The Judo Diaries: The Training Dummy Strikes Back

 

Let’s talk about fear for a moment. There was a time when fear grabbed my jacket before I’d even left the house. My pulse would rise, the bottom of my stomach would fall and I’d walk to Judo with a sick feeling. I was the fat kid. No, not even the fat kid, I was the fat, 35 year old nerd who had no business whatsoever stepping onto the mat with chiselled young gods and goddesses with biceps, pectorals and all those other things that I’d successfully buried under a couple of decades worth of chocolate and pie.

 

That fear, to my tremendous surprise, has faded. I didn’t even notice it go. It left a friend though; the simple fear of reinjuring myself. I go on about this I know, but its been close to four months that I’ve been working with a busted wheel. It’s better, almost completely better but I still can’t kneel properly, still can’t move quite right, still don’t trust myself with the injured knee. There was a twang, and there was a scream and nothing has been quite the same since.

 

Then there’s the fear of getting beaten up. Make no mistake, I am 6’1 and over 300 pounds, but I’ve been frightened of fighting my entire life, for two reasons. The first is that, well, I’m a nerd. I talk, I actually talk for a living on some levels and the idea of solving a problem by beating someone up is something which I find massively unsettling and, well, a little uncouth.

 

Then there’s the other fear. Because I’m Big you see. I’ve been Big my entire life, a little too big for the world. I break things sometimes, or used to, because my spatial awareness wasn’t great because, well, I’m Big. You have to be careful when you’re Big. Careful and patient and you must never, ever under any circumstances lose your temperature. Because not everyone else is Big and if you lose your temper with someone who isn’t Big you could hurt them very badly.

 

I’m Big. I’m Clever. The two sometimes feel mutually exclusive.

 

So I’m scared when I step onto the mat. It makes sense, because fundamentally what you’re doing is learning to hurt people. And they’re learning to hurt you. And sometimes when people learn they make mistakes. And sometimes those mistakes lead to twanging. And screaming. And four months of physio.

 

I do it anyway. This may be bravery. It may be masochism. I prefer to think of it as a healthy respect for my art and my fellow students. And also maybe a little fear.

 

I’ve been scared recently for a different reason and it’s a slightly embarrassing one. I’m tough. Not in that ‘Can be punched many times without being hurt’ way but rather that I’m difficult to hurt. I’ve been seriously ill maybe three times in my life and seriously injured exactly twice. The first time I broke my arm by literally falling off the ground and the second involved a twang and a scream.

 

I’m scared of getting hurt again. Because I’m a cynic, and because whilst the black dog doesn’t live at the bottom of my garden he certainly plays there and most of all because I understand story on a genetic level. Now is the perfect time for our hero (Who in ths instance is me) to be seriously injured again just before he completes his recovery. In fact, the only time that’s more narratively smart for me to get injured again is less than a week before a tournament.

 

Again.

 

The thing I’m scared of is randori because randori is free practice and that means it can’t be predicted. Someone will turn the wrong way, push the wrong way, you’re as likely to do the same and before you know it it’s back to the bottom of the rehab ladder. So I don’t spar, apart from select circumstances and when I do I’m slow, I’m clumsy, I’m cautious.

 

Let’s talk about caution and violence for a moment. Caution in any martial art is a good thing. Fundamentally, you’re doing a combat sport, you’re fighting someone, and whilst the ‘storm in and blitz them’ approach works in the short term, it won’t work forever. No one’s Rocky, no one has fists of stone or muscles of granite. Everyone gets tired, everyone makes mistakes and everyone gets shut down when they do. So caution’s good, caution’s your friend, up to a point.

That point is when you freeze up and that’s where our old friend fear makes a return. Make no mistake, Judo is scary. Any combat sport is scary, but for me, at least there’s something visceral and frightening about the loss of control inherent in Judo. Your opponent isn’t just trying to beat you, they’re trying to throw you off your feet, hyper extend a joint until you can’t take the pain, choke you unconscious or just hold you still for twenty five seconds. Fighting hurts. Judo hurts.

So there goes the fear again, as the Doves once sang, and the way you deal with it is the way you deal with all fear. You face it. You look it in the eyes and you prepare for pain. You accept that pain, and the fact it won’t and can’t last forever, you can face your fear.

 

I sparred this week. More than I have for almost four months. I had two standing fights with no ground work and I lost one and won one. I threw a blue belt with Tai Otoshi, the throw that injured me, and it felt great. I turned, yanked, he sailed through the air in a perfect circle and landed on his back. My knee stung, a little, once.

 

I sparred on the ground too. Three times. I won two and I lost one. Groundfighting is the closest Judo gets to striking forms for me, because it’s there that things get fast. You and your opponent grapple for position, legs get thrown odd places, arms lock and you roll and turn and struggle until one of you is pinned, one of you taps or you’re both exhausted.

That last one happened. I was sparring with a black belt about six years my junior. I’ve worked with before, he’s a good guy, and like a lot of people cross trains with us and Brazilian Jujitsu. BJJ is Judo without the standing work and it excels at moving your opponent on the ground and locking in a never ending stream of extremely painful holds. I excel at being put IN extremely painful holds so I wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence when we started and locked up.

He turned under me, locked his legs around my arm and extended. This is an armbar. It’s the thing that, at the moment, former Judo Olympian Ronda Rousey is using to destroy her Mixed Martial Arts opponents as fast as possible. It hurts.

I stood up out of it. Just put my mass behind it and pulled and got my arm clear. I closed on him, put him down, got one of his shoulders on the mat and just ground. I have a lot of mass and I’m not scared to use it anymore so I pushed him into the ground, looked for a couple of holds, never quite got either and he tried his level best to get out of them.

 

The drill got stopped. I sort of slumped off him and we lay there for a moment before he patted my arm and said something which I think was ‘nice one’. I may have grunted. My heart rate was up. I was gasping for breath, my throat was dry and I’d not won.

 

But I had fought. Five half matches in one session, two good throws, a good solid choke attempt, some welcome tips from higher belts and exhaustion. Together those don’t just add up to victory, they add up to something better. Hope, possibility and the very real knowledge that I’m making progress, that I’ve earned my place on the mat. All of it, the pain, the anxiety, the fear, the caution, all of it is worthwhile because of that.

The Judo Diaries: Come to the Dark Side, There’s Cake

It sounds faintly ridiculous to say that Judo is a polite sport but it is. There’s none of the overt brutality of boxing, none of the flashy savagery of Thai Boxing where one of the most effective ways to win is to kick your opponent in the same leg over and over in quick succession until they can’t stand. There’s not even any of the frankly intimidating blurs of motion that, when slowed down, are revealed to be the incredibly acrobatic kicks of Taekwondo.

 

One of the interesting things about Judo, one of the things that draws me back over and over, is that courtesy though. You’re remarkably clothed (None of the shorts and not much else ‘I’m Spartacus!’ aesthetic of Mixed Martial Arts here), you’re not hitting people’s faces, you’re not actually making striking contact at all. Judo, fundamentally is a grappling form meaning you pick your opponent up here and put them down there. Often at speed, but still, the principle remains the same. You have your set of moves, he has his, whoever executes them first or fast or strongest wins.

