Sunday, June 1, 2008

Observations at the California Judo Championships

in no particular order whatsoever

Chill. I looked at Julia's pool this morning, saw the name of the girl she fought first match and immediately started worrying about how Julia was going to do against her. I was going to ask some of my friends from northern California if they had ever heard of her and how good she was. Then, I caught myself as I realized:
"Everyone in this division is under eleven years old and under eighty-four pounds. How good can any of them frigging be?"

The training center was a good idea. Looking at the kids like Sarah, Julia, Brent and Anthony, who are regulars, the growth in their judo was noticeable, and specifically on the skills we had been trying to develop for a group and for them individually. All of them came from judo clubs where they had learned throws, pins and more. What they got at the training center was more time on the mat and more time to work with them individually. This is something coaches never have enough time to do. If you have fifteen or twenty kids in one class, you can't spend thirty minutes just working with one player on not following his opponent, on pulling the opponent into him rather than going toward him. If you have three or four instructors for fifteen committed players, you can do it. That is the other advantage we have, is committed players. At the training center, unlike most regular judo classes, there is not a lot of behavior problems or people not focused. If they are, focus is generally restored by a relatively large number of push-ups.

Eric Sanchez is a smart judo player.
He has good technical judo - a nice foot sweep, and did a beautiful kata guruma this weekend (sorry Walter, you have to admit it was a really nice throw) but what really stands out about both Frankie Sanchez, Jr. and Eric in particular is that they win a lot of matches by being smart. I have seen so many people who will be ahead by a lot and then get thrown at the end or get penalized trying to play it too defensively. For example, Eric was ahead in one match by a koka early on. He attacked the competitor just enough to avoid being penalized while minimizing his chances of being countered. When they were on the mat, he stayed there and ate up the clock.

Ross Nakamura has really shown a lot of growth as a player this year. And he is a super nice guy.
Ross used to live and die by that seoi nage. He either threw you with it or he didn't throw you. He lost a lot of matches where he was ahead because he had one setting - full speed ahead. Today, I saw a new Ross. In two matches, he didn't even try seoi. In one, he threw the opponent right away for ippon with a leg pick. In the other, he went to golden score. He tried kata guruma, leg picks and ko uchi. I thought when it went to golden score he would fall back on the seoi but he didn't, he threw the opponent with another technique and won. In his final match, he choked his opponent. I don't remember seeing Ross ever choke anyone, and I know he doesn't like matwork much. What impressed me even more is what he said when I asked him about why he fought differently today. He said,
"The opening for it just wasn't there. I didn't see it. Besides, I have been trying to work on other techniques and transition to matwork."

The opening for it just wasn't there .... that reflects a deeper level of judo than most judo players ever find. If they do seoi nage, they just attack with it, because that is what they do.

Also impressive to me was the number of younger kids, ten or twelve years old, were standing behind the match with the same attitude of little Skye Bruce who said,
"Who are you cheering for?"
When I answered,
"Ross," she nodded,
"Of course, me, too."
Ross has gone out of his way to patiently help so many of these young kids learn a better seoi nage, that he has his own cheering section. A pretty noticeable accomplishment for someone still in high school.

This tournament really stood out in my mind as a competitor-focused tournament, which I believe is a term I just made up. Too often, one gets the impression that tournaments were organized for the benefit of the officials or hosting organization. It wasn't a single thing that made this one different, but a combination of actions and decisions on the part of the tournament personnel. These included:

  • The tournament director and pooling staff were very open to allowing players who were uncontested to move up or combine two or three uncontested divisions. At some tournaments when players ask to do this they are refused because it was published on the flyer, or that will make the referees stay later. In this case, everyone looked at it from the point of view of that competitor who drove five hours only to see that there was no one to fight. On the other hand, those who did not wish to move up into heavier or older division, sometimes because it was just too much weight, were given a gold medal and congratulated for having the courage to show up.

  • Competitors were allowed to compete in two divisions, and the tournament was even set up to facilitate that with the minimum amount of confusion. Novice and advanced divisions fought on alternate days, as did the 15-16 and senior divisions from the 13-14, 17-9 and advanced. If people would pick two divisions, their most likely combinations were on two different days. Again, the focus was on allowing the competitors to compete as much as possible.

