Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Managing a mix of players

If we lived in a society where judo was popular and judo clubs were brimming with players, it’d be possible to have separate sessions for beginners and for experienced players. And a separate session for adults and for kids. But the harsh reality is that in Malaysia, where participation is low, for most clubs, it’s not really practical to have separate classes. The numbers just aren’t there. 

So what can you do if you have a few players who are absolute beginners, a few who are mid-level and a few who are competitive? And to further complicate things, what if you have a couple of children who want to learn but they’re not enough to form a class (say there’s only two or three of them)?

The obvious answer is you have to have a mixed class where everyone trains together. Of course that’s problematic because different players have different needs. Beginners need to learn basics, kids have short attention spans and respond better to judo games, and competitors need to refine their competition skills. 

We have that kind of situation at KL Judo Club and it has taken us a long time to find a formula that works. For a long time, we just did competition training but that didn’t work for the recreational types. So over time, we tweaked our system until we got something that most people are happy with. Our approach is not perfect but so far it works pretty well. 

Most of our players are adults but we have two kids who train with us. The majority of the players are beginners but we have a few experienced ones. Most do judo for recreation and just a handful like competition.  

Obviously, you can’t have a session that caters to everybody’s exact needs when there’s a jumbled mix like this. What we do is go through fundamental techniques which are useful for beginners but also good for the more experienced ones to review and re-learn. 

We try to partner players according to size rather than experience level. So the kids will partner with the kids, the small-sized players with the small-sized ones and the big ones with the big ones. Since what we do is go through the fundamentals, it doesn’t matter if a player is experienced or not. They have to go through the motions anyway. So pairing a white belt with a black belt isn’t an issue. Size is though. If you pair someone small with someone big, it just won’t work. 

When it comes to randori, we make sure that everyone takes part, even the beginners. The seniors are there to take care of them, so they are in no danger if they train with an experienced player. But even when beginners spar with beginners it’s generally OK. Randori is very important for technical development we make sure everyone does it. Besides, it’s fun. Nobody wants to do drills for hours on end and not get a chance to try their techniques against resisting partners. 

This approach works really well for our recreational player but our competitors find it beneficial too. Of course it’s not enough for them and we do have a specific session on another day specifically for competition training. This type of training is less “fun” compared to the recreational class because the emphasis is very much on competition-skills development, which means lots of drills. And doing lots of the same thing over and over again until muscle memory sinks in. It’s not the kind of thing recreational players like to do. 

Also, it’s a much smaller group. Recreational players naturally tend to prefer a bigger group as it’s more fun when you have more people to train with. As they say, the more the merrier. But for the competition group, they don’t mind if there’s just a handful of players training because they are focused on developing their competition skills. They are not there for fun per se. Sometimes it’s literally just two players training. 

So, I think the key to running a successful program when you have a mixed group of people is to have a general (recreational class) once a week where you play games, go through the fundamentals and get everyone to do randori. People will leave the mat feeling they’ve learned something useful and had a good workout. But to satisfy the needs of your more competitive players, organize smaller, more focused and goal-oriented sessions. That one can be done with as few as two or three players who really want it. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Going the distance...

Nothing good comes easy. Sometimes you have to travel a bit to get what you want. You literally have to go the distance.

When people say "going the distance" they usually mean carrying through the course of action to completion. But in judo, that phrase can often have a more literal meaning. Many judo players have to travel great distances to get to training.

For experienced players, the reason for long distance travel is often the lack of randori partners in their home club. Most clubs are not competition clubs but recreational ones. But among the recreational players, sometimes emerge one or two competitive types. They will need to do randori with more competitive types if they want to improve their competition abilities.

A couple years back, I chatted with a German coach who ran a small county club. Most of his students are kids. Among the older players, there are a few competitors but not many. He told me that there was one who would drive literally hundreds of kilometres to another town just to get some good randoris. He would stay overnight after the training and drive home the next day.

KL Judo Club is located in Cheras. It's just where we happen to be located. We've had people who inquired about training who commented it's too far away from where they are (even though they live somewhere in PJ or KL).

But if your catchment area is the whole of Klang Valley, there is no such thing as an ideal place. If you are in PJ, you will be considered far for some KL-based people. If you are in KL, you will be considered far for some PJ-based people.

