USJA: getting back to our pioneering spirit

My mom used to take a wooden coat hanger or her high heel shoe to beat my little butt when I misbehaved.  Why the behavior modification tools?  Her excuse was that when she used her hand, she’d break blood vessels and would become black and blue.  From time to time she’d remind me that the only reason she beat me was because she loved me.  Well, I’ve been beating up on the USJA, and I do so, just like my mom did with me, because I love the USJA.  More precisely I love the USJA that I joined back in 1975.  Unfortunately, I hate seeing what it has become.

In the last few years, I’ve withdrawn from the organization little by little, partly because I’ve grown professionally, and the USJA hasn’t.  My needs back in 1975 are not what they are today, so I find the USJA, and all the other Judo organizations, no longer relevant.

The second reason is that, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, I didn’t leave the USJA, the USJA left me.  I’ve gotten tired of the politics, and dealing with the same issues over and over for the last thirty years with no solution in sight.  It seems that nothing gets better, nothing moves forward.  I’ve even abandoned my cherished coach education committee, because it too is spinning its wheels going nowhere fast.

Fore those of you who don’t know the history of the founding of the USJA, here it is in a nutshell.  After years of suffering financial inequities and racial discrimination at the hands of Japanese-Americans running the Judo Black Belt Federation (JBBF), the Armed Forces Judo Association (AFJA) revolted and withdrew from the JBBF in 1969 to become the USJA.  Shortly after that, the JBBF would give way to the United States Judo Federation (USJF).  The split- a “we’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore” act- can only be seen as a bold and courageous move on the part of the progressive, young warriors of the AFJA.

What did the new USJA bring to the game?  Besides a breath of fresh air, open communication was one thing.  I joined the USJA in 1975 because all members received an informative Judo magazine.  A structured promotion system for juniors and seniors, promotion manuals, printed testing materials, and the introduction of English terminology for techniques that lacked Japanese names were other items that enhanced Judo development.  The USJA promoted women’s Judo and held the first Women’s National Championships.  It also made it possible for deserving non-Japanese players to be promoted to higher dan ranks, although for years no USJA rank was recognized by any other Judo organization.  On the coaching front, the USJA developed the best coach education program in the U.S.  And let’s not forget Camp Olympus, touted as a national training camp.

Over the years, that “we’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore” spirit made the USJA a trailblazing pioneer in the sport.  It had the temerity to stand up for its ranks, and sued the AAU and USJF to get recognition for USJA ranks.  It advocated for James Wooley and Allan Coage at the 1976 Olympic Trials, when the qualifying rules were changed in the middle of the trials to benefit other players.  Today, while it still fights the good fight when its name and programs are impugned, the trailblazing, pioneering spirit is dead.  The USJA has become a follower, not a leader.

What happened to that courageous organization that told the establishment to go to hell and then proceeded to do what it thought was right for the development of Judo is anyone’s guess.  Complacency, fatigue, loss of the warrior ethos and youthful “can do” attitude, political correctness, rank entitlement, and lack of courage and imagination have all had an impact on the organization.  In essence, we have become the people we replaced back in 1969.

Is it time, once again, to split into another organization, or can the USJA refresh itself to become the grassroots organization it used to be?  I don’t have the answer to that, but I do know that, if I were the president of the USJA, I would advocate we adopt the following trailblazing, pioneering ideas.

  1. Competition rules for grassroots development:  in essence, say goodbye to IJF rules, which hinder skill development and prevent us from being competitive within the greater American grappling community.  If done right, new rules can return us to our ne waza foundation. I know our leaders have a hard time wrapping their arms around this idea, but it might be helpful to remember that 99 percent of our Judo population will never, ever have to compete under IJF rules.  Never, never, never!  So why are we so worried about being bold?
  2. Create a committee of coaches and players, not referees, to develop said rules.  Members must understand skill development, and the competition we face from MMA, grappling, and BJJ.  Coaches are the lifeblood of the organization, and have a vested interest in making the right decisions for the development of Judo.  Referees just want to make sure they retain power over the rest of the community.
  3. Rethink our relationship with USA Judo.  Remaining a member of USA Judo, and the political correctness required to do so, prevent us from being the pioneers we once were.  We can’t give a damn what USA Judo, or the USJF, thinks of our programs.  Besides the fact that the relationship keeps us down, what do we really get for the money we spend to be a USA Judo member?
  4. Return to our warrior ethos and emphasis on competition.  If we must absolutely retain the idea of kata, open up the floodgates and usher in modern, dynamic katas that showcase the power, beauty and effectiveness of Judo.
  5. Complete an overhaul of our promotion system. Return “terminal rank” to godan. Minimize “service to Judo” promotions, and eliminate our entitlement culture.  This last item, which is very entrenched, may actually force a split within the USJA. I would also advocate lowering promotion fees to fight the urge to fundraise while over-promoting those who don’t really merit a promotion.
  6. Get serious about coach education: hire a full-time professional. Volunteers who have jobs don’t have the time to do what needs to be done.
  7. Rethink our raison d’être.  We must be more than an organization that provides insurance and registers members and ranks.  Grassroots development is about selling Judo to America, developing coaches, and facilitating the start-up of many clubs.  Can we honestly say we are doing that?

