elicited demands for more information, ranging from videos to full curriculum, on how I handle beginners and people trying Judo for the first time.  Rather than give you the whole enchilada, I’ll take the proverbial route of “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Let me set the stage by telling you a story about fencing, the Olympic sport.  Twenty years ago, I owned a sports center that included some ten different sports, among them fencing.  The coach of the fencing program was a saberist in his mid-20s.  I’d observed his teaching skills for several weeks and something bothered me immensely.  Kids weren’t fencing.  They were working exclusively on foot movement, what we in Judo would call tai sabaki.  The number of participants had dwindled and I had to have a talk with him.

It was obvious to me that kids were not enjoying fencing because they weren’t allowed to fence yet. I conveyed this message to him and was met with the typical, “Well, they have to first learn how to move before I can put a weapon in their hands.”  The Judo analogy is the kids would have to learn how to “bash the mat” before they could do Judo.  What a bunch of enthusiasm-busting, self-defeating, myopic nonsense.  There was one ray of hope, however.  My fencing coach was going to attend a coaching clinic at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs within a few days.  Foreign coaches would be part of the coaching staff.  Hopefully, he’d learn something new that could be used to inspire kids to want to fence.

Upon his return to the sports center, I asked him how it went and what he had learned.  Much to his credit he informed me that he had approached the Polish fencing coach to ask him how Poland got kids excited about fencing.  The Pole’s reply was simple.  “Kids put on their protective equipment, are given a foil (weapon) and are allowed to whack each other immediately.  This is what they want to do, so this is what we give them.”  Eureka!  It goes without saying that instruction is also given on foot work, posture, and hand positioning, but always in the presence of fencing.

It’s said that you only get one shot at making a good impression.  This is especially true with people coming into the dojo for their one free trial lesson.  For those who join for the month without the free trial lesson, you have a month to make a good impression.  In my opinion, the keys to making that good first impression revolve around making sure your student derives satisfaction from Judo, is subjected to a variety of skills, and feels a certain level of competence.  The emphasis should be on doing the activity (Judo), not on learning the minutiae of the sport, i.e. vocabulary, etiquette, belt tying, blah, blah, blah…

As far as learning how to fall, there’s no “mat bashing” in our program.  All falls are practiced in conjunction with Judo skills such as a throw to a pin.  We start low to the ground and progress to higher elevations over time.  This might at first involve training toys like Swiss balls before partnering up with another student.  Among our first throws are O soto (tori is kneeling, uke is sitting with leg stretched out), Koshi guruma (both tori and uke are kneeling) and Tai otoshi (tori is standing, uke is kneeling.)  We expand the above drills by adding an escape from the pin.  This teaches the transitional aspect of Judo from the get-go.  We use other throws too, but I want you to find them in the Go kyo no waza.  Remember to think outside the box and ask yourself what throws can be done from a sitting, kneeling or squatting position.

With proper equipment that first embryonic O soto done from a sitting position can morph rather quickly into a real O soto.  We use a throwing dummy and have the student slam the dummy to the mat followed by a pin.  The student then throws a partner against a wall crash pad.  He’s also thrown into the crash pad.  Finally, O soto is practiced onto the crash pad which is now on the floor.  The entire sequence has no specific timeframe.  With some players, all this occurs on day one.  With others, it may take days or weeks before we achieve the same results.

Staying low to the ground is important for beginners.  It’s safer and allows them to do more Judo almost immediately. So, in addition to the above throwing drills, we give beginners some ne waza-only drills, which can be performed in a cooperative or competitive “randori” manner.  Here are a few examples:

Drill 1: A lies flat on his stomach. B sits on A’s buttocks. A tries to stand up. B attempts to keep A on the ground.

Drill 2: B is on his back, A is kneeling in front of him, A tries to get past B’s legs and pin him

Drill 3: A sits behind B who sits with his legs stretched out. A wraps his legs and arms around B. B tries to get away from A.

Tai sabaki, body movement, is another aspect of Judo we hit early on.  Here are two easy drills that can be done safely from a standing position by raw beginners:

Drill 1: players move around the mat in various patterns, and take turns cooperatively attacking each other with Ippon seoi nage.  The attacked player jumps around the attack and lands on his feet in front of his partner.

Drill 2: players move around the mat in various patterns constantly changing hand positions (grip fighting)

Drill 3: on command, partners push, pull and circle while maintaining good posture and proper balance.  This drill can also include for more advanced players the command to throw, i.e. circle, pull, push, throw!

In summary, let’s return to satisfaction, variety, and competence.  Make sure Judo fulfills the reason your student is doing the sport, and make it fun!  It helps if the coach in charge is enthusiastic and reeks a passion for the sport.  Don’t spend too much time on any one skill.  Variety is the spice of life.  Frequent repetition over several practices in small doses is what the doctor ordered.   Students must get to the full activity of Judo as soon as possible.  Finally, by balancing cooperation with competition, make sure your student feels a modicum of success and competence in the sport.  Without that, it could be fogetaboutit!

2 thoughts on “A Few Hints

  1. Gerald,
    As one of those folks that has been asking for information: Thank you for helping me “learn how to fish.” I have utilized many of the suggestions given in e-mail as well as in this article and tweaked them to fit my teaching style and tailored methods for my students. As an instructor, I know I’ve got a long ways to go, but changing things up from “the norm” has definitely made a noticeable difference in the kids’ program.

  2. Another pit fall of instruction is the long winded teacher… the students, both young and old, only have so much retension ability. If class is an hour and a half, don’t spend forty five minutes talking about proper judo; rather, spend a few minutes explaining and the majority of the class time putting the technique into practice. People will figure it out, but they have to be given time for trial and error!!

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