Friday, June 10, 2011

Why there are fewer competitors in judo : The enemy is us

There is no denying the fact that there are fewer people competing in judo than twenty or thirty years ago. Many explanations have been offered for this, pretty much all of which can be summarized as the U.S. is a bunch of lazy slackers and judo is the second-biggest sport in the world, so there!

In fact, there is considerable evidence to suggest that judo is NOT the second-biggest sport in the world, if one defines "biggest" as the one with the most spectators or the most participants or the most competitors, but that is a myth to be busted another day. Let's take our myths one at a time, shall we?

Three new sports have become extremely popular in the U.S.  - grappling, mixed martial arts and Brazilian jiujitsu. While jiujitsu has been around for a long time, the particular style that has given rise to all the new schools is relatively new. If the soft, wienie theory were true, it is hard to understand why a sport that allows you to slam people on really thin mats (grappling) or punch people in the face AND armbar them, is gaining players by the day.

Let's look at the four P's they teach you in marketing - price, product, promotion and place. Of those four, the one we are the worst on is product.

I can hear the screams of outrage already - judo is a wonderful sport! We love it! If people only knew …

I believe we have at least two major problems with judo as a product. The first is the lack of respect we give to our consumers / students.

Look how judo is taught in many clubs (not all clubs, but too many). Some old men tell a lot of young people to do exercises. They get to do this because they have a higher rank. If anyone complains that practice is the same every day or asks why they are doing a certain drill, it is pointed out that the instructor is a volunteer. I have been in judo classes many times in many places where the instructor will yell at students,
"You're not here to have fun!" 
Well, what are they here for, then? Personally, I had a great time when I trained and I won a lot. I did it because it was fun. I've heard instructors say,
"They'll have fun when they win." 
Yes, winning is an awesome amount of fun, but someone who is a really good athlete can probably win at something besides judo, too, and maybe that thing will be more fun. You see, most people think the whole point of recreational activities is, well, recreation. Sports are SUPPOSED to be fun.

Contrast this with grappling or MMA. People come in and work out. The person running the class does some demonstration of techniques. Since they have no belt to validate their qualifications, people make a judgement as to whether this person knows what he or she is talking about or not. No one yells at them to tie their belt, their uniform is not tucked in, or they forgot to bow.

Some might argue that judo teaches you respect. This is true, in some schools, but respect is not how you dress, it is how you behave and it is mutual.

I meet people who are in grappling, MMA and jiujitsu all of the time. Some of them are complete jerks - just like some people in judo. Most of them are extremely polite, just like people in judo. I'm not stupid. I realize that part of that politeness is because I'm an older woman and people are raised to be polite to older women, and most especially to mothers, because being impolite to someone's mother may earn you a kick in the teeth. The fact that I'm the mother of four beautiful daughters is not lost on me and no doubt adds to the politeness factor.

My point - and you may by now have despaired of me having one - is that I haven't seen any evidence that yelling at people to tie their belts, tuck in their judo gis, and bow properly has caused a drastically higher level of politeness.

This may seem to contradict the experience of some older instructors at tournaments, who will tell me that they have been extremely rudely spoken to by young people from MMA clubs. I believe respect is mutual. If you walk up to a person you don't know and berate him for the way he's dressed, bowing, shoes, etc. you see it as your right because you are a higher rank. He just sees it as a stranger yelling at him about something trivial that's none of his business. Seriously, what gives you that right?

This isn't to say I haven't made some young people unhappy. For example, I've told 18- 20 year old men at tournaments that they can't be drinking beer in the lobby because they are under age, it's illegal, they were being bad role models to younger children, people who provide funds to our organization could see them and it could hurt our chances for additional funding, and a lot of other reasons. They were NOT happy, but they quit drinking in public when I was around. What I did NOT say was because I said so, I am a sixth-degree black belt, I am a referee. What I hope they understood (and I think they did) is that I talked to them because I care about them, our younger players, and any players who might lose out on funding due to their bad behavior. What gives me the right is I'm a person in the judo community, with no or more less rights than them or their parents.

