Judo Inside Out

by Geof Gleeson, Lepus Books, Wakefield 1983

Judo was born a hundred years ago, in the land of the rising sun, a part of that world of mystery known as the Orient….Paradox and ambiguity is expected from it and if they are not there, the West will inject some of its own. When something appears simple the West will make it complicated; when complicated it is made simple…Take a simple act like falling over: any child can do it, but in Judo it is raised to an art form- the Art of Falling; whereas something as difficult and as complicated as a competitive fighting skill is reduced to a technique that simply needs repetition to make it effective…So when I teach Judo I have repeatedly to make the point that much of its practices have become confused because of this same lack of conceptual understanding behind the judo terminology, and therefore they must be prepared for paradox and ambivalence in the training. By turning some of these attitudes inside out, to look at the concepts from a completely different point of view, perhaps some of these mysteries may become less mysterious and the elementary more obvious.

In training technique and skill must be learnt; the questions to be asked are when and how are they to be taught? There is no finite answer, it will depend upon the nature of the learning group. However, what is important is to realize that there is no sacrosanct order of presentation. Technique does not have to precede skill (as it always has done in the judo world); a simplified form of skill can be taught first, followed by technique (see Chapter 3). Not every group need be taught the same way: the aspirations of the individuals should decide the form of teaching as it does the style of learning.

In the days of yore a phrase frequently found in judo teaching was ‘how to break balance.’ It was suggested that before any throw could be attempted, the opponent’s balance had to be broken. In practice it is difficult to ascertain what this meant, although in theory it was simple enough. By subtle pulling on a partner’s jacket, it was said he is ‘tilted’ forward onto a point on the edge of his feet/base, i.e. Toes. Arabesquely poised on this small contact point with mother-earth, he was said to be vulnerable to any throwing attack. (It is yet another intriguing enigma of the ‘old school’ in judo; why was ‘balance breaking’ never mentioned inne-waza?) Modern tradition seems to assume that if a man is ever reduced to this ridiculous position, there is nothing he can do- not even move. He simply waits till the sword of Damocles splits him in two. It is not true, of course. However precariously the individual is perched on one toe he can certainly move and what is more if he is thrown from this position he is quite capable of turning and twisting in the air as he falls

Falling methods, although naturally concerned with safety (avoiding injury), would be specifically aimed at reducing scores and regaining attacking initiatives. If techniques were taught they would be taught in tactical situations, stressing the skill aspect.

In days of yore falling was treated as the last stage of defeat. The attacker would go crashing in for some technique; if the opponent could not stop the attack he would metaphorically shrug his shoulders (not in reality of course) and prepare himself for landing on his back, whacking the ground with his arm (ukemi-waza) and conceding defeat. To make this action more effective he would made to practise this form of defeat for hours and weeks- fall over, whack the ground and stand up a loser. The justification for this rather strange training was that is was ‘safe’; it prevented injury when thrown. No doubt to some extent that was true, but it inferred two other things which were not true: that is was the only way of falling down and that it was the only way to fall without being injured. Of course trainees want to minimize the risk of injury when they fall (as does everybody else I presume), but equally they do not want to give scores away for nothing, or lose scores when they do not have to, so other falling methods must be devised which fulfill those competitive criteria as well as safety ones. As always with situations where training methods are to be modified, the original concept needs to be examined and altered first. That having been done, it is comparatively easy to change the physical manifestation; therefore falling must not be seen as a negative phase of being attacked- the symbol of defeat; it must be seen as a positive phase in the countering-attack skills. Defeat is not conceded until the referee yells ‘Ippon!’ The man who is thrown can learn to turn and twist in the falling space sp that he can reduce the score from 10 to 7 or to nothing…Not only has such an action reduced the score (and saved the match) but frequently it is such a surprise to the thrower that he is susceptible to an immediate response attack. Such twists and turns are of course gymnastic movements and they may well need to be learnt away from the hurly-burly of throwing situations. As soon as there is some facility with them they can be introduced into the throwing situation.

Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, saw judo mainly as a social training for the citizen. Like many other foreign liberal educationalists, especially physical educationalists at the turn of the century, he was a patriot and believed that a nation’s people should be prepared to defend their rights and privileges against any foreign oppression. To do that the citizen would need to be fit and his programme of physical education (which included judo) would help him do that. It was in this context that he taught judo as self-defense; not as a parochial training for back-alley squabble, but as a microcosmic reflection of the spirit needed for national defence. Much the same attitude can be found in the English physical education Acts of 1904 to 1933.

The coach is the one who determines whether training is educational or vocational. Like the performer (and frequently he is something of an ex-performer) he will also have a preference or a propensity for expanding or contracting his knowledge- with or without the aid of judo.  If the curious performer finds himself in a group controlled by a non-curious coach, he may well have many problems…If the coach’s range of technique is limited, then the group’s techniques will be limited; if the coach is intellectually alive, so will be the group. It is for this kind of reason that those who are responsible for organizing parts of sport like, for example, national squads, should keep this development well in mind. If they wish to have a future generation of coaches who are dull and unimaginative then all that is needed is to appoint dull and unimaginative coaches to train the contemporary generation of performers. If the controlling body wants to make the most of what it has, it will need to put training- in all its forms- in the hands of imaginative, curious and cultured coaches.

Many instructors in the past have felt the inadequacies of traditionaluchikomi and have tried to improve matters by altering certain aspects of the exercise- but seldom knowing why they are changing what they are changing. The most drastic alteration became known as ‘uchikomi-on-the-move’; the change is obvious enough, but simply moved the error from standing still to moving. Because there was a lack of understanding the faults of static repetition were simply extended into the moving form, the main one being that the partner offers the same opportunity every time, thus encouraging the ‘thrower’ to do the same attacking movement every time. For skills to improve, opportunity and attack must vary frequently.

If uchikomi is the sound of two cultures clashing, what is the sound of one culture clash? Kata!…Over the last twenty years or so kata has been treated as absolute, fixed both in form and content for ever; the approach has spawned  affine set of dogmas- all opposed to the business of skill improvement.

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