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Getting Out of Beginners’ Rut in Judo

Judo is one of the toughest and most unforgiving sports — because the fundamentals take an extremely long time to learn. And during that time you’re also getting thrown around and humiliating yourself in every randori, which doesn’t help.

But I’ve realized that most of these frustrations are because of a lack of structure and goals in judo training. It’s tough because you don’t even know what you’re looking for. It just feels like an ocean of things to learn ahead of you, but feeling doomed to stay in the shallow waters for years, unable to move forward. After a while you begin to resent the very ocean you were so excited to cross.

So here’s what I’m doing to get *consistently better* in Judo, in a way that I can actually feel the progress, see where I’m going, and get excited to show up everyday.

Making a chart of the basics

Two basic things have to come together for a nice, clean throw to happen in Judo. Let’s list them:

  1. Getting the opponent off balanced (kuzushi)
  2. Being in a position where you can complete the throw

But to make these happen, a lot of other things need to work together:

  • Having the right posture and stance, so you can move into position
  • Pulling or pushing your opponent in a way that you can make them off-balanced
  • Having the right grips on the opponent to control their posture and center of gravity
  • Finding or creating the right timing and space to enter into position
  • Etc

All these aspects must be learned and improved in training, and practiced in randori. Each of these yields a demonstrable, measurable improvement in your randori!

The basics are hard, but they can be learned if you know them. Judo is like a jigsaw puzzle that has to be put together.

Presenting the basics in a more structured way would benefit the struggling beginner. But if the dojo/instructor doesn’t do it, just make your own plan!

My focus right now

As I approach my 3rd kyu grade, the pieces are starting to make sense in my brain. I’ve started to identify my own areas of improvement — there are so many, as I described above — and am working on them one by one.

My most recent breakthroughs:

  1. Relax and breathe through your nose. You can’t learn anything from a randori session if you aren’t using your head to read and fully feel the situation instead of single-mindedly attacking or doing survival defense. I sometimes just “chill” in randori and allow the person to throw me around, just to squeeze the fear out. Getting better at ukemi makes you better at judo.
  2. Get the right grip for the right throw, and learn to choose the right throw based on the opponent’s body type and gi’s thickness. I can’t easily do a seoi nage is their lapel is too thick and too tight to fold, AND the guy is shorter than me. I have to grab them differently. You can’t make this decision in real time unless you follow #1.
  3. Hanging onto your opponent transfers your weight on them. Makes your feet much lighter.
    If you’re light and physically weak, learn to project your entire body weight through your hands. They should feel like a 30-40kg dumbbell just got dropped on them or (taken off their hands) in unpredictable rapid succession every time I move.
  4. Every judo technique needs a certain “space” that, should you create and enter it, hands you a beautiful throw. If you enter a throw without creating the space first, you’ll get repelled back or countered. I’m starting to get a great sense of what this space is like for the seoi-nage the more I practice it (the opponent needs to be on their toes or bent over a certain amount, the hikite needs to be high enough, and I need to be at a certain distance), and it really helps a lot.
    Instead of saying, “I didn’t have kuzushi” when I fail at a throw, saying “I didn’t create the right space” is much more actionable and useful feedback — kuzushi is so broad and hard to grasp at my level that I need a proxy for it.
  5. When you attack, attack with the intent and EXPECTATION to throw the opponent for ippon. Don’t do half-hearted attacks — they drain energy and don’t teach you anything.
  6. Mae-mawari ukemi. I want to do it as beautifully and painlessly as some of the senseis.

Judo feels more thrilling and exciting than ever, as if there isn’t enough time in the world to practice!

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