Defining what is “Beautiful Judo”

To the uninitiated, Judo is an odd combat sport where two opponents push and pull each other by their jackets. They seem to try to off-balance each other one minute, then there’s action on the floor, and then they’re up again.

To the slightly more initiated, Judo is just plain kamikaze action where you’re trying to get a grip and throw your opponent while at the same time trying to deny them of their grip on you.

The sport’s steep learning curve (the fact that it takes a year or two to get a basic level of competence in just one throw) doesn’t help to address this lack of understanding.

When you’ve been doing it for a while, the ultimate compliment anyone (here in the UK anyway) will tell you is “Mate, you have Beautiful Judo”.

It took me years to recognize the beauty that’s hidden in plain sight. But the question remains: “What is Beautiful Judo?”

If we touch on the Zen mindset, that which does not work is not true. Trevor Leggett in his book Dragon Mask brings this up as well. Beautiful Judo is Judo that works. It’s also efficient (when taking into account the fundamental Judo principal of Seryoku Zenyo or Minimum effort/Maximum efficiency).

In the club setting

How does this play out in actual Judo practice? It comes when a seasoned player practices. Someone who holds many years of experience, when the set movements of their chosen throws are ingrained in them.

I noticed this when I was up against a chap who’d been training for the past 15 years. From the moment of gripping I felt a relaxed opponent; no jerkiness, no awkwardness. There was a natural movement being exhibited which, try as I might, I couldn’t unsettle… and then there was a moment of tightness where I was launched….and landed on the floor. It happened again and again, a feeling of futility overwhelmed me. Every movement I consciously made was met with a ready answer (which led to my being launched), OR I was being forcibly swayed in a particular direction which led me to assuming a vulnerable position.

Despite my being thrown repeatedly (and who likes being thrown?) I found myself both fascinated by it and enjoying it. I was enjoying it because a) the technique was so expertly executed that I could breakfall easily and b) I was exposed to a Judo that I rarely felt. A feeling of excellence, of beautiful movement that embodied the sport completely.

Classical vs wrestling-style Judo

I have no doubt that wrestling has a similar, higher standard of play. When I get exposed to wrestling it in a BJJ setting I find it overwhelming, un-fluid and just generally grunt-like.

Some countries with a rich grappling history have introduced a more traditional wrestling approach to the techniques you see in elite level competition. I notice players from eastern Europe represent this style, and the tell-tale indicators are their preferred power (or over-handed) grips. These are by no means wrong, but they do deviate slightly from the classical judo sleeve/lapel grip.

I personally veer away from this when I practice mostly because I feel excessive power utilisation defeats the point of ‘beautiful judo’. I also think if you’re having to rely on strength, particularly as an older player, there’s both a limited life-span to it and a higher risk of injury.


There’s a fascinating and highly-referenced study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which talks about the concept of Flow. A crude summary of it is this:

Flow is an optimal psychological state that people experience when engaged in an activity that is both appropriately challenging to one’s skill level, often resulting in immersion and concentrated focus on a task. This can result in deep learning and high levels of personal and work satisfaction.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This is the ultimate point where you’re completely immersed in the activity you’re engaged in. It’s a state that is not just prevalent in high level athletic activity but in any activity that we have a level of interest in.

It’s what we should strive for, if we want to get better at something. It’s also what we get to, when we’re better at it. There’s a recursive loop there, as long as we remain in the game (i.e. keep turning up to classes, keep paying attention).

Effortless simplicity

Like any sport, you train your body to move efficiently in a particular manner. Over time you recognize the techniques that best work for you. You also recognize which techniques work for the various body type you go up against.

This accumulated sport-specific knowledge or Judo IQ (to understand where people are moving, and how to move them where you want them) changes you.

Your personal philosophy changes: recognizing your ability to physically shift someone effectively will almost certainly provide you with greater confidence in possibly violent confrontations.

Your body changes: your musculature adapts to the repetitive movements you’ve invested to achieve better throws.

In summary

We all have our goals in Judo; perhaps it’s to win that competition, get that next belt or whatever. However, it’s one thing to muscle through our chosen techniques. It’s really something else to get to that point where our technique is an extension of our self. When we get to the stage where our Judo movements are getting more and more a part of who we are, this is true greatness and beauty. It’s not just being able to do them, but to achieve them in difficult environments (high-stress competition or grading, up against unwilling partners who want to throw you) this is the real meaning of Beautiful Judo.

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