That One Thing – Judo

That One Thing – Judo

April 15, 2022 Off By JR

It’s not something you are passionate about, it’s a thing you take on with a regular practice.

Alan Levine wrote a post about That One Thing as part of a 6x6x5 challenge, and the timing is kind of coincidental. You see, just a couple of weeks ago I was visiting with some friends, and one of them and I regularly bond over wood working. He loves showing off the shop, and we can talk tools, techniques, design patterns etc. (the joy of being a former IA teacher). In our chat recently he commented on how he is goal oriented and that is how he moves through life. When he purchased his house for example, he gutted the whole main floor and did the entire renovation himself. Same with the basement suite. Fast forward a bit and it was onto making his workshop. He made a bench from scratch. Then cabinets. Then the next thing and the next thing. His drive is actually really inspiring.

Anyway, my reply was that I’m great at starting projects and never finishing them. My shop is a great snapshot of started things and dashed dreams and lack of motivation. However, what I can do is be consistent in things where there isn’t necessarily a finished product. This post is going to be about my regular practice, judo, and how it is not a project that can be finished, but a journey up the mountain.

From: Ezra

Subject: Join Judo

Fall 2009 I began my career teaching, having graduated from university the previous spring. A guy I knew from university, and not from education, emailed a bunch of people from this particular friend group pitching judo as something we should join. I don’t have the original email anymore, but parts of the pitch that stood out to me included:

  1. You get to beat up Ezra
  2. You get to learn a new skill
  3. You get to exercise
  4. You have fun
  5. You get to beat up Ezra
  6. Did I mention you get to beat up Ezra

How could you turn down a sales pitch like that? (Spoiler: I have yet to beat up Ezra). So I wrote back and joined in September 2009. For the first year, we car pooled, three of us. We rotated who would drive, and Ezra having been at judo at least a year at this point would talk about judo and quiz us the whole way out to the club (about 10km south of Saskatoon).

Count to ten in Japanese

What is the word for foot sweep?

What is kuzushi in English?

For those that don’t believe in the testing effect, it’s too bad, because this really worked. The first year was like I didn’t even know how to use my body. How do people stand up, really? We learned some basics: beginning with how to breakfall, which is critical if you are going to be thrown for 90 minutes. We learned the first throws every judoka needs to know. A reap, a shoulder throw, a hip throw, a foot sweep. We learned holding techniques, useful for when you are wrestling on the ground. Twice a week for eight months.

In the spring of 2010 I was up for my first belt grading. This consisted of me knowing and translating some terminology and then demonstrating the required beginner techniques. I was really nervous. And I FAILED. I couldn’t even get a yellow belt (the very first belt you get if you show competence). I went home defeated. I studied more at home, and returned a week later and was allowed to try again. This time I passed! I still have my yellow belt. Faded, and too small for me now.

The next year I was teaching in rural Saskatchewan and there were no judo clubs close to me, so I continued to attend class near Saskatoon. I drove over an hour to get to class, and after 90 minutes I changed and got back in my car to go home; another hour. I got some reading done via audio book at the time, but I can still remember driving home one night through a thunder storm, barely able to see. That was a hard year, but judo was worth it.

Through graduate school and during my first job I continued to attend classes at the judo club. I proceeded through gradings, remembering how it felt to fail the first one and putting in work to make sure that didn’t happen again. I got to meet new people, and lose touch with others as people drop in and out of judo like many other activities. Going to class got easier and easier over the years because no matter what was going on in the week, I knew I’d feel better by the end of class.