The second area where we have failed as a product is the arbitrary and capricious rules. Rules change at random with no input from the coaches or players and no apparent rhyme or reason. I've been in judo 40 years and I have a Ph.D. and I can't figure out why one year a certain throw will be legal and the next year not or why a certain grip is illegal. Judo matches are determined by the referees' intervention FAR more than other contact sports I have watched (and I'm not counting tae kwon do and other striking sports in here because I don't know much about them and I think maybe they attract a different clientele).

Read this next paragraph slowly because I think it is key --
When someone trains even moderately hard, he or she will be unhappy to go into an event, wait around for hours to compete, only to lose a match due to holding the uniform in an unacceptable manner or touching the leg, or anyone of a great number of other infractions which make no sense. The number of judo matches in the U.S. decided by penalties far exceeds anything I have ever seen in any other contact sport.

The attitude toward coaches and players for years has been
"Screw 'em, what are they going to do? Not compete?"

In fact, it appears that what they are going to do is not compete in judo, but rather, compete in something very like judo. We're not the only game in town any more.

One explanation I have heard for the rule changes is to differentiate judo more from wrestling and grappling. Let me get this right, someone thought it was a good idea to change to be LESS like the sports that were more popular? Sure, that'll work. (Sarcasm alert!)


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Here here.

plam said...

I do think that the role of money in judo is important to consider. As you say, we may not be doing ourselves any favours in judo by being all-volunteer. My home club makes sure to pay instructors, and I think that's very good. It's not enough to be a full-time job, but it is significant.

You seem to be ambivalent about rank. I don't really know what rank should mean: although I do grade whenever I can, I don't find that it really does anything. It may not be beneficial to judo.

I don't necessarily agree about rules being a problem. I agree that it's bad that the rules just change from above, but I also just deal with it (even though I probably lose out on the rules more than I win with them; see: 8 shidos at Nationals). When refereeing, we're told to make sure that judo wins.

Dr. AnnMaria said...

I don't know why we need rank. Other sports don't have rank. What does it accomplish?

Of course in any sport you need to play by the rules, and obviously, those who play judo are willing to accept the rules in judo, and even to accept that those rules seem to change randomly. The point I was trying to make, though, is that many people apparently DO have a problem with the rules and that is why we have few competitors and are getting fewer every year.

plam said...

The world seems to be increasingly credential-driven, and other sports do have coaching credentials, although not rank.

I don't like the way that many people in the US wear a brown belt for ikkyu through sankyu: at that level, it's useful to know how likely people are to do something weird and hurt me, and I'd rather have the person wearing a green belt. There are no guarantees, but it's another piece of information to use.

But that's not the rank you're talking about. I was assuming that you're not totally opposed to rank because you have a bunch of them, and they don't usually happen automatically.

So, what good is rank? I learned various interesting/useless things for gradings. I'm not talking about nage-no-kata, which is analogous to knowing calculus; people should just know that. More so with the other kata, which are a part of non-sport judo that no one would know otherwise.

It's possible that rules are driving people away. I don't know whether that's the case or not, and I certainly don't have data on that point. It would be worthwhile to collect it.

Dr. AnnMaria said...

Actually, all of my ranks did happen automatically pretty much. Except for shodan and rokudan they were all by batsugan - you beat X number of people your rank or higher in a tournament and you get the next rank. I got my first degree black belt as a teenager. I didnt want to do nage no kata but my mom told me to shut up and do whatever it was. I was the same rank for 19 years until I was promoted to sixth degree. A couple of gentlemen I respected told me to shut up and fill out the promotion forms, so I did. I usually wear a blue belt these days whe I'm teaching because Ronda has my black belt in her car and I can't find my red and white belt. The blue belt is my daughter Julia's .

Dr. AnnMaria said...

From second on (until I was rokudan), I would win some big tournament and someone would put in my promotion papers and I got the next rank.

Chad Morrison said...

While I'm not 100% sold on Freestyle Judo (I'd say I'm about 90% there), I think there are several great changes in there, notably getting the refs out of the way by a) getting rid of the immediate pentalty, and b) reducing the opportunities for someone to get penalized. I just posted some thoughts I have on changes to Judo tourneys, and I'd love your thoughts ( if you have a moment...

