Comfort zone: [definition] a behavioral state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviors to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk.
One of the reasons progress has been so slow in coming to American Judo is that we are deeply happy and comfortable with the traditions and training model of our sport, and we don’t want to be the nail that gets hammered down. By golly, if it was good enough for my sensei and his sensei, then it’s good enough for me. Unfortunately for us, progress comes from stepping outside our comfort zone just long enough so that new skills can be learned and better performances can be achieved.
After more than thirty-five years of coach certification programs in the U.S. the results are pretty dismal; few coaches participate unless they have to, and we still cling to the ukemi-static uchi komi-randori-gokyo no waza-kata model. Once a coach begins his career, he pretty much ensconces himself into his comfort zone and nothing can pry him away. Why? What are his risks?
At work might be the sensei syndrome. Senseis are infallible and know it all, and more so the higher the rank. Why risk learning something new that you may have to implement? Why tempt fate and find out that you don’t actually know everything? Why chance making yourself appear to be, well, not so infallible? If I know it all, and then I change my mind, won’t I lose credibility? And what about Kano? What would Kano think if I showed signs of unorthodoxy, never once thinking that Kano revolutionized jujitsu to create Judo? Finally, learning, relearning, changing and implementing are just so much more work, why bother? So, to play it safe and remain in that comfort zone, most coaches don’t change. The students suffer. The sport suffers.
Like coaches, players also have a comfort zone. It’s always amusing when U.S. elite players visit my dojo for there is nothing more culturally foreign to them than one of my practices. They look around wondering what the heck people are doing. They are uncomfortable because they are asked to perform unfamiliar drills rather than the familiar static uchi komi, even though the drills are within their technical repertory and ability. While everyone else is moving around grip fighting, throwing and transitioning to ne waza, our elites resort to the tried and proven- static uchi komi. With some prodding, they come along. Hey, this is actually a little like real tournament fighting! The light goes on for a few moments, but extinguishes itself once players go back to their club. What else would you expect?
Players like practicing what they do best instead of practicing what they don’t do well. This is why randori is so appealing, and drills are not so appealing. Players are aided in this pedagogical crime by coaches who are unwilling or incapable of helping their players step outside their comfort zone by creating and imposing opportunities for practicing the bad and the ugly, in addition to the good.
I once asked a visiting player what she thought of our practice. After some thought, she politely said that it was interesting. It was evident the practice had made her feel somewhat incompetent and uncomfortable. It didn’t help that my daughter, some fifty pounds lighter, had manhandled her during randori. She never came back. It was obvious she felt good being around an uchi komi-randori model where she could do things she excelled at rather than practice things that were not yet part of her inventory of skills, but that would have made her a better, more-rounded player.
Golf great Jack Nicklaus once explained to Oakland Raiders football coach John Madden that one of the reasons he was so good at his sport was that after a round of golf he would begin to practice the shots that he had missed that day, while the normal routine for other golfers was to practice the shots they hit well. In Madden’s ten-years as a coach, only one player, Jim Otto, ever asked repeatedly to watch his mistakes on film. All others wanted to watch what they had done well in games. Otto became a Hall of Famer.
I remark in passing that referees also have their comfort zone- penalties. Without penalties, referees are lost. Penalize until you’re blue in the face to effect behavioral change. We know how well that’s working. Wouldn’t it be great to see referees step outside their comfort zone? What a great competitive sport Judo could be.
Expanding your comfort zone must come early in your career, whether you’re a competitor, coach or referee. The longer you wait to tax and challenge your comfort zone, the harder the task. Judo is stagnant, thus dying, in the States. We must all do our best to step outside our comfort zone, and grow Judo while we still can.