 

Well, technically.

 

Let’s talk about grading for a moment. I’m five months out from my red belt grading and I am getting antsy. I am, to use another military term I’m rather fond of, short. Short timers were people who didn’t have much time left on their tour and I first came across the term in The Short Timers by Gustav Hasford. This is the book Stanley Kubrick would adapt into Full Metal Jacket, and it refers to soldiers who have a small amount of time left on their tour. The phrase ‘I’m so short I can’t even have a long conversation’ from the book has started to float through my mind as the realisation slowly sinks in. In three weeks, two weeks physio plus a week’s buffer I’m going to be able to spar again. Fear and happiness and adrenalin and sweat and terror all mixed into one and barrelling straight towards me at 24 hours a day.

 

There are two things that are going to happen when I can spar again. The first is I am going to get beaten, a lot. I’m slow, I’m cautious, I’m not moving my left leg much and I’ve not sparred outside about three minutes in the last three months. I’m going to be a training dummy with vocal chords and rudimentary motor skills and that’s fine because I won’t be that forever.

The second thing that’s going to happen is I will cling to procedure and rules like a drowning man clings to a piece of driftwood. I know, technically, everything I know how to do and I also know that absolutely no plan survives contact with the enemy. Or at the very least, contact with the guy on the other side of the mat.

 

So I can either accept this and work through it slowly, or improvise and work around. I know which one I’m going to do. I know which one I want to do. They are not the same thing.

 

I want to stick to rules and procedure and good form because my form’s sloppy in places. I’ve got a lot, in the last three months, out of going slow. Again, and we are jumping all over the pop culture references here a line springs to mind, this time from Mermaids. ‘You drive like old people make love’ applies a lot to how I’ve been practising Judo recently. Slow, precise, deliberate. Still fun, just takes a little longer.

So I’m getting there, and my confidence is going up but the simple truth of the matter is I’m going to be slow and deliberate and the best I can hope for is fighting to a draw for a while. A draw isn’t a loss, although to be clear? I’ll take losses, I’ll take my lumps and come back with a smile on my very pink, very sweaty face. We learn when we fail, so losses are just bigger lessons, ones you have to have the courage to swallow however bitter they may sometime be.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, the metaphor for this week’s Judo Diaries has just arrived. Why don’t we all give it a round of applause as it takes it’s seat?

 

We did grading prep this week and, for the first time, the group was split into three. The white belts were taken off to one side and shown some of their techniques, the brown and black belts were taken off to the other and in the middle was myself, Steve and a red belt I’d never seen before who were set to work on grading prep.

 

There are three throws you need to know for yellow belt. O Uchi Gari where you sweep your opponent’s outer leg out and push them to the ground, Ippon Seoi Nage where you step into them, grab an arm and throw them in a manner that, shall we say, Captain Kirk would find very familiar and Tai Otoshi.

 

The throw that hurt me.

 

Tai Otoshi involves stepping into your opponent so your back is to them, sticking your right leg out and hauling them over the top of your leg onto the mat. Done right it puts your opponent exactly where you need them to be and done wrong? Done wrong your opponent gets to spend three months limping and spectating.

 

I did it. I was scared, for sure, but I did it and throwing and being thrown with that throw gave me a new perspective on fear. This wasn’t terror, just fear, that bottom of the gut flex where you’re waiting for the shot, the punch, the snap, the hard word. The moment before the fight rather than the fight itself. The fear stayed down there, I made sure of it, but it was there and it was real and this week it turned into something really interesting; the desire to push back, hard.

 

We were taken for this particular lesson by one of the club’s black belts who’s also a high level coach and referee. He’s unforgiving, to say the least, as I find out when for the first time ever, I got given what amount to a punishment drill. Ippon Seoi Nage only works if you drop straight down your opponent before lifting them off the ground and I have a tendency to bend forward which robs it of a lot of it’s power and crucially, risks your balance. Balance in Judo, in any martial art, is vital. If your balance is shot you’ll over extend, you won’t protect yourself and you’ll be thrown, or punched, or kicked, or elbowed or any other variety of ouch that can legally be delivered.

Which is why I found myself standing straight against the wall of the dojo, arms up simulating the throw, bending my knees and keeping my back straight so only my buttocks touched the wall. Apparently, twenty of those every morning and evening will give me perfect balance. I’ll let you know.

 

Bitter Pill One

 

We ran through all three throws and then, we took a left turn. You see, it turns out there are two ways to work in Judo, the legal techniques and the techniques which are legal enough. Make no mistake these aren’t anything overtly nasty, no cheeky punches in the nose or knees to the groin. These techniques are grease to the wheels, ways to get your opponent where you want him to be or off you faster or so uncomfortable the only thing he can think is to get you to stop doing that right now.

Case in point; your opponent has you in a side chest hold? No problem. There is absolutely no contact with the face in Judo. None. However, there’s no problem with the throat. So you push your hand, thumb first into their neck and you keep going. They will feel so uncomfortable they’ll move their head down. At which point you pop your legs up over their shoulders, cross your ankles, close their airway, turn them and you sideways and scoot down their body before putting them in a different nastier hold. All legal, all nasty. Or you can push them down, put them in a side hold and yank their arm into a full on arm bar. As was done on me. As was done on me hard enough to make me cry out when the elbow was over extended. Which was greeted with me being gently but firmly berated for not tapping out faster.

 

Bitter Pill Two

 

Later the same lesson, we were shown a genuinely impressive transition where you try each of these throws, your opponent steps out of them and you finish with a modified O Uchi Gari where you sweep one leg and yank the other up so you’re only standing on your left leg as you fall. Or, my injured leg, as I like to think of it. We were working through this and, for the first time in months, my inner smartarse came out. I smiled tightly at Steve and said ‘Why don’t I get this wrong first?’ and started in on it. I got it wrong. Of course. So did he. Needlepoint work with needlepoint balance and my left leg is still four inches shy, four inches rusty.

 

Bitter Pill Number Three. And no water in sight.

 

Everything we tried wasn’t good enough and it was starting to open a door in my head. A door which led to three months of pent up resentment and fear at the thought of being left behind by my compatriots. There was resentment there too, and a lot of it; about missing the tournament, about being injured, about having to explain my injury over and over, about the pitying looks I’ve caught from time to time, the nagging sensation that other people think I’m sciving. And you know what? If anyone thinks that, they can say it to my face. Because I’ve turned up, damn near every week, when I can’t kneel right, when I can’t throw at speed, when my rhythm is off and I can’t spar and I’m scared to move my left leg. I’ve kept coming, I’ve kept moving, I’ve kept trying because I’ve waited five damn months to get my yellow belt and nothing, not a bad knee, not lack of connection with lessons, not lack of focus, nothing is going to stop me from getting there.

