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…

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Scott Moore
Scott Moore
Scott Moore is a 5th degree black belt in judo and he head instructor of Denver Judo. He is also a 3-time Paralympic Judo medalist winning bronzed in Atlanta, 1996, Gold in Sydney, 2000, and bronze in Athens, 2004. Scott was the assistant coach for the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Judo team and the head coach of the London 2012 team.
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Posted in Scott's Stories | 17 Replies
Scott Moore

About Scott Moore

Scott Moore is a 5th degree black belt in judo and he head instructor of Denver Judo. He is also a 3-time Paralympic Judo medalist winning bronzed in Atlanta, 1996, Gold in Sydney, 2000, and bronze in Athens, 2004. Scott was the assistant coach for the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Judo team and the head coach of the London 2012 team. Find Scott on Google+

17 thoughts on “If It Was Easy

  1. Loren

    I don’t spend much time reading blogs (I should and your’s is a great one). I agree with many of your points and have some differing opinions on others.

    I like that you say judo is hard, especially once the real impacts from throwing come to the fore. That’s one of the biggest detriments to student retention is for judo. Cage fighters from my area come in and try for a few days, maybe a few weeks, but I’ve only had one last to get to a promotion and now he’s up there in Denver! The impacts from even the early, basic throws is rough and when things are rough, people quit more easily.

    I absolutely agree that parents in the U.S. place a lot of emphasis on their kid playing football, baseball, soccer, hockey, and basketball. So much emphasis, in my opinion, that they’ll force their kids into dangerous circumstances just to keep them in the sport. Unfortunately, during the off season, if they put their kid in judo and the kid doesn’t like it or thinks its too rough or hard, the parents will pull them faster than you can say “No chance at a college scholarship for football!”

    My difference in opinion comes from the competitive rules perspective. I realize you and the clubs in Denver have a lot more exposure to the IJF rules and have to largely conform to them because of your situation. I don’t think the average spectator of judo or judo parents really needs to know that much about the rules, but should learn a little bit like the three scores and how to win. At the amateur and youth level, knowing the scores and how they work as well as how the ground game works is fairly simple. There’s no need for anyone under green to be so engrossed in the IJF rules that it consumes their judo mindset. Granted, I’m very definitely not a competitor, I just don’t have the training and mindset to do it for myself. I will get out there and compete if I have to, but never when I’ve got students in the tournament.

    As far as marketing judo is concerned, it’s a rough row to hoe. Small businesses right now are not nearly as successful as they should be and getting someone to try something new is always difficult. I am in the process of opening my dojo and I’ve undercapitalized and am struggling. I’m hoping that things will pick up in January when I get everything situated more firmly. We shall see.

    Reply
    • Scott Moore

      Thank for your comment and for your kinds words about my blog. I really appreciate you reading and your support.
      I agree with you. What I was really saying is that spectators don’t truly understand what is join one as far as the scoring. When I was wrestling my mother for the most part understood what the points were for and the ref would hold ups finger and say 2 for a take-down etc. She never really got judo scoring when I was competing. She got ippon and because of wrestling she got when I pinned someone but she never got the scoring and understood what the ref was saying. Also the fact that yuko’s don’t add upend waza ari’s do can be confusing.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      Scott

      Reply
  2. Kari Gabrielle

    Scott, really well said! I actually agree 100%!

    Judo is just too damn hard….what is it about our country? They must be more spoiled, raised so different from the rest of the world, to protected, and what’s up with parents letting their child decide when to quit or give up or just not toughening up and given an option to never quit no matter what. This has to come from the parents! Parents are sending the wrong message most of the time. From what I see, most of the time it’s not the child at all. It’s the parents!

    They let them decide to do whatever they want whenever they want.
    Judo players who give their life to the sport and follow through are very tough special individuals who I have much respect for. The toughest and strongest people I know actually!
    I remember people who used to watch me train and compete always asked the same question, ” how in the hell do you do this everyday for hours, isn’t it hard, doesn’t it hurt?!” It looks so painful!”

    I wish judo was more popular here, but it will never be unless there is big money involved. It’s a shame people are all about money, they are missing out big time!

    Reply
    • Scott Moore

      Thanks for the comment Kari and for reading my blog. I agree with you, as soon as it gets a little hard parents let their kids just quit and do something that is easier and that take minimal effort to succeed.

      Thanks again,

      Scott

      Reply
  3. Justin

    Scott,
    Good article.