Look, nobody likes traffic jams. But at the end of the day, it depends how determined and keen you are about learning and doing judo. Some of our players live very nearby but some live quite far away. We have players who live as far away as Dengkil, Seri Kembangan and Cyberjaya. We also have a player who travels all the way from Melaka to train with us.

Last night we had a guy, a taekwondo instructor, who travelled all the way from Kemaman, Terengganu to train with us. That's about a 4.5 hour drive. He said he's long wanted to learn judo but never had the chance before. So, he was willing to travel. Not every weekend but a few times a month.

Decades ago, when I was beginning my competition journey, I felt I had outgrown my home judo club at the University of Texas in Austin. I wanted more exposure and professional training so I set out to find a good coach in Los Angeles, California. I found one and trained at his centre for three months during one of my school summer holidays. The following summer, I went to Germany and UK in search for quality training and found it.

In judo, sometimes you do have to travel great distances to get good training. Yes, in some countries there's judo everywhere. In France for instance, almost every town has its own judo club. But in many countries around the world, that's certainly not the case. In Malaysia, many states have only one judo club and some states have none at all.

I have taken my players to different states and even to Singapore so they can get some quality randori. Obviously this is not something we can do all the time. It's costly and it takes up a lot of time to travel. But you have to be willing to travel on occasions, otherwise you won't get enough good judo training.

We are thankful to have really dedicated players who are willing to travel long distances to train with us. This is what makes our club special. Our players really enjoy the judo training and there is a  good, positive, friendly atmosphere in the club. We train really hard (one of our visitors described our recreational training as "hardcore") but there's also a lot of fun and laughter. Our players are willing to travel because they know that good training, with good partners, is really hard to find. We are lucky we have each other.

Sunday Nite Training (15.10.17)

We had a great turnout on Sunday, with the regulars on the mat but also quite a few newcomers including one who travelled all the way from Kemaman, Terengganu to train with us.

Since we had a lot of beginners, we had them to do some breakfalls and forward rolls. Nigel led that.

Meanwhile, Ahmad led the slightly more experienced players do some judo push-ups.

Then I had them do some back stretches.

We played the "Syrian Zombie Game" which really gets the heartbeat going.

Syrian Zombie Game

Then the technical session began. We always start with newaza, then only followed by tachi-waza to instill the culture of newaza in our players. Judo players tend to prefer standing and many neglect newaza. On Sunday, we also did some gripping drills.

Technical Session

Sometimes, small injuries happen. In this case, mat burns on both knees.

We emphasize randori a lot and devote at least an hour to it.
We always end our training with randori

What a great group.
(Back Row, L to R) Andy, Oon, Alvinc, Mostafa, Ahmad, Xue Qian, Bo, Lau, Kenneth, Vincent, Wei Yin
(Front Row, L to R) Shen, Kim Mun, Nigel, Gavin, Reza, Kim Jingger, Jovenn

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Judo FAQ

1. How is judo different from karate, taekwondo and so on?
A key differentiator between judo and many other martial arts is that judo does not involve striking or kicking. Instead, judo players throw and grapple.

2. Is judo expensive? What do I need to buy?
In most countries around the world, and certainly in Malaysia, judo clubs are run as a labor of love and are not profit centers. As such, training fees are generally lower than would be the case for commercially-run martial arts clubs for Muay Thai, BJJ, MMA and so on. In terms of equipment, you basically need a judogi (uniform). It's advisable to also get knee pads and groin guards (for the guys). But at its most basic, all you need is a judogi.

3. Can I wear a taekwondo/karate or BJJ gi?
Taekwondo and karate gis are not designed for grappling so they are very thin. They will tear if worn for judo training. BJJ gis are made of the same material as judogis but they are generally tighter and shorter than regulation judogis (which are required to be looser so that players are able to grip properly). If you are serious about training in judo, you have to get a proper judogi.

4. What's the difference between a single weave and a double weave judogi?
Single-weave judogis are thinner and lighter at about 450 gm while regulation double-weave judogis are 750 gm. Some heavy-duty training gis can go up to 900 gm but these are not suitable for competition.

5. What's the difference between a white and a blue judogi?
Competitors are supposed to have a set of white and blue judogis as one player wears white while his opponent wears blue. Typically, blue judogis are slightly more expensive than white ones. If you are not a competitor and are doing judo just for recreation, you don't need a set of white and blue judogis. Just one color (either one) would do fine.

