It works like this; in order to practice Judo properly you need to be insured. You are, after all, both being thrown and throwing people to the ground with tremendous force in a variety of different ways. Do it one step wrong you break a limb, do it two steps wrong, you break a neck and nobody wants that. So, in order to practice you need to be insured and in order to be insured you need a licence and in order to get a licence? You need to join the British Judo Association and when you join the British Judo Association? You get the grey book and the black book.
The black book is the heart of your life as a Judoka and the grey book is the brain. The black book is your licence book, detailing every tournament you compete in, your placing, your belt gradings, your path through the art to your eventual black belt. Which is probably as good a time as any to talk about my big plan. You can grade, up to a certain level, every three months. Past that level you can grade every six months.
So let’s talk about my plan for a moment. Doing the rough maths and assuming the best case scenario, that means that if you pass every grading first time you can make black belt in three years. I’m giving myself five years, because the idea of closing out my third decade on the planet with a black belt in Judo really, really appeals to me. More on that, what comes after it, and what I’m planning to do to mark my 35th birthday in a future Judo Diaries.
The grey book, meanwhile, is the syllabus everybody is trained from and it contains detailed breakdowns of every move you will learn. There are diagrams showing you how to do each move, its name and how to pronounce it. This is the book of wisdom, the thing you frantically check in the run up to a grading. It’s also filled with inspirational quotes from world class Judokas, at the top of most pages. It sounds cheesy I know, but there’s some very useful advice in there, and it’s all delivered in a very pragmatic, matter of fact way. One of the real standouts is a comment about how it’s possible to build an entire array of techniques around a single central technique, creating a ‘Judo tree’ with multiple branches all leading down to the one central technique which in turn ends with your opponent on the ground and you welcoming the adulation and hard-earned respect of your peers. Or something like that.
I haven’t found the trunk of my tree, not yet at any rate, but this week I have found a bunch of interesting new branches, all of which looks a little like the Pussycat Dolls. Sort of. But before that, there was the small matter of me injuring myself again and my return to the less than wonderful world of the mental block. Far too many years ago, I hated and feared maths, or math, if you will. Maths was the boogeyman, the irrational, ridiculous, cruel beast that was standing between me and Academic Nirvana, or at least the University College of Ripon and York St John. Maths stalked me, picked at me and all I could do was back myself further into the wall I’d built between me and being able to understand it. It took four years of extra teaching from pretty much the entire Maths Department at my school to get a C, which is the highest grade I could get in the ability stream I was in. I got it too and now maths is something I simply respect rather than actively fear, thanks partly to the extra tuition and partially to the fact that working retail for seven years gives you decent maths skills and a pathological need to give exact change wherever possible.
Maths is no longer my mental block. Hopping forward rolls are. Let me explain, one of the warm up exercises we do is a forward roll where you crouch on all fours and push off with your legs. You rotate around your hands, head not touching the ground and roll to your feet. Or rather, they do. Me, I jump up and fail. Then, I jump up and fail again. Then I jump up, don’t tuck my head, crack my neck and bite my tongue and fail. In front of everyone else, who is much, much better at this than me.
The last person, halfway across the mat, an instructor on one side of me, a senior black belt on the other, helping me through a move every single other person in the class has done and done easily. Blood in my mouth, hot and sweaty and embarrassment on the horizon but not quite here, not quite yet. Not my finest hour.
But not my worst. I did it. I did it with massive amounts of help and the thought of doing it next week frightens the hell out of me but I’m going to do it anyway. I got a lot of encouragement and, stupid as it sounds, Jamie patting me on the shoulder, explaining what I did wrong and saying ‘Don’t hit your head, for God’s sake’ with a smile on his face meant a lot. I’d tried, I’d screwed up but I had tried and that counts for a lot. Jamie wasn’t alone either. Karen, one of the female black belts, was particularly effusive and later explained to me what I was doing wrong. I wasn’t pistoning up from my legs enough, wasn’t giving myself enough motion so, in essence, I was pile driving myself into the mat. Or to put it another way, I was literally kicking my own ass.
Next week, I’m going to run through it with Steve before hand. Next week I may even wear a gumshield because biting your tongue, ladies and gentlemen? Hurts. Next week I’m going to do this again, and keep doing it until I do it right. Still frightened though.
Gymnastics to one side, the rest of the lesson focussed on different variants of a single technique. Uki Goshi, or the Pussycat Dolls Hip Bump Throw as it will forever more be known to me, is a lovely technique. You step into your opponent, pop your hip up into their chest and roll them off your hip onto the ground. This week we learnt the multiple entry points into that throw, multiple angles of attack that work with your size, not against it.