    I agree with you on almost all points. As a wrestler and judoka, I don’t think that grappling in general will every be a “spectator friendly” sport in the US. Even in MMA, everyone wants to see guys stand and strike. Only grapplers appreciate watching two athletes engaged in a technical match, be it judo, BJJ, wrestling, etc. The scoring definitely throws non-judoka off when watching a judo match.

    As far as the attraction and retention, I am dealing with that right now as a new instructor. Moved to an area with no judo, so in order to keep training and allow my kids to train, I found myself teaching by default. I started my own club out here in WY in an area that has club after club fail (I think there were close to 8 schools opened/shut down on the JA list when I registered mine). They opened up and were “inactive” in less than a year in all cases. I have been pretty lucky thus far with things. About a year and 8 months in…and I have a good core group and the kids’ side keeps growing. We always have the adults that start out and then drop after taking throws a few times. It stinks, but like you said, judoka are a special breed….maybe not the smartest folks around, but they are some of the toughest!

    Thanks for the posts!
    Justin

    Reply
    • Scott Moore

      Thanks for your comment Justin and thank for reading my blog.
      I agree, grappling is a tough sport to follow unless you are a grappler. I just think that it is easier to understand what is going on in wrestling than in judo because of the language and who complicated the rules are, not to mention they keep changing every 15 minutes.

      Good luck with your club!

      Scott

      Reply
  4. Mark Dillingham

    Scott,
    I agree! Judo is hard….if it were easy we’d call it (insert favorite sport here!) Retention is a big issue and always will be, because it’s hard. With the frequent rule changes parents, coaches, players and everybody else get’s frustrated and throws up their hands and says “screw this!” and leaves.

    I am quickly becoming a supporter of Freestyle judo and the “continue with the action” mentality and that’s what I will teach in my new club opening in January.

    Grass-roots judo is about offering judo at the very beginning stages. Lots of techniques, lots of fun and camraderie and introducing people to a life time sport. Not everybody is going to be a Jimmy Pedro or Kayla Harrison. The few that do, we can direct them to the appropriate dojos and training centers. We need a lot more, smaller clubs that teach the fundamentals and just have a good time.

    Thanks for letting me rant.
    Yours in judo,
    Mark Dillingham

    Reply
    • Scott Moore

      Thanks for your comment and for reading my blog Mark. I agree with you. In my club we do tend to follow the IJF rules, as frustrating as that can be at times, but I still think it is important to teach “judo” and it’s techniques. For those interested in competition we coach them to the rules and we follow them in randori so they will not get use to doing things that will be illegal in competition.

      Good luck with your new club and thank again.

      Scott

      Reply
  5. James Wall

    Anyone who knows me has heard me voice my thoughts on this subject many times over the years. If we want Judo to be truly successful in the US it will require a massive change in the attitude and approach that most people take when it comes to running their programs. Most Judo schools in the US are ran more or less the same way that Judo schools were ran 20-30 years ago. That just doesn’t cut it these days. Judo instructors need to adopt modern business practices, charge higher rates, and focus less on competition. They need to study other successful martial arts schools no matter what the style and adopt some of the practices that make those schools successful. These are the steps I have taken over the past several years. I was never a high level competitor and I am in a town so small that we only have 2 red lights. I have 2 TKD schools and a BJJ school within 5 miles of my school yet I have nearly 100 active Judo students. I am in the process of moving into a brand new, much
    larger failcility AND also opening a second location in a nearby town. I am a full-time martial arts instructor which means I can focus all of my working hours on growing my schools. Plus I LOVE what I do for a living. Until it is practical for people to make a decent living teaching Judo it will NEVER be truly successful. Look at TKD and BJJ. People can make a living teaching those arts and as a result they are kicking Judo’s butt when it comes to numbers. Unfortunately most Judo people don’t want to hear these things. They want to keep on chasing gold medals and teaching for little or no pay. Until that mentality changes Judo will continue to decline in the US.

    Reply
    • Scott Moore

      Thank for your comment and for reading my blog James. I can see your point, but the problem I have with the whole business mentality is the idea of becoming a McDojo. I don’t know how you do it but the idea of raising my rates and having people sign a contract guaranteeing that if they pay me “X” amount of money they will get a black belt in “Y” amount of time is just not appealing to me. The idea of having someone sign a contract then if they cannot pay, sending them to collections is not appealing to me either. We have almost 100 students too and at times it goes up over 100 but with the cost of living and space in Denver I could not do judo as a full-time job unless our students more than doubled or tripled or if I tripled our dues, and I don’t see either happening anytime soon. I didn’t start coaching to make money, I started to help my sensei, Mrs. Lavergne, back in Lafayette and when I over to Denver I inherited this club from my former Paralympic coach. Then when I changed jobs we move the club off campus.