Stephen said...

they were all by batsugan - you beat X number of people your rank or higher in a tournament and you get the next rank

Most sports have recreational, b level, a level and elite level competition. That kind of fills in the same place as belts.

But I think that the broader the rules, the less they turn on technical issues and penalties, the more open a sport will be and the less it will find itself losing ground to competitors.

Many of the various MMA approaches have grown and flourished because people have seen Judo (and traditional karate) as irrelevant and a little off.

I really think that wrestling should have pushed women/girl's judo as its Title 9 balancing act, and both should be headed towards the freestyle approach.

I think you make a lot of good points. What has amazed me is just how much people will pay for martial arts training. Much of it not very good.

But they want something different than what most traditional dojos are selling.

The sport needs more people thinking as you are.

Anonymous said...

While it is indeed true that judo is definitely not the second biggest sport in the world, it is indeed a very big sport internationally. Compared to Europe US is a very big exception. At the moment I live in central Europe in a relatively small judo country. The city where I live has population of 120 000. This small city has total 5 judo clubs and two of them have several hundred players, while the rest two are smaller suburban clubs. A short googling reveals that in 50 kilometer span there is 10 judo clubs and many of them are big clubs. If the density of judo players would be similar in US that would mean ~500 000 judokas. So it seem to me that the problem is not in the sport itself, but in how it is done in US.

Anonymous said...

"One explanation I have heard for the rule changes is to differentiate judo more from wrestling and grappling. Let me get this right, someone thought it was a good idea to change to be LESS like the sports that were more popular? Sure, that'll work. (Sarcasm alert!)"

Actually, wrestling is not very big sport compared to judo world wide (quite the opposite). Same with grappling, which is tiny.. I know that in US wrestling is big compared to judo, but you are living in one of the very few countries where it is so. Even some of the successful wrestling countries have tiny population practicing it.

Dr. AnnMaria said...

First of all, I am always hearing how big judo is worldwide but what little data I have seen does not support that. Certainly, there are countries where judo is bigger than in the U.S. but I am pretty sure the largest countries by population are

1. China 2. India 3. U.S. 4. Indonesia 5. Brazil 6. Pakistan 7. Bangladesh 8. Nigeria 9. Russia and 10. Japan

Of those 10, Japan and Russia are DECLINING in total population. Of the top 8 countries, only Brazil and China are very actively involved in judo. I could not find any resource that showed judo as one of the more popular sports in China.

I love judo. I'm off to a judo club in about another hour. However, I don't see any actual data supporting the oft-repeated claim that judo is one of the most popular sports in the world.

If your point is that grappling, wrestling, etc. are not either, I agree. They ARE more popular in the U.S, though, which is the largest media market in the world hands down and if the oft-repeated claim that changes are to make judo more spectator-friendly are true then I think perhaps what appeals to American audience should be a consideration.

robthornton72 said...

Of all the martial arts, Judo seems to have the biggest identity crisis. Martial art or martial sport? I understand those judoka who aren’t as interested in competition and more in the side of self-defense. Perhaps if those of the side of self-defense (I kinda straddle the line) were more into the fitness side of things, we’d get more young adults involved. It seems to work pretty well for BJJ.

I agree we could do away with the rank concept and not lose much.

roiive said...

Dear Ann-Maria,

Indeed judo is not the second most popular sport in the world. As you pointed out it is not very popular in China, India, Bangladesh etc. However, it is very well spread and is medium sized sport (in US that would mean 500 000 players) in very many well developed countries that share similar cultural heritage with US.

For example in other G8 countries (with exception of Canada?) judo is far bigger sport than in US (in terms of judokas divided by population). It does hold similar (or far bigger like in France) position as wrestling in US.

I used to live in one of the worst judo countries in Europe and even there 0,2% of population practiced judo (this is number of people who actually paid their training and insurance fee. In US this would be 600 000 players). Other countries in Europe (~20) where I have lived/trained had far greater density of players.

So the popularity of judo is not some fairytale. To live in Russia or in central Europe is quite eye opener.