 

Nice speech isn’t it? It’s also pointless. I’m a red belt. It’s my job to be told how to do it right. My job to shut up and listen and my job to try harder, to fail better next time. Besides, my resentment at being nitpicked so much came at least in part from the fact that these techniques felt…sneaky, a little too close to pushing my luck. I’m hard pressed at times to remember the correct technique let alone the back door cheeky work around to it and it felt, a little, like taking a shortcut. Having spent three months with a bum leg, shortcuts are something I know I don’t get to take.

 

Until we got to the Kame Shiho Gatame variant we were taught. Kame Shiho Gatame is a hold down where you lie at ninety degrees to your opponent and hold down their opposite shoulder and thigh. Unless you grab their opposite shoulder and underside of their knee and pull your hands together until they cross. Hard. You hold your opponent down and compress their chest, hard, basically choking them with their own leg and neck.

 

The first time I tried it my partner tapped out.

 

To me. With a bad leg, three months of resentment bubbling over in my mind and a burning desire to get gobby with an instructor who was frustrating me.

 

All three bitter pills just slid away.

 

I still have things I’m good at, straight out, in Judo. Most of them are standard techniques, some of them are modified ones, where my big arms and upper body strength work in my favour. As I realised that, another door opened. One with a yellow glow behind it and the promise of getting back everything I lost and more. I’m still there, I can still do this, I’m still travelling. An hour of being told I’m wrong and how to fix it is a pretty cheap price for realising that.

The Judo Diaries: Funky Violence

 

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.

The Judo Diaries: The Courtesy of Choking Someone Unconscious

From time to time, Judo gets a bad rap. It doesn’t have the flashy strikes of Karate or Taekwondo, lacks the apparent chaos of mixed martial arts and has been eclipsed in grappling and wrestling circles by it’s own children, the Judo-derived martial arts of Brazilian Jujitsu and Sambo. Judo’s like the Beatles, one of those bands which is utterly influential, lies at the heart of almost everything and yet is distanced, not relevant, safe.

 

My adam’s apple begs to differ.

 

Chokes in Judo are a cheerful combination of politeness and savagery. You lie down, your opponent lies down behind you. They close their hands around your throat, you struggle, you fail, you tap out. If you don’t, and in competition you have the option not to, you will be rendered unconscious in a little over ten seconds. When you wake up you’ll have a headache from the pressure, your throat will be bruised and swollen, your voice will be shot and you’ll be disoriented. Oh and also? You might have urinated on yourself whilst you were unconscious.

 

Judo. It may not have knockouts but it does have moves you’ll still be feeling weeks later.

 

I like chokes. Actually I love them, they’re one of my favourite elements of Judo and I’ve spent some time thinking about why recently. I’m polite, I’m softly spoken, I’m self-deprecating. I like jamming my forearm under my opponent’s throat, gripping my hands together and dragging my hand back and up until they gurgle and submit. Who needs fancy kicks and knockouts when yu can take away your opponent’s capacity to breathe?

 

That’s the first reason why I’m attracted to chokes; they’re endgames. Literally one of the first things I was told when I started learning was ‘fuck them up first.’ I’m a big man, and as I’ve said before, I’m out of shape. That causes problems with breath, specifically how much I have and how I use it.

By the way, this is a common problem amongst fighters of any discipline, size or skill level. Watch any boxing match and look at how the fighters clinch more often as the fight goes on. Look at any wrestling form or MMA bout and look at how many times someone leans on the fence of the cage, or puts their opponent in a hold that doesn’t hurt them, but does immobilise them. It’s catching your breath, taking a moment to gather your strength. Fighting, of any stripe and any level, is tough and you have to get your rests where and when you can. Or to put it another way, you can go down the Rocky route and throw everything at your opponent constantly but two things will happen. You’ll get very tired very fast and your opponent will see you coming and get out of the way. Or, more likely, see you coming, use your own speed and size against you and put you down, hard. Then, because it’s suitably ironic, chances are you’ll get choked out. So you don’t do that, you put them down fast and hard and you strangle them out because that way you’ve got gas in the tank for the next fight. Or at least that’s the theory. Fast I’m working on, hard I can do and the chokes are getting there.

 

The second reason I like them is that they’re one of the few areas where my size works for me. I’ve learnt in the last two months, that my size has been my crutch and it’s all too easy to lean on it. When you’re built like this it’s very easy to get a technique good enough and go the rest of the way on brute strength and that’s all well and good, again, right up to the point where you’re too tired to move and your opponent wins. Chokes though, are an area where the heavier you are, the better you’ll do. You hold your opponent down and apply it, or you lock them in place and apply it or you crank a strangle on fast and hard and because you’re bigger than the other guy, you get it on first, he taps out first and you win.

 

Or at least that’s the theory. The practice is a little different at the moment, thanks to being two and a half months out from my injury. I’m slow on my knees, worthless in randori because when I turn and move I’m guarding my knee and I’m not trusting it to move. Not yet. Soon but not yet.

 

The third reason I like chokes is simple and a little hard to admit; chokes let the beast out. I’ve prided myself my entire life on being polite and quiet and softly spoken and not getting angry and being fine. Please understand I’m not whittling small balsa dolls of my enemies and crushing them or anything like that.

 

At least not anymore.

 

Let’s talk about frustration for a moment. Frustration is something that’s been bubbling up to the top of my life with Judo recently, because of my injury. I’m guarding my leg, I’m not able to kneel properly, or fight from my back and randori is something I both want and don’t because it’s where I got hurt. I want to fight. I can’t fight. I want to train to the best of my ability. I can’t. I want to do something and for now I can’t.

 

The top of my body’s fine though. In fact, the top of my body’s great, and as a result, chokes are a chance to let some of that frustration out. When I put a strangle on, I put it on like I mean it, not hard but not pulling any punches and when it sinks in, when I feel my opponent give up a split second before they actually tap, a little bit of that frustration’s released. It’s not much but it’s enough. It makes it all worth while, the limping, the rehab, the frustration at seeing everyone else do hat I want to do. It reminds me I’m still there, that te strength and speed and confidence I’ve lost is going to come back. It gives me hope in the flexing of muscle and closing of airways.

 

Plus chokes are frequently very funny. Something about them simultaneously focusses you and gives you and your partner licence to break the tension as much as you can. This is particularly necessary when you’re driving your elbow into your opponent’s head to shove it out of alignment and lock in a strangle hold or using their jacket, their mass and gravity to close off their airways. This is why Steve and I christened a three stage strangle the gentleman, the cad and the bounder, because each stage becomes progressively less polite and why one strangle will forever be known as Haddocky Jimmy. This name was christened by Karen, one of the club brown belts. Karen remembers the strangle, who’s real name is Hadaka Jime, because you ‘swim’ your hand under your opponent’s chin until it’s in place then crank backwards and upwards. Hence, Haddocky Jimmy.

