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.
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.