“Player development continues to be the core of what we do. By its very nature it’s a long-term process, so it may not be as sexy as announcing a national team competition or coach or winning medals, but it’s actually probably the most important thing we do.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if this were coming from USA Judo? Well, it didn’t come from USA Judo. It came from U.S. Soccer’s president, when he introduced the federation’s newly appointed youth technical director.
Even though U.S. Soccer should be applauded for creating the new position, isn’t it a bit late? You see, they developed the national team program and the adolescent program (13-18 year olds) prior to developing the youth program (6-12 year olds) which I think is backwards. How can you develop a national team program when your raw material and programs at the grassroots level are less than adequate? Seems to me that you forgo winning at the national team level for a decade or so while you strengthen the youth program.
It appears that we are working ass-backwards in Judo too, or going through the motions while pretending we are developing Judo. Although we have some of the ingredients of a national team program- a high performance director and national training centers- these are only labels with little substance behind them. We also have on paper an under-23 team but not much of a program. And unless it snuck by me, we don’t have anything that would even remotely resemble a national youth development program. So, we continue to have the results we have- a few dedicated players manage to win some international medals in spite of the national program, not because of it.
Judo and soccer in the U.S. suffer many of the same ills. We play both sports in the U.S., but we have no Judo or soccer culture. There is pressure on youth coaches to win at the junior level often with precocious athletes who fall by the wayside once maturity levels of the not-so-precocious athletes catch up. For both sports, winners are often the biggest, strongest and fastest, but not necessarily the most technically proficient. In fact, internationally we are behind when it comes to the technical skills in both sports.
U.S. Soccer’s youth director has been tasked with creating a national educational curriculum for players and coaches. Don’t answer all at once, but why doesn’t Judo have a youth technical director? Why don’t we at least have national guidelines for youth development?
Creating a youth technical director position is the easy part. Formulating the ideas contained within the educational curriculum requires a bit more work. The most difficult task will be how to get coaches to buy into a national youth development program that targets long-term goals and technical development rather than the short-term goals of winning what really are meaningless tournaments at the junior level?
Education has to be the greater part of the solution. Our coach education committees and development committees need to step up to the plate. Our promotion requirements should be adjusted to reflect the needs of our players rather than the demands of the go kyo no waza and nage no kata. And ultimately, our tournament rules must foster an environment that rewards technical rather than tactical abilities.
By now, you’re probably wondering about some specific ideas that should be implemented. For starters, we must point out to our coaches the importance of long-term goals vs. immediate gratification, so that they can then convey that same message to parents, players and club directors.
We should rethink having national championships for players under a certain age- maybe somewhere in the 9-12 range. We encourage those young players to compete because coaches derive satisfaction from having national champions at age seven, and tournament directors need the income these players generate, but from a national perspective it doesn’t mean squat to be a national champion when you’re barely out of diapers.
From a technical viewpoint, the focus should be on tachi waza, not sutemi waza, and definitely not any of the dropping type throws, which tend to retard technical development. I bet we all know junior national champions who won thanks to drop seoi nage, but never managed to break through to the senior ranks for lack of other skills. Coaches should encourage their players to develop large inventories of Judo skills, and should discourage them from the overuse of their “early” tokui waza, either in competition or in training.
Finally, emphasis should be placed on principle-, behavior-, and situation-based drill training, rather than the traditional uchi komi-randori-kata model.
It should be noted that several nations have instituted competition parameters that should lead to stronger technical development, even though they are being instituted for the safety of the players rather than expressly for their technical development. For example, Judo Canada’s newest parameters for under-9 and under-11 competition forbid sutemi waza, maki komi, tani otoshi, headlock throws and dropping throws, all of which can pose some danger to a young uke as well as retard tori’s technical development.
As always, waiting for our national bodies to come up with the right plan can be an exercise in futility. Coaches, either singly or in small groups, should formulate their own development plan by looking at what other sports, other countries and other successful coaches have already implemented. I offer a few caveats though: don’t imitate lock, stock and barrel someone else’s program, think outside the box, and never be satisfied with your creation.
In spite of our ability to work outside of the establishment, wouldn’t it be nice if just once the establishment would come through for us?