 

Chokes aren’t polite. They aren’t nice. They’re brutal, often elaborate manouvers designed to render your opponent unconscious as fast as possible and with as minimum possible effort for you. But they bring out the best in Judoka because in order to do them right you also have to look after your partner. After all, if you put it on too rough, then the only thing that’ll happen is they do the same to you a few minutes later. They’re polite swords, softly spoken and unflashy weapons that will finish a fight in seconds. Strangles are like Judo itself, not flashy, not showy and not to be underestimated, something to aspire to as well as to fear and respect. I rather like that.

 

The Judo Diaries: I Got Rhythm… I Got Rhythm… I Got…

I do have music but rhythm? Not so much. Honestly, that’s the first time I’ve even spelt the word right first time. Don’t get me wrong, part of Operation Batman remains learning how to ballroom and/or swng dance, but right now I’m an elephant footed lummox. Not in a bad way. I happen to be rather good at being an elephant footed lummox, but it’s not a destnation, just somewhere I’m passing through on my way somewhere else.

 

Let’s talk about rhythm for a moment, and yes that’s twice I spelt it right but I cheated this time and could look at the first time. We worked on rhythm (Three for three!) this week a lot, and how you can internalise it and make it work for you. Because when it works right you’re not just working at the right speed, you’re also putting each part of your body in place in the right order, dominoes falling in a straight line between the start of the bout and either victory or walking off the mat with both of you unharmed. Then of course there’s the other way that rhythm works. You keep on rhythm you keep on game plan, you’re not thrown off, you’re not thrown. They’re working to you, you’re not working to them.

Which is why we spent a lot of this lesson falling over. The forward breakfall is one of the two things I’m legitimately gunshy about because it involves falling over. Forwards. Onto your neck. Or at the very least around your neck. I’ve not got a good record with this sort of thing, so the thought of not only surviving the front roll but landing with my legs in a specific position didn’t exact fill me with confidence.

 

Did it anyway.

 

Then there was the tempo work. Wes likes to work with rhythm, and he clapped out a tempo whilst we went through a throw up to the actual commitment moment. Now I call that particular moment ‘Going Elvis’, for two reasons. The first is that I remember Space: Above and Beyond and the specific moment in one episode where someone goes past half fuel and keeps going saying ‘Going Elvis. It’s now or never.’ The second is that that moment is pretty much where I live with Judo, especially at the moment.

I’m hurt. I go on about it a lot I know but it colors every moment of exercise I do. I’m rehabbing well, certainly, but it’s going to have been a quarter of a year that I’ve been out of full action and slightly more than that beore I’m over the psychological hurdles. But more on that another time. For now, Going Elvis is what I do every time I get changed, every time I step onto the mat and every time I don’t do randori or have to explain why I’m not. It’s now or never. It’s always going to be now.

So, we worked to rhythm (Yes I am just putting this in now to show you I can spell the word. I didn’t even look this time.) and it was great. It kept things deliberate, kept things precise. We still went too fast, still didn’t quite hit our marks and kept going. You learn by trying. You learn by doing. You learn by going Elvis. You learn by being the training dummy of a US Marine. Or at least I do.

I was pulled out to demonstrate the Kesa Gatame hold and by demonstrate it I of course mean having it demonstrated on me. As Wes pointed out ‘Everyone loves to see the big guy get put down’ and so I laid down whilst Wes jammed my arm around him, hit me very hard in the ribs with his chest and held me very, very tightly in place.

 

It was great. Kesa Gatame is a great hold and everything he showed us helped. What was particularly fun was the escape from Kesa Gatame, which involves rolling sideways into your opponent, pushing them up your body and rolling them over you. This is simultaneously very effective and weirdly easy to do. The old adage about a lever large enough will turn the world applies to Judo too and it’s fascinating to hit the rhythm of it and watch your opponent go sailing over the top of your head. Simple, elegant, effective and done at the right speed, crushing.

Those four words perfectly sum up the lesson actually. Wes walked us through stuff at speed, made us work, made us focus and made us efficient. Every movement was strong rather than brutish, every secondary movement precise and decisive. Wes ranked 5th in the English championships last year. Having been taught by him for an hour I can see why. He was always moving, always present, always reassuring or encouraging and, like Jamie, always human. The first time he passed us, he made my training partner laugh by pointing out the best way to lift opponents who are taller than you. When he came back around, he made me laugh by saying ‘See, now there’s the other problem. Even worse, she’s a girl and they cheat, they wear their belts higher than they should’ and showed me how to pick up smaller opponents effectively. He also, in the middle of a particularly inane but very enthusiastic attempt to muscle my opponent over my head told me to ‘Relax, hoss.’ Something which I was indecently pleased about.

 

The lesson rounded out with a little yellow belt prep which again was a very welcome addition. I’m very close to being ready for my yellow belt grading and it was great to get a chance to break off and work through the one thing about the yellow belt which has genuinely been worrying me; landing on my face.

 

Let’s talk about breakfalls for a moment. Breakfalls are the glue of Judo, the techniques that hold the sport together and keep you safe on the mat. Get thrown backwards? Breakfalling teaches you to land on your shoulders and slap the mat with one hand. Likewise being thrown to either side, you’re taught to roll across the mat and again slap a hand down.

 

Forward breakfalls are different. Forward breakfalls, when you’re thrown onto your face, require something a little bit more dramatic. Mae Ukemi is a wonderful, flowing name for ‘I jump onto my forearms to stop myself jumping onto my face.’ It’s a faintly ridiculous move that is also, or at least, seems, ridiculously dangerous. After all you’re hitting yourself in the arms with the ground. Or in the face if you miss with your arms. It’s a little frightening, a little intense, something you get right or get hurt doing.

 

So we grabbed a crash mat and began working on it. Knees bent, legs thrown back and down, the trick being landing palms down and the other trick being not double elbow dropping the ground. Now I’ve actually elbow dropped the ground before, successfully cracking the top of one of the bones in my forearm by essentially delivering a pro wrestling style elbow drop onto the ground. I am very good at beating myself up, as shown by both that incident and the time where, when attempting a forward roll, I managed to slam myself in the top of the head very hard. There are upsides, of course, my neck has two degrees extra mobility on each side now, but still, punching myself in the face with the ground was a very real possibility.

 

Except it wasn’t. We had a couple of rough moments starting off but what started out as a difficult, potentially ground punching enterprise turned out to be surprisingly easy. We figured it out, we worked out how to do it safely and by the end of the lesson I felt a step closer to yellow belt and a step closer to being all the way back. I had my rhythm back and whilst it’s scrappy and slightly stumbly and could really do with better balance it’s my rhythm and I’m finally starting to learn to dance to it.

 

 

The Judo Diaries: The Largest Little Teapot in the World

I heal fast. I don’t tend to bruise, I don’t tend to get cut and whilst I’m sore for a while, and had the doomflu at Christmas, I heal fast. Unless, that is, I happen to have had a tendon injured. In which case I heal at roughly the same rate as geological time periods fast. I wake up hurt. I go to sleep hurt. I walk around hurt. I’m better, mostly, don’t get me wrong, ater all I can actually walk around hurt now, but I’m still not right. It’s the most irritating type of injury too, because I’m about eighty percent there, it’s just that last twenty percent that seems to be taking a very, very long time.

