Good For The Goose, But Not So Good For The Gander

“It is true in sport you should have respect for any opponent. You need to take him into consideration, but only if in the right amount. You must not be afraid of your opponent. And what’s more, you must not imitate your opponent, nor make an idol of him…It is common knowledge that a copy is worse than the original.”  Anatoly Tarasov, father of Russian Ice Hockey

Bringing change to a traditional, culture-influenced sport like Judo often appears to be an exercise in futility. I spite of my best efforts to point out the latest in research or the cultural parallels in other sports, Judo people desperately cling to traditions and old methodologies sometimes for no other reason than, “But it works for the Japanese,” and, “World Champion so-and-so does it, so I’m going to do it.”

Imitating the methods of successful programs without understanding the underlying reasons for their success is often fraught with disappointment. We must dissuade ourselves that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In fact, we should recognize that the lock, stock and barrel imitation of the Japanese, Cuban, West European and East European models is the death knoll for many Judoplayers and programs.

Hidden among the visible traits of the Japanese, Cuban, West European and East European models are factors we often don’t think about when assessing the value of their programs. Things like numbers of participants and clubs, government support, incentives, expectations, freedom, and social rewards all have a tremendous bearing on the success of these programs.

Let’s take the example of the Japanese model. Contrary to the myopic view of many, the Japanese are successful because of sheer numbers of clubs, participants, training partners, training time, and competition opportunities, and not because they do uchi komi or kata. When you have millions of players in your geographically small country, hundreds of people on a mat, dozens of high quality training partners, additional dozens of live throwing dummies, tournaments every weekend, and you spend close to twenty hours per week practicing randori, you can get away with using an inferior training model. Try that model in locations where the numbers are not there, and you have a disaster.

The Cuban model is another one that works well at home, but has problems when exported in toto to foreign environments. D’Arcy Rahming, the president of the Bahamas Judo Federation, has been through several foreign training models as he builds up his nation’s Judo program. Since there are a few former members of the Cuban national team who now live in the Bahamas, he has used these athletes in an attempt to grow his program. Speaking of one former national team member he employed in his own club, Rahming stated, “He started with some twenty athletes who had been coming to practice regularly, and within a few weeks only a few remained. He nearly ruined my program!”

When you understand that the Cuban model, as well as the former East-European/Soviet model, is predicated on having a captive audience incentivized to succeed in sports as a means of acquiring better food, lodging and a few degrees of freedom not available to the general population, it’s easy to understand why the Cuban model didn’t work in the Bahamas. Bahamians are a free people and have many choices when it comes to the activities they participate in. They don’t need a rigid, demanding Judo program to achieve higher living standards.

My colleagues in Mexico tell me they have the same problem with the Cuban coaches employed by the Mexican Federation. The Cuban coaches, all well-educated in the sciences of physical training, but stuck with a demanding model of training, don’t know how to tweak the Cuban system in order to make it work in a different social and economic environment. Thus, few are successful in Mexico because the incentives, government support, and social rewards for athletes that exist in Cuba don’t exist in Mexico.

Back in the 1980s, several “national” coaches from the Soviet Union emigrated to the U.S.  All were very knowledgeable about the sciences, Judo, and Sambo, yet none made an impact in the Judo community. Like their Cuban colleagues, they too couldn’t understand that athletes, who have choices and are free, are not motivated by the same training model that worked with their former charges back home.

Let’s get back to Anatoly Tarasov. In late 1946, he was tasked to develop ice hockey in the Soviet Union. Canadians, the inventors of the game, had reigned supreme, but it would not last long. Starting in 1963, the Soviets won nine consecutive World Championships, as well as three consecutive Olympic gold medals.

Tarasov started off with the Canadian model, kept the good things, discarded the bad things, improvised, created, and innovated while the Canadians, “…kept losing not only to us, but also to the Czechoslovakian combined team….For years their playing style had not been changing as nobody wanted to utilize the tactical diversity of European hockey, nor progressive tendencies in their training process.” Tarasov was very clear that, “Giving credit to the opponents I’ve never kneeled to them, because I knew that Russian hockey was ahead in many components of the game, as well as in the pedagogical and methodological approaches to it.”

“Culture” wars exist in many sports. Tarasov modernized the pedagogical and methodological approaches in ice hockey. Swimming coaches like Terri McKeever and Dave Salo in the U.S. are busy fighting the culture of the swimming community, where training volume dominates the thinking. McKeever and Salo are proponents of race-pace training. Thankfully for them, the results of their “unorthodox” race-pace training methods are measurable. One of McKeever’s swimmers, Olympic gold medalist Natalie Coughlin, puts things in perspective:

The swimming mentality is so stupid. So many people are so worried about yardage- who trains harder than who- and they mindlessly go back and forth and beat themselves into the ground. People will say, ‘I swam so-and-so yards today.’ Big freakin’ deal! It’s so frustrating, because so much of the swimming community is focused on yardage, yet that’s just one piece of a big puzzle. A lot of coaches are arrogant and won’t step outside the box. There are very, very few coaches willing to look at it from a different perspective.

For unorthodox Judo coaches, getting the Judo community to embrace different training methods remains a difficult task. Judo culture is conservative, stuck in the ukemi-uchi komi-gokyo no waza-randori model. Also, there aren’t yet enough successful athletes training under unorthdox methods to validate them. In spite of that, we must persevere in changing the Judo training culture, especially in Judo-poor countries. Since we lack the resources, numbers, incentives, and opportunities of the powers in Judo, we must develop a training program that works within our framework. The willy-nilly implementation of European or Asian models won’t do. We must be skeptical, question, accept the good, discard the unworkable, improvise, create, and innovate. Above all, we must not blindly implement because it works for the Japanese!

Note: I highly recommend two books that address the development of alternative training models. They are: Tarasov, the Father of Russian Hockey by Anatoly Tarasov, and Golden Girl: How Natalie Coughlin Fought Back, Challenged Conventional Wisdom, and Became America’s Swimming Champion by Michael Silver. Both books are chock full of Judo-like scenarios, problems and solutions.

3 thoughts on “Good For The Goose, But Not So Good For The Gander

  1. Not holding my breath! Listening is one thing, acting on the information is another story…but you already know that.

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