This week started with a choice; go it alone or just go? I meet Steve at the railway station at 7.45 before every session and, because it’s me, I tend to be about five to ten minutes late. This week, I was five to ten minutes early, my gi and my water in my bag, ready to go. So, I texted Steve and told him I was on site.
He texted me back to say he might not be able to make it.
=The interesting thing about having a training partner is that whilst it’s massively useful, it’s also something which can become a crutch. We are the two heaviest people at Judo, we’re some o the only people in their thirties and we’re the only two beginners. There’s a lot of common ground there and common ground can lead to reliance. Which, when life intervenes and stops someone from attending means it feels a litle bit like you’ve had your legs taken out from under you. Which leads to the question, and cheap The Clash reference, at the top of this week’s entry.
Four weeks ago I would have panicked, curled up in a ball, felt physically sick at the thought of being the only person I knew there. This week, I did something a little different. I sat down and I talked to myself about it:
‘So what if Steve doesn’t make it? What do I do?’
‘You could go home.’
‘And never go again because I’d be too embarrassed because I was too frightened to turn up without my training partner.’
‘So what’s the other option?’
‘You’re fat and crap at this. What if they laugh at you?’
‘Ah, now, I am fat and I am crap at this but? I also have crappy eyesight so if someone does laugh at me, I won’t see them do it.’
‘…touche. What if you go and get hurt?’
‘Same thing could happen every week.’
‘What if you go and hurt someone else?’
‘See previous answer.’
‘What if you get something wrong?’
‘I’m a white belt, getting stuff is basically my profession.’
‘What if you can’t do any of it?’
‘Then the simple act of going will get me a little bit closer to the level of fitness where I’ll be able to do some of it won’t it?’
‘Look, you could go and you’ll be the physically weakest person there, the least able, the most overweight and they might laugh at you and you might get hurt and you might hurt someone and they might sit you down and say you’re just not fit enough and they want you to leave and never come back and haven’t you wanted to try this sport since you were fifteen? Do you really want to be crushed like that?’
‘Yeah but it’s only an hour, anyway, I need to go get changed now.’
The Socratic dialogue may not have been quite as witty as this but there was a very specific moment where I knew I was going to turn up and…calm just settled over me. I stood up, walked to the Institute, got changed into my stuff, had the traditional three minute struggle to get my wedding ring off and finally stood in front of the mirror in the changing room, wearing my gi. I looked myself straight in the eye and said ‘You can do this.’ and I turned and walked up to the dojo. Now, whilst I own a gi I don’t own a white belt yet and as a result the jacket hangs open until I get to the dojo and use one of their own. The dojo itself is a balcony at the far end of the Railway Institute and to get there you have to walk past four full-sized Badminton courts, all of which tend to be in use. Or to put it another way, I had to walk about an eighth naked past a group of complete strangers. Four weeks ago, hell, three weeks ago that would have filled me with fear. This week I walked up to the dojo, sat and watched the final twenty minutes of the Junior’s class and tried very hard to focus on technique and not on what was about to happen.
To be clear, I have two big weaknesses as a Judoka at the moment; fitness and experience. Which is a little like saying the only things stopping me being a heart surgeon are steady hands and a lack of willing volunteers. Judo pushes me to the limit, physically and, sometimes, over it and whilst that’s starting to change, it’s going to take a while. Experience is, weirdly, a little easier and I make a point of tring to look at how other people execute moves, try and break it down as much as possible. This constant study is something which seems to be at the heart of Judo as a martial art, and as I sat and watched I noticed a couple of instructors not only walking people through the basic movements of a throw but practicing them themselves. Everyone learns from everyone else, everyone learns simply by being there, and that idea, that level of equality is something that fascinates me about Judo. There’s a clear hierarchy, two in fact, with instructors and students, and each colour of belt, but there’s also a unifying idea that we’re all on the same path, just moving at different speeds.
Steve arrived in the nick of time and we were called onto the mat to begin the lesson. It was a huge relief to see him, even though I’d been quite ready to do the lesson alone and it was more of a relief to see that I was able to do almost the entire warm up this week. Last week I had to step out just over halfway through but this week I was able to do almost all of it and we segued from that into movement drills. One of the most important things in any combat sport is to control the space and how you and your opponent move around it, whether that combat spot involves weapons, contact or grappling like Judo. If you define the pace, the speed and the direction of the fight, your opponents’ already on their back foot and that makes them easier to control and, in theory, to beat them.
