January 26, 2018

Mutual Learning in Judo

Judo is all about mutual learning. There is a misunderstanding that it is an individual activity, but it most certainly is not. One of the many benefits of joining a judo club is the ability it gives for interaction with other human beings.

It is an understandable mistake to think that it is all about the self. I watch people of all grades trying to perform randori, when they are actually engaged in some kind of shiai: they haven’t understood the mutual benefit aspect of Kano’s Kodokan Judo. Neither, actually, have they understood that by engaging properly and respectfully in randori they will improve their own shiai.

I was once at a training session with a high-graded French sensei, who asked the class to engage in randori. He stopped the session in well under a minute because, as he pointed out, nobody was engaged in randori, rather they were all intent on powerfully stopping their partners from attempting judo.

Randori is a learning process that is not part of Kodokan Judo by accident. It is a way of stress testing both techniques and individuals. Absent in many forms of jujutsu and karate it is one of the keystones of judo. But it can take many years to understand the fullness of the activity, especially in the wrong environment.  In randori we learn to work with somebody else to probe our own strengths and weaknesses. That cannot be achieved if we enter the activity with the sole purpose of ‘not losing’ or indeed ‘winning.’  Part of randori is having the spirit to try something you are not sure of, learning why something doesn’t work and applying the scientific attitude that failure, if that is the term you wish to employ, is not a negative aspect of our activity, merely a confirmation that we are doing something wrong: which gives us the opportunity to put it right. That is why it is so different to shiai – it not even close to do-or-die.

For all that to take place requires collaboration. Two people need to be in the learning process at the same time.  It is in acknowledgement of this that we rei to each other before we start to practice: it is a confirmation that we are about to work in tandem, for mutual benefit.  It is also why, many years ago I refused to train with a particular member of the GB national squad, who was merely using me, an injured 1st kyu at the time, without any consideration of what I might get out of our collaboration. Specifically his method was dangerous to somebody who was nowhere near his level of physical competence.

The Olympic hopeful’s attitude was/is not rare. In my days as a sport journalist I watched an Olympic competitor train before conducting an interview with him. He brazenly suggested that he never trains with anybody unless he got something out of in terms of his own march toward Olympic or World gold.

This lack of understanding of Kano’s concept of mutual learning can be seen in many dojos and indeed in many walks of life. In its raw, basic form it is very ugly. It defies to concept of community, it defies the concept of compassion for others. It short it defies, or at least tries to redefine humanity.

Yet in the context of judo, which is basically a form of combat, it is not easy to move from the competitive to the collaborative. It takes a desire to learn, rather than merely to win.  So we have to go back to the scientific method, working out what doesn’t work. We also need to test our skills against varying partners, those bigger, smaller, faster, slower, offensive, defensive, more and less skilled than us.

As an interesting and relevant aside to this it is worth pointing out that any military or police training is based on the same concept of collaboration. Controlled aggression is taught: there is no room for competitiveness that can result in injuries.

Acceptance of this mutual aspect of training will, in the long term lead an individual to become a better, more rounded citizen, or if not at least a more rounded judo exponent. Recently I visited one of my old clubs, where I supervised a randori session. It pleased me that everybody was engaged in just that, rather than an ego-driven quasi-shiai exercise. What was highly noticeable was the attitude of the senior participant, a Japan-trained 2nd Dan who could, I know, easily have spent the entire time throwing his training partners around. Instead he moved gracefully around the mat, attempting techniques that he was not overly familiar with, accepting that it may result in a kyu-grade getting the opportunity to throw him.

I have heard many class leaders say that they want to see ‘light randori,’ a phrase I have even used myself. But the truth is that the word ‘light’ should be superfluous.  Randori is just that: a mutually beneficial attempt by two people at practising the art of judo.

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