If It Was Easy

I used to visit a forum about judo a while back and there were several reoccurring threads about how to make judo more appealing or how to attract more people to judo.  I have also seen posts on Facebook and other blogs on the same subject.  The main questions are how do we get more people into judo and once they are in the dojo, how do we get them to stay.

United States’ Travis Stevens reacts after losing against Germany’s Ole Bischof during their men’s -81kg judo contest semi-final match of the London 2012 Olympic Games on July 31, 2012 at the ExCel arena in London. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELEJOHANNES EISELE/AFP/GettyImages

United States’ Travis Stevens reacts after losing against Germany’s Ole Bischof during their men’s -81kg judo contest semi-final match of the London 2012 Olympic Games on July 31, 2012 at the ExCel arena in London. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELEJOHANNES EISELE/AFP/GettyImages

Now that I have started this article with those questions you are probably expecting me to give you my answers.  I’m sorry to tell you, I don’t have the answers to these questions.  I will give you my opinion and some possible suggestions, but I will also talk about why I think it is definitely an uphill climb, at least in the United States.  At the end of this article, I, as always, would love to hear your comments/thoughts on this subject. The best comment will get a new All About Judo T-Shirt!  I know, exciting!

The first issue is getting people in the dojo.  I can only speak to my experiences here in the US but the biggest problem is that no one has heard of judo.  I was shocked the first time someone told me way back in the day that judo is the second most widely practiced sport in the world behind soccer.  I had pretty much the same reaction that people have when I tell them that today, “What? Get the heck out of here.  How can judo be the second most widely practiced sport in the world if I’ve never even heard of it?”

I cannot actually prove that judo is the second most widely practiced sport in the world but that is what I have been told by tons of people throughout my judo career and here is a blurb from the International Judo Federation (IJF) website making the same claim:

Practiced today by millions of individuals, judo is undoubtedly the most popular combat sport in the world. In terms of sheer numbers of participants, judo is the second most popular sport of any sport, soccer being number one. In terms of national organizations worldwide, judo is the largest sport in the world, with the greatest number of member nations in the International Judo Federation, or IJF. http://www.intjudo.eu/Judo_Corner

So, for the purpose of this article we will assume I am right, but mainly because I know this is true!  Judo is too awesome for this not to be true!

Ok, now for my thoughts on why it is possible for the second most practiced sport in the world to be so unknown in the US.  Please, if I miss anything you think might be a contributing factor, comment at the end of this article.

It’s hard to decide where to start so I’ll just start at the top.  I think one of the biggest reasons judo is not bigger in the US is because judo is hard and it hurts.  There are tons of other reasons and I’ll cover some of them but for me it all boils down to judo is hard.  I have seen so many arguments about how we need more exposure, to get judo into public schools, to get exposure in the papers and on TV.  All that is well and good but it is a rough sport.  So even if we get them into the dojo, no matter how fun you make it, judo is hard.  When the kids in my class say, “this is hard,” I say, “that’s right, it is hard.  That’s what makes you special, if it were easy, everyone would do it!

Another issue, along those same lines is that in competition, there is always a winner and a loser, in every match.  You can set up division so every kids gets a medal, but even those kids that get a medal, unless it is gold have to lose matches.  Losing has become taboo in youth sports in the United States.  I’ve talked about this before so I won’t talk here about how damaging this “everyone is a winner just for trying” or “there are no losers” philosophical shift we have undergone over the past 10 or 15 years, is to our society.  I’m also not going to talk abut how hard it is to learn to lose graciously, which is a valuable lesson, if you never lose.  Of course there are losers, without losers there can be no winners.  If you lose a match it does not mean you are a “loser” as a person, it just means you lost that match, try again!

I’ll pick on the #1 practiced sport for this point.  In soccer as in many other sports, they do not keep score at the lowest level so both teams can “win.”  The problem is, though the officials may not be keeping score, the kids and probably most of the parents are.  When the game is over both teams know who won and who lost, even if there is no official winner.  Judo, by the very nature of the sport, does not lend itself to that philosophy.  Don’t get me wrong here, I do believe some parents and coaches do put way too much emphasis on winning and losing, especially in youth sports.  Of course we send our kids out hoping they will win, nobody trains hoping to lose or at least I hope not.  But we do tell our kids that it is about the effort and if they give their best effort and do not win they should still be proud and we will be proud of them.