 

So I did the thing I don’t like doing. I admitted I was hurt. I admitted I wasn’t healing at the pace I wanted to and I made an appointment with a physiotherapist.

 

I’m conditioned to, if not assume the worst case scenario, then certainly have it on my radar. I’m also conditioned to know that people my size have three things they tend to have to worry about; diabetes, heart attacks and bad knees. I eat, certainly not right, but far better than I have in the past, I walk a bare minimum of forty minutes a day and learn to fight for two hours every week so my heart’s in good shape and my knees? Well MeatLoaf once sang two out of three ain’t bad and then he lost a lot of weight and starred in Fight Club so I feel Mr Loaf speaks for me on this one. My knees are a bit shot, from seven years in retail and four years in school rugby being too much of a macho idiot to stretch in front of his team mates.

 

Oh and thirty plus years of being overweight. But that I’m working on.

 

So I went in preparing for her to look at my knees, recoil in horror and tell me that I could never do Judo again. In fact, I was fully expecting to be told that Judo was out, any other martial art was out (And I’m eyeing Taekwondo for next year) and that I should in fact be a good little fat loser and go and sit on my stool behind the comic store counter and wait for the diabetes and heart attack to sucker punch me whilst my knees exploded.

 

Note I said I consider the worst scenario, not whether I consider the sensible worst case scenario.

 

So off I went with my Superman travel mug full of coffee and a little trepidation. This was added to by the fact that I don’t like hospitals. Some people instinctively recoil from spiders or bears or kids in hooded sweatshirts. I recoil from hospitals because every single time, without exception it often feels like, that I’ve set foot in one something bad has happened to someone important to me. I’ve had both parents in hospital in the last two years, my wife’s been in twice and my best friend was in and out of hospital in the last couple of years of his life. Say the word hospital to me and my shoulders rise, and I start looking for one of my large jackets.

 

Let’s talk about armour for a moment. I am, as Louise Wener once sang, a big man, but I’m out of shape. I like to hide behind the big though because big speaks to reliable and dependable, it suggests I’m tough and capable, it gets doors opened for me because, in some cases, I suspect because people are frightened I could barge the door down anyway. I could. I don’t. That, hopefully, speaks well to me.

I like armour, I like what it means. I like the idea of being protected from a hostile environment but still being able to interact with it. I have a huge leather jacket I wore for years and which, endearingly, is now genuinely too big for me. I have a duffel coat that I’ll wear at the earliest opportunity come winter and a suit jacket that for the very first time in my entire life, I can do up. They’re all armour, just like the big, just like the clever, just like the jokes.

 

Hospital strips me of that armour. It turns me back into a frightened child and I could feel my shoulders hunch as I went in. I wanted to be somewhere else, I wanted to be at work, to be at home, to be doing anything than wandering into a building filled with people who’d either had bad news, or were about to get worse. Like I say, not sensible but very much there.

 

So I went and had coffee. Because you can do that in hospital now. Costa have a franchise in the front entrance and, with twenty minutes to kill before my appointment, I drank a large bucket of caffeiney chocolatey ice and thought about what would happen if the diagnosis was bad. If I needed an op? I was going to ask to see it because a friend of mine had a knee operation, watched it and said it was fascinating. I also wanted that because it was hard, difficult, not what I would normally do and that’s just what this injury has taken away from me; the ability to take a risk. Oh certainly I still train but sparring felt wrong, off. I was gunshy,leaning to the right and away from my broken wheel and in a sport where balance is everything that was dangerous, literally. That’s even before you get to someone injuring it worse than it already was, or landing badly or anyone of a dozen other bad news bombs just waiting to go off.

 

So I drank my coffee and made the decision and then went to see my phyisiotherapist. Because then I could get better. Then I could be back at full speed, training, sparring, fighting. The tournament I missed still haunts me a little, even now, and I want that balance redressed and soon. But first I needed to get through my appointment.

 

My physio was a small, precise lady who told me to roll my trouser legs up and take my shoes and socks off. Feeling a little like a 1940s bather, I complied and she had me lie down on a couch and began manipulating my knee. There were big plains of motions where it worked fine. There were about three where it really, really didn’t. She finished and told me three things in quick succession;

 

-My ACL and PCL were both fine.

-My tendons seemed a bit ‘irritated’.

-I’d be on a six week course of treatment.

 

Firstly, your Anterior Cruciate Ligament and Posterior Cruciate Ligament are big deals. These are where most of the weight and movement in the knee sits and an ACL or PCL injury can take you out of training for months or potentially altogether. I’m a Mixed Martial Arts fan and I’ve lost count of the amount of fighters whose career has been shortened by an ACL or PCL injury so that not being the case is definitely good news. Likewise, my tendons being ‘irritated’ whilst conjuring up amusing images of tendons grumbling about me over the water cooler, is also good news. It means nothing’s broken or torn, there’s no cartilage in my knee, nothing permanent. I just got a bad tweak and it’s taking a while to get back on the horse.

 

Or the teapot. You see for the next five weeks I need to stand on one leg, the bad one and bend my knee. I need to flex my quadricep daily. I need to raise my knee and let it support the whole weight of my leg. In other words, look like I’m about to break into ‘I’m a little teapot.’

 

I left refreshed and relieved and with that rarest of things, a positive hospital experience. The thing is I can’t spar at the moment, something my physio agreed with because it’s an open invitation to re injury. I can train but I can’t spar because I need to rehab and make no mistake, I’m going to rehab. Because once I’ve rehabbed I will get my yellow belt, will get fitter, I will spar again and I will be two steps closer to where I need to be. I’ll just look like the world’s largest teapot doing it and frankly, in this instance, dignity is a small price to pay. Altogether now, I’m a little teapot…

 

The Judo Diaries: Back in White

I sort of wanted a training montage. I’ve been conditioned to imagine getting ready for a sporting come back as something which requires ’80s power chords, slow motion and hard work starting to pay off. Rocky runs up the steps a little faster, Daniel is slightly less awful at the Crane Technique Kick, Stan Marsh is still an awful skier but the montage continues regardless, that kind of thing.

Not for me though. No ‘Hearts on Fire’ by Stan Bush, no ‘Back in Black’ by AC/DC, no slow mo, no fireworks. I wasn’t a little faster, a little stronger, a little bendier, there was no two minute crunch of two months of hard work and ‘Beautiful Day’ by U2, the favoured soundtrack for any and all big comeback montage theses days, isn’t even in my ipod.

Nothing fancy. Nothing flash. Just me, in the changing room at the Railway Institute being sure to do three things. Tiger balm my knee, put my new ankle braces and knee pads on and look myself straight in the eye in the mirror. I was done with self doubt and the emotional payload that being injured, let alone missing the tournament, dumped on me. It was time to go back, for better or for worse.

