Traditional Kodokan Judo is an ideal physical activity suitable for everyone. Some people take up the art because they want to learn how to protect themselves or because they have suffered from bullying. Some start because they want to get fit or lose weight. Regular training will improve your fitness, but you certainly don’t need to have the physique of a top athlete to start.
It really is one of the best all-round forms of exercise there is, and like swimming, judo gives the entire body a workout. It requires quick bursts of energy as well as the stamina to last the duration, so it is a bit like being a sprinter and marathon runner all rolled into one. This means you get both an aerobic and anaerobic workout, improving your muscle tone and suppleness, as well as getting your heart pounding and your lungs working at capacity.
And even better it is a social activity which is mentally stimulating, which for me hands-down beats the monotony of plodding away like a hamster in a wheel on a treadmill or a cycling machine.
For most students the highlight of a training session is ‘free practice’, during which they can use their whole repertoire of techniques to try to best their opponent. This helps to develop a mind that is free and quick to react to rapidly changing situations. Judo becomes a physical game of chess because whatever move you make, your partner will have a range of counter moves to attempt, and so on, until one partner is ‘cornered’ with no more moves to make and is either thrown, pinned down or forced to submit.
And putting all the health and fitness benefits to one side for a moment: judo is great fun. In ball games the ball is a ‘buffer’ between you and your opposition, to prevent the game becoming a fight. In judo you literally have to learn to stand on your own two feet, because after showing respect for our opposition, we grab hold of them and get stuck in.
Aside from free practice, there is kata, or pre-arranged exercises. These include throws, grappling, and attacking the vital points, together with cutting and thrusting with daggers and swords. The training for these kicks , punches and other strikes are reserved for kata because if they were used in free practice then there would be frequent injuries.
These days, because judo is only seen at the Olympics, most assume that it involves no kicking or punching like other martial arts, but they simply aren’t seeing the full range of judo techniques. Years ago when judo was the only martial art widely practised in the UK the term ‘karate chop’ didn't exist - it was ‘judo chop’.
The great thing about judo is that you can adapt your training to your ability and experience. Energetic youths have the energy, ability and enthusiasm to enjoy vigorous contests, but at the same time, older, less mobile judo folk are able to enjoy the more technical aspects without risking their health in competitions.
One important aspect that sets judo aside from many other activities is that most sports and athletics are designed with the single goal of winning. In the pursuit of this, the body is conditioned to excel at a particular type of activity, which means some parts of the body are overworked while some are neglected; all the time driving home the message that winning is everything. In judo, the ultimate aim is to cultivate a healthy and balanced mind and body. Picking up medals at championships and moving up through the grades are by-products of successful training, not the goal.
People who are considering trying judo may find it quite intimidating to watch experienced judo people who are quite merrily flinging each other around the mat. But this is akin to someone who is interested in jogging being put off because they don’t think they could match a top marathon runner’s ability to run 26 miles in two hours.
Beginners need to learn to walk before they can run. This means learning about balance and how to fall safely before trying any of the throws. As skills and physique improve, their confidence will grow, and the basic techniques they know can be built on and added to.
As a coach, I get great pleasure from seeing people exceed their own expectations. I have seen countless youngsters come in with virtually no confidence, and discover their own potential. I have seen adults who thought their days of physical activity were over climb relentlessly through the grades and defeat strapping young men in championships. And I have seen teenagers win against adults despite giving away about several stone in weight, because they have learned to use skill rather than brute force.
Everybody has the potential to improve themselves. They just need to decide to make it happen, and Kodokan Judo is an excellent way to start.
Derek Gove, 2nd dan
Senior coach at Watanabe Kai Judo Club