Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Rant About Budo And Sports

I’m blowing a gasket about budo just now. Dr. Ann Maria DeMars, the first US women's world judo champion reduces the benefits of judo to those of tennis or golf. Steam coming out my ears that the art I love so much has fallen so far even in the eyes of its champions. She wrote on her blog

There are lots of benefits to training martial arts.  Budo, including Kodokan Judo, teaches a lot of things while learning and practicing the principles of conflict, whether armed or unarmed.  In addition to the fundamental principles of conflict, including combative spacing, timing, rhythm, tactics and strategy for dealing with all sorts of conflict, effective self-defense skills, the conscious ability to read peoples posture and movement.  It should also teach discretion about how and when to use those skills, respect, honor and dignity.  

Sadly, when the focus of a martial art becomes competition, those benefits are soon lost.  Dr. DeMars reduces a great budo to little more than a social gathering with health benefits.  Her concern about judo seems to be keeping it a positive experience for the students and not letting coaches’ and referees’ go on ego trips.  Nothing about actual application of the skills learned, nothing about respect, honor and dignity.

On top of the things she has lost, there is the problem of over-specialization. To do well in any competitive field, you have to specialize.  In judo competition you have to specialize in what the rules will allow.  Competitors never waste time on anything that doesn’t apply to competition.  The result is that people only learn judo at very close distances.  They never study anything that can’t be used in competition, and as Dr. DeMars does note, the rules change frequently, often based on what the International Judo Federation thinks will make the Olympic Committee happy, rather than based on what makes good judo.  One result is that most people who’ve started judo since a bunch of rules changes in 2010 are completely unaware of the existence of Kata Garuma, one of the signature techniques of Kodokan Judo’s founder Jigoro Kano.  People who do competitive judo know only what is included in competition, and even there, they often practice a limited set of techniques that they specialize in using in competition.

Even if we only talk technique, Kodokan Judo includes so much more than sport judo that I feel like competitive judoka are voluntarily blinding themselves.  They don’t know anything about controlling spacing and timing for any attack other than a grab.  They never learn about strikes or weapons attacks.  They are completely ignorant of whole classes of techniques, from strikes to joint locks to weapons defences.  They never learn about handling attacks from any angle that isn’t allowed in competition.

Over and above that, the values they learn are only those of the sporting field.  Sports are nice and popular, but the etiquette and behavior are a bit thin.  Good sportsmanship isn’t the same as honor and respect.  Kano Shihan established two fundamental principles of what makes something his Judo; Maximum Efficiency Minimum Effort and Mutual Benefit And Welfare.

The first, Maximum Efficiency Minimum Effort does get mentioned a lot..  The sports guys seem to like this one because it’s an effective strategy for winning. The problem is that it’s supposed to be a strategy for living, not just a method for judging the effectiveness of techniques.  The techniques of Judo are supposed to be a physical method for learning and experiencing this principle as something that can be applied everywhere, all the time.  Instead it’s reduced to a trick for figuring out how to win trophies.

Then there’s the other foundational principle of Kodokan Judo; Mutual Welfare And Benefit.  The idea is that everyone benefits from training and practice.  Judo practice is a group activity.  To really practice Judo you have to have a partner.  You can do the movements alone, but without a partner you’re not really doing Judo.  When you have a partner, both of you are supposed to progress in your understanding and application of Judo’s principles.  

This is a great lesson.  You get so much more of value out of things when everyone involved benefits.  This is a strategy that can be applied throughout life.  I even manage to apply it regularly in the competitive world of business.  There is a fundamental difference between life, including a competitive are like business, and sport.  Sports like competitive judo are zero sum games.  No matter how many people are involved, there can be only one winner.  By definition, everyone else has to lose.

Life, even in it’s competitive aspects, is not a zero sum game.  I know in America, what I’m about to write is close to heresy, but in life, there don’t have to be losers and winners.  The most effective solutions are the ones where everyone gains something.  When I negotiate something in business, the best strategy, and the one that wins the most agreements, is to make sure my partners in the negotiations benefit as well.  If they aren’t benefitting, why should they agree to what I’m asking for?  Mutual Benefit And Welfare.  Make sure everyone benefits from what you are doing.  Don’t just divide the pie.  See what you can do to make pie bigger, so everyone gets more, regardless of the percentage.

