I don’t go to Judo on Fridays. I will, when I’m fit enough. When I’m thinner, I’ll definitely go to Judo on Fridays. When my knees hurt less, then I’ll go to Judo on Fridays. Of course I want to go on Fridays, I love Judo. It’s fun, it’s exhausting, it gives me confidence and makes me feel better, it’s a crucible wrapped in thick white cotton and different coloured belts. I love Judo and if I could go on Judo on Fridays I would. But I can’t. I’m too busy. I’m too tired. I have things on. I’m not fit enough. I’m not strong enough. I don’t go to Judo on Fridays because I’m not ready. I want to but I won’t. Because I’m not ready. Because I’ve nearly gone a couple of times and things have got in the way. Because I’m scared. Because Fridays might be different and harder. Because maybe all the people who don’t go to Mondays anymore because I go and they all secretly hate me go to Fridays. Because even though I’ve been going for three months, even though I’ve graded, even though I’m officially actually sort of good at this, I’m still actually worthless. Because I’m fat and ten years minimum past the point where I should have started this. Because I’ll just fail. Because the man on the other side of the mat doesn’t think I should go to Judo.
It was Friday. I went to Judo.
Alone, too, as it turns out because Steve had a prior engagement. So I turned up, got changed, headed up to the Dojo and continued the ongoing process of bonding with Ollie, who appears to be exactly the same sort of geek I am. There’s something inherently right in having a conversation about Hellsing, dressed in a Judo gi, waiting for a lesson to begin and it did a really good job of easing my mood. I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t stupid or worthless. I was just a fellow traveller.
A word about warm ups. Ever since the Two Weeks of Blood, as my hilarious tongue injuries have become know I simultaneously don’t and do want that stupid hopping forward roll to come up again in warm up. I’m scared of it because, well, I pile drove myself into the mat the first time I tried it and because it hurt and because, well, I like being able to talk. I don’t ever want to do it again and I need to because it’s a stupid tiny thing to be frightened of, especially when you consider I now do a martial art where very, very large men regularly try, and succeed, in picking me up and throwing me very hard towards the ground. So, me being frightened of forward rolls is a little bit like a dog being frightened of running around. I want this done, I want it out of my head I just…maybe don’t want to actually experience that catharsis but just jump over it to the point right after I’ve done it successfully, never have to worry about it again and don’t actually remember having to do it in the first place. Nonetheless, I bought a gum shield and take it with me to every lesson now. I’m reasonably certain that it’s now taken on talismanic properties too, and as long as I carry it with me we’ll never have to do that warm up again.
This time though, we opened with jumping jacks and coordination exercises because, as Jamie put it, he wasn’t up for running around tonight, and then went it into something a little different. We paired up, one of us on all fours whilst the other had to lean over them, place a hand against their jacket and roll all the way over and then scrabble as fast as possible through the gap between their partner’s arms and legs.
Forward roll. Wearing a moustache and a false hat. I’m onto you.
I did it anyway, and the thing is, it sort of helped. The rolling forward break fall is something I’m quite good at and I rolled off my shoulder, hit the mat and…scrabbled slowly and a bit frantically through the space beneath Ollie’s chest cavity. In my defence, Ollie’s about three quarters my size. Which is why he was able to do this with significantly more speed and accuracy. We did the drill again, sped up and this time we segued into groundwork randori. This was interesting as, in certain situations, being on your back in Judo actually helps. You’ve got leverage and crucially, if your opponent doesn’t close the gap fast enough, you can close it on your terms. This is where those strangles I learnt on Monday came in and Ollie got one on me about two seconds before I got one on him. I tapped out, we stood up and the lesson moved on.
Interestingly, to something that had been covered on Monday. I actually found this massively reassuring for two reasons, the first being I was sort of expecting Friday to be the Secret Wisdom Of Judo That Overweight Men From The Isle Of Man Were Not Meant To Know. This was fostered a little by one of the Friday sessions I didn’t go to basically being How To Pass Your Grading. The idea of Friday being a repeat of Monday not only took the edge off that but also took the edge off the ‘You Are Nowhere Near Talented Or Good Enough To Be Here And Should Be Ashamed’ sensation that was gnawing at me at the start of the session.
The second reason this was massively reassuring was that we got to repeat the movement drill from Monday, where you learnt to control your opponent with one hand, pushing and pulling them in circular motions around the mat. Movement is one of my big problems with Judo because, when it comes down to it, I’m a big guy and if I move at small guy speed, I get big guy tired. However, if you stay still, completely, you either get penalised for passivity or your opponent gets to pick where and when they come at you. This drill addresses that, and the idea of being able to move yourself, and your opponent, appeals to me hugely.