      I don’t feel that because I am not able to coach full-time that my club is not successful. I feel my club is very successful. I guess it just depends on your definition of success. We have a strong group of competitors and often have high level competitors visit from other clubs including the OTC in Colorado Springs. We have often had people recommended to use when they are traveling or visiting Denver from other countries. I understand and agree that competition is not everything in judo, and in the grand scheme of things is not the most important aspect of judo, but our club has many who want to compete nationally and internationally as well as those only interested in learning and randori in practice. WE handle both groups well and they all learn judo and have fun doing it.

      I do feel that competition is important, not necessarily “chasing gold medals”, but to learn to react and deal with other players you do not know. fighting the same people all the time can be boring and randori is not the same as shiai. You lean during both but what you learn is completely different. While chasing a gold medal is not the most important thing in judo by far, I am very proud of mine and worked very hard to earn it, and if I had walked in the USL judo club back in 1988 and they were not interested in competition, I would not have stayed. A successful club has to teach judo but should also to the best of its ability meet the needs of it members, as long as they remember that passing on the teaching of judo is what is most important.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      Scott

      Reply
    • Scott Moore

      Hey James,
      Another thing I had meant to say but forgot because I was getting long. I wanted to say that while I don’t necessarily disagree with the idea you put forth in your comment but my main point still stands, even if you do all that you said and get them in the door, there is still high turnover rate. Getting them in the dojo can be hard but nothing changes the fact that judo is hard, and I will not “dumb it down” or make it easier just to keep students. We don’t throw them on the floor until they are ready but taking falls on the tatami, even with our spring loaded floor is still hard and takes getting use to, and the average person will not stay to get use to it.

      Thanks again for reading,

      Scott

      Reply
  6. Kevin Cohen

    There’s some weird personality thing about people that will stick with judo. I’ve always thought that it’s kind of like smoking. Many, many people will try a cigarette at some point in their lives. Most of them decide it’s yucky and never have a second one. However, a few of them come back for that second one, and then another, and then they’re doing it all the time and they want more and more. Judo seems similar to me. Many, many people show up at a dojo once, try it, and never come back. A small number do come back for that second class, and then another one, and then before they know it, judo is all that they’re thinking about and they want more and more.

    Reply
    • Scott Moore

      Thanks for the comment and or reading my blog, Kevin.
      I had never though of it that way but you are absolutely right. Many people try judo but only a few will come back again and then once they are hooked, they are hooked for life! I am definitely one of those people. I tried a cigarette once and thought it was nasty so I never did it again but I got addicted to judo the very first day!

      Thanks again

      Scott

      Reply
  7. Stephen Mills

    Scott,

    Judo isn’t hard

    Judoka’s are Hard

    I agree with your sentiment, I wonder why we have to consider pandering to those who cannot keep at something long enough to make it work for them, we should focus on those who do, retention is something we can do nothing about unless we dilute judo for them,

    It wasn’t diluted for you or me, or anyone else you train with,

    You are doing everything you can to demonstrate how great judo is, by being the person you are, developing others into great judoka and in turn great people.

    For that my friend I thank you

    See you soon buddy

    Reply
    • Scott Moore

      Thanks for the comments and your kind words Stephen. I agree wit you 100%!
      Thanks again for reading my blog and for your comments! I hope to see you soon, either on my side of the pond or yours!

      Scott

      Reply
  8. James Mastro

    Scottie,

    Judo isn’t “hard” it’s “tough”, it isn’t for all people. I agree with most of what you said, especially about the rule changes. It limits a number of people’s techniques. I’m glad I’m not competing in Judo anymore, I would last approximately 5 seconds, and I don’t always attack legs. Talking about competition, I am a very competitive person, but there is a line between recreational lifetime leisure activities and competition. Not everyone will be a competitor. One of favorite phrases “even as a competitor winning doesn’t always mean first place”, people always learn something, even from a loss. I think we have to make it clear to our students that this is the case with judo. I have more than enough trophies, medals, and awards, I’m not sure where they all are. At the time they were important, but I have to say the losses were also important. Judo is not for everyone and it never will be, because it’s tough.

    Reply

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