This lesson took a little while to process. So much so in fact that I’m actually two weeks in the hole on this column, it’s taken so long to figure out how I felt about it. It wasn’t bad, not at all, but, three things happened this lesson that brought me up short and forced me to think about exactly how I feel about this sport, and what it does for me, and what I will inevitably have to do as I continue with it.
So with that slightly portentous opening out of the way, let’s talking about grading. Grading is the system which denotes how much you know, how experienced you are and how good you are at what you know. It’s also one of those pieces of martial arts iconography that’s bled through into popular culture. After all, ‘black belt’ is synonymous with ‘expert’ and it’s not uncommon for phrases like ‘He has a black belt in geek fu’ to be thrown around amongst my circle of friends. It denotes excellence, expertise, study and of course being remarkably good at a particular style of violence.
However, the road to black belt is long and varied and begins, at the bottom of the pile, and the other end of the mat, with white belt. At the start of every lesson, we line up along one wall in order of experience; black belts, then brown belts, then down into the colors, blue and orange and yellow and at the far end of the mat, us. White belts. White belts have four jobs; to shut up, to listen, to get things wrong, and to fail better next time. I excel at three of these jobs and am getting better at shutting up. Talking, for me, is a coping mechanism. It’s my brain bulling it’s way to the front of my life and going ‘So you’re doing something physical, right? Great! Let’s have a conversation about it? Let’s THINK about st-Oh, wait hang on why are we lying down and within sight of unconscious?’ My brain, ladies and gentlemen, is sometimes not my ally.
Anyway, halfway through this lesson, we were given five minutes ‘play time’ where we could try any technique that we’d been shown and the instructors would come round and help us out where needed. The week before, Karen had shown me a particularly nice sweeping variant of Uchi Mata and as we were focussing on that throw again this lesson, I started walking through it with Steve. After a few minutes, the instructor came over, asked what we were doing, corrected our stance and technique and said ‘You know what? Why don’t you study one of the throws you need for the grading?’
Steve and I looked at each like large, exhausted dogs being shown a complicated card trick and nodded. The instructor took us over to the wall to something I am reliably informed was a visual chart of the moves we need to know to get our first grading passed. He then went on to show us one of these moves, a throw which, like all my favourite techniques, is simple; you grab the back of your opponents’ belt, bend your knees, bump your hip into their chest, lift them off the ground and roll them over your hip onto the ground. It’s simple, it’s effective, it’s nasty and it has a name which I was far, far too tired and focussed to remember so for now it’s just called the pussycat dolls hip bump throw. Which is not only oddly descriptive, it’s also the most obvious, embarassing way I think of to make myself remember to learn the damn technique names.
That’s now what’s important though. What’s important is that one of the instructors told us we should grade. Not just Steve, no ‘You, overweight Manx dork, you will stay a white belt forever for we shall never let you grade! Ha ha ha haaaaaaaa!”, both of us. I’m good enough to do this. I’m good enough to have a shot at getting my second belt. That’s something I’ll be carrying with me for a while.
Especially as the second thing that happened this lesson was that I hit the wall. In fact, I actually hit two walls, one a physical one during a fight and the other a mental one. I wasn’t instantly great at Uchi Mata this week, I wasn’t instantly great at the Pussycat Dolls Hip Bump Throw, I landed hard more than once. It felt, for the first time like I was running to keep still, to keep a fragile grip on what was going on around me. It felt, in short like, I was having to work hard and at first, by the end of the lesson, that felt oddly negative to me. Suddenly, the me on the other side of the mat was very close, inside my guard whispering to me that this was the wall, this was the thing that would stop me going. After all, I’d been there for seven weeks now, surely that was enough?
So I did what I always do about this; I talked it through with several people and, most importantly, myself. I asked why it had felt negative, why I’d felt a little out of control, even a little frightened and the answer that came back was very simple;
Excuse me, could you show me the way to the town hall please?
