Saturday, February 26, 2011

Are You Willing to Go Down the Stairs?

A friend of mine was a team mate of someone who won the world judo championships. He told me a story about when they were both in their teens. It went something like this:

We were pretty young back then, both in good shape, training every day. We both were lucky that we started out with good coaches and I think I can honestly say we were above average as far as technique went. We'd both won a lot of juniors and were starting to place in the senior national events. At this age, we were pretty closely matched.

Our judo club practiced in a room on the second floor. One day we were working out doing matwork and it was pretty even. We were rolling around, he was on top, then I was on top. We were really going at it and neither of us was willing to give up. We rolled off the mat and were still fighting in the hallway.I wasn't going to give up and neither was he. Finally, we got to the top of the stairs and he was still not willing to let go. I'm not crazy. We're going to go rolling down the stairs and it's going to hurt, maybe seriously, just to win one stupid round of newaza randori in the dojo. I tapped out. When I look back, I think that was the point where I realized there was a major difference between me and him. He was willing to go down the stairs and I wasn't.

Now, my friend, who did not win the world championships, is a successful, smart person who is a really good judo player and had a good measure of competitive success himself. As he said, he's not crazy.

So, am I saying that if you start fighting with people until you go rolling down a flight of stairs that you are going to be a world champion. It's not the specific event, in fact, if you went out and rolled down a flight of stairs today, I wouldn't be too impressed because I had to tell you about it. The point is that one person just had that attitude and the other didn't.

Ronda and I were interviewed for a TV show on MMA last week. One question the interviewer asked that I hear frequently is,

"What do you think one really important lesson you learned from judo that has helped you in life?"

I think I get asked this more often than Ronda because I am old so have presumably seen most of my life by now. I think one lesson I have learned is to be willing to go down the stairs. I started out with a safe job as an engineer and a huge aerospace company. I quit that to get a Ph.D. and become a professor. With a safe, full-time, tenure track position, I quit to start a business. After making a comfortable living doing program evaluations, statistical analysis and programming, I'm taking the risk and starting up a new technology company.  I'm involved in a highly technical field and trying to solve a very complex problem.

My niece asked me,

"Are you sure you'll be able to get this to work?"

I told her,

"No, we don't know how it will turn out. That's why we call it 'research'."

So, maybe I will completely fall on my face, I won't be able to solve the problem and I'll have to find something else to do.  I don't think so, but I don't know.

What I do know is that I am going to take the risk because that's what I learned from training to be world champion in judo - the willingness to go down the stairs, knowing full well that it might hurt like hell, but not being able to give up that chance to come out on top.

Friday, February 18, 2011


1. Understand that quality can’t completely make up for quantity
Over the years, many people have explained to me, usually in that voice reserved for small children and people with mental disorders, that they work smarter instead of harder.  Okay, two things:
  • One, you don’t have to choose between,smarter OR harder.
  • Two, harder doesn’t necessarily mean more of the same.

If you have practice for two hours three times a week, doing two hours of randori with no rest isn’t necessarily the smartest choice. People don't fight two-hour matches. What can make a difference, though, is more time, and particularly more individual time. If you add another practice each week when you can work on new techniques, improving their existing techniques, combinations and gripping.

If you can’t add another practice, maybe you can make your current practices more effective. I’m always surprised when people spend the first half-hour of a ninety-minute practice on conditioning. People don’t need to drive 35 miles to get to your club so they can do push-ups and sit-ups. Have them do that on their own.

2. Have a reason for what you do
This seems pretty obvious but you would be amazed how many people, to use Mark Guerrero’s term, “Phone it in”. That is, they aren’t really paying all that much attention to their practices, often doing the same routine day after day.

I just said above that your practice time could be better spent than doing a bunch of push-ups and sit-ups and yet I have run practices where we did exactly that for an hour or more – sprints, jump rope – and very little judo. Sometimes I’ve done it because we had just done so many throws, so many rounds of randori, so many drills over the past few weeks that I thought it would be good for the players to have a different work out for the day.

