Thursday, October 19, 2017

Why it’s important to teach gripping

When you learn judo, you’re usually taught a whole bunch of things. You’re taught proper judo etiquette, especially how to bow in and bow out. You’re taught how to break-fall and do forward and backward rolls. You’re taught how to do uchikomi, kuzushi, nagekomi.

The one thing that is super important in judo that is seldom taught though is gripping. Usually players are introduced to the standard sleeve-lapel grip and that’s it. They’re left to their own devices to figure out effective gripping.

Most don’t figure it out though and end up assuming that it’s poor technique on their part that prevents them from throwing the more experienced players. Actually, more often than not, it’s just poor gripping that is the cause. They simply got outgripped.

But how do you expect beginners to be good at gripping if they are not taught?

It’s surprisingly very Darwinian in many clubs. Like I said, players are usually left to their own devices. Those who do manage to figure it out stay on and become good players, those who don’t usually end up quitting. And we wonder why the attrition rate is so high in judo!

The Darwinian approach works if you’re in a place where there’s a lot of judo. If you’re in a sports school with a judo program and you’re training with lots of judo players every single day (or maybe twice a day), then that approach works. It’s impossible not to get good at gripping when you’re doing so much judo. You learn through osmosis from the ones who are good at it, and by trial and error as you figure out different ways to cope with different situations.

The Japanese are excellent with their grips or kumi-kata, as they call it. But not because they have any kind of systematic approach to grip training. Sure, they climb ropes to build up their grip strength but there is no methodology taught beyond the standard sleeve-lapel.

When I was starting out, I didn’t get any training in gripping until I was a brown belt (perhaps that’s one of the reasons I didn’t have much success at throwing up until then). At the university club where I was at, all we were taught was that if you’re a right hander, you grab uke’s left lapel with your right and his right sleeve with your left hand. That’s it. That’s the full extent of what I was taught about gripping at my first club.

I was fortunate that as a brown belt, when I trained at a top competitive training centre in Los Angeles, the coach there taught me a very systematic approach to effective gripping.  And when I say systematic, I really mean really systematic. He had a 4-step theory of gripping which I had to digest and internalize. I was taught how to break a grip, how to neutralize a grip and how to impose a grip. Then he introduced me to the various types of grips used in competition including the Russian style which involved gripping the belt (and there I was thinking that all there was to gripping was sleeve-lapel).

Tenadze vs Koga on he cover of Grips
He gave me a bunch of video tapes to study. I still recall one of the first things he pointed out to me was how the great Japanese champion Koga adopted what was essentially a left-handed grip although he did most of his techniques to the right. This was baffling to me at first but after he explained the rationale and the mechanics of Koga’s approach, it made a lot of sense.

Then, to illustrate just how crucial grips are he played me a tape that showed how a Soviet player named Tenadze beat Koga in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. By taking an extreme left-handed grip, Tenadze was able to force Koga into adopting a right-handed grip, something he was not used to. Koga's judo was centred around him getting the grip he wants and when wasn't able to get it, his judo was neutralized and he lost the match.

All of a sudden, I saw judo in a different light. If you want to throw, it’s not just about technique. You have to win the grip fight and secure the right grip for your style of judo. When I realized that and started working on my grips in a systematic way, my judo improved by leaps and bounds.

Pedro's DVD is all about grips
Back then there wasn't a lot of information available about the art and science of gripping. The scant resources on gripping techniques and tactics that existed came from the West.

British World Champion Neil Adams came out with a book simply called “Grips”. It’s vastly outdated by now but back then, it was revolutionary. Imagine a whole book just on grips!

Later on, American World Champion Jimmy Pedro would come out with a DVD entitled “Grip Like A World Champion”. An entire DVD devoted to gripping was unheard of then and until today no other champion has put out anything like it although thee days gripping is often elaborated on in instructional videos by Western champions.

Okada's DVD talks a lot about grips
In contrast, the only time any Japanese champion would expound on grips was when their video was produced by the British company Fighting Films. When it came to Japanese-made videos, there would be hardly any mention of grips.

I guess because good gripping comes so naturally to them, they take it for granted and don’t think it needs to be taught. But even that’s starting to change. A recent DVD series by the double World Champion Hirotaka Okada features him talking extensively about grips, including gripping strategies in light of the new IJF rule changes. This despite the fact that the DVD is actually about ashiwaza (leg techniques). It shows how much Okada realizes the importance of gripping in order to do ashiwaza properly.

At KL Judo Club, grip training is part and parcel of our program. Sure, if we had 50 black belts on the mat training twice a day, we could afford to adopt a Darwinian approach to gripping. But we neither have the numbers nor the training frequency to do that. So, we teach gripping in a very systematic way and we use videos from top level competitions to illustrate the points being made. 

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