An Attempt to Save Judo in San Diego

San Diego County used to have a vibrant Judo community in the 1970s when I first started my coaching career. We had over twenty-five active Judo clubs. Our members participated in monthly clinics, and tournaments, which would attract 250-300+ players. Little by little, our coaches, many of them active military personnel, were transferred out of the area or they retired or they died. Few had successors to keep the clubs going. Politics, pitting USJA and USJF supporters, and personal issues between the few remaining coaches further weakened our area.

Today, San Diego County has fewer than ten clubs- I’m being generous as to what constitutes a club. In an average year, we have four tournaments, two of which are usually boycotted by the local Judo clubs because I run them as non-sanctioned events in my own facility. Clinics are few and far between, with more emphasis on kata clinics than the more pertinent clinics on coaching, refereeing and competition training. And the personal feuds between coaches continue unabated.

What is happening in San Diego is happening all around the country. Judo is dying because we are letting it die. So, in an effort to shake things up in San Diego County, I petitioned the Pacific Southwest Judo Association (PSJA) to speak at its board meeting on October 23. PSJA is a USJF yudanshakai that I belonged to in 1972-75. PSJA members and I have been at odds for years for a variety of reasons, mostly childish differences. It took the PSJA four days and countless emails between its members before I was “authorized” to speak for fifteen minutes.

To fix our problems we need to recognize whom our enemies are, where our competition comes from, and what is wrong with Judo. We need to recognize the shackles that we impose upon ourselves, shackles that in many instances prevent us from doing what is right for Judo in San Diego.

One of my favorite quotes from General George Patton is, “May God deliver us from our friends; we can handle the enemy.”  Patton’s enemies were not the Germans, but the British and American generals and politicians who prevented him, often out of jealousy, from doing what he did best. We face a similar situation in the San Diego Judo community. We coaches are our worst enemies. Our lack of cooperation, mutual benefit and welfare, business sense, coaching skills, and willingness to think outside the box is compounded by being stuck with a traditional paradigm in a sport that most people can’t find because we have so few clubs, many of which have no Internet or yellow page presence.

Years ago, our competition was kung fu, then it was taekwondo, and now it’s mostly Brazilian jiujitsu (BJJ) with a sprinkling of mixed martial arts (MMA). In every case, we have stood by and done nothing to fight back. This brings us to what’s wrong with Judo?

First of all, Judo is a hard sport: hard to learn and hard on the body, while our society is soft and requires immediate gratification. It doesn’t help that most clubs have terrible mats. Anyone can kick and punch the air, and anyone can roll around on the ground. Taking hard falls on crappy mats is not for everyone, and that’s something we have to acknowledge and fix. So, BJJ fills a need for grappling without having to take hard falls. But why can’t we take advantage of the ne waza craze sweeping the country? Why not increase our time spent in ne waza and improve our ne waza curriculum? Why not revive Kosen Judo with its own program, classes, promotions, and competition?

BJJ is a young, vibrant, dynamic, macho sport. Most BJJ instructors are young, fit, and “Pan-American” or “World” champions. It’s true that in the BJJ world there are many versions of the Pan-American and World Championships unlike in Judo, but the general public doesn’t know this. Conversely, many Judo clubs are run by older, overweight coaches, with a minimal competition background. This is 1882 revisited except that roles between Judo and jujitsu have been reversed. Judo is the old, tired, irrelevant and marginalized sport, while BJJ is youthful, progressive, relevant, and ascendant.

We have a stagnant, “go kyo no waza” driven curriculum which operates in an emasculated environment thanks to the IJF rules. Can’t grab there, can’t do this, and can’t do that unless you do x, y and z first. Good grief!  Much of our training revolves around methods that have little to do with actual performance. This includes kata, a mere historical relic whose initial purpose has passed. Meanwhile BJJ has none of these technical and training hang-ups.

Now what about those shackles?  How about controlling national governing bodies, IJF rules, referees who enforce IJF rules and think they own Judo, liability insurance, rank, and event sanctions. All of these place unwarranted restrictions on what we can do to better Judo, and they increase our cost of doing business. In the worst-case scenario, they create paranoia and paralysis, which lead us to make decisions that are not in our best interest. For example, why do we follow to the letter IJF rules that are designed for World Championships and Olympic Games, and not five- and six- year old beginners?  Wrestling in the U.S. has four or five different sets of rules. Why doesn’t Judo? Why are sanctions needed if you run a clinic in your own facility?  Why require national membership for all of your students when you can purchase liability insurance on the open market for a better price?  Why are dojo ranks considered so evil and worthless? There are many options out there that we should look at and implement if they make sense for us. If Judo is to survive locally and nationally, we must emphasize the strengthening of each and every local club, even if this means that it weakens the national organizations. Judo lives only because local coaches run local programs. It will also die when we no longer have coaches willing to run programs.

