Monday, December 08, 2008

The dumbing-down of judo

Much of the amazing self-confidence that springs from learning judo comes from practising and competing against diverse opponents, including opponents that are larger or faster than you. Knowing that you can come out on top of an opponent who is supposedly better than you are, and that this outcome is to a large degree in your own control gives an amazing sense of hope to the judo student. In every sport there are unavoidable rules fluctuations, but many of the rules changes in the game of judo in the past 50 years have been detrimental to the core of the system - to the part of the system that leads to the amazing self-development and improvement I mentioned earlier. During the decline of sport judo, some judo schools have remained true to the ideals of the founder, but the real judo spirit typified by judo's two mottoes, jita kyoei (mutual welfare and benefit) and seiryoku zenyo (maximal efficiency with minimal effort) is thought by some to be most clearly seen today in Brazilian Jiujitsu. You can see this sentiment in my interview with Dave Camarillo as well as this recent post by Dave Chesser.
There is a very interesting book by evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould, titled Full House. In this book he investigates systems whose performance declines as the variability within the system is reduced. Gould's greatest example from the book is the game of baseball. In baseball there have been adjustments made to the rules over the years. As pitchers get better and batting averages decline, the batters are allowed to use newer technological advanced in their bats. As batting averages and ERAs rise, the pitching mound is raised to give the ball more velocity. The balance of power is shifted back and forth until there is a near-perfect balance and very low variability among the players. With this balance and low variability comes low performance - why? Reduction of variability reduces the potential for excellence to emerge. It seems to me that a similar dynamic is happening in judo.
Another example is education in sub-Saharan Africa. My wife worked as a teacher at a Catholic school in a sub-Saharan country for 2 years, during which she got a great education. Apparently, if I understand the story right, Westerners set up these schools but when they couldn't find locals that were prepared to excel at the western schools' standards, what did they do? Reduced the standards. Over the years at these schools, the standards have been progressively declining in order to maintain a certain percentage of the students with passing grades. Has this resulted in better students? Of course not. With the reduction in variability, the potential for excellence is reduced. Again, similar to what has happened in judo.
Imagine yourself in the place of the judo novice: a kinda wimpy guy who thinks he might get tougher if he learns judo. Which do you think will do him more good, learning how to throw someone his own size and skill level (so long as they don't attack his legs or bend over or hold his sleeves), or would he be better off learning to survive and maybe prevail over someone smaller, larger, heavier, or lighter, with similar or different training? Don't know about you, but I'd rather know I at least stood a chance of triumphing no matter who I'm facing than to only know how to triumph against people weaker than me - and then only if they are handicapped by the rules.
What rules am I talking about being so detrimental? For a start...
There is such proliferation of rules that honestly, I can't name them all, make sense of them, or even keep up with them. I say fewer rules (like maybe a handful) based upon well-thought out principles would allow much greater freedom, increasing variability in the system and creating the possibility for excellence of an unexpected and unprecidented nature to emerge.
So, what we are doing at Mokuren Dojo to fight this phenomenon?
  • We do monthly in-club kohaku shiai - a reasonable way to relax the weight classes with relative safety and promote ease of tournament set-up. Everybody may potentiaally face anybody else in the tournament, and you know what, we've seen some amazing things happen, like one of the smallest, youngest, mildest kids beating 3/4 of the lineup just because he had an especially good day with his tokuiwaza. You should have seen his face! You should have seen the faces of the older, larger kids that he beat. There was a lot of learning going on that day!
  • Everybody does randori with everybody. Smaller, lighter folks have to learn how to deal with larger opponents. Large bruisers have to learn how to demonstrate expertise without crushing smaller opponents - and they have to learn to deal with smaller, faster people. Men and women have to learn how to deal with each other in a physical way without gender and sexuality getting in the way.
  • We play gentlenman's rules instead of olympic judo rules. By using a much smaller set of reasonable rules that are enforcable by the participants instead of a referree, we get great variability and a good learning curve. We learn how to either beat or survive being beaten by people who do wrestling, BJJ, or whatever-jitsu.
So, what are you doing to deal with the dumbing down of judo?


  1. I totally agree. At my club, there is quite a bit of tension between the competition people and the self-defense people. The comps, naturally, follow the rules. The SDers follow, well, other stuff. Not rules.

    I can tell you one thing I do to push back: I go with a cadre of like-minded friends. Not everyone can be so lucky.

    I think that the emphasis on ippons is particularly detrimental. I worry very much that judo is becoming inbred, emphasizing unattainable ideals. It seems to be what happened to Tae Kwan Do and Kung Fu.

    Anyway, fight the power!

  2. One of the main reasons I cross trained after many years of Judo training is becuase some "crazy" rules and limitations in sport Judo ment that many Judo clubs nearly always train according to these rules. By training with other grappling arts I was able to train grappling as a whole and develop grappling skills which is clearly lacking in modern sport Judo. good post.

  3. I'm not a judo person. However, I relived my frustration with all of taekwondo's crazy sport rules when I read your comments regarding judo's sport rules.

    "There is such proliferation of rules that honestly, I can't name them all, make sense of them, or even keep up with them."

    Although this is not the sole reason why I semi-retired from taekwondo, it was a factor.

  4. Great post, Pat. While i think this is simplistic, i believe that at the bottom of this pit into which competition Judo is falling is the result of fear--fear which has multiplied and accreted and permeated the whole of the sport. That fear is engendered by the general misconception that strength = power, and spreads like a disease through the community. This outbreak of fear and misunderstanding nigh completely drowns out all ideals such as mutual benefit, or minimum effort with maximum efficiency with the deafening roar of stupidity. "Fear is the mind-killer," right? I dont want to sound as though this fear is easily overcome, however. I think that to say that would be completely ridiculous. But I do think that that same fear should be striven against with all of the fervor that one can muster from their selves and their training.

  5. I love the Kohaku tourney idea. I may start trying that one myself. And it could be particularly fun where I am due to the abundance of wrestlers, and Sambo and BJJ folks who don't necessarily come to Judo. For my own part, my lowly contribution is that when we do randori, we don't overly focus on the rules, and don't stand folks back up unless it just gets absurd.

    BTW, one of the rules I hate: breaking contact with the mat means you stand back up (the dakiage rule). They should go back to where if you get uke up to your shoulders, you win.

  6. "Reduction of variability reduces the potential for excellence to emerge."

    Great quote and great post.

  7. Chad, I don't personally mind that dakiage rule too much because I am too heavy for most people to do that to and too lazy to try to do it to anyone ;-)

    One rule that frustrates me is the kwazugake rule. I suppose that is nominally for safety, but there is such a think line between kwazugake and ouchigari...

  8. I totally agree with you about the decline of quality in martial art as general. I am not a judoka myself, but i heard alot from my jiujitsu sensei and my friends that judo used to be much better before it entered the olympics.

    same thing happened to taekwondo. When it was invented by Gen. Choi, it was full contact with devastating punches and kicks. now just look at the WTF taekwondo at the olympics. no hands techniques, wearing full body armour, and they arent even guarding their face. it saddens me to see that.

    i'm lucky to be training with the traditional ITF taekwondo master which still hold true the real taekwondo and not fussed with the modern sport rules.

    and i'm sure there is a group in every martial art that wants their art to be pure, and not tainted by the dumbing down.




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