Back. Back on the mat. Back in white.

Doesn’t have the same ring to it but it’s close enough.

Let’s talk about frustration. There are two things that have frustrated me in the last few weeks, not being able to compete in my first tournament and being hurt. The tournament, by and large, is behind me. By the time the next one rolls around I will, hopefully, be a yellow belt, and be better equipped to deal with it psychologically too, having spectated at a tournament. That’s a chance postponed rather than lost. And yes, that’s something I have been telling myself for several weeks and only now am I starting to believe it.

Being hurt though, that has roots that run deep and they really, really shouldn’t because I’m hard to hurt. In fact, I’ve been injured exactly twice in my life, once when I got head butted during a Rugby match and received the world’s first slightly broken nose and secondly when I tripped over a basically flat surface and elbow dropped the ground. Neither of those were pleasant and neither of them affected my mobility. This was, and is, different.

I work upstairs in a building which is literally a small office, a warehouse and a portakabin held together under a cage. It’s a nice building actually and it’s always pleasant to walk up the stairs from the warehouse into a space which is equal parts office, parts library and server room. Because I’m a monumental nerd, it reminds me of that early ’90s period in the Iron Man comics where Tony Stark lost everything and restarted Stark Industries as a little silicon valley start up in a building that was equal parts office, warehouse, parts library and server room.

Like I say, monumental nerd.

I’ve hated those stairs over the last few weeks though, because I’ve had to use them carefully because my knee won’t close properly. I’ve spent days at my desk with my knee throbbing, I’ve woken up in the middle of the night because my knee hurt. I’ve felt fat and slow and broken and stupid because six weeks ago I had an accident and my knee hasn’t had the common decency to get fully better yet. Which, frankly, I think is just rude.

My knee isn’t fully better yet. But it is better enough.

I made a deal with myself which, of course, I broke. That deal was simple; work as hard as I could and step out when free practice began. This was for the simple reason that during practice, when we’re working through the same movements over and over in a regimented fashion, I know exactly what planes of movement I’ll be dealing with. Free practice, when you’re sparring with someone, you have no idea what they’re going to try next, you’re busy concentrating on that and, frankly, on not losing. Worrying about my knee at the same time wasn’t something I wanted to do.

Ten minutes in the instructor moved us into randori. In the middle of a drill.

This wasn’t full randori, which begans with standing work (Throws and grips) called Tachi Waza and transitions to ground work (Hold downs, pins, chokes, submission holds and arm locks) called Ne Waza. Instead, we started on our knees and were told to try and put your opponent on their back as quickly as possible.

I sparred with three people doing this, Steve, Emily and Ollie. Steve, bless him, was spending as much time nursemaiding my knee as I was and we worked through the drill at half speed, still competitive but not going full out. Emily, who’s a higher belt than me and fiercely good, went full speed and we spent a couple of minutes with her getting out from under me and me basically using gravity and mass to almost hold her down.

Then I sparred with Ollie. Ollie’s a red belt like me, and comes from a Brazilian Jujitsu background. He’s very, very good on the ground and excels at using his legs to trap you, move you around and put you where he wants you to be. I, at the moment, excel at being slightly lopsided, pained and slow. Ollie put me in an arm lock, three times, in fifteen seconds.

I loved it. I loved it because it felt a little dangerous. I was sparring and I’d convinced myself I maybe shouldn’t do that and I was doing it anyway. This was bunking off early, this was pulling a sick day, this was finding an extra packet of cheese in a store bought Caesar salad. I try and push the envelope every time I step onto the mat, because my comfort zone ends where the sprung floor begins and I’ve missed that feeling so very, very badly. It was back, I was back and it didn’t matter that I lost, didn’t matter that I was moving half speed, what mattered was I was doing it. I wasn’t just back on the mat, I was back on the road to Yellow belt.

That became clear at the end of the lesson. Ollie and proto-surgeon Greg had asked whether they could do a little prep for their next grading. By this stage I’d sat out feeling sorry for myself but not quite as sorry as last time. They were taken off to one side by the lead instructor who handed them off to Dour Scottish Dave. Dave is the sort of reserve training partner and instructor for people wanting to prep for their grading and he’s good at it, works you hard but keeps you focussed and tells you when you’re doing things right as well as wrong. The chief instructor handed them off to Dave and then asked whether he needed anyone else.

Dave pointed at Steve and I and said ‘These two want to go for yellow belt.’. Which in a roundabout way actually meant ‘These two are almost ready to train for yellow belt.’ Which, for someone with a bum knee and confidence problems, was a little like the door being opened and the sunshine coming in. I was still there, I was still good enough to, nearly, grade for yellow belt. The injury was part of me, not all of me.

But it was part of me. There are three throws you need to know for yellow belt and two of them are, as Steve deftly put it, ‘knee manglers’. So we sat those out and worked on hold downs instead. Hold downs are the cousins of chokes and I’m good at them. I am in fact genetically designed to be good at them, as I’m large and when I lie on people, they tend to have trouble getting back up. So we worked through all the hold downs and the escapes we could figure out and then…the lesson ended.

I didn’t get a fanfare, not at either end of the session. What I got instead was work, some I was able to do and some I wasn’t. That’s all I ask from Judo, let me show up, let me work, let me get on the path. Today, I got back on the path and better still, I got closer to yellow belt. I’ll take that over power chords any day.

The Judo Diaries: Still Moving, Just Slower

There’s a noise. It’s a noise I’ve not heard before, not the comforting thuds and deep breaths, not the sounds of breath being pushed from someone’s body or grunts of effort, not the instructor yelling ‘Matte!’ so I can gulp down sweet life giving oxygen before the next drill. No, this noise is new, and this noise comes with two sensations. From above my left knee, there’s the familiar sensation of air against my face as I’m thrown. From my left knee downwards, there’s stillness.

The noise is a clicking.

It’s followed by me screaming.

It’s been a busy month and one I’ll be exploring in an upcoming Judo Diaries because I’ve learnt some really extraordonarily interesting things over the last few weeks. Crucially as well, I also had it suggested that I go in for an upcoming tournament. Note they didn’t tell me to, just that they suggested I do it. This is one of the secrets of learning Judo in Yorkshire; that things are suggested to you, sidle up to you rather than are stated outright. You learn to recognise a suggestion as something more than that, you learn to pick up on cues and hints. You learn to look not at where you’re going but where your instructors want you to go.

I loved this. I loved being told this because, for me, it felt like a validation. Make no mistake, I didn’t go into this wanting to fight. I knew it was a distinct possibility, and I also knew that it wouldn’t be something I could do unless I wanted to or was able. Randori made me nauseous when I started, the idea of fighting someone else still seems anathema and that’s even before you get to the idea of doing it for sport. I don’t fight people, I talk to them, I make people laugh, I’m clever and I know things about stuff.