6. Which came first, Jiu Jitsu or Judo?
Jiu-jitsu is an ancient martial art from Japan which has elements of throwing and grappling but also striking and kicking. It wasn't a sport but a system of fighting. Dr. Jigoro Kano, a physical education professor and member of the International Olympic Committee, adapted jiu-jitsu by removing the striking and kicking elements, removing the dangerous locks and combining it with some western wrestling techniques to create judo. What is known as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (or BJJ) however, came from judo. As its name implies, it originated in Brazil and was started by a bunch of judo experts from Japan. It was then popularized by the Gracie family who promoted it all over the world.

7. What's the difference between judo and BJJ?
Mainly the rules. What's allowed and not allowed are very different and the scoring system is very different too. It's also true that judo players tend to prefer standing techniques and BJJ players tend to prefer groundwork, although there are exceptions in both cases.

8. Is it true judo is 80% standing and 20% newaza?
Not as a rule although that may be the case for some players who prefer standing. At KL Judo club it's really 50:50. Our technical training sessions are two hours long with one hour devoted to newaza (groundwork) and one hour to tachi-waza (standing techniques). Our randori is one hour long and again, it's split with 30 minutes for newaza and 30 minutes for tachi-waza.

9. How many types of judo are there?
Many martial arts are fragmented with multiple global federations vying for supremacy. Even in boxing there are different federations involved. But in judo there is only one global governing body, the International Judo Federation, so judo rules and regulations are standard throughout the world.

10. Do you need to learn Japanese to do judo?
Judo has its origins in Japan so the terms used are in Japanese, including the names of throws and the scores and penalties. If you want to learn judo properly, you have to learn these terms. But of course you don't have to learn how to speak Japanese. Just memorize the terms.

11.  Is judo good for MMA?
A person who wants to learn judo for use in MMA will have to adapt judo to MMA. There is no real direct application. For one thing, judo players wear judogis, which is not the case in MMA. Although many MMA fighters look to judo for throwing and grappling techniques, judo in its natural form is not geared towards MMA-style fighting. There's no punching and kicking in judo, for instance. And certain rules like no leg grabs would not be suitable for those training to do MMA. But certainly there are some throws, armlocks and chokes that could be applied in an MMA combat situation.

12. Is judo good for self-defense?
Again, judo is not geared specifically for self-defense. Since 1964, judo has been an Olympic sport and judo's development has been guided by that fact. Judo players are first and foremost athletes. So the focus really is on how to win a sports contest, not how to win a bar brawl or street fight. That said, judo players have instincts and moves that would be useful in a self-defense situation. But judo is not like Krav Maga, which was designed for self-defense.

13. What is the youngest age to learn judo?
Some players start very young, as early as 5 or 6 but in general children cannot really focus on learning judo proper until they are about 9 or 10. Even then you have to incorporate a lot of games in order to keep them interested. Most kids really start to develop a real interest in learning judo proper when they enter their teens. It's around that time that they decide within themselves whether they want to develop further as a competitor. Those who do will train more seriously and those who don't will probably eventually drop out. So, it doesn't hurt to start your kids early just so they have the exposure but it's only when they are 12, 13 or 14 that you can really tell if they are going to be competitors.

14. Are there lots of injuries in judo?
Judo is a combat sport. As such there are bound to be some injuries. Most are minor -- sprains and bruises -- but sometimes dislocated or even broken bones are known to happen. That's the reality of a combat sport. Anyone who tells you otherwise, is whitewashing it. That said, judo is a sport with a lot of regulations specifically designed to avoid injuries from happening. Any moves that are dangerous are prohibited, so much so that some "martial artist" types complain that judo is no longer a martial art. Well, judo is a sport and sport has regulations. As a combat sport, judo is pretty safe. But you can't take part in a combat sport and not expect to have any injuries.

15. How can I compete in tournaments?
For Malaysian citizens there are Junior Nationals (below 21) and Senior Nationals which are held every year. Those under 21 can also represent their state in SUKMA. University and college students can compete in SUKIPT. For non-Malaysians, the options are limited but there are some states which organize competitions where participants don't have to be Malaysians. There are also competitions open in neighboring countries like Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand that Malaysian residents can take part in. 