However, I'm not claiming that judo in US should be similar as it is in Europe (or in particular in Japan). Indeed it is beneficial that judo coaches are fit, coo and can kick ass, but other than that many of the countries in Europe have their distinctive style of judo.

What I'm saying is that in many countries similar to US judo is big sport (there is easily accessible records and if you divide these numbers by for example 3, you still get medium sized sport). It is not in same class with soccer (as some claim), but it is totally different to US.

I also agree that if judo would like to be really visible worldwide, it would be very important that judo in US would be strong.

Vincente D'Ingianni said...

I agree with this article 100%.

This has been our motivation to go the Freestyle Judo route and promote our new club "The Judokai" at in the Dallas area. If wrestlers are putting on Gis and beating you at takedowns, teach better Morte Garis and sprawling. If the BJJ guys are beating you at submissions, spend more time on Ne Waza. Don't change the rules -- that is giving up.

Judo in the US has totally missed the marketing boat. We should all take some notes from the MMA schools that have popped up. We are trying to bring some fun and pizazz to traditional Judo workouts at The Judokai.

Don't push IJF ruled tournaments on your students if they do not find it interesting or do not aspire for the Olympics. Rather, encourage them to compete in Freestyle Judo, Wrestling, BJJ, NAGA, or MMA events, and give them equal credit toward their "promotions". After all, the event in 1886 that defined Judo as a martial art was an "MMA" challenge.

Anonymous said...

Dr. AnnMaria

Where did you start Judo? Who was then your Judo instructor? Did that Judo Coach teach you traditional Judo?

Jonah Ewell said...

Again, I'm a few years late to the conversation, but here goes. I want to address a few things covered in this post and in the comments.

1. Respect/attitude/etiquette

It can't be denied that judo originates from Japan, and certain rituals and protocols within judo come from Japan. In my opinion, this is fine. There is no need to try and delete all evidence of Japanese-ness from judo. But at the same time, my club is in America. We are all Americans or people who are living in America. It is impossible for us to become Japanese, and we shouldn't try. We will always exist in a middle ground. At the beginning and end of class we always bow to a picture of Dr. Kano. We bow when we step on the mat. We bow when we begin working with each other. We tie our belts in the right way so that the knot looks the way it should - and that knot, by the way, is only the correct way because it happens to be the most efficient way to keep your belt on. Judo in action! Left lapel over right - well there's no practical reason to keep it that way, but let's continue to do that because it looks better when everyone has it that way.

2. Belt rankings

When I visited Japan, I learned that there were no orange, yellow, green or purple belts - only white and black. I agree that perhaps too much is made of belt ranks in some clubs, but they are useful markers for people who are progressing in judo. Certainly anyone who says you should do something "because I outrank you" is relying on something imaginary. I decide whether or not someone is worthy of my respect and admiration based on several factors, and belt rank is not one of them. If someone is very highly ranked I might become curious about them, but I have met enough highly ranked douche nozzles to learn that rank alone is not a reason to respect someone.

3. Judo - fun or not fun?

This is just silly. Whoever said judo is not for fun is a crank. As one of my sensei said once "It's the most fun you can have with your clothes on."

4. Relative popularity of judo in Europe vs. America

In the comments someone mentions that judo is in fact very popular in central Europe. It's also very popular in central Asia (Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc.) and the northern Caucasus region (Dagestan, Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, etc). In my opinion this might be attributable to the fact that the traditional indigenous wrestling styles of this area are in many ways similar to how IJF judo is practiced today - focused on big pickups and putting an opponent on their back with force. So it makes sense that judo would be very popular there.

By contrast, the traditional folk-style wrestling that's developed in the U.S. is focused on putting someone on the ground as efficiently as possible (front or back doesn't matter in terms of scoring a takedown) and controlling them on the ground. While big throws and pickups are legal, there isn't any big payoff to doing those over a double or single leg takedown or an ankle pick, so most folk-style wrestlers focus on those. So, perhaps it makes sense that BJJ has become quite popular here, and furthermore, perhaps it makes sense for the U.S. to prefer the judo ruleset from 50-60 years ago, when grabbing the legs was legal and more time was allowed for newaza.

Just some ideas. Thanks to the freestyle judo facebook page for directing me to this post.