Like purity for example, and elegance. Let’s talk about purity and elegance. There is something utterly simple, utterly pure, about the iconography of a Judo bout. The landscape is a raised mat, and there is nothing on it apart from you, your opponent and the referee. It’s a blank canvas, a circuit you close by stepping onto the mat. Outside the mat is life, conversations, complexity. On it is someone who is going to do their best to try and throw you, choke you, pin you, submit you and expects you to do the courtesy of doing the same with them. That elegant, pure mat boils down to one thing, to one question;

Can you do this?

I want to find out. I want to step onto the mat, feel the canvas beneath my bare feet, feel my pulse race and then slow, bow, come forward and come to grips. It doesn’t matter whether a bout lasts ten seconds or goes the full four minutes, I want to find out whether or not I can do it. Note I don’t say whether or not I can win, just, whether or not I can do that. That, for me, is the crucial difference; most people’s victory conditions are based on whether or not they win the match. Mine are based on whether I can step onto the mat.

So when the call came, I answered, and I wasn’t the only one. There aren’t many low belt tournaments so a group of the low belts from my club, people who’ve come up, by and large, together, all went in for it. That helped too, by the way, the knowledge that whilst this was going to be my first tournament, it was also everyone else’s first tournament. Fellow travellers, all heading towards the same point, the same spot. A mat with a man standing on the other side of it. A closed circuit. An open question. One I wanted to answer.

It preys on your mind, a decision like that. Mostly it did so because I’m a tall, overweight nerd who’s last serious fight was aged eleven and involved someone yelling ‘By the Gods! He has the strength of an Ox!’ when someone jumped on my back and I didn’t fall over. Some of it though, came from realising the responsibility I was accepting; to do my best, to not damage my opponent in doing so.

The rest of it though, the smallest part, came from the realisation that under the terror, under the overly articulate brain, under the adrenalin, I wanted to walk onto a mat, lock eyes (Well, roughly where their eyes would be, as I train without my glasses) with my opponent and test myself in front of an audience. Here people scream my name in support, here people boo me. Realise I’d won. Realise I’d lost. All those things, all those bright lights of sensation and psychology would test me like nothing before. It’s an awful truism that competing teaches you who you are, but the things about truisms is that they’re true. So it preyed on my mind, and I let it, because that way I’d be ready, that way I’d be focussed, that way I’d step onto the mat. Make no mistake by the way, I was under no illusions that I’d do particularly well, but I’d do. As far as I was concerned, if I could step onto the mat, let alone remember to move, or use a move on an opponent, I’d won. Any and everything else was an added bonus.

Which brings us back to the clicking. And the scream.

I was sparring with a white belt, and I was feeling pretty good. I’d had two sparring matches prior to that, one with a green belt and one with yellow belt Greg. The green belt’s a nice guy, slight, fast and I’d thrown him twice, both using Osoto Otoshi and both pretty solid. The fight with Greg had gone the same way my fights with Greg always go; hard fought, very tiring and inconclusive. So, by the time I got to my third opponent I felt limber, warmed up, confident.

We locked up, we turned and moved one another and looked for throws and nothing was happening, we were too evenly matched, too similar in size. Then he turned into me, threw me with Osoto Otoshi and…it went wrong. This is a throw where you stick your leg and hurl your opponent over it by dragging them from the shoulders and done right it’s amazing. Done wrong, you effectively lock them in place and drag their entire body over their knee. Which happened to me.

Hence the clicking and the screaming.

My instructor appeared next to me. Just appeared, which is the first indication I had of how I sounded. He’d been at the other end of the mat and covered the distance instantly. He asked what happened, I was incoherent, he asked again and I said it was an accident, which it was. I stood up, couldn’t put any weight on my foot, hobbled over to the bench at one side of the mat and felt thoroughly sorry for myself, clamping an ice pack to it for the last fifteen minutes of the session. People kept coming over to check on me, which was really sweet, in an odd, masculine kind of way. Greg looked it over, reassured me and we chatted about the throw he’d tagged me with whilst Phil, the senior instructor came over to point out that Steve, my training partner, had been picked up and thrown by Wes.

The session ended, and I limped over to where Steve was asking what he’d done wrong. Wes smiled and said. ‘A few years ago, I was given the best piece of advice anyone has ever given me; don’t fight like a goddamn guerilla.’ He explained that Steve, and by extension I I suspect, MOVE big, we’re too intense, too used to using our size. Wes suggested relaxed, flowing movements, an upright posture and, well, not fighting like a guerilla. Good advice and when I come back, I’m going to use it.

I won’t talk about the four days I was in denial, convinced I’d be okay. I won’t talk about going through a jar of Tiger Balm in a week, or limping around my work place. I won’t talk about the moment where it was very gently pointed out to me I wouldn’t be. I won’t talk about how much it stung, how unfair it felt, and still feels, to have something I realised I wanted and crucially, was ready for, taken away through sheer bad luck. None of that matters. It was an accident. They happen and they have no sense of timing.

I’m sitting out. I sat out last night, although I went anyway and listened, and watched, and learnt. I’ll do the same on Friday and a week from now, hopefully, I’ll be back. Then my objectives are simple; grade for and get my yellow belt, keep working, keep learning, keep getting better. Because there’ll be other tournaments, other chances. I’ll close that circuit, yet. Not now. But soon.

The Judo Diaries: Week 14 – Throw and Tells

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.

The Judo Diaries: Week 11 – What’s My Belt, Again?

I’m a yellow belt. That means on the most basic level that I know how to do five throws (Osoto Otoshi, Deashi Barai, Uki Goshi, Uchi Mata and Tai Otoshi and note I said know how to do them not how to spell them) and five hold downs (Kesa Gatame, Broken Scarf Hold, Chest Hold…the other one and side hold). I know how to escape from hold downs three different ways (Not even going to try with those) and I spend about twenty minutes a week fighting. Six weeks ago I would have said I spent twenty minutes a weak getting beaten up but that’s got a little bit better. Not much, but a little.

I’m a yellow belt. I’m fitter, I’m stronger, I’m smarter than I was. I don’t get terrified when I fight anymore, just lightly scared. I’ve bled, out on the mat, which is a ridiculous Hemingwayian chest-beating piece of machismo but it’s one I’m oddly proud of. I’ve been hurt in a fight and kept going, not won, but held my own.

I’m a yellow belt. I’m one of them now, no longer a rookie, no longer a tourist. I’m on the path, the same as everyone else, a fellow traveller learning the ways the human body moves, its tolerances, what it can stand, what it can’t abide, where my limits are and how to push them. I’m not perfect but I’m not meant to be, I’m meant to be learning, meant to be improving. I’m standing on yellow ground where I used to be standing on white. I’m on the path. I’m getting there. I’m a yellow belt.

Except I’m actually a red belt.