Sunday Nite Training (8.10.17)

Started off with some forward rolls for the beginners, then did the "Syrian Zombie Game" for warm ups. Newaza practice was juji-gatame roll followed by tachi-waza practice where we worked on tai-otoshi.

Training isn't complete without randori. We did 30 mins of newaza and 30 minutes of stand-up randori. Everyone was spent by the time our session was over. And that's the way it should be!

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Training Program for Sunday (8.10.17)

We are expecting a big group today and we have an exciting program for you guys:

Warm Up
1. Dojo Ball Game (standing)
2. Zombie Game (groundwork)

1. Keeping Down Drill
2. Adams Juji-Gatame Roll
3. Arm Straightening Drill

1. Pushing Out Drill
2. Tai-Otoshi
- Classical 3-Step
- Cross Grip
- Sleeve Grip
- Competition Version: Hashimoto

- Newaza
- Tachi-waza

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The importance of club culture

The club culture is what defines the club. At KL Judo we work hard to shape a specific culture.

Every club has a culture, whether they proactively foster it or not. A club’s culture is important because it affects the way members behave during training and this will have a direct impact on the kind of members the club will attract in the future. 

Generally speaking, there is no right or wrong culture. You might disagree with how a certain club runs its sessions but if the members of that club are happy with how things are, who is to say their culture is wrong? It might be wrong from your perspective but it’s certainly not wrong from theirs.

Ultimately, a club’s culture is a reflection of its values. Some clubs are very traditional, some clubs are more contemporary. Some clubs favour kata, others favour competition. Some like to incorporate elements of other combat sports, others are judo purists. Again, there’s no right or wrong. If your members are happy with how things are, then you must be doing something right.

Normally, a club’s culture is very much shaped by the leadership of the club. The sensei or coach and the senior members of the club play a key role in setting the tone and vibe of the club. How strict or lax the leadership is about certain things will influence the culture of the club.

Judo today is both an individual sport and a team sport (a mixed team competition of 3 men and 3 women was just introduced in the 2017 Budapest World Championships and will be part of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as well). But for the most part, judo is seen as an individual sport. Most judo players would have had some experience of competing as an individual but few would have ever taken part in a team event as those were relatively uncommon.

Human nature is such that when you take part in an individual sport, you do tend to think in very individualistic terms: How do I improve? What can I get from this training? What’s convenient for me? You don't naturally tend to think in terms of how other players can benefit from the training. But although judo is an individual sport, you can’t train alone. It’s not like swimming or running where you can really train by yourself if necessary. In judo, you need training partners. If have a very self-centred attitude, pretty soon you’ll find that others will not be there for you when you need them. Team spirit is very important in judo.

How do you foster team spirit in sport that is largely individualistic? Playing games is a good way to foster team work because most judo games involve multiple players and require some strategy and collaboration. At KL Judo, we try to incorporate games at the beginning of every session. It’s a much more interesting way for players to warm up, anyway.

Having group activities like cleaning up the dojo together, taking fun pictures together and eating supper or having some teh tarik together after training are also ways to foster team spirit. Whether recreational or competitive, everyone likes a club where they feel they are a part of an extended judo family. When there is team spirit, self-centredness tends to naturally fade away.

The culture of a club establishes norms of behaviour during training. Once a culture is established, it’s very hard to shake it (for better or for worse). So it’s important to set the right culture from the start. It might take some time to take root but once it does, even new members will naturally adhere to what’s acceptable behaviour and what’s not. If they don’t like how things are done at the club, in time they will leave the club.

So a club’s culture acts as a natural filter to ensure that the values of the club stay intact. When a club has an established culture that is accepted by all of its existing members, they will feel a natural  duty to defend it because they know it is that very culture that makes the sessions enjoyable and fulfilling for them.

At KL Judo Club we have some rules of thumb which define our club culture:

Whatsapp Notification
As a coach, I like to plan my training sessions. Not only do I think about what techniques to teach for a particular session, I also think about who to pair up with whom for that session. In order to do that, I need to know who is attending. We set up a Whataspp Group for that. In the early days of the club, it was actually quite hard to get players to indicate whether they were coming or not. I don’t know why. Is it that hard to do? These days, after much urging, most of the members have adapted to the culture of putting down their names on the attendance/non-attendance list. Those who persist in not updating the list will eventually get removed from the Group. I have to be strict about this otherwise I cannot plan the training properly.


