Where Does the Emphasis on Sport Science Begin to Strangle Judo?

danny williams judo

We at Camberley Judo Club have been very fortunate to have Danny Pecorelli of Exclusive Hotels in our corner for well over a decade. England Rugby fans will know Pennyhill Park Hotel, an Exclusive Hotel, as the training centre for the RFU. I’ve been extremely lucky to have had Danny’s support, part of that support being free membership of the fantastic spa and gym at Pennyhill. For a good while I was living in the renovated porta-cabin accommodation block at the Judo club and would travel the half mile to ‘the other end of the spectrum’ to do a training or recovery session in complete luxury!

During my time studying coaching, at Anglia Ruskin University, Rugby was used countless times as the shining example of a sport that had led the way with sports science over the last 25 years. In my time down at Pennyhill park it has been a fascinating opportunity to observe some of what is implemented with the England Rugby team, and to speak to the lads themselves about it. 

Before I continue I’d like to say that this is not at all a ‘pop’ at sports science; more me attempting to gather a firmer grasp of my own relationship with it. A lot of what I’m discussing are things that have been knocking around my head for a long time, I’m very much open to debate or, even complete correction. I’d like to see this post as more as ‘asking questions’ than anything else. 

Before I moved to Camberley to train full time in 2009 I was doing Judo 3-4 nights a week. My friend, Nick Fraser, is a strength and conditioning coach and had helped me with my S&C for 9 months or so up until I made the switch down to Surrey. Until I began to work with Nick I’d had no help with my gym sessions. Most of what I’d do from a physical training standpoint from the ages of 11-18 would be done off the back of my own research; reading and talking to Judo coaches or people that looked like they knew what they were doing in my local gym. I was probably doing 4-5 strength and conditioning sessions per week at that point. For me, because of where I was location wise (Shrewsbury), I didn’t have access to high level Judo every single day so actually, the larger portion of my training was in the gym as opposed to mat based. I found the sports science side of things fascinating and actually pretty simple. If I do these things, if I apply the presented knowledge as well as I can I will get better. I enjoyed seeing those gains which again helped cement the process even more so. 

I must admit though that at times I struggled to break out of that mould when beginning full time training, at times thinking more about the gym work, the diet, the 0.5-1 percent gains as opposed to the mat work, the primary bloody thing I’m doing. I got stuck into everything but can now see where it would have been more beneficial to put the greater emphasis, on the actual Judo. I’ve also been my own worse enemy on plenty of occasions, overtraining and thinking more is the answer. I do think though that there can be a cultural element to it. I’ve said something similar before about British people doing a Japanese sport, both cultures historically favouring ‘hard work’ over everything else, even at times when working harder is probably not the answer. 

There has always been a strong strength and conditioning emphasis in the British Judo world, which, of course, there needs to be. Aspiring high level Judo players need to be fit and strong, there is no way around that. I feel I’m talking about the final 5 percent of things. I remember a British coach, not my coach but someone that I have a lot of respect for, telling me something similar, that he wished he’d come to that conclusion earlier in his career. If I remember rightly he said something like, “There was very rarely a clear priority, it was just work on everything all the time. Which of course you have to do to some degree but when it got to a point, say after a tournament where you’d need an easier week it would always be the Judo that got dropped first. We could never miss a run. It got to the point where it became like that in my own head, I could never miss a run or a gym session.” 

It’s easy as an older athlete to alter things or try something new and, after feeling good, thinking that that change is an excellent way to go about things. It may be great for that person but, as an older individual, they already have an incredible amount of training behind them; they are what strength and conditioning coaches call a ‘trained person.’ 

I called it a day on competing at -73kg in September 2019 and for me it has been a really enjoyable experimental 15 months. For the first 6 months of that period Judo was still running; I was doing 2-3 randori sessions per week and strength training 2 times per week. I was largely able to structure things so that I would have at least 36 hours between lifting weights and being on the mat. I’ve always found that strength training affects my co-ordination on the mat; obviously sometimes this is just how it has to be when training full time, particularly at a younger age, if we want to get the required sessions in. Anyway, I felt great on the mat as I was able to get around 48 hours in between most lifting and randori sessions, and strength scores steadily progressed each week too. I actually felt I improved more technically in that 6 months than any other period of the same length in my entire career. Surprisingly though, I found that by not prioritising the strength work I began to PB on most lifts each week. Obviously no longer trying to live on a controlled diet paid a fair part of that but I found that after an initial bounce my weight settled only a couple of kilograms more than what I could walk around at when competing at -73kg. It was nice seeing those scores go up while not being much heavier than before. In fact it was just nice seeing them go up at all, for those last few years at -73kg I would regularly hit plateaus in the physical training side of things.

