Sports are finally waking up to the long-term effects of concussions. Judo is no exception. The United States Judo Association, for example, has prominently displayed on its website an online course entitled Heads Up!. This course is the work of the U.S. Center of Disease Control, which tells us how important this issue is.
I took the course, and completed it in 45 minutes. While it’s informative and addresses how to recognize the signs of a concussion, it isn’t sport-specific enough to tackle what we must do to minimize the potential for concussions.
Contrary to what we might think, ukemi and kuzushi are not always the problem in Judo, nor do they solve all our problems. When it comes to head injuries, we can focus on proper pairing of training partners, training methods, and age-appropriate techniques, but the real elephant in the room is this: the landing surface! Thin puzzle mats, hard wrestling mats, folding gymnastic mats that separate, even good foam tatami…laid down on a concert floor…this is Judo’s greatest risk for injury, and where our first preventive measure against all injuries needs to be.
If our insurance carrier had any idea of what goes on in Judo clubs, and how injuries can be minimized, it would require spring-loaded platforms, rather than some nebulous course on concussions. Our Judo organizations should develop “position statements” that encourage clubs to install spring-loaded platforms when possible. Platforms are “forgiving,” and help clubs retain members, minimize injuries, and train more efficiently. They are a win-win proposition for everyone involved in Judo
Our next red flag is not ukemi, but with the way ukemi is taught traditionally. I’m referring to the solo “mat bashing” method. The problem with solo practice is that tori has a vote in how uke will fall, no matter how many trillions of solo mat bashing repetitions he does. Tori’s speed, technical accuracy, angle of attack, follow through, sidedness, grips and technical variation all affect uke’s landing. There’s a huge difference between a solo back fall and a back fall via O soto gari, or between a zempo kaiten and being slammed with a drop Seoi nage. Therefore, ukemi training should be done in conjunction with many different Judo techniques, starting in low positions, i.e. squatting or kneeling, before moving to a standing position. There, the use of a forgiving crash pad while learning ukemi will further make the practice more realistic and safer. By the way, according to statistics provided to me by a Japanese colleague, O soto gari caused the most head injuries among junior high school students early in the season, in spite of the thousands of back falls they performed.
The strength of the neck and its range of motion are often an afterthought when it comes to injury prevention. How often are we told in our coaching education and within the “fitness industry” that neck bridges are contraindicated, and just plain bad for us? Dr. Hiroshi Takei, a Judo coach and orthopedic surgeon specializing in the spine, scoffs at the idea that front and back neck bridges are bad for you.
Unfamiliarity with a technique can also cause injuries. Here, we need to differentiate between the techniques we want our players to perform, and the techniques we want our players to be able to recognize so they’ll know how to defend against or take a fall. My players are not allowed to perform drop seoi nage, but they recognize the skill because I perform it on them in randori, and they practice turnouts or proper ukemi from the drop position.
We should ask ourselves if what we teach is age- or skill-appropriate for our membership. A 13-year old with three years experience in Judo should be capable of learning and performing Uchi mata. Would a 13-year with little experience in Judo be in the same boat? Would he have the required leg strength and balance to execute an injury-free Uchi mata? Or would this lead to a head injury for him or uke? According to statistics compiled in Japan, among self-inflicted injuries that caused paralysis, Uchi mata was responsible nearly 60% of the time.
Finally, some common sense mat management procedures need to be adhered to. Manage the number of players on the mat or actively involved in practice based on what they are practicing. Tomoe nage takes up more space than Ippon seoi nage. By grouping the students by threes instead of pairing them up, fewer people are throwing at the same time. Also, it’s a good idea to have all your players throw in the same direction on the mat, either north-south or east-west. When it’s time for randori, further limit the number of players on the mat. Using weight is a good way to keep the training area safe. For example, first up, players under 85lb. Next round, players over 85lb, etc.
Organize your mat space by putting the heaviest players the farthest away from the lightest players. Know which players can work safely with others, while still paying attention to size, age, sex and skill differences. It’s more than OK to minimize what each player can do with another for safety reasons. For example, 8-year old Ralph loves to do O soto gari, but you have him doing randori with a child with two weeks of Judo. Ralph has been taught how to take care of junior and younger partners. Still, you may want to tell Ralph to knock off the O soto gari, and try something more appropriate and safer for his training partner.
Here are some additional statistics from Dr. Takei. While they deal with paralysis, they also have a strong connection to concussion rates. When paralysis was caused by a partner, drop seoi was the main culprit 44% of the time. Paralysis occurred 58% in shiai, 37% in randori, and 5% in uchi komi/nage komi.
In conclusion, take Heads Up!, the CDC’s online course. Recognizing the signs of head injuries is important. And do pay attention to the Judo-specific preventive measures listed below.
- Spring-loaded platform
- Crash pads
- Little or no solo mat bashing
- Partner-assisted ukemi training
- Use a variety of throws to learn ukemi
- Strengthen the neck
- Minimize unfamiliarity of techniques
- Age- and skill level-appropriate learning
- Pay attention to your mat management