All of which started with each of us being given a scrap of white belt, told to tuck it into the back of our belts and paired off. The game was simple; each of us had to turn the other and try and grab the scrap of white belt using only the hand holding the other person’s collar. It was a really smart piece of teaching because the movement it taught us was the set up for every single version of the throws we’d learn later that night.
Oh and I won. Sort of. I was paired with Wes, the US Marine instructor which is a little like being a feather paired with a forest fire. Wes is a phenomenally nice guy, an amazingly good Judoka and fighting him is a lot like fighting Judo itself. You will learn, you will get a throw in if you do it right and you will never, not once, be under any doubt as to who is in control.
Except I won. We closed, we locked up, Wes grabbed my piece of white belt. We closed, we locked up, Wes grabbed my piece of white belt and I grabbed his. Our hands actually passed in mid air and I was just registering what I’d done when Jamie, the instructor, came over, congratulated me, and pointed out I’d used the wrong hand. I apologised, Wes grinned and congratulated me anyway. A win’s a win. After all, Captain Kirk reprogrammed the Kobyashi Maru program so it was possible to win and he did Judo and everything. Seriously, where else do you think the falling back with one foot in the Klingon’s chest throw came from?
This drill completed, we then ran through the various different types of the throw. It all comes down to where you trigger the throw from, whether going over your opponent’s shoulder to grab the belt from behind, putting them in what is essentially a non invasive headlock or coming straight at them, it’s devastatingly effective. It’s also adaptable to your size, as I found out when I worked with Stephanie, the new red belt. Steph was very smart, very switched on, got the movements down and was a fifth my size. At competition speed, she’d have put me down every time but going at practice speed we looked a little like a small, precise female Judoka hauling a large training dummy around. So, I helped her a little, throwing myself the rest of the way when she didn’t have the force to complete the technique. I was careful only to do this when she got the movements down but, Stephanie’s a good Judoka, she got the movements pretty much every time.
The lesson rounded out with sparring and I found something very odd had happened to me; I was looking forward to it. Read back through the early Judo Diaries essays and what you’ll see is someone who wants to learn how to fight but isn’t actually that up for the whole fighting thing. It seemed a little…y’know, physical, confrontational. I might get hurt. I might hurt someone else.
This week I was bouncing on the balls of my feet on the sidelines waiting for my chance to go on. We tend to do a two fights on, two fights off rule to make sure everyone gets a fair shake and my first fight was against one of the club green belts. I walked forward, remembered the words of Obi Wan Judo from a few weeks previously, as well as the advice of friends and family and just…stopped. I set my feet and let him break against me, which he did. He picked and circled, looking for grips that I either defended or turned and I think, it’s difficult to remember, that I moved one, maybe two steps. Then he dived behind me and caught me in a bear hug.
I didn’t think, I didn’t act, I just turned to my left and suddenly he was in front of me. He just had time to mutter ‘Oh F-‘ before I picked him up using one of the throws from earlier in the session and dumped him on the mat. He complemented me on the throw and, of course, threw me not long after but he had to work hard to do it and the throw I got in on him was great. I acted, didn’t think, acted and my body knew what to do. I need to trust it more, clearly.
My last fight was with Dave the Scottish brown belt, who’d helped out with our gradings a couple of weeks previously. Same approach, less successful result. The first match Dave yanked me towards him with my belt and put in a grip which basically shoved his fist, and my jacket, into my throat. I got out of that, and looked weirdly affronted by it, just in time for him to throw me again. This time it was something weird and esoteric that dragged my jacket across my entire face and finished with Dave asking whether he’d accidentally kicked me in the nuts. ‘Nph, I’g fime’, is what ‘No I’m fine’ sounds like through a gi jacket by the way. I got up, we locked up, he grabbed me by the bottom of my jacket and threw me again. I was surprised again, I was impressed again, I was thrown again. But I remembered and I learnt and I’m trying that if I can get away with it next week.
There’s a third book that the British Judo Association doesn’t send you. It’s the book you write yourself, the journal of your experiences in the art, your fear, your joy, your triumphs, the moments where you get a good throw in and the moments where you’re the last person out on the mat unable to nail the simple technique everyone else can. That book’s your map, not just of where you’re going but where you’ve been. I look at that book and I see white ground in the middle distance, and red ground beneath me (I’m officially a red belt, apparently). White ground behind me, yellow ahead, red below. I like my third book most of all, because that book is mine, and mine alone. I’ll like it more when I can do that forward roll too.