Garage Judo

I believe that each community in America could support a Judo club if only we had enough coaches. Since we don’t have enough coaches maybe we should take a page from the American Youth Soccer Association (AYSO) when it set up shop almost fifty years ago. The AYSO recruited volunteer parents, mostly with little knowledge of soccer or coaching, provided them with a manual, a brief coaching clinic, a few balls and cones, and then cut them loose to coach their child’s soccer team. Many of these neophyte volunteers actually developed into relatively good soccer coaches after several years, in spite of knowing little initially or never having played the game themselves.

The naysayers will say that Judo is so special that only trained experts- read “black belts”- should teach clubs. I say that, yes, Judo is special, but not so special that we can’t develop a program to support coaches and provide them with the necessary tools to run good beginning programs in their neighborhoods.

Running an AYSO-like Judo program is not complicated. I know it is contrary to our mentality, but we need to encourage and empower non-black belts to teach Judo. We then need to provide them with an easy to follow and easy to practice curriculum (either Internet-based or in DVD format), a basic course on teaching methodologies, and a mentor to help solve issues and offer encouragement. Lastly, an Internet-based continuing education program will help these coaches grow into Judo and coaching. It might come to you as a shock, but this is how many high school sports programs are taught- some academic teacher with no coaching background in the sport gets volunteered to coach a team, and grows with the students.

I know that developing a Judo club from scratch is no piece of cake. I talk to enough Judoplayers to know that there is interest in setting up a new club, but once you factor in cost of mats and finding a facility you can afford to rent, it often becomes prohibitive to get started. To help with the financial burden, my solution is garage Judo. That’s right. Turn that area of the house where junk is stored into a Judo dojo.

Garage Judo is a cost effective way to start a Judo club. I know that most people very seldom think about the garage as an option, but it is a great one until you can develop a decent membership to support renting a larger, commercial facility. Your typical two-car garage is large enough for a 6 x 6m mat. That’s eighteen tatami mats measuring a few inches short of 20 x 20ft.

If you are used to larger surfaces, a 20 x 20 mat might seem too small to run a Judo program. It isn’t. I had a garage program for eight years. My mat was a permanent spring-loaded one. Standing in the garage now, I can’t quite fathom how four adult couples did randori in it at the same time, but that’s what we did, safely and productively. Valerie Lafon Gotay (2x U.S. Olympian) and Todd Brehe (2x U.S. World Team) both cut their Judo teeth in my garage.

Jesse Jones, the former USJA president also ran a garage program for years before moving to a commercial location. Many of the Brazilian jiujitsu clubs in my area started with a few guys rolling around in someone’s garage. Once the sport and membership picked up steam, out went the garage and in came the commercial location. This sort of transition is still valid today for those just starting out.

To make Judo grow in the U.S. we need more coaches and more clubs. We can develop more coaches if we stop thinking they must be black belts before they can teach basic skills to beginners. Trying to find a location for a club in a community center or a YMCA that has a decent time slot and mats for a Judo class can be frustrating, and mostly a fruitless search, depending on the community you live in. By using your garage- or barn or room addition- you control every aspect of your club. Teach there permanently or use it as a stepping stone to a bigger facility. Above all, commit to teaching Judo somewhere!

24 thoughts on “Garage Judo

  1. I can’t thank you enough for writing this post.

    I train at a small town club where we don’t have the luxury of having a technically proficient black belt to correct the minutia of our technique. However, we train hard, we do all we can to learn about the techniques and their application, and we do our best to respect the traditions of Judo.

    I could not agree more about creating and providing an introductory curriculum. We currently find our techniques in the classic judo books and in video, get together on saturdays and sundays to practice them and then introduce them to a class during the week. We do our best to follow our national grading syllabus (Canada) and send our Grading demonstrations by video to a black belt for the kyu grades. It would be nice to have some kind of standard package for teaching the basic techniques and principles.

    It is disheartening to read certain judo forums on the net. You could easily get the impression that by practicing Judo without a high level Dan instructor that you are not doing Judo or you are tarnishing the legacy of the founder. I believe the opposite and it is nice to see someone with your level of expertise feels that there is a place for clubs like ours in the spectrum of Judo.

    Wade Nellis

  2. I like these ideas. What would it take to get a basic video curriculum available to people interested in starting a judo program? Have you seen the Gracie Combatives DVD’s available at It seems to be a similar concept with the Gracie branding and teaching they’re basic techniques really thoroughly.

    It is refreshing to see such a different approach to developing US Judo!

  3. Completely agree that non black belts can be effective coaches for beginners. I myself fit the mold of a capable youth soccer coach without any background in soccer.

    As you know, I also have implemented the “garage” dojo idea. I would advise anyone trying to teach judo out of their garage to fully investigate the home occupation statutes in their city ordinances. I spent $12,000 in a lawsuit (I won) because of one cranky neighbor who wanted to make an issue of it. In hindsight, I wish I had spent the 12k on extra mats and another location.

  4. I’m working on a beginning curriculum, which I hope to have out in DVD format. The USJA is also working on (I hope!) an Internet-based support system for coaches. The key is to look outside the box when it comes to getting neophytes to teach Judo. A game-approach to teaching Judo will work much better than a highly technical approach. Rather than teaching Judo technically, we should implement a system that allows players to discover Judo with the help of a teacher using the game-approach. This will require a total change in our teaching model. I think beginning coaches will grasp this notion much sooner than veteran coaches.