So, there you have it folks.  If you don’t think we are facing a grassroots and PR nightmare, consider the following fact.  We have added some 100 million people to our population since the USJA was founded, yet we have fewer members today than at our greatest height.  How can that be?

10 thoughts on “USJA: getting back to our pioneering spirit

  1. Can you clarify what you mean by “service-to-judo promotions”? I may not have the idea right, but I had always thought that basically, there were competition points (entering and winning in competitions), attendance points (for class, camps, and clinics), and then service points (teaching, hosting camps/tourneys, etc). So when I hear you talk about service promotions, I am thinking promotions based on teaching, etc… But if we were to get rid of, or minimize those, how would the judoka who no longer compete get promoted?

    Honestly, I don’t have much of a concept of how promotions happen at the higher dan levels… Well, my guess is that if the USJA aristocracy likes you, then you get promoted, and if they don’t (or just don’t know you) then you have to jump through a bunch of hoops. But I would think that as someone improves the quality of their instruction that this would qualify them for higher ranks, with the higher levels being reserved for really amazing judoka.

    Anyhoo, could you wrap a few more words around what you mean by “service-to-judo promotions”, and what promotions should be based on?

  2. I’ll be glad to clarify what I mean by “service to Judo” promotions. Most promotions to high dan in the world are predicated on high competitive skill levels. In the absence of high level competitive skills, service to Judo promotions are predicated on service at high levels, i.e. international. The current USJA promotion system is about quantity of service rather than quality. You would expect, at least I do, that for promotions to 6th dan and above, all service points should be earned at the international level, but they are not. I think a system that rewards people for doing kindergarten work (service at the local level, LM points, points for simply being on the mat) by promoting them to ranks that in any other country would require a modicum of international performance, is a great disservice to American Judo.

  3. Steve, I continue to entertain the AAU option. However, as I have told you before, I’m still wrestling with the notion of exchanging one bureaucracy for another? For the time being, I like being independent to do what I feel is best for my students.

  4. I’m slowly trying to work up the idea of an AAU or at least a more classic rules tournament in the Memphis area. I’m opposed to USA Judo supporting the IJF model on the non-international levels and the USJA and USJF for simply rolling over for the idea.

  5. Chad, you know as well as I do that we’ve both seen some “No-dans” even at camps, who have no business having such a high rank.

  6. Good for you for thinking about a tournament with different rules. I’ve held three such events now, and I can’t see ever going back to IJF rules…unless, of course, the IJF gets smart and comes up with a better model. Fat chance.

    I too am disappointed with our grassroots organizations for blindly following the IJF’s lead. If more club coaches started complaining about the blind allegiance and pulled out of the JF and JA, change might be forthcoming.

  7. As long as we’re saying reduce the service promotions and not eliminate them, I am on the same page. I’m with you that many folks in the US are over-ranked, compared to counterparts in other countries. And I’m of the opinion that just stepping on the mat really should stop counting towards any promotion past the kyu-grades. Proving executional superiority on the mat is a great, and reasonably objective measure, and when you can’t do that any more, but you are producing lots of students who can, then that should definitely count for something, as well. But there are plenty of folks who may not be (or have ever been) great competitors, either due to interest or physical limitations (we aren’t all created equally), but they may be great “thinkers” or innovators and contributing to the domain of Judo. If you were to take away Geof Gleeson’s competitive achievements – say he had been raised in a small town in Alaska and didn’t have much in the way of opportunity to be an international competitor – but he still had the same thoughts and wrote the same books: should he have been capped at 5th dan? Maybe for the absolute highest ranks (say, 9th and 10th) you have to have the total package: an exceptional competition record, coaching record, and contribution to the knowledge base of Judo. But I think that there is plenty of room for the philosophers up to 8th dan.

    Certainly, if your claim to fame is you have been teaching for 40 years, and never missed a class, you are certainly doing a service to Judo, but not one that necessitates a 7th dan. Just as we aren’t all created equal, we don’t all have it in us to be Judans… And that’s okay.

  8. I think we are on the same page Chad. Regarding the “service to Judo” part of promotions, this needs to be commensurate with the rank that is being awarded. Currently, you can gain “service to Judo” credit at the local level for the highest dan ranks. This is not correct. “Service to Judo” credit should be earned at the highest levels (national and international) for high dan ranks. For a good example of what I would like to see, go here.

  9. Sir,
    Great article. Our judo club recently held a newaza tournament in conjunction with our regular judo tournament as part of the state games. We will continue to tweak the rules as the referees (bless them for doing such a wonderful job and working so hard) didn’t seem to be working off of the same set of rules as the competitors. IMO, something more like Kosen Judo would attract more people. Our club has lost several older members (late 30s and up) to BJJ as their bodies, like mine, are beginning to struggle with the throwing.

    I would love to remove the politics from promotions, but at the same time, I appreciate the point system. Perhaps a promotion system that uses the point system as optional, giving clubs the authority to deviate. While this poses the risk of undeserved promotions, that means that a judoka with an undeserved promotion just gets to face a higher level of competitor in tournaments.

    Thank you for such a great website.

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