I ended up moving to Alberta after I was promoted to sankyu (green belt, three gradings in now) and of course was not able to drive for hours and hours to attend my home club. I was lucky that one of the assistant deans asked me on my first day in extension what hobbies I had. Judo was the first thing out of my mouth. He mentioned there was a UAlberta club and that I should check it out. New city, new job, new people, new life. Judo was something I could hang onto. So I went to the club, and while standing there quietly waiting for class to begin, a new sensei (to me) and mentor came over and with a big smile I can only describe as his smile, and his personality, he welcomed me to the club. Everyone there was at different stages of judo and of life. Some were students. Some professionals. Some just starting out. Others preparing for blackbelt gradings. I was thankful that the grading procedures were so thorough at my old club as I was well equipped to at least know what was going on. I could do most of the techniques (at a green belt level), knew the terminology, and even knew some kata (something some judoka don’t come around to until it’s time for blackbelt grading). It was at this club that I progressed to a point where I entered my first kata competition – it was hosted in the hockey arena in West Edmonton Mall, only a little intimidating – and received a promotion to nikyu (blue belt for those keeping track).

JR in a judo gi standing on one foot in front of other judoka in the dojo

One day, I received a text message from my old friend at the old club that one of our teachers was moving away and his last class was going to be the next night. I drove to work the next day – something I didn’t really do, I walked and took the LRT mostly while in Alberta – with my bag packed. I called the head instructor to confirm what I’d been told, and upon confirmation the only thing I could say was “I’m on my way.” Needless to say he sounded a bit surprised on the phone.

judo teacher standing in the middle of a dojo watching judoka practice breakfalls

I made it to Saskatoon, and then the judo club in about 6 hours. It was home, and still felt like home. I got to see everyone, and even though I was nursing an injury I could still participate in most of the class. I got to see the teacher that was moving away, and glean insights from the tips and tricks he was showing other judoka there. This ended up being the last time I saw him. He moved away, and passed away during the pandemic. Sometimes it’s hard to think about it for very long. There was so much still to learn from him, and in many ways I feel like I squandered the time I had.

Sensei Alan Few and a judogi smiling while in a dojo

Even through all of this, I am not totally sure I’d say I was serious about judo. It was an activity I really liked, but I didn’t really bring judo into other aspects of my life or go beyond classes with the exception of the one kata tournament. That all changed when I was promoted to ikkyu (brown belt). Having moved back to Saskatoon and receiving the promotion was a bit of a wake up call. So following from the study habits I developed in preparation for my brown belt grading, I just kept going. I began attending classes at a second judo club, and now I could attend five days a week.

Jumping in with both feet, increasing training hours, and participating in a more competitive club I ended up going to a competition, this time for shiai (what you might think of when you think about judo at say the Olympics, but no where near that level of skill I promise). One of the things about judo is a focus on randori (sparring) during practice. I had a lot of fun with randori and felt comfortable with the idea of trying that out in a more competitive environment. I can remember my first match really clearly. I had gotten great advice from my team mates who happened to be there, and I was ready to throw someone. I warmed up, bowed onto the mats, bowed to my opponent. “Hajime!” called the referee.  My opponent and I walked towards each other, took grips (one sleeve hand, one lapel), took three steps to my right (just to the edge of the mat), and paused and just starred at eachother as if to say well now what?

Then I got planted flat on my back, a beautiful inner leg reap, and he came crashing down on top of me. The words “sorry about that bud” still ring in my ears, as he got up and offered a hand to help me up. In judo, in my age category, a match can be 3 minutes before over time. This match? Seven seconds. Defeated. One of the principles of bushido is humility, and judo competitions definitely give you that in big servings. Following this competition I continued training regularly. Not to win gold medals, or even defeated opponents at every opportunity, but to find my way up the mountain. To get better, to feel better, to participate in the thing that now I really knew I loved.

At one point I tore a ligament in my thumb. After visiting the doctor and getting a thumb brace I went to judo, all dressed ready to get on the mats minus the jacket (I knew if I had the jacket I would try to practice fully and that would not fly). I had intended on sitting on the sideline and observing and trying to learn as fully as I could that way. The teacher wasn’t having that and so got me in on the warmups. For the remainder of class, while everyone else practices throws, I was given a grueling set of exercises I could do that didn’t require my thumb. Worth every minute of the two hour class.