  • The refereeing was noticeably above average. MANY people commented on this to me, of all ages, from competitors to coaches to parents, and I noticed the same thing myself. There were very few matches decided by penalties, especially in golden score. The referees stood out of the way and let the players decide the match. I attribute this to several things. First, it was evident that Hayward Nishioka, the head referee, knew what he was doing and was there to see that the refereeing was good and the right player won. No one had to worry that Hayward was out to "get them" or to prove he was important or anything like that. He is not a political guy and if Sensei Important's player lost and you called it that way, so be it. I think that confidence showed in the quality of refereeing. Referees are human,too (no, really, they are.) We had a lot of referees. Let's face it, people like the Imamuras, Takedas and Tsutsuis from Fresno have a lot of friends, and deservedly so. So do Mitchell Palacio and Hayward Nishioka. Unlike a state championship I attended several years ago, where there was less than three referees per mat, we had a lot of very good referees come out to support this tournament. When there are enough people that you can get a rest, have lunch, sit down for a while, you do a better job. Related to this, there were a lot of really good referees like Low Dong, Dan Takata, Rose Knudsen, Terry Kunihiro and many others who referee A LOT. Just like anything else, the people who do things a lot are very good at it.

  • Just the little things, of which there were a great many. For example, we had a ten-year-old girl (no, it wasn't mine, it was Erin) who didn't have water. She had a match in a few minutes and wanted something to drink. There was a case of water sitting by the table for the referees and Rose Knudsen, the highest ranking referee who was there, reached out and gave her a bottle of water. That may seem like a small obvious thing, but I have been at so many tournaments where the head official would instead yell at the child, "You should have been prepared. This is for the referees." Instead of giving a little kid a bottle of water. This tournament was different. I liked that and I hope more people copy them.

People can be in judo for years and still not know very much.
This was a sad thought, but as I looked at many of the competitors, of all ages, I saw many who had been in judo for six, eight or ten years and still were missing fundamental pieces. These included people who did not seem to have more than two techniques that they could use to throw a resisting partner. I see these people doing uchikomi and practicing throws with the same technique night after night for years on end. Even more people had no idea about gripping. If they could not get those one or two throws to work, they completely failed to understand that the reason was that the other player had an inside grip and was blocking the shoulder so they could not turn in. More often than not, I saw players who had, at most, one matwork move. Seldom was matwork purposeful. The person really did not have a plan. They pulled, pushed and grabbed on the other person hoping something would magically work. I hate to say this, but I think part of the reason is that their coaches never did much matwork. I have heard these coaches say,
"I don't do matwork. I prefer to throw people for ippon."
That's a good Plan A. But sometimes you need a Plan B.

As for my little Julia, she did win today, with three ippons. It was a good day for her. A lot of the things we have been working on for the past few weeks have been working. She threw two people with harai goshi. For the longest time, she would attakc with harai, be off-balance and get countered. She has been working with Haykus, Elanette and Erin for the past few weeks doing throws on the crash pad, throws on the mat and uchikomis to try to correct that and it finally is paying off. She threw another player with a counter, which is something we have been working on at the training center a lot. She demonstrated some knowledge of gripping (for a ten-year-old). One little girl she fought threw anybody once she got a high grip. Julia was able to block her high grip and keep her from throwing. The last thing she did well was transition. Every time she did a throw she went straight into matwork and ended up with three pins - two kesa gatame and one yoko shiho.

Oly Juarez commented on how much better shape Julia was in since the last time she had seen her. On the way home, she read a couple of books and then was writing in her notebook. It occurred to me that over the last year, since I have cut back on my work hours and travel greatly, Julia's schoolwork has improved, her judo has gotten better, she is in better physical condition. So, maybe I am making less money than previous years - more money wouldn't have bought me a better kid.

==============REQUIRED JUDO TIP ==========================
A good way to start teaching grip-fighting to little kids is to teach them how to block a high grip. Young kids often try to get the other child in a head lock and throw with makikomi. Many beginners have this as their only technique. It isn't hard to teach someone a few methods of blocking a high grip - e.g., block their hand coming in like the ippon seoi in nage no kata, punch your lapel grip in first and block their right shoulder. This is simple enough for even novice players to understand, has an immediate pay off in reducing the number of times they get thrown hard in competition and gets them thinking about how gripping can change the outcome of a match.

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