Let’s talk about violence. Violence is what I do, at Judo, and have done to me. You can dress it up all you want, emphasise the politeness, the courtesy, the humour, the remarkable amounts of clothing we wear, but the simple truth is this; once a week (And twice a week every other week) I’m learning to fight. When you learn to fight you learn two things; how to hurt someone else and how to survive them hurting you.
Shameful confession the first; there is a throw I genuinely hate having done to me. Any of the Goshi throws, or the Pussycat Doll Hip Bump, hurt like hell, because fundamentally what you’re doing is being picked up and dropped back first from half your height. The end result is like the Earth punching you in the spine and that’s even before you take into account the fact that most people will put you down with some extra force. Nine times out of ten now, I will bounce back up like a hairy Easter bunny whenever I’m thrown. Drop me with a Goshi throw? You’ve got about a second to drop on me, lock in a chest hold or get some way into an armbar or submission hold. They hurt, plain and simple.
Which of course is an asset, which I’m covering up because I’m still a shy, retiring English academic. So here’s the thing, out in the open; I am getting much, much better at popping straight back to my feet. I’m hard to throw, I’m hard to keep down and in a fight, that’s an asset. A big asset.
Shameful confession the second; I enjoy choke holds. Choke holds aren’t the simplest way to end a fight, that, for me, is lying on my opponent for twenty five seconds so their shoulders are pinned to the mat, but that isn’t important. Choke holds, and armlocks, are the closest Judo gets to strikes. You land them right, it’s over, you’ve won and crucially, you land them right, it’s over fast. I like them, they’re simple, they’re elegant and they work and I’m getting good at them.
Notice what I did there as well? I’m getting good at them, hidden at the end like an afterthought. I have two big assets, aside from my major asset of being big; I’m hard to put down and if I can lock a choke on, then you’re going to lose. I have what could be called fight skills, and that, on some level troubles me. The reason why it troubles me is because I’m still a polite, softly spoken nerd who’s slightly afraid of his size. It’s going further and further away but it’s still there and it manifests itself in sparring. I’m not alone either, as I found out this week. We all have tells, we all have physical ticks that come out when we spar, ways of dealing with the physical and emotional stress of the fact we’re actually fighting. It’s the equivalent of accent, to go back to the physical language metaphor I keep using. We all talk the same way, but we all talk with regional accents and for the first time, this week, I saw that.
I still got beaten, but this time, I saw it coming.
We did two things this lesson; Osaekomi drills and sparring. Osaekomi drills basically come down to the ‘They shoot horses, don’t they?’ school of repetitious physical exercise and neatly slot into the other movements we’ve been taught already. You control your opponent from the shoulders, turning them into you and putting them where you want to go and then you do two things, both fast; you ‘chicken wing’ their arms up, collapsing their elbows and dragging them towards you and then, well, you basically punch them in the chest with your chest.
Did I mention I’m six foot one and large? And that Steve’s taller and larger than me? And that this drill involves you doing this movement at speed and on the move? Ten times? This was tough, and it was tough in a way that I’ve started to notice a lot of drills are now. You work through the same motions over and over and each time you do it’s like working a pump. The pump pushes muscle memory up until it swamps conscious thought and you’re not thinking about your aching arms, or landing the throw right, all you’re thinking about is the movement, the intent, the set up. Zen and the art of putting someone on their arse if you will. So you focus by not focussing, you think by not thinking and suddenly we’re in exactly the realm I’ve spent maybe five seconds of my life in; you trust your body, it knows where you need to move and what you need to do.
Which is probably a good time to talk about Ford Prefect. Ford is one of my heroes and I first met him in the TV version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. He’s a Betelgeusian journalist, a travel writer who comes to Earth, gets a bit stuck and ultimately saves Arthur Dent when the plant is destroyed. Ford is polite, well spoken, precise, odd as hell and largely unshakeable. I wanted to be Ford when I grew up, and, in some ways, I am. He’s the Doctor with slightly better more traditional dress sense, a man who can survive the end of a planet as long as he’s got his towel. Ford also, at one point in the books, decides to, as he puts it, take his brain off the hook and let his body come back to it if it needs him. This strikes me as remarkably good advice for Judo.
Which brings me back to tells, and Scottish Dave manhandling me. Scottish Dave is one of my favorite sparring partners because he doesn’t hold back and at the same time is very generous with advice. I tried an Uchi Mata on him during practice, ballsed it up spectacularly and he talked me back down, pointed me at what I needed to do and then let me throw him. Then, when we sparred, he grabbed me by the belt and yanked me towards him.
This is the second time it’s happened and I’ve learnt something from it, in fact two things; firstly older people are crafty, have been on the planet longer and know some tricks and secondly I need to close the distance. I’ve had a lot of success planting my feet and making my opponent come to me but for him, and other people, it doesn’t work. For them I close the distance fast, I wear my size and I use it to grab them turn them and put them on the mat. Some people I let come to me, others I don’t give them the chance.
I worked out why he does this too. It’s a good way of using my size against me, turning me and taking me off my game and off my balance. It’s also a fantastic tactic if it’s the end of a lesson and you’re knackered. He threw me twice, I threw him not at all but he had a couple of extra opportunities I blocked in time. It’s not a victory but I came away from that match knowing more than I had at the start. I know his tell now and he helped me see mine. I tried the same technique three times in a row on him, and each time he blocked it and each time it became easier. The reason for this is simple; I didn’t trust myself to try something else in case I hurt him and I was stressed because, well, I was in a fight. So I tried the one technique I had locked in my brain over and over and it didn’t work and I got thrown twice. To make matters worse I didn’t tuck my head either time so I bounced my head off the mat pretty hard twice. So much so that when I popped back to my feet and Dave asked if I was okay and I said yes, he insisted I take a couple of seconds. I didn’t complain, oddly.
Second fight, second opponent, Sandra this time. Sandra’s one of the club black belts and she’s, again, an excellent sparring partner to learn from. Sandra likes chokes, like me, and she’s very good at them. We locked up and, as before, the same throw stuck in my head. Osoto Otoshi. Bring them on to you, step behind them and push. Tried it once. Nothing. Tried it again, nothing. Sandra threw me.
Jamie walked past, ribbed her about us spending too long on the ground and Sandra grinned, popped back to her feet and said ‘We’d only just got down there, hadn’t we?’. I laughed, she laughed, we locked up and she tried a throw. I blocked it. I tried Osoto Otoshi. She blocked it. She tried a throw. It landed. Popped back up, locked up again. What’s the best throw to try in this situation? Osoto Otoshi! What’s the worst that could happen?
She blocked it. Which was the point where my body had had quite enough. I stepped in to her, grabbed her round the waist and lifted her off her feet. She’s really good, so she caught herself as she fell but it had worked. I’d broken my tell, done something unexpected and taken her off her feet as a result. She still won, as did Dave, but they both showed me something vital. I don’t just need to breathe, I need to relax. My body’s a better fighter than my brain at the moment and the sooner my brain shuts up and gets out of the way, the better I’ll do. Although it will be sitting on the sidelines and taking notes.
I’m starting to trust myself more. It’s almost like an Orrery, with two planets starting to move into alignment, one my brain, one my body. I know the techniques, I’m within sight of having the confidence to use them and all I have to do is keep doing something which is almost impossible for me; fight. The more I fight, the more I’ll learn how to win, how to move and think and I’ll see my boundaries expand even further than they already have. I’m hard to throw, harder to keep down. Defensively I’m in pretty good shape. Offensively, I need to meet my opponent head on physically, but head off intellectually, at least for now. Sharpen the sword now, work out how to make a better sword with a fancy pommel later.