I’m scared of the big mat. There’s a good reason for this, and one we need to talk about. My Judo club is laid out on a balcony in the Railway Institute. There’s a sprung floor, two mats wide, some gym gear and an endearing and very small kitchen. Oh and a rack of water bottles with a sign beneath it saying
Lost Water Bottles. Are these yours?
Which appears to have been there a lot longer than I have. It’s not big, but it’s compact, neat, well put together.
The big mat is a different story. On the ground floor of the Railway Institute, where trains were once built and repaired, there are nine Badminton courts. The big mat, when it’s laid out, is laid out across a couple of these courts. It’s commonly used for tournaments, laid out so there are two competition areas with an alleyway between them. That’s the first problem. The first time I saw the big mat was as a spectator, sitting watching the tournament I’d prepared to compete in for close to a month happen without me. The big mat, right then, became something that I could see but not touch, somewhere I was allowed to be but not as anything other than a spectator.
It got worse when I came back and trained for the first time too; I spent a miserable training session down on the big mat not trusting myself, my leg, my skills, my memory or anything else. I remember getting changed for that session and being genuinely excited as I pulled on my new knee braces and ankle guards, promising that I wouldn’t spar, that I wouldn’t push myself. It didn’t matter. The knee brace irritated my skin, the ankle braces were basically socks with the toes and heels cut off and I was slow, lumpen, frightened. I was failing, worthless, being left behind and managing to do that on a larger mat, in front of even more people than usual.
I have a problem with the big mat.
James Brown, however, does not have a problem with the big mat. The godfather of soul may have long since been ushered off the mortal stage, a cape around his shoulders, but it turns out he has a fondness for the gentle way. Or at least, the gentle way has a fondness for him.
Warm up routines at Judo are a variable feast. Sometimes they remind me exactly how unflexible I am, sometimes they’re an exercise in terror as we do endless forward rolls and occasionally they make me feel like a large man who’s getting larger in the right way, fat turning to muscle, flexibility replacing stiffness.
They’ve never made me laugh before though.
We were on the big mat, being taken by a gentleman with a red and white striped belt. This, in Judo, marks him out as an official grownup. You’re assessed for belts up to brown and from there, when you start earning black belts you can either earn them by gaining points for fighting existing black belts or you can earn them academically. The first is harder, the second is slower, they’re both on my list of things to look at because my plan with belts is very simple; I turn 35 this year. I want to have my black belt in time for my fortieth birthday.
Once you have your black belt, of course, it’s not over. You go from 1st Dan black belt to 2nd, 3rd, 4th and so on. Once you get to 6th Dan blackbelt, you’re awared a red and white striped belt, white standing for purity and red for the intense desire to train. You get this far? You’re in the top couple of percent of people who’ve studied your art. You get higher than this? Well, there have only ever been 15 10th Dan black belts. The company gets rarified the higher you go.
Which is why this gentleman, whose name I didn’t catch, coming out, pressing play on his laptop and leading us through an aerobic warm up to ‘I Feel Good’ by James Brown was so surprising. Ne of the things that has always attracted me to Judo is the refreshingly low amount of macho chest beating bollocks but hand in hand with that is a certain seriousness. You’re learning how to throw people, choke them, break their limbs, knock them out by punching them in the body with the ground. It’s fun, there’ve been very few sessions that someone hasn’t laughed in but underneath all that is the knowledge that this is a very serious, brutal, efficient way of fighting.
James Brown clearly got that memo and decided to rub some funk on it.
You see, it’s also perfect Judo. It disarmed us all, instantly, put us on our mental backs and gave us the licence to relax. As the lesson went on, we broke down into pairs and focussed on driving the big bus. De ash barai is a throw where you drag your opponents’ arms around to one side whilst simultaneously sweeping their outer leg out. It’s two movements, done in perfect combination and done right it’s a fight winner. You put them down, land on them and pin or choke until they tap out and you win.
Done wrong, it’s embarrassing. Step, step, step pull sweep becomes step, step, step sweep miss or step, step, step sweep ankle kick or step, step, step sweep thin air. It all comes down to rhythm and pacing, and knowing to start the throw on the step before the step you throw on.
I hated it. Partnered with dour Scottish Dave we walked up and down the mat and I missed it every, single.time. Every permutation of failure fell out of my ankles and my hands as I failed to do three basic movements in order. I got frustrated, I got embarrassed, I remembered why I hate the big mat. Because I’m injured and weak, because I have no flexibility and speed and confidence, because I’m scared of moving my left leg.
And that, right there, was the breakthrough. We walked through the throw at quarter speed, and Dave, who is as boundlessly patient as he is cheerfully ruthless, pointed something out. I wasn’t landing the throw for two reasons; firstly because my pacing was ever so slightly off and secondly because I was pulling my left leg back instead of leaving it in place and using it as a platform for the throw. Four inches. Four inches lost through three months of pain and psychological trauma, and fear.
In a month it’s going to be three inches. Then two. Then one. Because fear is something you can negotiate with, and sculpt. Fear is something you have to have a dialogue with, bend to your will. Fear is something you wrestle with, and wrestling, these days is something I know a little about.
We got to start that particular fight too, as the instructor very pointedly called all the white and red belts out to demonstrate the technique. We’d all been partnered with high belts, all been nurse maided and were all given the chance to shine in front of the class. None of us landed it right first time but we all did it, all walked out and made the big mat our own for a minute.
The lesson rounded off like it began, classic funk and soul underpinning a Simon says game that taught me, to my tremendous surprise, that my forward rolls are on the way back. Then, the Godfather of soul, who in my mind was of course wearing a gold lame gi (With a cape), bowed, did that splits thing he did, and shimmied off the big mat. He’d made it his own and shown me I could too.