I was a couple of minutes late to class this week, and when I got there they were just starting warm up. I had my glasses off before I really noticed anything and halfway through warm up, Steve came over to me and I realised that his belt was visible. Now the thing is, for anything to be visible to me is quite an achievement with my glasses off but his belt was visible. It was also red. He explained that apparently the club used the red belt rank as well, which is discretionary, and whilst we had definitely graded, we had graded to red belt. As was pointed out to me later, this was probably why the base of the certificate I got saying I’m now a 6th Kyu Judo player and the little sticker I got to put in my licence book were both red. By the way that little book and the fact there’s now writing in it is one of the things I’m proudest to own.

Anyway, a belt is a belt, red is red, so I tied a belt on and off we went. Jamie’s doing a lot of work with gymnastic stretches at the moment and it’s paying dividends. Judo, fundamentally, relies on your flexibility as much as your strength and skill so the bendier I am, the better position I’m starting from. If nothing else, the bendier I am the more capable I am of wriggling out of holds and the more able I am to throw myself around the mat. That’s coming too, especially my forward rolls, as was demonstrated by the forward break falls I did last week. It’s not impressive by any standards, but I’m quite proud of being six foot one, 22 stone and able to execute a pretty damn good forward roll.

By the way, that little fact was me sharing. You may all begin colouring in your pictures of me green and marking them Shrek now.

Anyway, the techniques this week were a couple of turns, which are really important. If you’re thrown during a Judo bout, and your opponent isn’t quick enough, you can turtle. You pull your arms and legs in make yourself as small and heavy as possible and bank on them either wearing themselves out trying to move you, the fight being restarted on your feet or them screwing up and giving you the chance to fight from the ground. The two techniques we learnt were great for countermanding this, the first involving grabbing your opponent under the arm pits, tucking your head under their right arm and rolling sideways with them going over the top. Do it right, you basically land with them in a chest hold and, well…I have a lot of chest. Do it wrong, they’re still in trouble but you’re in line with them when you should be at ninety degrees to them. We did this a few times, and some we got wrong and some we got right. That’s how it works, after all, we’re COLOR TO BE DETERMINED LATER belts now.

The second technique was similar but way more fun. From a standing position you grab your opponent under the armpits, haul them up against your knees, bump your legs against them and fall backwards. Do it right, they basically fly where you want them to and this one? This one we nailed. Steve and I are both drawn to ‘No you’re going OVER THERE’ techniques and this is just the ticket. I think I can add it to my arsenal (Arsenal in this case being two throws and three hold downs plus some stuff I still need to do the maths on) after another week or so.

Then the real fun began. Jamie’s very fond of what I call ramping randori, starting with throws and nothing else and building up to full blown bouts. This was what we got plugged into and as the lesson went on I did a full run of five opponents and five matches. It occurs to me now that this is not only the second week I’ve done that but only the second week I’ve done that. My fitness is definitely improving, my technique, well it’s on the way.

I love randori. I used to hate it but now I love it, because it’s fun, because it’s playtime. It’s a chance to try techniques out on people who trust me and who I trust and pick up some valuable tips. This week, it was also a chance to catch up with some old friends. Two matches in, I bowed, walked forward to my opponent and was met with the smiling face of Greg, who I referred to as Glen in week nine. Greg was the guy I’d had the (relatively) epic fight with, where I’d got kicked in the face and he’d had a full size me land on his wrist by accident. He waved at me with a hand in a purple cast and I boggled and asked if he was okay. He grinned, assured me he was and we bounced each other off the mat for two minutes. This one, he got the better of me on, but it doesn’t matter. Every match is a learning experience and, being honest, I was worried about him. I was worried about hurting him, and more so when Steve mentioned in passing that he was training to be a surgeon. I didn’t particularly like the idea of accidentally being complicit in the maiming of a surgeon. Being very honest I was also worried, no, frightened, that he was going to want to kick my ass seriously. He wasn’t, he didn’t, it was a fun fight in a string of fun fights that also included getting bounced around by Karen, one of the club brown belts. Karen’s huge fun to fight, because she’s small and relentless and throws something interesting into the ground work every time. This week it was an armbar and this week? I tapped out, like always. But this week, I was paying attention too. After all, I’m a EVENTUALLY WE’LL FIND OUT WHAT COLOR WE ARE belt.

Having been well and truly bounced around, and done a reasonable amount of it myself, including a hugely fun match with Steve which he won, Jamie called us over to one side of the balcony for some final exercises. These started with duck walking, where you bounce from your knees and swing your arms whilst walking in a straight line, sort of like Chuck Berry but without the decades of rock and roll and slight sense of being trapped by ‘Johnny B Goode’. This hurts, and being honest is the reason why my knee was creaking a full week after the last session but I did it anyway.

Something odd happened during this too. Three quarters of the way across the mat, my knees yelling at me, I was aware that Jamie and a couple of other people were cheering me on. This…bothered me. I’m used to the ‘Let’s cheer the fat kid who’s last home because otherwise he might die’ response in physical activity and I hate it. I don’t go at anyone else’s speed, I go at mine and I’ll damn well get it done if you give me the time to do it. On the other hand, though, this time it was…genuine. Or at least felt genuine, as people who were working as hard as I was and saw I was doing my best decided to cheer me on.

Knees still screaming, we then did this backwards. I fell over. I did it anyway, at least three quarters of the way across the mat. Then, we did bunny hops back across the mat, and then, around the time my legs were telling me that it wasn’t that they didn’t like me it was that seeing other people might be healthy, Jamie unleashed the final punishment for the night. Bunny hops back across the mat, but pushing with our legs as much as we could and using our legs to push us over into a forward roll. It was beautiful to see, using the largest muscles in the body to push the rest of the body neatly through the air in a perfect circle, heads never touching the ground.

Let’s do some maths; that sort of move plus six foot one 22 stone tired nerd who doesn’t want to quit and whose instructor is yelling ‘Come on, Alasdair! Big effort!’ equals…

The feeling of my entire body resting on the top of my head. A crackling noise from my neck. Two points of light and heat and pain on either side of my tongue. Me actually, swear to God, completing the damn roll, and sitting, legs wide, very still for a couple of seconds and wondering if I’d broken my neck.

I hadn’t. I stood, walked over to Steve and we sat out the next exercise because I was feeling a little dazed. Also, I’d bitten my tongue, very hard, with both incisors, and spent the rest of the night swallowing blood. I also spent the rest of the week talking oddly as my tongue briefly became diamond shaped.

It didn’t matter. Heading off the mat when we were done, a couple of people chatted to us. Greg gently mocked us about being red belts, technically a children’s rank, in the changing rooms (The a actual phrase was ‘Congratulations, lads, you are exactly as good at Judo as a nine year old.’) and then turned it on its head in a really interesting way. He showed us his syllabus, which made no mention of red belts for adults, assured us he’d never had to wear one and suggested we speak to the instructors about it. He…made us feel welcome, something which was only accentuated by seeing Ollie, one of the other white belts, who’d also successfully graded. We felt, the four of us in particular, like contemporaries, colleagues, a tiny little bit like a pack. We, I, appear to have been accepted. I’m not a tourist anymore, not a rookie. I’m a WHAT COLOR DO I ACTUALLY HAVE? Belt and it feels great.