Youth Development: From Losers to World Cup Champions

A few weeks ago, Japan’s women’s soccer team won the World Cup beating the favorite American team in a penalty shootout after twice coming from behind.  Along the way, Japan had eliminated another favorite team: Germany, the host of the 2011 World Cup and winner of the last two Cups.  What’s remarkable is that just twelve years ago, Japan was routinely losing to the U.S. by scores of 9-0 and 7-0.  So how did the Japanese close the gap so quickly with only 25,000 females playing the sport, while 7 million do so in the Unites States?  That’s a story that should be of interest to American Judo.

I’ll be the first to admit that Japan won the World Cup because they were fighting for a greater cause than personal glory.  They were playing for the redemption of a nation devastated by earthquakes and tsunamis.  The soccer Gods willed the Japanese past other teams, but only because the Japanese were technically sound.  And they were sound because they had made some important decisions with their youth program that we Americans have not.

While American youth soccer teams think short-term and put a premium on size and speed, and winning State Cups at age 8 or 10- does this resonate with the American Judo community?- the Japanese think long-term and put a premium on developing technical skills.  The Japan Soccer Association’s focus is on the 5-12 year olds.  These kids play small-sided scrimmages with mini goals, which requires greater technical skills.  They also play on uneven dirt fields, where balls take weird bounces and hops.  This helps develop better touch and ball control.  Meanwhile, Americans play for the most part on manicured full-sized fields with full-sized goals.  This does little to develop technical skills.  The Japanese approach seems to parallel the development of Brazilian soccer with its use of futsal.

By now, you’re wondering what any of this soccer stuff has to do with Judo development.  Well, it’s yet another story on how to achieve international excellence in a sport.  And given our lack of success with our senior program, we have to ask ourselves if our failures at the senior level are not predicated on the decisions we make, or don’t make, when it comes to our youth development program.  Of course, most of you will now be asking, “What youth program?”  The answer is that we don’t have one.

What can we learn from the success of the Japanese soccer program that will benefit American Judo?  The most important tidbit is to start developing the fundamentals of the game at a young age, and not focus on wins, losses, and championships.  In soccer, ball control (passing) is the fundamental. If you can keep the ball away from the other team and make their players chase the ball, chances are you’ll win the game provided you can also finish and score.  The French team, which also showed great progress at the World Cup, had great control of the ball, but had difficulty scoring.

Our greatest task in Judo is deciding what are the most important fundamentals of Judo.  If you ask one hundred American coaches what those fundamentals are, I’m sure you’ll get one hundred different answers. I don’t think our fundamentals have anything to do with specific Judo techniques, i.e. Tai otoshi or Uchi mata, but rather all the stuff that comes before, during, and after techniques.  I call these things “Judo behaviors.”  Among them would be tai sabaki, posture, and transitions.

The Japanese soccer model stresses that kids shouldn’t be treated like little adults.  Equipment, rules, and the game itself need to be tailored to their age, skill level, and development stage.  By changing the dimensions of the field and goals, more soccer skills were developed because players were forced to become more involved on a smaller field.

What can we do in Judo to produce the same technical effect?  Years ago, in fact far too many years ago for me to remember enough of the details, Midge Marino and Kuniko Takeuchi created a new form of Judo competition to address the needs of female players. There were four corner judges, each of whom had score paddles in hand.  Besides scoring effectiveness, each player was evaluated on other aspects of Judo performance such as technical perfection and ukemi.  Maybe posture and tai sabaki were the other aspects.  Although, the idea didn’t catch on and ultimately died, this is the kind of outside-the-box thinking we need.

Jim Hrbek runs “rapid fire” tournaments in San Antonio, Texas, and is very happy with the results.  Players get one minute to do their thing.  It’s an all-out, short effort to score ippon. More time is spent on doing positive Judo than on playing negative “penalty” Judo.  Saving energy no longer factors into this type of tournament.

If more technical development occurs on a small field, would playing on a 3m x 3m mat or within a 3m sumo ring improve tai sabaki and reaction times?  What if the players wore socks?  My bet is that the development of fundamentals skills would be greatly enhanced.

There are many great ideas out there, but they keep running into the silly notion that since our players will ultimately have to play the adult game, that’s what they should start with.  Needless to say, those who support this approach have no idea how long-term development works.  We just can’t seem to wrap our arms around the idea that our youth should come under different sets of rules to enhance the development of techniques and Judo behaviors.

Finally, it must be pointed out that more and more of the Japanese soccers players are plying their skills abroad in professional soccer leagues.  While we may not have professional Judo leagues to send our players to, there are plenty of good international training centers that our players should be attending on a long-term basis.  They would have access to many more good players than can be found in the States, as well as a plethora of high caliber tournaments.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, we should learn how other sports and other nations develop international excellence.  We should take their best ideas, tweak them to suit our national situation, and discard what will not work for us.  What we can’t do is keep doing the same thing that has produced so little over so many years.

2 thoughts on “Youth Development: From Losers to World Cup Champions

  1. “There are many great ideas out there, but they keep running into the silly notion that since our players will ultimately have to play the adult game, that’s what they should start with.”

    This really is silly because the rules change on a yearly basis. If you were training your players to use morote gari or kata guruma a few years ago, you’d be out of luck by now and your players wouldn’t have their best techniques. Development rules are a great idea. I’d love to see the IJF make more sensible experiments. Instead of penalizing things they don’t want to see, just make them lower scores. If you want to see more attacking in judo, make counters worth less. Want more ne waza, give them more time on the mat and train your players to attack the turtle well.

    The idea that we can’t make our own rules is silly because the IJF does it all the time, much to the chagrin of players around the world. We should lead by example, experiment with different rule ideas, and show the IJF what judo really can look like – fast, exciting, and with a variety of attacks. We should be training our players to know and play the full gamut of judo regardless of the rules of competition.

  2. Very good points you made. Since rules can change so much even in a decade, the argument of training kids with rules designed for senior competition is incorrect. Kids need rules to encourage them to develop the best judo over long term, so when they become adult they can adapt to any rules. In the last ten years, we saw the “danger zone” disappear, and new dynamic edge rules implemented, the removal of koka, first penalty does not score, removing leg grabbing techniques as the first attack, etc. Who knows how IJF judo wil be in another decade when today’s ten-year-old fight their first senior competition.

    The U. S. does not have a real youth judo program. From what I see in Europe, even a regional junior competition gets 40+ players in a division. The U. S. is so far removed from the IJF’s influence, we really should lead with our own experiments without IJF baggage, especially at the youth level. To have good seniors, we need to start with producing good juniors.

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