When is My Next Promotion?

I want to talk to you a little about rank in martial arts.  I have heard many times, as I’m sure many of you have, “belt color is not important, a belt is only used to keep your gi closed!”  I will admit, I have even said that, but when I have said it, I was talking to a student who was worried about fighting someone who was wearing a black belt.  My point was that just because they are wearing a black belt doesn’t mean they are great fighters. I have also come to learn over the years, it doesn’t actually mean they are any good at [your favorite martial art here].  I use to say that the black belt just means that he or she has just been doing judo for a while, and may know a lot of techniques, but it does not mean they are necessarily a good fighter or coach.  Unfortunately I have also come to discover over the years that it doesn’t even always mean that they know a lot about judo.

Karate Gi

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Oh and before I go on, if someone has an 8th degree black belt in judo, an 8th degree black belt in karate, an 11th degree black belt in tang su do, and a 99th degree in a “style” they invented last year, I have trouble taking them seriously about anything, much less judo and rank.  Although I have been thinking about creating my own “style” of something and calling it albin-do and making myself a 21st degree black belt with 8 gold stars on my belt!  If you know me, you’ll get it.  If you don’t get it, send me a message and I’ll explain it to you.  If you are offended by it, get over yourself, it’s a joke.

Ok, back to the article!

The more time I spend in judo the more I realize that rank or belt color is not always equal to the skill or knowledge of the person wearing it.  I will even give myself as an example.  I was a Nidan (2nd degree black belt) from 1995-2001.  The Colorado Judo League promoted me to Sandan (3rd degree black belt) in 2001 for winning the gold medal at the Paralympic Games in Sydney in 2000.  It was actually pretty cool because they did it at the Denver Classic, which is the tournament run by my club, Denver Judo.  After that, I had not given any thought to going for my next rank until Warren Agena, head Sensei of Northglenn Judo, who I have a great amount of respect for, both for his skill as a judoka and his knowledge of judo, wrote a letter to the Colorado Judo League saying that he believe Heidi and I should be promoted for all our accomplishments in judo and for our service to the judo community.  I was honored but still didn’t know if I would test, but we put in our applications and were approved and promoted in 2008.   I also realized that as we gain more students with black belts it was important for us to advance so we could recommend them for higher promotions when they were ready.

In 2013, Heidi asked what I thought about putting in our applications for Godan (5th degree black belt).  We thought about it for a while and decided to go ahead and do it.  I believe we were promoted mostly for our work with and the success of the Paralympic Judo program in London in 2012.  Plus, I had to go up if she was! I can’t give her even more power over me than she already has!  Do I think my skill and knowledge of judo is equal to my rank?  Probably not, but it is not from a lack of desire to learn and grow in the sport.  Do I think my rank is deserved?  I honestly do not know, but I will say that it was granted to me by people of higher rank and years in judo, and knowledge and skill than myself.  They felt it was deserved either for my skill and knowledge of judo or for my contribution to the judo community, or a combination of the two.  I am sure it will be a long time before I am promoted again and I am ok with that.

Ok, now on to the point of this article.  Even though it is possible that I am higher in rank than maybe I should be, or maybe not, I do believe that people do often put way too much importance on rank and belt color.  When I started judo, I didn’t go into it thinking about getting a black belt.  I went into it thinking abut competing because I had been a wrestler and thought it was similar so it would be fun.  That was it. I’ll admit that the first time I put my gi on and went to class with all the other white belts and saw my Sensei standing in front of the class with her black belt, I did think it would be pretty cool to get a black belt some day.  Of course I had to start with getting my yellow belt and then working my way through the ranks.  My more immediate concern was getting good enough to beat the green belt who kept choking me and the brown belt who kept arm-barring me.

Back then I didn’t think about rank.  I tested when my Sensei told me to test.  As a matter of fact, when I was a Shodan (1st degree black belt) she told me she wanted me to test for my Nidan (2nd degree black belt) and I told her I didn’t think I was ready to go up in rank and she told me, “I didn’t ask your opinion, I said I want to test for your Nidan!”  So, I tested for my Nidan a few weeks later.

Don’t get me wrong, I was proud to sport my orange belt or whatever color I got, but honestly I was more proud that my Sensei thought I was doing well enough to go up to the next rank.  I will admit I was proud the first time I put on my black belt.  It was a sense of accomplishment.  Don’t misunderstand; I have been honored and proud of each rank after that too.

Orange Belt

I get a little annoyed when people worry so much about rank; they get promoted then almost right away ask when they can test again.  We have a decent sized club, so we do rank testing a few times a year, but you don’t get promoted every time there is a test.  We ask our other instructors who they feel should be promoted from their classes and then Heidi and I are the final say on who gets promoted and we, along with some of the other black belts form the promotion board.

