The inevitable plateaus in Judo development

Recently I entered the Kent International Judo competition here in the UK. It was a hot day, a busy competition and I came in with the worst possible mindset. What followed was a mediocre event for me which led to some rethinking and much needed soul searching. Allow me to elaborate..

The mindset before the day

It had been weighing on my mind that much of my judo was very power-centric. It involved a lot of grit, toughness and a flagrant expenditure of cardio to impose my will (and eventually my throws) on my opponent. I would get an o uchi here, a sumi gaeshi there and if I was beating my opponent up for long enough, a koshi guruma at their point of exhaustion. If all else failed I’d resort to newaza which I have a respectable amount of proficiency and confidence in.

This worked for me – it really did! But things changed for me:

  • Earlier in the year, when executing a koshi guruma a club partner hit me with a tani otoshi which took my knee out. While nothing broke, I was limping for days and 6 months on I still have an oddness in that knee. So koshi gurumas became a very rare option for me purely from the body preservation factor – I’d like to avoid knee surgery if I can.
  • I took issue with winning Judo competitions without actually throwing someone. I didn’t want to win with newaza, I wanted an elaborate throw. Ashiwaza would be even nicer!
  • My successes with sumi gaeshis of late just didn’t really impress me enough – I wanted a harai goshi or similar.
  • Lastly, in the last two competitions I came across the same chap who simply dispensed with me in less than one minute. Whether it be a seioi nage, a deashi barai or a sumi gaeshi he had the timing and technical proficiency to launch me and end the fight quickly. I’d never faced this level of technical proficiency at my level in competition previously.

The current state of my Judo

Recently I told a club mate in the changing rooms that I was entering my next competition so I could get more experience. I was figuring that I just needed repeat competition exposure in order to get to the next level in my Judo.

The more I reflect on this the more I feel this to be a fallacy. I’m finding myself in the same situations and positions when in a sparring context. I’m also responding in the same predictable ways. I’m not coming up with new answers to old problems – I’m just repeating the same thing over and over.

I would often dominate the grip but I would do nothing with the advantage I’d created for myself. I put this down to not having the feel for throws in a sparring context, other than when practicing on a crash pad. I simply couldn’t recreate past successes with throws I once loved.

I’ve spoke about this with others and it appears to be a regular thing until you eventually find something that sings to you.

Niggling at the back of my mind is that technical proficiency which I really want to attain. I’m no spring chicken so relying on thuggery is not part of my long game. I’ve witnessed technical greatness from others and I wanted to create that for myself.

Getting ready to fight

Having all of this knocking about in my head I headed off for the Kent International. I traveled there on the motorbike: 30 degree celcius weather and I was sweating buckets in my motorcycle leathers.

Upon arrival I knew noone so pretty much waited quietly on the sidelines. Probably just as well as I was spending a lot of time rehydrating, urinating and then rehydrating again!

I wasn’t sure when to eat my lunch as there was no indication when my fights would begin so I ended up without.

By the time my fights started I was feeling low, tired and just wanted to get it over and done with. My passion was nowhere to be found. My motivation – non-existant. I quickly strapped up my fingers but ended up wrapping them far too tightly for comfort.


Mine was the first fight. The opponent was a tall dreadlocked chap. His gripping was dreadful but his throw defences were ok. There was a point where I was 3/4 through an uchi mata but I didn’t fully commit to the throw so he went nowhere.

We ended up on the ground and I just lost all interest because I wanted to finish it standing. I didn’t even bother fighting his legs – he caught me in a kesa gatame. I attempted to escape but he was locked in and by then I was already cardio’d out.

My next was a young, nervous chap. This time the exchanges were a lot more frenetic and fulfilling. We ended up on the ground and his movements weren’t refined. I ended up securing side control and switched to another pin because I wanted to win something for the day at the very least. Still no throw was in sight.

Lastly, it was the fight for the bronze. Given my opponent and I were aware that a medal was up for grabs the fight was a little more spirited. Again, I dominated the grips but found myself missing some excellent opportunities. Eventually he caught me with an excellent taiotoshi.

The happiest point in that day

Ironically the happiest point in that day was when I was sitting about, gathering my stuff together very slowly and someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was the father of the boy I had pinned. He brought the boy round and we chatted for a short while. I told the boy words of encouragement. I harped on about how impressive it is that we all pitched up today because there’d be people who chickened out last moment. That this is just one competition experience amongst many.

I told him how excellent his gripping was. How fluid his movements were. How it was all about the long game; just pitching up to training week in, week out. I meant it all. When he left he was visibly lighter, he really seemed to be more upbeat. It made me feel good too.

What comes next

I’m following the advice I gave to that boy really. I’m not skipping any classes. I’m running through the lessons we cover in class in my head. I’m parking my ego and experimenting in randori even if it means getting thrown. I’m reflecting on all of the scenarios that are coming up repeatedly and what my options are. I won’t get over this plateau in a couple of weeks or a couple of months but I will get there. And if you’re in this position, you will too.

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