This time round, I was partnered with two people, Laura, who’s a yellow belt and about a fifth my size and Alice, who’s my height. It’s interesting working with smaller people in drills like this simply because you have to gear down. You can’t go hard, can’t hurl your mighty wall of flesh at your opponent, but at the same time you have to react to and respond to your opponent. It was useful and working with Alice had a surprising amount of emotional resonance. Alice is very tall, very polite, a bit hesitant and convinced she’s not very good. When I worked with her, I made a point of making sure she went first and went through each drill more than once. She’s…me, in a sense, thirteen weeks ago and the interesting thing about working with her was she was already starting to develop. Her Osoto Otoshi is better than mine and mine was improved by working with her. Like I say, it’s odd, because working with people my size is useful because they’re the sort of people I’ll be competiting against, but working with people smaller than me is a little bit like switching from welding to needlepoint. It’s more subtle but it’s definitely the same kind of thing.
We moved on to Randori next and this is where my Friday phobia kicked back in. Recently I’ve been very gung ho about sparring, I like it, it’s fun and I’m focussed and controlled in a way I haven’t been before. On Friday though, I didn’t go straight out and the realistion I’d let myself backslide a little led to me being the first out in the second wave of people to spar. Not only the first out either but, as I walked to the end of the mat, I realised I was going to be sparring with.
Wes placed fifth in the English Open last year. Wes is a marine. Wes is huge and incredibly good at the sport. Fighting Wes, for me, isn’t about beating him because the chances of doing so are, shall we say, not large. Instead, it’s about what I can learn, what I can do, how long I can last. So we bowed, came forward, locked up and I went for Deashi Barai, a leg sweep I’d practiced with Alice. Didn’t go fast or hard enough so he threw something at me and it…didn’t work. I moved out of the way, went for Deashi Barai again and he literally just pushed me over. One of the interesting things about Judo is that if you’re unbalanced when you try a technique, your opponent can literally just push you over. Which he did. I picked myself up, went for him again, went for the same technique again (This was, in retrospect, a mistake) and this time he just got out of the way and I fell over. I got up again, felt the Alasdair Is Having Too Much Fun siren begin to kick in and locked up again with him. He tried to take me down, I stepped clear and the matches stopped. Wes bowed to me, said ‘Well done’ and left the mat.
My next opponent, Ryan, is one of the club Brown belts. He’s about 19, wiry, tall and fights in an entirely different way. Where Wes just positions you around the mat, Ryan picked at me as I waited for him to come for me, and when we locked up, I turned him sideways and went for a throw. I missed. He threw me.
I got up, we locked up again and began turn, moving, each of us looking for position. I went for Deashi Barai, I went for Uki Goshi, I went for anything I could get and he was stiff arming me. Basically, he was locking his elbows so I couldn’t get close to him. It’s a good defensive technique and Ryan’s very, very good. He closed the distance, threw me again and this time, I retched. I was getting tired, I was too fat and old and stupid and he was just going to keep picking at me and…
He grabbed me. I grabbed him back and yanked and he lost his balance. To be fair, he lost his balance and I basically hit him in the face with my chest. For a split second I was too worried I’d hurt him to react and in that time we’d turned, powered a few steps across the mat and it was time to change partners. Or in my case, leave the mat. We operate a two fights on, two fights off system and I was desperately grateful for being able to leave the mat before I had to be poured off it.
Three things happened in quick succession as I left the mat. Firstly, something percolated up through the desperate quest for more breath and new knees; Ryan was breathing as hard as I was by the end of the fight. Connected to that was the realisation that Wes had thrown me twice but had tried to throw me four times. I’d…not sucked. I’d got beaten, clearly, because I’d been thrown and hadn’t thrown anyone. But I’d not been humiliated, I’d done my best.
‘That was good. Good movement.’ Wes, the second thing that happened. He was complementing me. The fifth best Judoka in his weight class in the country was complementing me. This was unusual. I managed to grin, smile, say ‘Thank you’ in between gasps for breath and settled in to watch the other fights.
A word about spectating, by the way. Whether this is true or not I don’t know but I think it’s at least as important as sparring. You watch people spar, you not only learn what they like to try and how they move and think you also see things you’d never have thought of. It’s also a lot like the language metaphor I’ve used before, one of the best ways of learning Judo besides speaking it is listening to other people talk. So, regardless of the fact everyone is an indistinct pink blur, I make a point of watching people spar when I’m not.
I glanced down the mat at one point and a blue gi-clad blur I knew was Jamie looked back at me, grinned and gave me a huge thumbs up. ‘It was good, that, well done.’ he said and I, again, smiled, nodded, thanked him and managed some kind of response that suggested I was an adult sentient human being.
Two black belts. Two instructors. Two complements. Two minutes.
I don’t go to Judo on Fridays. I don’t go because, in the past, I’ve been scared to, or I’ve not trusted myself. I don’t go to Judo on Fridays because on some level, I used to feels like I didn’t deserve to, and the real martial artists deserved a day off from the fat guy. I don’t go to Judo on Fridays because the version of me on the other side of the mat told me I wasn’t allowed to.
I’m not going to Judo this Friday. Not because I’m scared, not because I don’t trust myself or don’t deserve it. No one needs a day off from the fat guy and the version of me on the other side of the mat is looking increasingly resentful. I’m not going this Friday because I have other things to do and because I want to build my fitness sensibly. After all, I’ve got to be ready for the Friday after next.