Judo, for me at least, is a language and up until now I’ve been learning the vocabulary. It’s easy because vocab, when it comes down to it is pointing at a thing and telling you what it’s name is in both languages. This is a throw, this is a scarf hold, this is a choke. It’s all three or four steps, three or four motions and all you have to do is move through them and voila! You’re a white belt. A white belt who’s effectively saying individual words, or individual techniques, over and over and they’re not quite working right but you speak slowly and loudly enough and the person you’re talking to will get the gist and help you out. Until, that is, you start trying to string words together into sentences and suddenly you’re asking where the town hall is when really you want to be shoving your opponent back, sweeping their legs and putting them in a hold down. Or, in the immortal words of Eric Morcambe, I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. This is the wall, this is the point where enthusiasm and growing ability and fitness hit the red line of possibility. This was the point people quit at, where something stops being fun and shiny and new and you find yourself faced with a question;
Do you want this?
I do, very badly, which brings me to the third thing that happened this lesson; violence and how I feel about it. You see, for all the courtesy and philosophy, when it comes down to it I’m learning how to fight. Throws don’t just get your opponent off their feet they hurt, you literally slam your opponent into the ground and once they’re down there? You choke them, you pin them, you restrict their breathing or you hyper extend a joint so they’re in so much pain they tap out. This is a sport where you win by inflicting pain and in order to be successful, you have to prepared to both give and receive.
Make no mistake I’m not talking about the sort of macho, chest-pounding nonsense that so often gets in the way of people talking sensibly about any form of martial art. What I’m talking about is the combination of trust and focussed aggression you need to have to be successful. You have to want to win, you have, crucially, to feel like you deserve to win and what I realised this lesson was that I don’t. When I spar with people, most of the time, it’s an odd combination of me working at their speed to the point of being frantic and relaxing the moment they throw me. I’m down, they’ve won, because they always do, because I’m a white belt. In fact, I’m the least physically capable white belt so why should I try and win? Why should I make them work harder than they already have?
The answer lies in the idea of Judo as a language. Sparring is a conversation and if you don’t hold up your end of it, you’re actually being rude. Your opponent expects you to do your level best to try and beat them, because they’re doing the same because that way you both communicate, you both learn and if you get beaten, you fail better next time. After all, you, or I, am a white belt and that’s my job.
Which is fortunate as failing better is something I’m getting very good at. The most fun I had this lesson was sparring with Ollie, one of the other white belts. I don’t hold back with Ollie, I don’t even think, and neither does he. This time, I got him down and, because he’s studied Brazilian Jujitsu as well, he instantly began fighting from his back, using his legs to control my position. He locked in a strangle, I did the same, he straightened his legs and…
I fell on him. He couldn’t move, neither could I. We looked at each other, our hands wrapped around each other’s jackets and around each other’s throats and we just started giggling. That was a good conversation, and it showed me that I can fight, can be competitive but still keep within good practice.
That’s my primary concern, not holding back but not letting go too much, and if the fight with Ollie showed I can do it, the fight with Jim showed I need to keep trying. Jim’s my size, used to do Brazilian Jujitsu as well and, for want of a better word, manhandled me this session. He’s strong and fast and locked me into a rear naked choke which was the nastiest choke I’ve ever had. He locked one arm around my neck, put the other arm behind me and linked hands and basically tried to pull my head off. It nearly worked too and my neck still hurt three days later. Being honest, so did my pride.
I’ve not done myself any favours with my passivity or my opponents for that matter. We learn by trying, by failing and if I’ve not been trying hard enough then I need to shake that off and shake it off now. My instructors think I’m worth putting up for grading and that’s both wonderful and terrifying. After all, there are four white belts at my class, three of them have done martial arts before and one writes a blog about Judo. I won’t be the only one that fails, I want my belt and in order to get it I need to get more aggressive and more focussed at the same time. Or to put it another way, I know enough vocabulary now, it’s time I started turning up for the conversation.