A Sensei's Evolution

By Joshua Hagen

As a coach, I am constantly driven by Kano Sensei’s axiom of seiryoku-zenyo, or “maximum efficiency”, which leads me to continually question how I am coaching. I feel like I never get enough time with my athletes on the mats, so I have to get the most out of the time when they are there, which in turn has motivated me to make many changes to my program over time.  I will be the first to admit that some changes were more successful than others. Where a change has been unsuccessful, I let it go. What I want to share here are some examples of successes and failures in what I have tried over the years in an attempt to produce quality judo with maximum efficiency.  I would love to hear what of other people have tried, or better still, different methods they have dabbled in on both sides of the ledger.

Many years ago, while I was still an athlete at the National Training Centre in Montreal, , I had a discussion with my friend Frazer Will, OLY (Beijing Olympics, 7th place at 60kg).  We were talking about tournament preparation, and he said he believes that even the colour of the mats that you train on may play a factor in how you perform in tournament. He was essentially saying that if you were to train on the same colour of mats at the club as you would see in an IJF event, it could help calm your nerves, if only on a subconscious level.

I thought about what Frazer said again when I started coaching, and realized that if what he said were true, there were likely many other, larger factors that absolutely must be true but that remain overlooked.  For example, the average dojo, mine included, has the majority of their competitive practices on week nights, at approximately 7-9pm. The model makes perfect sense, in terms of time-management: you have your class for young children first, often followed by an intermediate class, and it then follows that your high performance or adult class would come last.  What effect does this have on athletes’ outcomes at tournament?  Well, it means that both physiologically as well as mentally we have been preparing our athletes for years to be at their best to compete on, say, a Wednesday night at 7pm.  The obvious issue with this training model being that judo tournaments always occur on weekends.  

What to do? Kids are in school, people have jobs- to have training everyday at 9-11am is unrealistic.  My solution is to have one class a week in the morning on Saturdays.  From 9:30-10am is warm up, often followed by the most randori-intensive training of the entire week.  Not only do we do more randori than during any weeknight training, but we also focus on ensuring that we use transition into newaza when space allows.  As we get closer to major events, we often give more breaks of longer lengths between rounds to ensure a higher intensity, rather than encouraging the propensity to coast.  This is something that I plan on continuing into the foreseeable future, because if the kids feel like every Saturday has a tournament-like atmosphere, then tournaments should feel more like every other Saturday.

The next change I made originated from a conversation with the the Head Coach of Canada and former European Champion, Michel Almeida, wherein we talked about what a match is really made up of.  A judo match is not truly a 4 minute long match.  It is more accurately ten to twelve 20-25 second exchanges, with a break.  It is closer to a sprint circuit than a 10km race.  The idea to be gained from this was to run the randori in exactly that way.  You set the timer to go off for twelve 20-second rounds with a 5-second break in between, all with the same opponent, and this would account for one round of randori.  This model is more apt to mimic a real tournament match, and may also serve to increase the intensity of each round, since athletes tend to want to win each exchange, as the rounds feel more like mini matches. Although I think this idea is very intriguing in concept, still I believe it led to too many unnatural breaks in the action, and randori already naturally has these little breaks, much like a competition does. I consider this method to have failed, and no longer use it.

The way that we do newaza in my club is quite unique compared to how many dojos practice newaza, and it is one practice that I continue to use, although I no longer use it exclusively.  I have never liked knee wrestling- (by knee wrestling, I mean when the athletes begin a round on their knees, facing each other) not when I was an athlete, and still today it makes no sense to me as a coach, as we never see this position naturally occur in a contest.  What I like to do instead is six 30-second newaza rounds, which makes up a single round, before changing partners.  

In the first round, one of the partners starts in guard. In round two there is a switch to the other player in guard.  In round 3, one partner starts in the turtle position, and in round 4 we have the other player start in turtle.  Finally, in round 5 we have one player begin in half guard and we switch who is in half guard in round 6.  By limiting the time to 30 seconds, and starting in these “real life” scenarios, the athletes have to be efficient in their attacks.  My students’  level of intensity in newaza is consistently much higher using this approach, as sometimes I find the newaza phase can get a little more chatty and lethargic in practise than tachi waza tends to do.  My logic is this: If an athlete can’t make significant progress in newaza in a 30 second period,  how can they ever believe they will catch someone in tournament?  

I recently added a more classic solid 4-minute round back into my program about once per week, which naturally makes for a slower round, in order to encourage the athletes’ creativity somewhat.

I’m encouraged to see that my club’s newaza is improving dramatically with these modifications to our training program, and I’m keeping my mind open to more innovative and unproven methods to trial in my dojo with seiryoku-zenyo of course always in mind.


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1 comment

Chris Dubé

I have no issue with the training, I do find the 30 seconds a bit short on the ground but completely agree with not doing knee fights. Interesting thought I came across this weekend is that you like many people in Canada when referring to some of the stand up fighting are using the wrong wording. We often call in Randori but its not, it is Shia as it is higher intensity and competitive in nature whereas true Randori is a bit slower paced and based on sharing each side should throw, each side should accept some of the opponents attacks and not fight defensively to not be thrown. Randori has come to mean more of competition fighting which it was not originally. Mutual welfare and benefit and all that. Not a condemnation just a thinking process that teaching students what the differences are can lead to better training and building of confidence.

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