Kids Judo: Play or Practise?

danny williams judo

A short series that I really enjoyed on Netflix recently was The Playbook: A Coaches Rules for Life. There are five 30 minute episodes in which a well respected coach from different sports discuss their own journeys, coaching philosophies, techniques and rules for success. Every episode has at least one key take away, well worth 2.5 hours of my life. Something that really stood out for me was what Doc Rivers said about his early life in basketball, “I never saw it as ‘practise,’ I just saw it as ‘playing basketball.’”

That sentence encapsulates a lot for me, some of which I’ll now attempt to discuss and make sense of as best as possible. Personally I think I stopped playing Judo from the ages of 7-23. After my first taste of club competition (I got absolutely leathered by a couple of girls) I desperately wanted to win. It took me a long time to even be able to win a contest or two at county or regional level, although I hadn’t tasted winning, I wanted it. What that did to a fair degree though, was to hinder my technical development; I had a bit of success with drop seoi-nage (shoulder throw) and for a fair amount of time that was all I really focused on. My mum was always into running and fitness training and she encouraged me to run from an early age so, with opponents that were probably a little bit better than me I could outwork and beat a fair number of them; not with the best people in the weight though, I grew up in the Midlands and at the yearly Midlands trials the top handful of the lads in the weight could beat me relatively comfortably. Literally as soon as I had my first bit of tournament experience though I never saw it as ‘playing Judo,’ it was ‘training.’

After the London 2012 Olympics it was obvious that I’d have to get better technically. The London Games were a great experience for me, I got there through home nation qualification, which put simply was just by being British number one, we didn’t have to go through the intense and extremely difficult international qualification procedure that everyone else had to. The -73kg category I was in did have some strong lads in it in the country but, at the time, didn’t have any world class players, like Euan Burton in the -81kg division, the next weight category up. The -73kg spot was a bit more open for the taking. As much as I wasn’t expected to medal at London and, being able to analyse my own abilities then more neutrally now, I just simply wasn’t good enough to medal, I still found losing devastating, Judo and the Olympics were virtually all I’d thought about and pursued since watching Atlanta 1996. Losing at the London Olympics was painful enough for me to step back and take a good hard look at what I was doing and how I went about things. Obviously my coach played a very large part in this process. Luke said that I should ‘play Judo’ more as opposed to just scrapping all the time. Obviously, as it was also pointed out to me, there needs to be a bit of both; some players play too much and struggle under the intensity of contest, both ‘playing’ and ‘fighting’ Judo are required from a training perspective. Over 8 years on and I haven’t won a major medal but I am proud of the improvements I feel I have made with regards to improved technique, something that has definitely aided, and been aided by, my coaching.

I lead the kids and recreational senior sections at Camberley Judo Club. Particularly with the kids, I try to install as strong of a base as possible. Competitive results at a young age are not really important to me, like I’ve said before I’d much rather keep as many of them as possible interested in Judo for the long term and, to eventually get them into the senior ranks where the results really matter. Obviously I love it when the kids do win, we always encourage winning; I think finding a balance with it is important. Not that we have but I’d say if we did no tournaments at all many would never discover the want to compete or, leave the club to go elsewhere. Most kids I find naturally just want to win anyway. Installing an early desire can be very important but, at the same time, can also come later. An old rival of mine, Patrick Dawson, I believe didn’t even start Judo until his mid to late teens (hope I’ve remembered that right Pat) and became a very strong player beating a number of the best fighters in the world, Olympic Champion Mansur Isaev and World and European Champion Sagi Muki to name a couple. Patrick basically had no cadet (-17 years) career at all and yet became one of the best players on the British Senior Squad. Getting all that tournament experience in young can stand players in good stead long term but at the same time it isn’t the be all and end all. 

Anyway, a good while back I built a rolling yearly plan for all the classes that I run at Camberley. Particularly with the kids, I asked myself what would I want a player to be able to do the day they move onto the older sections of the club. I then worked backwards from there to build a 12 month structure that would, in theory at least, deliver the best base to the young players for building from later on down the line that I could. It’s a loose plan that I can still alter when/if needed. I probably stick to it 70-80 percent of the time, every now and again throwing in some impromptu sessions. It works well for me too as I seldom have to overly think about the sessions beforehand, pull up the plan 5 minutes before the classes and away we go.

I read Benjamin Hardy’s powerful Willpower Doesn’t Work a couple of years back, it was my first  introduction into organisational psychology. The book guides the reader into building/getting into an environment that gives them the best opportunity to enjoy their lives and to achieve their goals. So much of the book made sense to me and I could make many obvious correlations with Judo from it. For example, I’m sure we all know that if a person moves to the best club, with the best coach and training partners they will be better, they will get closer to their goals. Pretty simple. That’s what I wanted to firmly ensure I was working towards with the kids section. Camberley has good permanent facilities, a history of strong coaching on all levels and, active successful national and international senior players so the kids can clearly observe the full process up to Olympic level; all very strong elements of the full environment of the club. I really wanted to make sure my side of things was on point. I wanted to create something, exposure to an environment, to give the kids the best opportunity I could to build a good base. All the session plans were just another piece of that environment, ensuring that the best and applicable technical content that I can provide them is there. I’ve always been aware what Luke told me a long time ago, that getting the right mix is important with kids; it’s all well and good having the theory of delivering loads of technical content to prepare them but they have to still really enjoy it, and they enjoy randori most of all. 