This reminded me of a period a few years ago where we were, in the physical training, prioritising fitness over strength for a while. We did 2 shorter strength sessions per week and similarly my strength actually increased more than it did when we were doing 3-4 weight sessions a week in a strength phase of training. I spoke to our head strength and conditioning coach, Ben Rosenblatt, in a conversation that has really stuck with me. Ben said that Judo itself is a resistance sport, as soon as we are gripped up there is always a varying level of resistance through the body. I’d never viewed it like that before. There are those old lines that have been spoken in most dojos across the country at some point or another, alluding to being specifically conditioned to the sport, “there’s being fit then there’s being Judo fit, there’s being strong but being Judo strong.” I.e, you can do all the fitness and strength training that you can do but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not going to feel great in randori, the main way to improve that one is randori! That conversation with Ben then helped me to see though that, in a certain way, doing hard randori is in itself, on the body, akin to doing a strength and, a conditioning session at the same time.

So, from September 2019 to the first covid-19 lockdown I lifted twice a week. I kept those sessions simple, a push session and a pull session. I would lift on a Sunday and on a Thursday. That meant in theory for 2 of the 3 randori sessions per week I would be near enough fully recovered from the strength training. I saw it as a bit of an experiment to see what was the minimum I could get away with doing, which was difficult as my natural want has always been more. As a training split I decided to ONLY train each lift direction once per week so for example squat (lower body push) and bench press (upper body push) on Sunday, deadlift (lower body pull) and bench pull (upper body pull) on Thursdays. Normally each lifting direction would be trained twice per week, normally the primary exercise then with some secondary single limb exercises on the next session; so, to use the example we are currently employing I’d add, say, single leg squat and dumbbell bench press also on a Thursday. I wanted to try what I’d had in mind, seeing as my full body would be being trained on Judo sessions, what would happen to my strength. My scores improved on every lift, every week, for 26 out of 28 weeks. I was chuffed.

I did no conditioning work, aside from Judo, for nearly 15 months. I’ve always found that my fitness returns pretty quickly, something I’d previously experienced after strength blocks or injury lay offs. I’m more of a natural ‘conditioner’ as opposed to strength athlete. November 2020 I began to do the conditioning with the Camberley full time players. We would use an app to record distance and timed interval running then post in a whatsapp group. Within a few weeks I was getting very close to similar times that I would get at my fittest at -73kg. Again I was very happy with that and, somewhat pleasantly surprised.

For me, almost by default, I found that structuring the strength and conditioning around the randori sessions, clearly making the S&C secondary in importance, so that I could be as fresh as possible for randori not only improved my randori, but also my strength training. Yes, some could say that the analysis of that process and affirming the altering of things is sports science itself in action; yes, they would be right. Again though, this is me discussing MY OWN relationship with it. For that process to happen I had to be at a point in my own head where I just wanted to clearly focus on the Judo training and was willing to accept any drops in physical performance in which to do so.

Regards to the conditioning I have also confirmed to myself that I may only need to really press hard with it in the run up to events, there can probably be a level of maintenance with it. From a physical standpoint I felt ready to compete just before Christmas. I’m really looking forward to getting back on the mat, whenever we can, and cracking on with the randori and technical work, like I was before covid kicked off. I feel as a more experienced Judo player I’m still getting better but, obviously, the only real tester for that is competition. What goes on in training and what goes on in tournament are 2 different things entirely. You can have the best ideas and training systems but if your formula doesn’t result in winning then it isn’t a winning formula! If the domestic events do start again this year and it’s obvious after a time that I’ll not threaten nationally or to some international level than I’ll rethink what I’m doing. I have not been of a World Championship medallist level in my career but I do have some benchmarks of what level of international competition I could potentially compete at from previous results. I’ll always do and be involved with Judo but unless there is some clear progression towards those results then I’ll not continue with the same volume of training and, very probably cease trying to compete internationally. I’m just not willing to make the same amount of sacrifices that I was as a younger person. With being one of British Judo’s self funding athletes too it is not only the money not earned by not working a full time job in order to train but also having to find funds for all tournaments and training camps. Motivation is as important as anything else, particularly at a maturer (sounded better than ‘older’) athlete. I’d have to see some results or realistically I’ll want to get full time work.  

