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.