Penalties Galore!

As I read the summaries of the recently held Sao Paulo World Cup and Brazil Grand Slam, I was taken aback, even though I shouldn’t be, by the relatively high number of matches during which only negative scores (penalties) were awarded, and positive scores were nowhere to be found. I think one match that ends with three penalties against two is already one too many. Unfortunately, there were other matches that wound up with the victor winning the battle of the penalties either 3-2 or 3-1 or 2-1. How exciting do you think those matches were? My daughter, Natalie, who competed at both events, said that there was a plethora of penalties, and she was bored out of her gourd watching the matches. Sounds about right.

I’ve been racking my brain trying to come up with another sport whose matches or games can be won by negative scores alone. I’m coming up blank. Can you imagine for one moment American football games being won because one team had one less 15-yard penalty than the other team, and neither team scored a field goal or a touch down? Will World Cup soccer games in South Africa be won because one team had one less foul than the other team, and neither team scored a goal? Of course not! But a Judo match, well, that’s a whole different story.

Sure, every sport has penalties. The big difference between Judo and the other sports is that in Judo you get a positive score because your opponent was penalized, but everywhere else, when your opponent is assessed a penalty you still have to do something positive to score to take advantage of the penalty. In basketball, you have to hit the free throw; in soccer, you have to make the penalty shot or the free kick; in American football, that 15-yard penalty might get you closer to the end zone, but you still have to score a touchdown or kick a field goal; and in ice hockey, a team plays a man down for a few minutes but you still must put the puck in the net to get a point. In Judo, unlike other sports, you get something for nothing.

Penalties are out of whack. There is no rational equivalency between penalties and scores. Penalties don’t fit the infractions. How can one innocuous non-combativity and two innocuous gripping penalties be the equivalent of a much harder to achieve throw that almost scored ippon? They aren’t equivalent. It may be that we will have to go to a numerical and cumulative scoring system to facilitate bringing the value of penalties in line with positive scores. One thing is abundantly clear. We can’t blossom as a sport, and survive in the grappling world, if we continue to use a system that allows matches to be won by negative scores alone.

Referees think they can make Judo better by punishing athletes and piling on the penalties. They are mistaken. Our love affair with penalties, and the devaluation of ippon simply encourage players to develop tactical Judo that keeps them within the rules and removes risk, but offers a very boring Judo nobody wants to see. Sadly, referees still don’t understand the unintended consequences of their penalty-mania.

Want to make Judo once again dynamic and exciting to watch? Let’s start by doing away with the incentive to do crappy Judo, by minimizing penalties and giving them a value that fits the crime. Adopt the referee advisories that the Amateur Athletic Union has implemented in its AAU Judo and Freestyle Judo rules, and players will be forced to do real Judo to win a match.

Old Kodokan tournament rules called for the best of three ippons to claim victory.  Before WWII, terminal ippon, which symbolized the end to a real combat in the street or field, replaced the best-of-three scenario. I think it’s time to do away with the symbolism of terminal ippon and once again embrace the idea of multiple ippons in a match, especially in light of how frequently what used to be koka or yuko is now awarded ippon. Multiple ippons remove some of the risk of attacking and improve the chance of seeing a dynamic, free flowing Judo. It will also push us closer to a numerical scoreboard, which Judo must adopt to stay relevant in the grappling world.

I wish the IJF would attempt to use positive reinforcement rather than heavy-handed negative reinforcement to mold and manage Judo matches. Those of us who have run tournaments using proactive referees know that Judo matches can be exciting and devoid of tactical nonsense if we neuter all the ridiculous rules that get in the way of doing good Judo. Any chance of the IJF coming to the same conclusion anytime soon?

2 thoughts on “Penalties Galore!

  1. Sir,
    As I have been studying the rules very closely this past year, I would like to offer an opinion. Every time something unexpected happens in Judo, there is an alteration to the rules. Case in point, an Olympic Gold Medalist from Brazil won all of his matches, yet threw no one. The IJF changed the intepretation of the rules that following congress.

    Talking to a few A’ level referees one gets the sense that America is not clear what the IJF wants.

    I think your article is three fold.

    1. What is negative Judo. This is wide topic that many Referees are struggling with. I watched a match at the Senior Nationals where a player lost because of the Referees/Judges mis-intepretation of this. In fact, many Referees don’t believe that a drop Seoi Nage can be used as an offensive stalling tech! Just because Uke steps around to avoid it, doesn’t make it effective. Since there is no requirement that Referees be former players, this will continue to happen. The Referee should not determine the outcome of a match!

    2. Remove the barriers to question the rules. Many higher level Referees can not answer the question as to why? Where is the penalty and what would be the appropriate call are easy. There is a stigmatizm attached to questioning the validity of the rules and many up and coming Referees will not do this. The answer: This is what the IJF wants, is a cop out.

    3. Judoka who work out and compete against the same people will only get so good. Every major player in Europe and Asia have a competition schedule. These are the minimum tournaments that player A will contest. The local and Regional tournaments are used to hone a specific skill. I’ve seen Olympic Medalist at Regional tournaments (and they don’t always win), but they are there to work an area of their game. Because America is so vast, certain weights can get quality matches, where others can not. Competition and the skills learned by matching with the worlds best is what is needed to get over the hump.

    Many stay too long in a stagnant situation. As a Judoka, I never outgrew my original Sensei. As a player I did. I needed another set of eyes to assist the growth of my Judo. That will remove a lot of these 3-2 penalty matches by learning how to throw again.

  2. Great post, I would love to see a change in the scoring of judo. The three ippon idea sounds like it would be great, at least for a developmental aspect, if not more. The addition of more and more rules reminds me of our lawmakers making more and more laws but never enforcing the ones that are on the books.

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