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.