Competitive sports though, are zero sum games, and this drives what I find to be a selfish and thoughtless attitude as the level of competition climbs.  I’ve witnessed too much bad behavior at the highest levels of judo competition, behavior that runs completely counter to the principle of Mutual Benefit And Welfare. I see people who will use questionable techniques that can endanger themselves and their opponents, people who cheer their victory when an opponent loses on a technicality, people who by their behavior show that they have no respect for the human being they are facing and see them as only something to be broken if it gets in their way.  This not to say that I don’t also see good sportsmanship in competitive judo, because I do see it. Good sportsmanship though is a faint shadow of the values I expect from someone who calls himself a judoka.

In Judo there principles and techniques.  The techniques are just expressions of those principles.  They are a means for elucidating high level ideas and making them concrete.  We are always trying to refine and improve our understanding and application of the principles.  The goal is for everyone to benefit and grow.  In budo, including Judo, there is no such thing as perfect. There is only progress.

Dr. DeMars though seems to think that continued progress is not really possible.  If the only measure used is that of competition, she may be right.  In the same blog she writes that “I think far too many people continue teaching judo for too long…..I'm not nearly as fast or strong as I was 30 years ago. What I can do and demonstrate is limited.”    Our bodies don’t perform as well as we age.  If the goal is continuous improvement of our understanding and application of the principles however, there is never a reason to stop.  We’re not trying to win anything.  We’re trying to progress as judoka.  We want to continue learning to be more efficient, more effective, and more beneficial for our partners to work with.  Really, if a technique or application works well for someone who is 50, 60 or 70, than it ought to be amazing when a  20 year old learns to apply it in the same way.  As we age, we have motivation to refine and explore techniques and ideas that we would never bother with when we are young and hale.

Dr. DeMars completely neglects Judo’s ability to empower its students.  I often hear the word “empower” tossed around, but Judo, like all budo, really does give students power.  It gives them the power of conflict and violence.  It’s a power I dearly hope they will never need, but it is a power that means they no longer have to be intimidated by anyone physically.  I have seen how it changes peoples’ relationship with the world, especially women.  They get ownership of the power of violence, and they no longer stand as potential victims of it, but they stand as owners of that power.

Everything I’ve talked about gets lost if Judo is reduced to a mere sport for meeting people from different walks of life, seeing the country, getting exercise, and testing your skills, one where the rules are constantly tweaked to make it more interesting for spectators or to be more photogenic for television.  I’m saddened and furious to see what a small, relatively worthless and easily replaced thing someone like Dr. DeMars views her judo as.  I understand that competition is fun, but just doing competition seems to be to be like eating nothing but fries and ice cream.  There’s not much nutrition for the mind and spirit there, and it can be awful for the body.

I’ve started teaching judo again, but I can’t honestly recommend that my students go anywhere near any place that focuses on competitive judo. 


Neil Gendzwill said...

I think you took a bunch of stuff from Dr. AnnMaria's article that wasn't there.

I'd be more concerned about why she doesn't feel she has that much to offer at 55. She might not be as strong or fast as she was at 25 but she ought to be better at judo. Surely she ought to be better at coaching.

Rick Matz said...

Nick Evalgenista, in his Inner Game of Fencing, addresses what he describes as this very problem in what he loves, fencing.

This book is an anthem in a movement he calls Classical Fencing. It's doing it right, and not trying to take the short cuts that the sport emphasizes.

It's very inexpensive and I recommend it highly.

Gleb Zhiglov said...


Take a look at that is making all the news in Canadian martial arts circles.

I am sure you'll love it.

Andrew McBride said...

^In reference to the above be aware that the article is biased due to the mother/student lying.

The Budo Bum said...

You could be right that I am taking too much from her article. I have seen her make comments that implied similar feelings on her blog in the past, but this time it seemed like clear statement of how she feels about Judo. What set me off was the sentence "The benefit of judo should be to meet people from different walks of life, see the country, get exercise, test your skills." You can get that from tennis or golf.

I agree that I found her commetns about not having so much to offer at 25 seemed like the exact opposite of my experience. The senior teachers always have better, more effective technique. They've quite relying on speed and strength and just focus on doing it perfectly. They can teach much more about good judo than most of the younger guys (myself included).

The Budo Bum said...

Rick, thanks for the reading suggestion. I've added it to my list of books to acquire.

The Budo Bum said...

I saw that over on Facebook. My basic impression was that the instructor did a lousy job of handling the situation.