Anatomy of a Coaching Course

“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

The problem with stretching man’s mind, especially in a highly traditional sport like Judo, is that it’s fraught with opposition. Recently, I had the pleasure of conducting a USJA Coach Education Course for twenty-two coaches from Southern California. Several had shown up because they had heard that I was controversial! Much to their credit, they came to see and hear for themselves, rather than rely on the words of people who have never had an intelligent conversation with me.

John Locke was correct when he said, “New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed without any other reason, but because they are not already common.” While I am considered controversial in Judo, my courses are based on the latest research, and I would be considered mainstream in other fields.


Course attendees were warned ahead of time to come with an open mind. During the course, I ask coaches to question, be skeptical, think outside the box, step outside their comfort zone, expand the definition of words and concepts, and come to conclusions based on intellectual reasoning, rather than the preconceived notions and traditional baggage we come with.

As I have mentioned in previous writings, the focus on coach education should be on pedagogy, the art of teaching Judo. My courses thus start with understanding how skills are developed- there is an equation for that- followed by a dozen principles of learning. These used to be common fare in the USJA coaching courses but they have dropped out in favor of things that are not readily useful to most of our coaches. I have no idea how you can teach Judo effectively, or any sport for that matter, without knowing the elements of skill acquisition and the principles of learning. Once you do have this information, you’re on the way to becoming a better coach because you’ll be equipped to recognize and eliminate irrelevant training

Next, we tackle different methods of training to combat the substandard uchi komi-randori model. Coaches are introduced to backward and forward shaping, bridge and open project method, blocked-varied-random practice, whole-part method, and technique- situation- and games-based drill training. In addition, coaches are shown how to develop warm-up drills to make this class period more fun and relevant.

A significant part of every course I run is designed to make coaches understand that to become the best coach possible you must read. I provide a list of recommended readings, and throughout the course mention key points from some of those works. I reinforce the importance of reading by pointing out that most branches of our military have professional reading programs, and that most great sports coaches and industrial leaders are voracious readers.

Typically, few of the course attendees have ever read any of the books that I recommend. Let’s face it, most Americans don’t read, and coaches are no exception. One of the attendees, who is a big reader, told me that she had read several of the works I recommended, but had not thought to apply their lessons to Judo! In light of that comment, I understand better why people think I’m crazy to recommend books on military leadership. Apparently, it’s hard to think outside the box and to recognize the parallels between Judo and other fields.

American coaches continue to be ignorant of Geof Gleeson, the father of modern Judo coaching and a prolific author. Not only have our coaches not read his books, far too many have not heard of him at all. I find this deplorable. His main books, Judo for the West, Anatomy of Judo, and Judo Inside Out should be mandatory reading. You don’t have to agree with everything Gleeson proposes, but if you do read his books, you’ll get a completely different approach to Judo. And this should help you become skeptical of the training model we adopted lock, stock and barrel from the Japanese.

Definitions and labels continue to be obstacles in understanding one another and accepting new ideas. One of the questions I pose coaches is, “How many of you think that a brand new student should randori during his first lesson?” The brave immediately raise their hands, the fence-straddlers look around and wait to see what everyone else does, and the close-minded sit there shaking their heads muttering to themselves, “No way, Jose, that’s crazy!”

Once coaches are reminded of the purpose of randori and are shown how to create “randori-like” drills and situations, then it’s not so hard to admit that, yes, beginners can do randori during their first session on the mat. All you have to do is stretch that mind and think outside the box.

Ukemi is another one of those words that seem to be held in captivity by a narrow-minded definition. Few coaches seem to be able or willing to teach throws before a student has spent days and weeks mastering ukemi using the traditional “mat-bashing” method. As with the case of randori, beginners can learn how to throw on day one without ukemi training. It’s simply a matter of redefining ukemi.

One of the drills I use to point out our myopic view of training is the following: A is sitting on her butt with legs stretched in front, B kneels to A’s side, pushes her backwards and pins her. (See photo below) When coaches are asked what was taught in this simple drill, everyone quickly says that a pin was taught. With some prodding, they recognize two other elements: a throw (a precursor to O soto gari) and a transition (to the previously recognized pin.) Almost all of them miss the fourth element- the ukemi! Why? Because there was no “mat-bashing” thus it wasn’t recognized as ukemi training.


I’m not the only “nut” who thinks there’s something wrong with the way we teach ukemi. Here’s what Anton Geesink, the 1964 Olympic gold medalist, says in his book JudoBased on Social Aspects and Biomechanical Principles.

I have often observed that ukemi-waza is being taught as an independent technique…I personally don’t pay much attention to the falling techniques. By this I mean to say that ukemi-waza is not an important part of judo. It is, but the training of ukemi-waza needs to be functional. For me it is impossible to train ukemi-waza in a solo way. If I am in charge, the falling is only trained as a logical conclusion off a throw.

Often, the last words in what I perceive to be a futile effort to justify substandard and irrelevant training methods are, “But the Japanese use these methods, and they work for them!” Rather than tell you why they appear to work for the Japanese- this may be one of my next blog entries- I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom from British philosopher Bertrand Russell:

The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.

While I expect that all coaches who attend my courses will come, see, understand and be enlightened, the reality is that for many no amount of research, proof or education will sway them to change. They show up with blinders, and leave with blinders. Those of us who are vested in coach education keep plodding away nonetheless, one coach at a time. We are inspired by those who rush back to their clubs to try the “new stuff” they learned. We are inspired by the coaches who admit that they can use the concepts they learned in a Judo coaching course for their job or for another sport. And we are inspired by the coaches who months later tell us they have made drastic changes to their programs, and wonder why they hadn’t done it sooner.