At the training center we do a lot of conditioning because we have the extra hours in the day and it is more fun for people to do their sprints, strength training and cardio together once or twice a week. They do it alone the other days (or they should!)

In visiting clubs, if I see the coach doing something I wouldn’t have done, I ask why and I am always impressed when the person has an answer, regardless of what it is, because it shows he or she has put some thought into running practice. For example, I know clubs that do free practice right after warming up. Their argument is that people get injured more often when they are tired, so you should do your lower risk activities near the end of practice.

On occasion, I have made players do a two-hour randori session. Part of mental strength is having kept fighting when you just felt like you were going to die. And you didn’t die. That teaches you something. Unless you’re completely stupid, in which case you’re on your own.

3. Know your players’ goals
At the same club that did randori first, I asked wasn’t that a bad idea. After all, you need to be able to compete in a tournament when you are tired. In fact, the most important matches may be at the end of the tournament, when you are tired. What about that? The instructor laughed and pointed out that they were a bunch of old people at a small club and almost no one competed, so who cared. The one or two people who did compete on occasion in local tournaments would get one or two matches. He said,

“Our big goal isn’t to win the Olympics, it’s to be able to get up and go to work on Monday.”

4. Chill
I once looked at a player’s pool the morning of a tournament, saw the name of the little girl she fought first match and immediately started worrying about how our player was going to do against her. I was going to ask some of my friends 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. How good can any of them frigging be?"

Just like the better players, the better coaches are the ones who can remain calm under stressful situations. I still need to work on that personally, but I’ve gotten better at it. When you are screaming at the referee, constantly pacing nervously back and forth, swearing at your players, getting drunk the night before the tournament – basically, any dysfunctional way you can think of that people deal with stress – it is not helping. Your players are nervous. They need you to be calm. If you aren’t calm, fake it. I mean this very seriously.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Judo Book Club?

I don't know if this is a crazy idea or not, so I just thought I would throw it out there.... 

  1. A lot of my friends who are not in judo belong to book clubs. They all get together once a week or once a month and discuss a book they are reading. Several belong to the same book club that discusses things on leadership and politics. Others belong to various book clubs that read novels, books on women studies, history or whatever it is that people think about besides judo.
  2. A lot of my friends who are involved in judo are as old as me, or even older (yes, and they are still alive, amazing, isn't it?).  Jerry Hays organizes a quarterly judo luncheon that gets our senior judo players together.
  3. Why not have a judo book club? You're never too old to learn. I think book clubs are more attended by older people (I've never belonged to one, but all the people I know who do go to book clubs often are over thirty, and usually over forty.) At some point, though, you ARE too old to compete. Don't tell me about how great the people are competing in the 80+ division at the World Masters. When you are 80 years old competing, it's kind of like a dog being able to talk. It's not that it does it well, it's amazing that it does it at all. Anyone who competed at the international level and who competes now at the World Masters will tell you it is not the same level at all. However, it is obvious that there are a lot of people who are older who want to be involved in judo.
This is not rhetorical question at all. I've never belonged  to a book club. I've never competed in the masters division. I have gone to the judo luncheons and the Nanka Hall of Fame a few times.

I got to thinking about this because I had an extremely productive day at work, so I decided to knock off around 10 p.m. and take a break. I started reading Steve Scott's latest book, Winning on the mat and thought,
"Damn! This is like an encyclopedia of judo."

If it was me, I would have broken it into two or three books and made twice as much money. Maybe the difference is that Steve worked for the Kansas City Parks and Recreation most of his career while I ran a business so he's less mercenary than me.

Steve has a more positive view of kata than I do. He thinks it can help your competitive skills if done properly. I'm skeptical of that. Brian Marks, who is one of our local southern California kata gurus helped Ronda with her uchi mata a lot when she was younger but I don't think it was so much because of kata as because he just has good technique. Maybe those two are inter-related, he has good technique because he's good at kata. I'd call Brian and ask him but it's almost 11 pm so I don't think he'd appreciate it.

After I read the chapter on Winning Concepts (one of the best parts of the book), of course, I had to skip to the section on armbars. I was going to make a joke about the fact that my picture was not next to juji gatame in the "judo encyclopedia" but when I got to that chapter, there was a quote by me on the very first page. My day was made !