There are many things Malaysian that we can be proud of. “Malaysian Time” is not one of them. It must be in our DNA but Malaysians like to arrive 30 minutes late for everything. I’ve been taking great pains to eliminate the “Malaysian Time” mindset from our players and it’s largely worked but there are still a few players who somehow insist on being late no matter what. I once read about an Olympic swimming coach in the US who would lock the doors to the swimming pool once training starts. You can be sure all his swimmers arrived on time. While I’m tempted to do the same (and one of my senior players actually encouraged this), I realize you can’t do this with recreational players (you can with the competitive team but not with the recreational ones). What you can do is to start the session on time. If they arrive in the middle of a drill, too bad, they have to sit out the drill until the next activity begins. In time, you will see players begin to arrive on time. Most of my players do so these days.

Many players who visit us for the first time are surprised at the intensity of our trainings which normally last three hours (first hour is newaza, second hour tachi-waza and third hour randori/shiai). We do have short breaks in between our drills and there are moments when players get to watch judo video clips of techniques I’m teaching. But for the most part, it’s non-stop training until the end of the session. At the end of it all, everybody’s energy is completely spent and my players actually like that. They feel they’ve had a really good workout. Newcomers who join our club have to get used to the intensity. If they prefer a more relaxed club where they can lounge around and take it easy, KL Judo is really not the club for them.

Drinking Water (and Playing Music)
There are some traditional judo clubs where drinking water during training is discouraged or even forbidden. This comes from the notion that true martial artists don’t drink water during training. I come from a sports background and I consider myself an athlete not a martial artist. At KL Judo, we encourage our players to be properly hydrated at all times, so there are regular water breaks throughout the training. During the longer breaks some players even go to the 7-Eleven downstairs to buy cold drinks and to enjoy a bit of the aircond (unfortunately our dojo is not airconded). The traditionalist might be horrified but we treat judo as a sport. Players need to be hydrated in order to perform well in training. What we don’t allow is for players to stop midway during a drill to drink water. That is disruptive and rude towards their training partners. Instead, they should wait for the drill to be over to go for the water break. Oh, and we play music during our training. I know. Heresy. But we are a sports club, damn it.

In many clubs the unspoken rule about randori is that you can’t say no to a randori request. If someone comes up to you and asks for a randori, you should accept it enthusiastically. This is typically the case in many clubs. But I used to train at a club where the culture was such that players would regularly say no to randori because they were too tired, or they didn’t want to fight someone strong, or they just didn’t feel like it. It started with a handful of senior players who adopted this attitude. When the junior players saw brown and black belts behaving this way, they too began to say no to randoris whenever they didn’t feel like it. I once cursed at a black belt who refused to fight, calling him a wimp (actually I used more colourful words but being that this is a family-friendly blog, I shall not repeat them here). The thing is, the coaches at that club allowed people to get away with this lousy attitude and it soon became pervasive. At KL Judo, unless you are injured, you should never say no to a randori. 

Many clubs are incredibly insular and in Malaysian judo, everybody knows of a particular club where its members are not even allowed to mingle with other club members at competitions. Some coaches feel they need to control their players in order to keep them loyal to their club. But loyalty, like respect, can’t be forced. It has to be earned. If you provide a good training environment for your players, they will naturally want to continue training at your club. So, why worry? When my players visit another state or another country, I always encourage them to visit the local judo clubs there. The more training they do, the more exposure they get, the better they become at judo. At KL Judo we encourage our players to visit other clubs and encourage other clubs to visit us. That is what judo is all about.

Fostering a club’s culture is an important task. In fact, it’s a vital for the success of the club as the culture is what defines your club, its values and its beliefs. It guides and informs the behaviour and attitude of the members. Creating the right culture won’t happen overnight. It’s something I’ve been working on for two years now and I’m happy to say our club culture is finally starting to solidify and take shape. In this time some players have come and gone. And that’s OK. Like I said, the club culture helps to filter out those who are not suitable for the club. The ones who stay on are the ones whose sensibilities and inclinations are more aligned to my approach to judo. And these are the ones who I want to train.