It is important that judoka understand the difference between different types of practice.
Randori is free practice, and each may use their whole range of techniques to best their partner. It literally means "chaos seizing", describing a practice that is not constrained by specific moves or techniques by the instructor. It is important to remember that it is still practice, and should not degenerate into a fight. It is time for each judoka to play and test out a wide range of techniques. Many attacks will not be successful, and many will be countered, but without this type of light, free-flowing practice, their judo will not develop and grow. There is an old saying that to catch a tigers cub you have to enter the tigers den. Randori is when judoka practise entering the lion's den without fear of being bitten.
Shiai literally means "test together". While the spirit of judo should still be strong in each contestant it is not as relaxed or playful as randori, as each are trying to score a point (or an ippon) against each other. An important distinction however is that it is not a fight. Both contestants are trying to demonstrate judo, but there has to be some level of cooperation for this to happen. In a similar sense, two people can have a debate or discussion, while conducting themselves in a good manner, showing respect for the other's point of view while trying to bring them round to theirs. When respect for each other is no longer there, the debate becomes an argument or shouting match and reflects badly on both. Subtlety is gone, and verbal brute force is used to batter the other into defeat. In judo, this is when a shiai becomes a fight, and the spirit of judo is lost.
Judo at competitions should still be shiai, but the added pressure of competing for shiny symbols of victory too easily overcome the spirit of judo. The bigger the competition, the more is at stake, and the more tempting it is to focus on winning rather than doing judo. Contests too easily become fights, or defensive stalemates, with neither side willing to risk defeat for the sake of success. An excellent example of judo at a high level competition is the contest between Vitali Makarov and Yusuke Kanamaru at the 2001 Munich World Championship. Despite being the final, each contestant makes repeated, enthusiastic attacks, and success might have come to either of them. After the contest is over, it is clear that they both enjoyed doing judo with each other. Watch it on Youtube here.
There is a particular danger of inexperienced judoka taking part in shiai.
They will not have fully developed their judo skills, both physical and mental, and so their moves and thoughts will be clunky and uncertain, and both will be more likely to be stubborn enough not to want to 'lose'. A classic example of this was in the first series of the Channel 4 programme 'The Games', in which numerous celebrities compete in a mini Olympics. They had a short time to train for each event, then, all hyped up, did their best to outperform each other. When it came to the judo event, it was apparent that some at least hadn't mastered even basic breakfalls. And when someone is scared of falling, they will resist a throw even more for fear of going down. All the contests were exactly how any experienced judoka would imagine a fight between two novices to be. And during one, a very poor osoto gari (large outer leg reap) was rapidly followed up by an equally poor osoto gari counter attack. Click here to see what the outcome was.
So regardless of where you are doing judo, or who your partner is, just do the best judo you can. You might be doing randori with a novice in your local club, or you may be competing for the title of world champion. It doesn't matter. Do judo. That's why you're there. Everything else will take care of itself.
Derek Gove, 2nd dan
Senior coach at Watanabe Kai Judo Club