4 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Coaching Course

  1. Great article! Having observed you for over 3 decades controversial isn’t the word I would use to describe you. Committed, dedicated, unyielding, articulate yes; opinionated; possibly, controversial no!

    In order to educate Judo Coaches one must first locate their source of information and adjust the fire correctly, its’ name is USJI/USJA/USJF. In order to receive a ‘Coaching Creditential’ you must attend a course offered by some so called ‘Subject Matter Expert’ who has rarely coached anything resembling successful.

    Have you ever heard of a Coach being de-certified? Coaches have been suspended for misconduct but not for poor performance.

    How did you learn the sport of Basketball? You first watched it on television with Dr J flying through the air or Pistol Pete dropping a jumper from long range. Your parents buy you a ball and you go out on the court and teach yourself how to dribble and shoot (emulating your idols). When you tried out for the local recreation league team, you realized that there were fundamentals that you did not have. It takes a coach to teach those things along with hours of suicides, offensive and defensive drills.

    The problem as I see it, the fundamentals of Judo is missing in our Judoka. These must be taught and reinforced throughout the learning process. If your student is out of alignment, then correct it on the spot. Put your hands on them and make them do it correctly. Too many times children emulate the people they idolize. The local champion does this or that so let me try it. The Olympic Champion does this so let me incorporate it into my game. Wrong answer.

    My judo has evolved since I was a Yonan, but many of my habits (good and bad) have not. I don’t fight the same way I did as a child because I had to grow into my body. How many times have we seen the Junior National Champion not make the transition to Seinan because they lacked the skills to compete? It is because they lacked the fundamentals to adjust when winning isn’t as easy as it used to be or simply they have no interest in losing to people they used to dominate.

    A Judo club that I am an advisor at recently talked about having a clinic with a former two-time World team member. I was against the idea for a couple of simple reasons. Being a former National Champion in one of the smallest contested division in America doesn’t qualify them to be an expert on anything. The fact that she was on the other end of one the fastest Ippon at a World Championships teaches me what? I have plenty of time to teach Ukemi to my Judokas, I didn’t need her help.

    If you coached an American sport (Football/Basketball/Baseball) and you weren’t winning games you would be fired. The Super Bowl is the Olympics for Judo, Worlds the AFC/NFC Championships, and Senior National is equivalent to a playoff berth.

    A Super Bowl win guarantees that you won’t be fired the next year. Ask Marti Schotenheimer what a 14 win season got him from the Chargers? That is why the ‘So Called’ coaches we have are not producing the champions on the world stage. There is nothing in it for them, no incentive. The same can be said for the Judoka that makes it to those teams. We are reduced to counting wins instead of medals, how low we have become.

    There is a simple solution to producing medals at Judo, it requires money. For the low price of $ 150,000 (per year), America could produce a medal in Judo. If you want multiple medals, then it will cost an additional $ 75,000 per athlete. How:

    1). Hire a professional coach. I didn’t say a USJA/USJF/USJI certified coach, I said a professional like Lou Holtz.

    2). Create a National Judo team (like every other country in the world). Take a group of talented early teenagers (14-16) and make their job school and Judo. Their parents won’t have to worry about schooling or the prospects for the future because their advanced (University) education would be paid for with the investment.

    3). Move them to a part of the country that is conducive to year round training (like southern California/Florida). The parents would sign a contract much like they do at the Children’s hospital giving all rights to the caregivers (the Professional Coach). We have to create athletes, not Judoka.

    If that is too difficult then call your Senator/Congressman to talk about Judo. Have them talk to the Department of Defense to create a real Military Judo Team. The job would be like all the other military athletes (like wrestling or boxing) and follow step one. The military always has a couple of people on the Olympic Wrestling and Boxing teams and they win medals…

  2. Round 2…

    In the absence of hiring a professional, then make yourself the professional coach. One of the things that Mr. Lafon harps on about is thinking outside the box. Looking at the way the Japanese train does nothing for the kid in Iowa. Use what you have to teach. The movie Karate Kid should be an example.

    Not sure how to do it? Offensive Lineman in Football use a lot of force while blocking. It is a total body exercise that teaches explosiveness and the use of the knees. Isn’t it the same when doing Seoi Nage properly? That explosiveness when executing the throw is the lineman. He must get down then explode threw the target.

    When Kobe Bryant shoots a fade away jump shot, he bends his knees to get the explosiveness off the floor. Same thing. Incorporate these into your Judo class which will give a better illustration of explosiveness. Many Sensei’s use the boxers foot placement when throwing a punch, the same applies.

    If weight training is too generic, then have them carry water buckets, do push ups, something that adds strength to their bodies. A must is having agility drills which increase flexibility when on the mat (there is a small window to exploit a mistake by your opponent).

    Act/train like a winner. Too many times coaches get caught up in who the person is that they are facing. On any given day, the Olympic Gold Medalist can get beat. Train to beat them by focusing on what it is you do. I’ve seen coaches at big tournaments start coaching when they see the draw, telling their players what they must do. Wrong. You’ve had your time in the DOJO, now it is their time on the mat. It is the rare few that can actually hear the coach while fighting. My mind is calculating what I am facing on the mat to really absorb what it is your yelling from the chair. Of course the coach’s eyes are sharp and they might have found a flaw, but can your Judoka figure it out? Can they even apply your instructions?

    I have never been a big fan of prolong exposure to video but it does have its place. Too many people place far too much importance on it at the determent of their success. Use it for what it is worth, figure out what worked against that player and see if it matches to something you already do well.

    Watching video of Yamashita is a good thing, but did you notice he would fight each person different? He took what was available and focused on what he does well. He approached every match the same and that is what Judoka must do. Approach each person with your goal in mind. Stick to your fundamentals and you will be more successful.

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