To revive Judo in San Diego, and in many other areas of the United States, we should stop bickering among ourselves like six-year olds. We must start holding some simple, cost-effective events like area open workouts, no frills tournaments out of our own dojos, team competition, and coach education programs. We need to rethink our relationship with national and international organizations. We must be willing to change our model of instruction to make Judo more fun and more relevant. And for God’s sake, we must have an Internet presence! It goes without saying that we also need to develop more clubs. This can be done by encouraging some of our assistant instructors to start their own satellite programs in areas not currently served in the county.

From what I was told, my comments at the PSJA board meeting were well received. However, will those shackles prevent my colleagues from doing what’s best for their clubs? Will they be able to think outside the box? That remains to be seen.

10 thoughts on “An Attempt to Save Judo in San Diego

  1. Mr. Lafon,

    Being one of only a handful of Judokas that San Diego produced that continued in Judo for life, I read your article in detail with great anticipation. Your methods might have been confusing to some, but your results speak for themselves.

    As a young 14 year old, I was on the mat at El Toyon when the Yudanshikai tried to get some unity in 1979. You brought your son James and I believe Todd to the open workout. We had the best fighters in the city there to train and learn from each other, but that was a one off situation. When was the last time the Yudanshikai was on the mat? Sensei Tsugi used to bring everyone together from time to time, but his era has passed.

    In a city that has put Kevin Smith on the World Championships team in 79, that furthered the career of Ann Marie Burns prior to winning the Worlds, that gave us both Todd Brehe and Valerie Lafon. Having only a few Joint Workout was such a waste.

    Your article got me thinking about why I stayed in Judo (like you said, it isn’t an easy sport)? When my parents brought me into Mr. Rios’ judo club some 35 years ago, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Once Mr. Rios couldn’t teach us anymore he took his son Joey and myself to El Toyon (Gunny Dye). That took a lot of courage and that has been the historic problem in San Diego (actually the rest of America). Oh, you don’t know more Judo that I do. How often do you assist another Sensei’s student?

    Take your current students, that are capable, and force them out the door. Make them open Judo clubs in different parts of the city. Make them apart of a network and manage them like a franchise. Although I was always a member of another club in San Diego, no one was more proud to see fellow San Diego natives carrying the banner for the City as I was when I saw Todd, Valerie and now Natalie winning on the National Stage.

  2. Hear, hear! Outstanding article Coach, with great insight and analysis. All the things you say about the state of Judo in San Diego (as well as the rest of the U.S. for the most part) is true.

    And you’re right, it remains to be seen if anybody will really do much to bring Judo back to life, particularly when one of the most pervasive problems is financial. It is very difficult for a Judo school in San Diego to make a profit in today’s economy. Most coaches are either volunteer or paid little, although there are a couple of notable exceptions.

    So, the majority of these coaches do what they can for the love of the sport. The question is how to make it worthwhile for them to do more, when most have other jobs and families to support. For example, the San Diego Judo School was turned into a non-proft in order for it to survive after Sensei Holtman died. The only way the school was able to continue was from the financial support of several of it’s members. Without that support, the school would have closed after over 50 years of continued operation.

    That’s much of what lies in the root problem of what’s wrong with Judo in San Diego. Find a way for people to survive financially from their involvement in Judo and you will find more interested people wanting to save it. These days, its hard to be a patron of the sport when you’re worried about how to put food on the table. Just our two cents (pun intended).

    San Diego Judo

  3. I have been in SD for 4 years now, and the real problem is clubs approaching Judo like it is BJJ or MMA and trying to capitalize financially off of those crazes. I have been doing judo for 20 years, where I grew up, judo was the only MA a poor kid could afford. When I started it was 15$ a month and when I graduated high school after 10 years at the same dojo, it was 20$ a month. Judo is not like other MA, we don’t buy our ranks, we work for them. It is hard and it requires a devotion above wanting to get the next belt, you will never get that at 100$ a month. The person (kid, parent, whatever) that is willing to pay that amount, expects too much in return, it is like buying a product instead of investing time and and effort to immerse yourself into the mindset and life that is judo.


  4. I think you might be missing a valid point we seem to not understand in the Judo community, and that is consumers don’t think much of a sport that only charges $20. There must be something wrong if it’s so cheap. Note that consumers are willing to pay on a national average $125 per month for martial arts training. We won’t compete with the other arts until we value our instruction and have better facilities. All that takes money. I have invested over $10,000 in tatami and a spring-loaded mat, and I have a permanent facility that costs an arm and a leg. Judo in San Diego is dying because we have remained amateurish and we don’t charge enough to make Judo seem worthwhile. The sissification of Judo via IJF rules doesn’t help one bit, but that’s another story. The bottom line is that people are willing to pay good money for a good product. The sooner we get that through our thick heads, the quicker we can recover.

  5. To fix our problems we need to recognize whom our enemies are, where our competition comes from, and what is wrong with Judo. We need to recognize the shackles that we impose upon ourselves, shackles that in many instances prevent us from doing what is right for Judo in San Diego.

