Today was one of those days. Since our trip to Mexico with the team from the USJA/ USJF Training Center was canceled at the last minute, I found some time after work to watch videotapes of judo, something I have been meaning to do for months. I have a whole shelf full of videos, gathering dust. I couldn't find the one I wanted so I pulled the first one off the shelf and watched it. It happened to be from the high school and collegiate nationals from when Ronda was a freshman in high school. Ironically, there were none of Ronda's matches on the tape. Someone had taped the kids from Nanka who competed in the high school and collegiate nationals. Who would tape a skinny little freshman from Venice Dojo? Ronda did win that year, by all ippons, but by the time her matches came up, the person had come to the end of the tape.
The interesting part is that, at that tournament, Hayward Nishioka commented that the judo was really not very good at all, and I was offended. My daughter was in that tournament. She was good, right?
About two years later, I was at the U.S. Open and Jim Pedro, Sr. commented that the judo was so bad it was boring. Again, I was offended. My daughter was in that tournament. Yes, she only got a silver medal, but she was only sixteen so that wasn't too terrible. I told him as much and he said,
"Your daughter could be a good judo player, but she isn't a good judo player yet."
I almost smacked him, but I was brought up to be polite to old people, even rude old people, so I didn't. I did tell him that I didn't appreciate his attitude and he looked genuinely surprised and replied,
"But it's the truth!"
Today, watching a video of the high school and collegiate nationals, the very same tournament, I realized Hayward and Jim were absolutely right. Even the national champions in this country really aren't very good. The difference in perspective came about because, in the last seven years, I have traveled more and seen a lot more judo internationally. For years, I taught little kids because I had a little kid so that was my main interest. As my little kid got big, I started watching videos of the people she would compete against in the Worlds and Olympics. I acquired a different standard for comparison, and I started analyzing more. In a sense, I became more educated about judo.
Looking for something else, I came across a DVD by accident. I was about a dozen matches Ronda fought in 2005, when she was 18. She was better than she was at 16, but she is considerably better now.
Everything I saw on these tapes convinced me that what we are doing at the USJA/JF Training Center is on the right track.
Conditioning - even many of our junior, high school and collegiate national champions are not in very good condition. Many of these kids who start judo at five or six years old are the sensei's kid. They get a lot of individual attention, they learn one or two techniques really well and throw a lot of kids for ippon right away in local tournaments, sometimes even in the junior nationals. If they have to fight all out for a whole match, they are dead by the end of it. This is one of the key changes we tried to make with the training center, to offer a level of intensity that is not possible in most dojos, because you only have one or a few people who seriously want to train. I don't blame them. I'm almost 50. I don't want to have to go ten minutes with some teenager in top shape. Unfortunately, most of those teenagers can't go ten minutes all out either. Ronda was in better shape than most when she was 16. She was even stronger at 18. She is much stronger now.
Gripping - most of the matches I watched, at most one of the players, and often, neither, had any idea of gripping. If one of them had a general idea, it was to get a grip that had the other player at a disadvantage, such as pinning down the right hand of a right-handed player and controlling her left shoulder. Then, the other player had no real method for breaking that grip. The smarter ones realized they were at a disadvantage, tried some kind of ineffective attack and ended up on the mat, if they were lucky, and got countered if they were not lucky. Then, when they started again, the player had no idea how to block the grip that was a disadvantage. In fact, more often than not, they didn't seem to understand that the other person's grip was the problem. They would come off the mat, shaking their heads and just say, "My throws didn't work."
I looked at Ronda's gripping and even at 18 it was noticeably different. It was purposeful. She had a specific grip she was trying to get, she got that and she attacked. If she wasn't comfortable with her grip, she did what she needed to find that comfort zone. Her gripping is better now. There are ways she could improve.
Speaking of matwork -- most people didn't have a clue. They used matwork to look good, eat up the clock and if they happened to fall on top of the person when they threw him or her, well, good. Matwork is one of those things I can say I know a little bit about and some of it was so bad it was laughable. If you really paid attention, even when a person got an armbar it wasn't usually that the person getting it was so good as that the person who should have escaped was completely lost in the fog. Hadn't any of these people heard of practicing escapes from armbars?
Here is something to really make you think --- most of those players in the first video are still competing, and almost none of them fight any differently than they did seven years ago. That means, of course, none of them are any better. If you said something to them, or to their coach, they might respond,
"Well, he must be doing something right. He did win the high school nationals."
At that point, I would be tempted to tell them that their players really were not very good, but I'd be afraid that, if they hadn't been brought up to be polite to old people, even very rude ones, they just might smack me.