I say in theory because one of the things this lesson taught me over and over was how far I’ve got to go, as well as how far I’ve already come. We started out taking turns moving around the mat in pairs, one leading and trying to close the distance and one keeping the distance, with no grips. It was a fascinating drill, one that took me out of the ‘get a grip, try a throw, keep breathing’ mantra and into the idea of using movement and direction to get the first advantage before any other element of the fight had begun.
It was also something which was built on again and again over the course of the lesson as we rotated through sparring partners and drills. The first was to go throw for throw, practicing putting your opponent down and then letting them straight back up whilst the second was a throw followed by a hold down. This, being bulky, is something that I’m good at and Kesa Gatame, the Scarf Hold, is one of my favorite techniques. You roll your opponent onto their back, wrap one arm around their neck, reach around the back of their right arm and put it at full extension whilst holding it in place and lean on their chest. You can apply extra pressure by locking your hands together behind their head, or leaning down so you use your head to keep their’s in place and there’s an elegant, and nasty, add on to it should your opponent get their right arm free. Simply put, you let them get it free, help them even by jamming it as far across their face as possible and using your head to hold it in place. As someone who’s had this done, I can say that humanity was not meant to breathe heavy cotton. It’s uncomfortable to the point of unbearable and, like all the techniques I’ve learnt so far remarkably simple.
This particular drill I was partnered with one of the female students and off we went, moving around the mat, throwing, taking down, putting Kesa Gatame on and changing over. At one point, mid throw she turned to me and said ‘Hold up a second’ and I had the deeply surreal sight of my opponent, at 45 degrees to the ground halfway through being thrown by me, holding herself perfectly still whilst another pair of students got out of the way on the mat beneath us. She of course, executed the techniques at four times the speed and far better than me but it taught me a lot about movement, stillness and control. Learn where you are, learn when to keep still and move when you need to.
To say nothing of learning when to take a rest. I’m feeling a lot better than I was last week and I pushed myself a little bit more, and of course, paid the price for it. There were a couple of points where I was at the red line, retching and not quite able to catch my breath. Steve and I christened the retching as my ‘You’re Having Too Much Fun’ siren and whilst it kicked in again it didn’t kick in half as much as it did the week before. It also led to the deeply polite, and surreal, moment where mid-spar with Wes the marine, he stopped and asked if I needed to take a rest as it began. I managed to gaps out that I didn’t and he smiled, nodded, gave me some useful tips and, of course, knocked me on my arse more than once.
The drill that really stuck with me this time, however, was one where two crash mats were lined up across the mat and the class lined up, half in front of one, half in front of the other. The person at the front of the line threw everyone else onto the mat, who then cycled around to the other mat and were thrown there. Once the person at the front of each line had thrown everyone, they then joined the line and the next person took their place. Everyone throws everyone else, everyone’s on the same path, fellow travellers, all over again.
This threw up a couple of things for me. I was gently mocked, more than once, for letting the smaller students throw me very easily. In fact, I was mocked for letting Wes, who is all muscle and about fifty pounds heavier than me, throw me. I was told to go back around and Wes smiled, grabbed my jacket and said ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get you. You’re big but you’re not that big’ and then executed a perfect throw which bounced me onto the mat with absolute force and absolute control. So, the moral to this story is; don’t help the person you’re fighting. Trust them to do their best to beat you and do them the courtesy of doing the same.
The second thing this led to was me re-learning my favorite throw. Tai Otoshi is beautiful, a simple, elegant throw which completely left my mind last week. This week, with the help and occasional good natured berating of Phil, the instructor, I used Tai Otoshi to throw everyone in the class. Some of them probably helped me a little, but oddly that’s not something I feel like criticising.
Movement was the thing I took away from this lesson, movement as progress and movement as motion. Progress physically as I get fitter, a little stronger, a little better at the techniques I’m learning. Movement as I learn to control my own body and where my opponent puts their’s, whether through drills or through the sort of direct, explosive, decisive movement that Wes both told me and then used to throw me. Most importantly, movement as a journey through my chosen martial art, in the company of people doing just the same. I think I’m finally starting to enjoy the journey.