Side note: I also practice karate, and one thing sensei there says is you should strive to be able to do karate until moments before you die. That is something that I think influences me to still go to judo and karate even if I’m injured, but to take care while I’m there. I attended karate class once the day after getting my wisdom teeth extracted, and sat on the sidelines and observed and took notes. Even though I couldn’t do the techniques I could still participate and that was what was important. Consistency is key.

Consistency is key. Enough that when I travel I – heeding the advice of my former teacher – pack my judo uniform just in case I can find a dojo to train at while away from home. During a trip to two conferences, OER18 and OpenEd Global 2018, this panned out well. While I had many colleagues who I really enjoyed sharing time and stories with while at both of these conference, I am not really comfortable at the dinner events etc. most conferences have. So instead, I hopped on a bus in Bristol and went to a local judo club. I was welcomed and had a great session with everyone there. Some of the students were pretty confused, “you’re from Canada? What are you doing here? Wait, you are working and you came to train?” While at OpenEd Global in Delft, I hopped on a train one night and went to a dojo in Den Hag about 45 minutes away. Everyone there was really friendly and welcomed me in English. However the entire class was taught in Dutch. One nice thing about judo is that the techniques are called the same thing world wide, so while I couldn’t understand all the instructions, I knew what techniques were being discussed and could figure out based on the technique and the demonstration what I was supposed to be doing. They were also very surprised I attended their class, “You trained all the way from Delft to attend?” kind of thing. Consistency is key.

two judoka standing next to their provincial judo coach wearing medals after a competitionTwo judoka standing on the mats in their judogi looking up in opposite directions and smiling. Two years of near daily practice, more shiai, and more kata competitions, a couple of friends were working towards their second degree blackbelt grading. Judo is a two person activity, so I worked with them as their uke (receiver of techniques). Consistent practice over summer in a 30+ degree dojo. It was a really cool feeling being there when they received their promotions, and I looked forward to the day I could apply for my own blackbelt grading.

It is better to practice together when you are a lower rank. Being with the group is motivating. It is too easy to cheat and take it easier by yourself. Once you are a blackbelt, then you have the discipline and knowledge to practice at alone.

three teams of two judoka each standing on a podium at the Western Kata Championships competition Four judoka standing on a podium at the Edmonton International Tournament. JR wearing bronze. Of course, you can probably imaging where this is going. March 2020 I returned home from the Western Canadian Kata Competition and a pandemic settled onto the world shortly there after. Suddenly I went from attending judo five days a week (and karate twice per week) to nothing. The first time in over ten years I couldn’t do judo. Work stayed consistent (turns out if you make online courses that was something that would be in hot demand), but I lost judo. I was at least fortunate enough to have space in the basement to create a tiny home dojo. Here I kept my schedule for a few months, doing some judo movements and practicing karate kata alone (actually the karate kata – solo performances – I practiced with my wife, she’s cool like that). I knew enough and had the habit formed, so I gave it a good amount of effort until classes could be held again. Come fall 2020, judo started again briefly before shutting down again. Three classes. I got three classes.

Summer 2021 came around and I got back to both judo dojos. Seeing familiar faces and working again regularly was something else. I knew I missed it. Of course I missed it I really like judo. But it was something more than that, it was the consistency, the practice, getting back on the path up the mountain.

So where are we at in 2022? I am happy to say things are back on track. I attend regularly, and even took a coaching clinic so I’m doing a little bit more teaching in short snippets now. I’m still ikkyu rank and practicing regularly, walking up the mountain path one step at a time.

自他共栄 mutual welfare and benefit

One last thought here. Daily practice for judo does not just mean getting into the dojo and getting thrown. One of the two principles of judo is as above. We talk about this in class with relation to caring for each other – lifting up others so that you can improve as they improve, and not injuring your training partner – but also with how you conduct yourself in day to day life (Japanese martial arts often have this side to their philosophy). I don’t always succeed, but this is a motto that follows me around in my personal life and my work life. So reflecting back on Alan’s prompt, perhaps this has been a long winded way to get to:: it’s judo I’m passionate about, it’s Jita-Kyoei I have to practice everyday.

Or maybe I’m just out of words.