(If you want to know what the quote was, buy the book, you cheap bastard! Hey, you can even buy the ebook for your Kindle, Steve being technologically savvy and all.)

======== Judo Tip (shamelessly stolen from Steve's book) ====

In your club, practice keeping the lead, and practice catching up and taking the lead. The more you have practiced being in a situation, the better you will be able to handle it in a contest. If you are ahead, "Play smart". What does that mean? Solve second-order differential equations while throwing?

No, it means don't do throws like uchimata that are more likely to be countered. If you are on the mat, and your matwork is at least as good as your opponents, don't get up. Attack with throws like ko ouchi gari and foot sweeps that have a low probability of being countered. This, of course, is dependent on who your opponent is. If you are competing against Jeff Fujimoto, you don't want to attack with a footsweep because he'll probably counter you. MOST people, though, won't. That is another point in Steve's book, know your opponent.

If you are behind, you need to take more risks. You need to attack more often. Uchimata has a higher probability of being countered but it also has a higher probability of scoring. (Unless you are me, because my uchimata sucks.) Know yourself.

IF you follow his advice and you frequently have drills in your club where one player is ahead,
"All the people on the right have a yuko, now all you people on the left have a minute to catch up. You people on the right HANG ON TO THAT LEAD without getting a penalty!"

Then your players will learn to deal with those situations. Instead of yelling out,
"Play smart!"

You can say,

"You're ahead!"
and the player will know what to do because he or she has practiced for that exact situation many times.

Friday, February 4, 2011

What would you measure?

I received this email today, from Dr. Will Dampier, a professor at Drexel University who also happens to be a judo instructor from Philly. He says,

I've gotten a Biomechanics of judo course approved for the summer semester (starting in June). I've got a preliminary syllabus (obviously subject to change). I'm polling experts to see if they had any interesting brainstorming ideas on things to measure or data to collect.

I expect to have ~30 students consisting of 1 nidan (myself), 2 brown-belts, a few lower kyu ranks, and the rest will be absolute beginners. I'm planning on use motion capture techniques (possibly the Microsoft Kinect) to measure things like impact velocity, height of the hips during hip throws, the "angle of kuzuchi" (how far you lean your partner forward during off-balance), etc. Obviously our sample size will be pretty small initially but we'll see how many people I can recruit. I plan on putting any data online and making my measurement programs available as open-source code.

If you have any other ideas of cool stuff to measure I'm open to them. You can also feel free to distribute this around to anyone else who'd be interested.

Well, of course, as my lovely daughter says,
If you want any extra advice, just ask Mom because she's just brimming with it.

Not to disappoint, I actually did have some advice for data to collect. I suggested that when Dr. Dampier made his data available that he include data on the players attempting the technique as well as the characteristics of the technique. We often say that men and women are different in strength, center of gravity, flexibility, etc. It would be interesting to see if there are differences in the success rate of different techniques for males and females. It would also be interesting to see in what ways the movements differ between experienced and novice players. Being in excellent physical condition may make a difference. A person who is a novice judo player but a good athlete may be able to power through a throw or recover from being off-balance where someone who hasn't done anything more athletic than drive a standard transmission would fail.

So, information I would like to see on the players would be :
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Years of experience doing judo
  • How many times a week (on average) did the person engage in physical exercise in the last year.
  • Height
  • Weight

For each throw or other technique, it would be useful to see information on both opponents. From this information, you could see, for example, if some techniques have a higher probability of success when applied against a taller opponent, or by males, or if they only work against people who are smaller and weaker than you or with much less experience.

I'd also like to see, for each technique, what came before it and what came after. For example, did the person grip and then attempt the technique, did they walk around for a while first, did the opponent go into the technique and then come out, only to have our attacker attempt a technique as the opponent was coming back out of an attempt. After our attacker failed, did he or she try another technique, break the grip or what?

So, yes, Ronda was correct. I am just brimming with advice. If you'd like to add your own, you are welcome to post here or email Dr. Dampier directly at:

Will Dampier