A few days ago, I stumbled across a review of a coaching conference, at which I was one of the technical, on-the-mat clinicians. The author gave a fair assessment of the five presentations that were offered. I thought his comments on my presentation were positive, except that I was labelled one of the most ‘controversial’ figures in U.S. Judo, and that some of my ideas were “outrageous” by conventional ideologies. Both perhaps true, but nonetheless bothersome. What gives?
If I were coaching a different sport, my comments and ideas would be considered mainstream. After all, what is so controversial about practicing the way you are expected to perform, or working on the defensive as well as offensive parts of the game, or finding a way to prevent giving up points to your opponent? What soccer, football, baseball or basketball coach would consider these notions outrageous or controversial? Not a one to be sure.
‘Controversial’ has a negative connotation. Being a contrarian and outside-the-box thinker, whenever I hear the word used in conjunction with someone’s name or ideas, I run to it, not away from it. I’m compelled to find out what the fuss is about before passing judgement. Unfortunately, most people simply buy into the label without doing their own due diligence. In effect, the misuse of ‘controversial’ prevents us from making rational decisions because of that negative connotation and our cultural baggage.
Back in the early 1970s when I was still a brown belt, I remember the commotion that Phil Porter’s coaching ideas produced within the traditional Judo community. It was like a raging fire. Porter was a proponent of the ‘controversial, eccentric and crazy’ British coach Geof Gleeson. Listening to my teammates talk about Porter and his ‘crazy, controversial’ ideas made me want to learn more about this character’s ideas. Fortunately for me, Bill Montgomery, a player who had been around Gleeson and Porter, blew into San Diego one day. He and I soon started talking about alternative methods. Within the year, I was sold on the new Judo training. Bill and I still talk on a weekly basis about our model of instruction. We were empowered by Gleeson to think outside the box, and we do our best to empower others to stretch their minds. The road is however littered with many obstacles, and the going has been slow and rough.
The problem with Judo is that we are a traditional sport with narrow-minded people who are still stuck with an instructional model that has not evolved much in the last 128 years. Any new idea will therefore become blasphemous, heretical, crazy, outrageous, and the ubiquitous controversial. It will be fought tooth and nail without even a semblance of trying to understand it. We have Judo neophytes on the Judo Forum and the Judo-List making negative comments about ideas they have no concept of. They have been brainwashed, and are not skeptical enough to question Judo culture. They form a unending, long line of players who regurgitate hook, line and sinker what the previous generation regurgitated from the generation that came before it. Monkey see and hear, monkey do.
‘Controversial’ is used in other sports, but mostly for coaches who throw chairs across basketball courts, like Bobby Knight, or for coaches who punch opposing players from the sideline, like Woody Hays. Coaches who devise new offensive or defensive schemes, or new training methods that change the game are labeled revolutionary, visionary, innovative, and creative. They are honorably considered geniuses, modernizers, pioneers, founders and fathers, and are inducted into their respective Hall Of Fame. Their sports improve, grow and become more exciting. In contrast, we try our best to marginalize and ignore those who can advance our sport.
I have no idea why we judoplayers fear new ideas so much. I do know that attacking new ideas out of hand is not good for the sport. We are a sick sport in need of a serious infusion of life. Gleeson’s ideas are no longer new. They’ve been around for over fifty years, and they shouldn’t be controversial. Some of us have stood on Gleeson’s shoulders and become his advocates. Some of us have carried his message even further, which is what he would have wanted. Unfortunately, paraphrasing the Japanese proverb, we get hammered down if only because we stand out. Instead, we should find ways to celebrate and elevate new ideas, instead of depreciating and denigrating them.