To finish close to where I started; I am not a big rugby fan, only really paying some attention to major international matches or events. I was training regularly at Pennyhill Park up to and during the 2015 World Cup where England had an early exit from the tournament. It was interesting in the period after seeing the switch over to Eddie Jones and talking to a few of the lads about some of the changes he was making. It was pretty obvious that Jones was much more primarily driven to what went on on the training pitch; yes the gym work and the supplementary training still went on but there seemed to be less emphasis and pressure on it, from the manager. He just let the support staff and players get on with it. That was a great lesson for me and a real affirmer. I’ve seen and worked with great coaches that get the best out of their players and, I’ve also seen and been around coaches that are not so great, that regularly don’t get the best out of the people they work with. One trait that seems to nearly always accompany the latter is micromanaging, strangling things to a point where it isn’t really enjoyable for anyone. Great coaches seem to master the mix of where to demand excellence from their athletes but, also to give them the space and freedom to relax, grow, enjoy themselves and, develop as individuals. 

Again, I’m no Rugby knowledge ace but from my studies at university and time at Pennyhill Park the picture the last 30 years of English Rugby paints for me is, again, something circular. Clive Woodward, someone else who has been good to Camberley Judo Club, helped revolutionise and modernise rugby by, with his own excellent rugby knowledge, pressing the sport science side of things. Woodward took a group of quality, raw, tough, old school individuals and put them through the sports science mill, with not only legendary results but with a huge cultural change within the sport itself. To me it appears that the approach to rugby training became different from around this time. By the time the 2015 World Cup came around we had players that probably know no different, their only experience of rugby being one with a huge sports science element and emphasis in it. It seems to me that Eddie Jones has helped to release that strangling grip somewhat slightly and is allowing the team to relax enough to play at their best, to enjoy it more. I think sports science is great and has done an immense amount of good but perhaps, in some scenarios, a certain amount of unlearning could be beneficial. To reiterate I am absolutely happy to be corrected on any of the above, particularly what I have discussed regarding rugby; that is my view of it from a distance, from someone involved in sport but with zero involvement or close connections in rugby. 

“A happy fighter is a dangerous fighter,” Mike Tyson said, in my experience I’ve found that to be very true. I have been very guilty of focusing too heavily, in my own mind, on the small inch gains to be made by sports science than the main bulk of the thing that I’m doing; for me it is a large contributing factor to why I didn’t develop technically enough in my more formative years or as a young senior. I’ve found that when I looked too hard at all those tiny gains I stopped enjoying it, I didn’t perform at my best. For moving forwards with my own training the things that I can easily make automated; eating well, training diary, keeping everything required in my training bag to make decisions easier etc I’ll persist with, anything that isn’t absolutely necessary that I find a real chore though, I’ll likely discard it. 

Sports science is a good thing and a level of it is vital to building competitive Judo players, from what I’ve experienced and seen though it is peoples (players and/or coaches) relationships with it that can make it become a problem. I have to remember that all the supplementary training, nutrition etc are there to make me A BETTER JUDO PLAYER, if I don’t monitor and navigate that relationship correctly then sports science can do the opposite of its intended purpose. 

For me that is also another reason why I feel coaches of senior international players need to have been a full time athlete themselves for a good number of years, for not only the in-depth knowledge of the sport, the understanding of the daily financial and training effort sacrifices players have to make, they need to understand the emphasis that sports science requires, or sometimes doesn’t require, on the training of Judo athletes. As much as I am enjoying this final period of my competitive career I am also seeing it as more very important learning for if I, if ever of the level, become a full time coach to national and international level juniors and seniors.

Something else that my old friend, Nick Fraser, told me a long time ago that has really stuck with me, “when you can implement new school methods with old school mentalities then you will have a recipe for success.”

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