    Enemies? What is wrong with judo? Shackles? Shackles that prevent you from doing what is right for judo? How about doing judo the way it was meant to be done? It is simple. I may take a major change in mind set. But Judo is the gentle way, created to build character not profits… Profits will come 10 fold if you stop this. In all the history of judo, never has a word been spoken about profits…

  6. Your post epitomizes what is wrong with the thinking in our Judo community. Judo can’t build character if fewer and fewer people do Judo because we can’t get our message out to the general public for the lack of profits. You are absolutely wrong about profits and Judo. The Kodokan could not exist back then and today without profits. Neither can my club, nor the club that offers free classes, but works out of a rec center or YMCA that has an overhead. Somebody has to pay for it. Please enlighten us further as to how to do Judo the way it was meant to be done.

  7. I’m so new to Judo that I feel uncomfortable getting into this years old discussion. But, if Judo needs to try something new so it may live forever, maybe my new set of eyes can help. I think Judo needs to reach out and educate.

    My first experience with Judo was during one of my last high school wrestling matches. That’s when my opponent perfectly executed what my coach called a “Jap Throw”, threw me and pinned me. What was that was all I could ask. I had heard of Judo but didn’t know it was so similar to wrestling. If I had known it was so similar, I could have grappled year round and been a much better wrestler, or a good Judoka.

    I think Judo coaches should make inroads with local wrestling coaches, high schools and under. this will give wrestlers a chance to grapple year round without experiencing burn out.

    I’m sure I’m being cursed out right now because these are two distinctly different sports. True, but so far, I have not learned one move I am not at least familiar with and going down the list of throws and pins on Judo Info etc, I can place an equivalent wrestling move on 75% of what I see. Again, I’m new and in no way perfected and this is my humble opinion.

    There are a few high schools in this area that are in the top 10 of CIF State Wrestling yearly. These schools have junior programs feeding into the high schools. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Dojo’s could be packed with many of these juniors wanting to grapple and learn something new? Part 2 to that is Varsity Wrestling teams have 14 weight classes. That is 14 main players on a team of 50 or so. You now have 36 other guys who may not wrestle on the varsity team, but could go on to be good Judoka. Those are built in students just waiting for a place to compete.

    In the name on mutual benefit for each sport, please reach out and make nice with these coaches. You will be surprised how much these wrestlers will respect Judo when they realize how much of their sport came from Judo.

    Next, I suggest, if not already being done, reach out and make inroads with the Law Enforcement Community. They are now finally teaching some BJJ ground fighting, but ignore the take down and take down defense, of which, Judo would fill the void. One of the old instructors I learned from was a Judoka, but he was disappointed the department would not let him teach the real techniques and he was forced to teach “Kinder, Gentler” moves. Besides the regional academy, there are private detention facilities, and 2 “Extended Academies” who would benefit from the gentle way.

    Lastly, reach out to the elementary schools. Some schools would welcome a showcase or Judo display followed by an invitation to Judo Camps on off school hours. School administrators would love the fact that no punches were thrown and a dispute could actually be resolved using the gentle way before the cell phone cameras began to roll and it showed up on youtube within a few minutes. Judo is an Anti-Bullying Machine and no punches thrown usually won’t ping the zero tolerance police.

    Let’s face it, the world has changed around us. I don’t see any kids in my neighborhood who are not on a soccer team even to ride the pine which is much different to how I was raised. I hear their parents complain about bullies, bullying, and suspensions after they attempt to repel a bully with a punch they learned in the Ibot Mybelt Do Mall Ninja Dojo. When I suggest to their parents Judo or wrestling I usually get a blank stare followed by “Is that BJJ”?

    So, I say reach out and educate. I don’t think it is a matter of Marketing, and more a matter of educating all these people who are already interested in grappling. That is my two cents from my very humble opinion.

  8. My nephew Robert Vejar started Judo around 1975 under Sensei Bill Dye. He trained with Kevin Smith, Bobby Hernandez, and also female judokans Judy Dye. There was also a few Judo clubs, such as Unidos, and others which I can’t recall. I do remember they had tournaments all year around locally and nationally. I remember in his teens he was a national champion I am guessing around 135 pound weight. Sensei Dye was a great mentor for my Nephew and so was Sensei Jessie Jones. He also trained at various other clubs. My grandson just started Karate at 8 years old, but I don’t see the same intensity that I saw in Judo. It’s a lot more expensive than Judo too. I met a lot of nice people in the Judo community. I hope it continues, and i
    hope the politics goes away as well.

  9. Other styles are not the enemy, particularly the striking arts. Many martial artists want to learn grappling, but may not want to go full on into BJJ or MMA. Taekwondo, Tangsoodo and Karate have self defense aspects that involve throwing and takedowns. Judo can help with that. These other styles have people like myself who are game for ANYTHING in the martial arts. Judo can help with that. Judo seminars and cross training opportunities can grow the style. Other arts are not necessarily competition, they can be potential markets.

  10. Great article. I moved to San Diego from Japan 4 years ago and am a former Judo athlete (champion of Kyoto and Osaka). I’ll definitely visit your club with my daughter!

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