  5. Great post, coach. I had to laugh about the garage suggestion. 2 years ago the club I belong to lost its lease and we were ‘homeless’ for a couple of months. It takes time to scout locations, talk to landlords, quell fears of lawsuits, schedule available times, etc., While we were working on all this, we decided to practice Judo in a garage. It was a 3-car garage. We put mats down and had so many left over we were able to pad two of the walls and pad the post in the middle of the garage. It was awesome! And we could leave the mats in place, which is a luxury for my club.

  6. I have taken the initial steps to do something like this. The only difference is that I do this in my backyard and I have a 10 x 10 mat area. I do not let people do randori on that mat size but we do 50-50 drills. I do this in the backyard instead of my garage because in case when practicing a throw you fall off the mat landing on the grass is not going to hurt. I’m saving money to double that size and then I plan on teaching for free or having anyone come over that wants to work on throws and such. I’ve been doing Judo for almost four years and there’s no reason why I can’t have kids or adults in the neighborhood come to my backyard and learn ukemi and some basic throws. I teach that stuff at my dojo anyway.

    This should go without saying but I do not charge a mat fee or dues.

  7. Let me know when you get the thing done! I’d really like to implement a games approach in my club! I’m always on the look out for something that will help my kids have fun while learning judo.

  8. Mr. Lafon,
    All Judoka should know this:

    Learning Judo and Fighting are two different things!

    The goal is to get people in the arena where they can compete. Many of my generation learned how to fight first, we learned Judo along the way. With that in mind, anyone should be able to coach/teach the finer aspects of Judo. I would think that a skilled Greco-Roman wrestler could teach Judo. The most important thing is the proper applications of throws/chokes/arm bars.

    Your project of DVD instruction might work, but it should be backed up with practical applications from the new Sensei’s…

  9. Coach,
    I would be VERY interested in coaching JUDO! I presently coach wrestling to elementary students and would love to expand to JUDO. Although I never competed in JUDO, I worked out/rolled with many players in the past. I wrestled most of my life, trained in JUJITSU and many other martial arts over the years. I can easily see any wrestling coach, teaching JUDO to their wrestlers with a little instruction. This grass-roots movement would do well to encourage wrestlers to “cross-train” in JUDO! Most High Schools have wrestling mats already. The school I coach at has two wrestling rooms for practice. All I would need is the blessing from the Head Coach, and the School Board!


  10. I would be very interested in having you coach Judo!!!! Where are you? How can we make this happen?

  11. That is a great idea. U.S. wrestling has a simular system 4 levels the lowest level copper is for Volunteer coaches, parents, entry level coaches. It seems to be working fine for U.S. wrestling.

  12. the garage dojo is a good idea but you are left with small spaces and you still need to buy mats.

    It was kind of mentioned indirectly but why not use space that is already set up for judo?

    Wrestling and jiujitsu are both done on mats that are adaquate to run judo practices on, and virtually all MMA/jiujitsu clubs in North America have space for jiujitsu and wrestling. In most judo clubs the mats are layed down permanently but practices are only run for about 10hours a week. That is a lot of wasted time. So if cost is an issue I would advise to look for an established school and work something out with them to teach judo there.

    Not only do you cut costs, but you have access to two potential markets in jiu-jitsu and wrestling who can benefit greatly from some judo training.

  13. Great post, I read this a while ago and, since then . I was wondering… can I translate your post into portuguese – with link to your original post, of course?

  14. I have always been interested in judo. I live on a remote indian reservation with no programs near by. When I left the reservation to attend high school in the near by town of Casa Grande, I joined the wrestling team. It was the closest I could get to experiencing judo. Fast forward to the present, I am now a Firefighter/EMT working on the reservation. A local police officer has a youth wrestling club that is doing very very well. I wanted to create a judo program at our local recreational centers. However, I always assumed that because of my lack of judo experience and no black belt, I should not attempt it. I do have a wrestling background, experiencing in coaching youth wrestling, and a desire to volunteer. I came across this article and finally feel as though this dream can become a reality. Thank you very much.

  15. I’m rooting for you to start a Judo club. Let me know if I can be of assistance. Good luck. Let me know how things go.

  16. Thank you for your encouragement. Because I have no Judo background, will I be unable to register my club and club members with an insuring Judo organization? I assume clubs must have coverage before being allowed to participate in tournaments. I would not want my kids/students to be unable to grow and participate in the sport because of a lack of affiliation with an organization such as USJA.

  17. In the U.S., many team sports are coached by volunteer parents, many of whom have no experience in the sport they are coaching. This was very true when soccer was first organized through the AYSO-American Youth Soccer Association. You are in the same boat. You need to read up on the sport, watch videos and attend some type of certification course. If you can get to San Diego, I can teach you an entire syllabus for beginners that will keep you going while you improve your knowledge of Judo techniques. Because of your wrestling background, this won’t be brain surgery.

    As far as registering your students with a national organization, some will require rank and some won’t. I’ll be glad to give you options. Feel free to call me at 858 578-7748 or email me

  18. Well, it looks like my campus Judo club will come to fruition. Do you think I’ll need to have them register with USJA for the insurance? Or will enough of that be covered by the university? I don’t plan to concern any of them with rank until at least Sankyu.

  19. Good news regarding the acceptance of the club. Regarding insurance, you’ll have to check with campus authorities to see what is and is not covered since a Judo club is different than a Judo course. If you are only concerned about liability coverage, you should look into AAU coverage, which is much cheaper than JA/JF/JI.

  20. Hi I’m from the northern cape my son did judo all his life 10yrs old now! Wen we moved up here there is no judo at all! So I’m very keen on starting my own club! Does the same apply to south africa

  21. I would hope so. It would depend of laws governing what you can do on your own property.

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