Notes from the 2009 U.S. Open, Part 1

I just got back from San Jose, California where the 2009 U.S. Open was held. I had the opportunity to talk to friends, coaches, and athletes, many of whom I had not seen in years. Here are some of the thoughts I came away with.

I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of times I heard that “Judo is dying.” While we have always complained a lot about Judo, mostly about the politics of Judo, never before was there such gloom and doom in the air. So what gives? Well, the economy is in the tank for now so membership in our clubs is dropping. Most of us are fed up with the heavy-handedness of USA Judo. The USJA, which is currently holding elections, has basically split into two feuding factions, alienating a segment of the Judo community. The IJF has tinkered so much with the rules of competition that yet another group has left Judo for some other form of grappling, mostly jujitsu. Costs are rising, service is diminishing, participation is decreasing, so it is easy to admit that Judo is dying. I think Judo is very sick, but it is not terminal yet, unless we continue to keep our heads buried in the sand.

In my opinion, one thing is perfectly clear. The survival of Judo doesn’t depend on the existence of strong national or international organizations. It rests squarely on the health of local Judo clubs, and their interaction and cooperation, the lack of which is really the cause of Judo’s malaise.

Far too many coaches told me that local clubs won’t cooperate. This coach is mad at that coach, that coach can’t stand a third coach, and on and on. Somehow, we have to get over our dislike for each other, and find a way to cooperate, support each other’s events, and grow not only our clubs but Judo too. We talk “mutual benefit and welfare” big time. When are we going to walk that talk?

I have a good friend who runs a club on the East Coast. He recently held a Grand Opening, which featured a clinic with two U.S. Olympians, one a bronze medalist. He told me that six of the nearest clubs in his state did not deign to show up. What could be the reason for not wanting to learn from two Olympians?

Two weeks ago, I ran an in-house tournament in San Diego. We charge $10, give nice medals, run round-robin pools, and we complete the tournament in less than three hours. Since we only have about four tournaments a year in the greater San Diego area, you would think that every club would take advantage of such a good deal. Wrong!  We had only seven competitors from the seven clubs in San Diego, but twenty-one competitors from three clubs in Mexico, and not one competitor from the largest USJA club, which is only two hours away from our club. Go figure.

Coaches also told me that their membership is dropping. After asking a few questions about their program, I quickly got the picture. Their instructional program is stuck on the ukemi-static uchi komi-randori instructional model: the same boring warm-ups, the same boring ukemi, the same boring repetitions, little or no fun and games, crappy mats, etc.

When are we going to understand that Judo is a product that the consumer may or may not buy? The consumer has many more choices in martial arts training today than it had twenty years ago. Ask yourselves why so many people are willing to spend sometimes 4-5 times more for jujitsu than they will for Judo. Our product is stale, and our facilities are not adequate enough to overcome the great negative factor associated with practicing Judo- taking falls. We must constantly be willing to tweak our product to keep the consumer interested in it. Change the methodology of instruction, step out of that box you’ve been in for all those years, be creative, vary your practices, invest in a spring-loaded mat if you can, and your membership will thrive in spite of the economy.

Speaking of what people are willing to pay for martial arts training, a coach from a prominent club in Los Angeles mentioned to me that his club’s membership took a hit when it raised its dues. I hope you are sitting down for this one. The dues went from $17.50 per month to a whopping $20!!!!!  I’m not sure what this says about Judo, but I’m pretty sure it’s not good.

3 thoughts on “Notes from the 2009 U.S. Open, Part 1

  1. I have been off of the Judo mat for almost as long as I was on the mat,

    but it is sad to see Judo dying in the US when it has the potential to be

    much more than tired old rec-center Judo on hard wrestling mats. I

    agree with Coach Lafon on this topic. Clubs need to support each other

    and stop the same old political in-fighting.

  2. I cannot understand why the clubs from San Diego area don’t bother to show up at one of the few local tournaments. It’s so close that the cost of traveling is minimal. So the economic factor is trivial. However, I can understand that people try to avoid driving long trips to participate in tournaments to save time and money.

    I think the other clubs seriously need to promote competition together with teaching judo, many clubs don’t require or emphasize competition.

    I just came back from a small international tournament near Udine, Italy. We had thirty some people in the -73kg division and this size is not uncommon for this type of tournament.

    Judo is a tough sport and it takes a long time to become proficient at just few throwing techniques, and when removed the relatively easier to learn techniques such as morote-gari, kata guruma, it will take a while before someone can effectively throw consistently. Heck, kata guruma was one of my first effective techniques as a yellow belt, and it took me about four years before I began to throw with other techniques consistently and only now I feel more confident about my seio nage. Instead, in newaza, techniques can be learned much more quickly and you can see results right away. Which is why jujitsu appeals more to the impatient students of martial arts.

    Since I participated in many local, regional and international tournaments in southern California and in other countries, I have some suggestions to offer. Since most American judo players have jobs, study and other commitment, the tournament takes their free day of the week, and most local tournaments begins with the children’s division which can take all day. That means the seniors have to come early in the morning and wait all day to play (think about Nikkei Games, last I played we waited until 5PM to begin). It’s necessary to put the children’s competition and adult’s competition on separate days, if not possible, at least separate mats.

    Perhaps we need to follow the European judo development model, seperating the competition into cadet, junior, (u23), and senior. Kids younger than cadet are too young to realize the usefulness of competition anyway and their time is better focused on learning techniques. The local and regional tournaments in Italy are always organized for two days at least, one day for the junior and below, and the other day for seniors. Only rarely you’ll find a small tournament where they put everyone on the same day.

  3. There are a lot of factors to this issue coach, but the biggest is what I would call the “spot light” factor. This means nobody in the US, its cities, or its towns are seeing judo competitions on television. They are seeing UFC Unleashed, WEC Wreckage, Affliction M-1 and so on. There is also this stupid thing called Reality TV. Shows such as The Ultimate Fighter let people see another side of combat athletics, the Soap Opera drama that seems to have this country held captive! Hell, look at the world of boxing. I can remember the days of gatherings at my friend’s houses just so we could watch Tyson knock out his next opponent. Even boxing has lost its luster compared to seeing Kimbo Slice share a house in Las Vegas with a bunch of Neanderthals while Rashad Evans and Rampage Jackson bark orders at their fighters, all the while pumping up their next Paper View event against one another. I whole heartedly agree with the thought that judoka in this country, players and administrators, must find a way to get past the BS and organize so that the US can take its rightful place in the world of judo. This includes all schools of training, both young and old. America has some of the best athletes in the world. Just look at the sports that Americans excel in… football, baseball, basketball, hockey, track and field. If we could make judo as enticing as these more “traditional” US sports then maybe we wouldn’t have to sit around and pick one another’s brains about how to revitalize this dyeing martial art. Maybe we should get Dana White on the US Judo board of representatives… just a thought.

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