Ok, I could talk about that all day, but I’ll stop and move on to my next point.  This kind of goes back to the idea that judo is hard.  Kids are taught pretty much from the time they can walk to throw a ball and not long after that to catch a ball or to hit a ball with a bat, or shoot a ball through a hoop, so they grow up with these skills to some extent.  They lean them from their parents, then they lean to do them properly from Physical Education teachers and coaches when the get into school.  So we grow up learning the skills of all the primary sports in the US – football, baseball, basketball, and now soccer.  So, when a kid is 10 years old and you put him in football, he may not be proficient at throwing, catching or kicking a football but the likelihood that he has at least thrown a ball around with his dad or his friends is pretty high.  When you put your 10 year old in judo for the first time he will be learning skills that he has never seen or come anywhere close to trying before.  The thing I actually think is cool about judo is that he is also learning skills that his parents have never seen or come close to doing either!  But then we get back to the idea that judo is hard and when he starts getting thrown if he is not a little tough he may not stick with it.  Just like with other sports skills you build them up to taking falls on the mat but the first time you are thrown on the floor it can be a bit of a shock, not just with kids, but also with adults.

Kevin Szott at a training camp preparing for the 2004 Paralympic Games

Kevin Szott at a training camp preparing for the 2004 Paralympic Games

I always give the example of when I started judo at 18 in a P.E. class in college, the class was completely full with 40 people.  We practiced our break falls and throws on thick crash pads but we didn’t take any real falls on the regular mat for a few weeks. When we took our first falls on a Tuesday, the class was down to 20 on Thursday.  Then when we took our yellow belt test at the end of the semester, I think we were down to 12 students and I was the only one who ever came back.  I’m not telling you this to prove how much tougher than my classmates I was, if anything it may prove they were smarter than me.  I’m telling you this to illustrate that it is not just with kids, it’s hard for adults too. And let’s face it getting thrown to the floor then getting back up and letting them do it again is just is not natural!

I am not saying that football, basketball, or any of the other, much more popular sports in the US are easy.  I’m just saying that kids enter these sports having already been exposed to many of the basic skills necessary to play, so they have a head start.

Ok, another reason judo is not more popular in the US is because the first time little Johnny throws the football that is actually catchable, his parents decide he is going to be a professional football player.  He will play for one of the top college football teams then get drafted into the NFL, making millions of dollars.  This is the same for basketball, baseball, soccer and in the more northern states, hockey.  Of course there is nothing wrong with wanting the best for your kids and hoping they are good enough to earn a college scholarship and then make it to the pros.  I don’t know the actual statistics but even most really good youth athletes will never go pro, but the big-ticket sports in the US are flooded every year with kids whose parents know they have what it takes to go pro.

Judo is a much more obscure sport and there are no professional judo leagues in the United States, so it simply cannot compete with these other sports.  Even among the Olympic sports, judo is not considered to be one of the big ticket sports.  If you have ever watched the Summer Olympic Games, you have probably noticed that track & field gets tons of coverage, as do gymnastics, swimming, diving, etc.  Even ping-pong gets move coverage than judo, and by more I mean any coverage.  In 2012 we were able to watch judo live over the internet, which was very cool, but just once in my life I would love to be able to watch judo on TV and not have to stay up until 3 o’clock in the morning to do so.

When I fought in the World Championships for the Visually Impaired in Madrid, Spain, back in 1998 I made it to the finals and was told they were going to hold the finals until the next day so they should show all the finals live on European TV.  I was a little annoyed to have to wait until the next day to finish my division but it was also cool to be shown on TV across Europe.  I was recognized by a lot of people in the streets of Madrid over the next few days.  That would never happen in the United States.  Here pro football, basketball, baseball, etc players are idolized but in France and Japan, Teddy Reiner and Ryoko Tani respectively, (both World and Olympic Judo Champions) are huge celebrities, idolized by millions.

It also comes down to marketing. Because these other sports are so popular companies pay millions to have their products endorsed by the top pro athletes.  If anyone ever finds a way to get rich off of judo you better believe it will have a sudden rise in popularity and you will start seeing it on TV and reading about it in the newspaper.

Scott Moore talking to Coach Willy Cahill at practice

Scott Moore talking to Coach Willy Cahill at practice

My point here is that judo definitely has an uphill climb to being as popular as it is in other countries, the world over, because it is not a big money making sport.

One last issue that I will cover here is that judo is not popular in the US because it is all in Japanese and the scoring is hard to understand by the average person, and with the International Judo Federation messing with the rules ever 15 minutes, trying to make more “spectator friendly,” they are actually making it harder for the average judo player to keep up with the rules, much less the general public.  I think it has lost popularity among the judo community in the US because of all the rule changes.  I think the IJF has actually damaged the sport by taking away some of the techniques that made judo so exciting.

As I said at the beginning, there are lots of reasons judo, while be the greatest sport in the world and the #2 practiced sport in the world, is not more popular in the United States.  Again, this is just my opinion but I truly believe the points I have covered are very big contributing factors as to why judo is not more popular.

While I would love to see it grow, I have to admit, I kind of like that those of us who continue to practice judo are a special breed and I think the fact that judo is hard and it is not for everyone makes all the more special because like I said before, if it was easy, everyone would do it!

As always, thanks for reading.

I’ll talk to you soon…