We have, and have always had, an abundance of excellent clubs and club coaches across the country. I have been fortunate to have been through a number of strong clubs in my time. For me, probably the most attractive quality that all those places possess is the passion of the coach on the mat. All the coaches I have learned under fiercely love Judo, they would all do randori with us, even when we were kids. Their passion was obvious, it was infectious, it created an environment full of people that learned to love the sport also. For me that is absolutely the most important thing to try and install in the youngsters, a passion for Judo. We can do all the technical, physical, tactical preparation we want with them but they need that love for it if we want them to get through the tough times ahead, because there will be plenty. It’s a tough game. If they don’t love it they will quit. The fact must be faced that nearly all of them will finish Judo before they hit the senior ranks, the objective is how do we make that small percentage of them that will stay on a little bit bigger.

When I first read Willpower Doesn’t Work and began to think about what changes I could make to improve on what I was doing with the kids classes, my time in Georgia sprung to mind. The main thing that really stuck out for me out there was how much everyone loved Judo, and wrestling. You’d go through the streets and people would be arm dragging each other and having playful wrestles. Drive around Tiblisi and you’ll see very few football pitches, but you see plenty of kids out on the grass casually grappling. Before competing at the world cup event there in 2012 we did some training at the national dojo. We were there early and there was a kids class going on. It was randori and they were lamping each other! It was awesome to see children of 8, 9,10 showing really senior Judo, to a degree it was like watching the Georgian seniors just shrunk down to a third of the size! The thing that stood out for me the most was how much laughing was going on, they were all clearly loving it; teasing each other when they’d get caught and scoring each others throws. It took me ten minutes or so to realise that there wasn’t really much of a structure to what was going on, the coach was giving advice from the side but there were no rounds of randori, the kids seemed to just change partners and get a drink whenever they wanted. They’d just turned up to do some Judo.

British kids and culture and Georgian kids and culture are very different. As impressive as it was to see the technical development of those young players it really was the enjoyment that shone through for me. Judo is the national sport in Georgia, so like football here, the more people that partake in it further attracts others. That is a law of the environment. If you live in Manchester and all your mates play football and support Manchester United then it’s a very, very strong chance you’ll do the same. We are a product of our environment. If we look at British Judo’s selections for the upcoming Tel Aviv Grand Slam 3 of the 4 male representatives, Eric Ham, Stuart McWatt and Max Stewart are all children of people who run successful and competitive Judo clubs. To a degree they have become products of the environment they grew up in. That involvement with and love of the sport being organically passed down to them from their committed parents; never mind all the knowledgeable conversations/tips about the sport at home too. I first began to see that when I learned Olympic, World and European medallist Ugo Legrand’s father was coach of the regional centre in the part of France they were from; the techniques Legrand was pulling off at 18 were incredible. It makes sense, he was around high level and highly knowledgeable Judo people everyday of his life. Kosei Inoue’s father was a Judo player too, who’s favourite throw was uchi-mata. Obviously the will has to be there from the individual but if is then they definitely have an environmental advantage over most others. Obviously most Judo people don’t have a Judo coach as a parent and many still get to the very highest levels. It just made me think about what elements of that I could take away for the sessions I lead. How do I get the kids to enjoy and love the sport? I have to make it obvious that I love and am passionate about it, I need to do randori with them. Just like the best way for a parent to not have their child smoke; not to smoke themselves! No, I’m not a parent so agreed, easy for me to say! I try to make sure I can get the best of my own technical knowledge across to them consistently with the lesson planning but the big one, getting them to love it, is how I am when I’m on the mat with them. I loved both John Buchanan’s and Euan Burton’s episodes on the More Than a Fighter podcasts, both men discussed the same kids coach that they shared, Peter Gardiner, and how Peter injected a passion and desire for Judo into them both. 

Nothing I’ve discussed here is my own. Nothing I do with the kids is original, all learned, copied and shown to me by the coaches that I’ve been lucky to have had since I started Judo in 1994. Many of those coaches of players I used to fight as a kid are still knocking around on the domestic circuit, giving up their weeknights and weekends for decades on end, many, for their entire lives. Again, their commitment and passion go hand in hand, it’s obvious then why they consistently churn out medal winning kids and, most importantly, have a huge contribution in many of the players that go on to the senior national team. That passion, their own and that they pass on for Judo underlying all of it.   

That is a long way to get to the answer that I want to encourage the kids that I coach to ‘play’ Judo and, somewhat paradoxically, I think that may have many of them wanting to play a bit harder later on down the line.

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danny williams judo