It’s not just students that are worried about promotion. Instructors are guilty of this as well.  I might even be guilty of this from time to time.  If a student is doing really well in competition and works really hard in practice and helping others and the dojo, I enjoy rewarding their work with a promotion.  Granted I will not promote someone to the next rank if they have just been promoted or if they do not have the technical skill and knowledge required.  We do require time-in-grade before we promote, but if someone is doing all the things I talked about we may give then a batsugan (instantaneous promotion) without testing them.  We do still require them to learn the techniques for their new rank that they may not know, but it is rare that they do not already know the techniques.

If you have been reading my blog for a while you will know that I am a thug and not a purest, but for me it is important that my students not only know how to fight but also understand judo, and it is my greater hope that they will grow to love judo as Heidi and I do and that it will become a life long passion as it is for us.  I’ll talk about that more in another article.

From a competitive standpoint, I feel it is important for a competitor to get as much experience as possible and that means going to as many tournaments and getting as many matches as possible.  If I have a student who is doing really well in the novice division, I will have then fight up in the senior divisions if I feel they can handle it and not get hurt.  I want them to challenge themselves, but I will not push them out of the novice division the first time they get a first place trophy.  I always think the more matches the better.  If I promote someone to brown belt (for seniors) they are no longer allowed to fight in the novice division.   Having a brown or black belt does not mean someone is any good, as I said before, but taking someone who is at an orange belt level and putting them in a position where all the can fight is black or brown belts is not a good idea.  For example, if someone is a yellow or orange belt and doing well in local novice divisions, I do not think it is a good idea to send them to a national competition and have them fight in the senior divisions.  It can be discouraging but also dangerous.

If you have to be a brown belt or higher to go to a tournament, there is probably a reason for that and maybe your athlete should just want a year or so.  It’s one thing to put them in a situation that challenges them, but another thing all together when by the rank you give them you are putting them in a situation they are completely unprepared for.  Of course there are some people who will never be successful at competition or just aren’t interested in competition, and I am certainly not saying they should not be promoted just because they do not win at tournaments.  Judo is so much bigger than just competition.  I’m just saying that if you have someone who is competing regularly, their promotions should coincide with their ability, at least when going from novice to senior.  Some people will move up more quickly and some more slowly. There is no one rule that fits everyone.

On the other side of the coin, there are some coaches who are so obsessed with winning that they hold their students back, or sandbag, so they can continue to dominate the novice division rather than risk having them not win in the advanced division.  After all it looks better for my club if my students are winning, right?  Not if you have someone who has been doing judo for 20 years still wearing a yellow belt just so they can keep winning.  Of course I am exaggerating with the 20 years but you get my point.  If you have an athlete who is doing well in the novice division and they move up to the senior division and struggle, it’s ok.  That’s the way it should be!

Old Black BeltWe have a student who was dominating the novice division as a white and yellow belt, never losing a match and never going more than a minute with anyone, so we jumped him up to brown belt.  He wasn’t learning anything killing all the novice players. And now, while he doesn’t win every event he enters, he is challenged, is learning more, and has goals to strive for.  I want my athletes to be successful too but having a kid who has been doing judo for 2 years wearing a white belt is ridiculous.  It does not make you look good to be beat up on a bunch of true beginners if you have been doing judo for a few years, challenge yourself and move up.  We have a young lady in our club who has been doing judo for several months. She is a junior so moving up from yellow belt to orange belt will move her from the novice to the advanced division. At her age and weigh in our area, there are a couple of really tough girls in the advanced division. We discussed this with her and she decided to go ahead and test for her orange belt because she wanted to challenge herself against the better girls, not just be happy beating other novice players.  We are very proud of her. She may lose more matches than she wins for a while, but overall moving up is going to help her improve much more quickly.

Of course I am talking about this from a Western perspective.  In Japan Shodan doesn’t mean the same thing as it has come to mean in the West.  As I have always understood it, in Japan, Shodan just means you know how to fall and know enough to be ready to be considered a student of judo.

I guess my overall point to this article is rank should not be the defining factor in your judo training and coaching.  Challenge your students but don’t push them beyond their ability and don’t hold them back so they can keep wining.  Judo is about challenging yourself, and as Kano Sensei put it, the “perfection of the human spirit.”   There is no one size fits all standard for rank, but coaches should have minimum criteria for rank and stick to it.

Of course this is just my opinion.  Ok, I have to go get a bite to eat and start writing my syllabus for albin-do.

As always, thanks for reading.

I’ll talk to you soon…

Which Way is Right

One of the things that drives me crazy when I am showing someone a technique, and I hope my students never do this when visiting another club, is to have someone say, “Oh, well my coach taught me to do it like this” or “my coach does it this way”, or anything like that.

This is not about my ego and thinking that “I don’t care how your coach does it, my way is correct”.  That is not the point at all, unless you say “my coach does it like this” then you demonstrate something and I have no idea what you are doing.  In that case, I probably am thinking something along the lines of “well, either your coach is crazy or you have absolutely no grasp of what he/she was trying to show you and have gone in the wrong direction completely.”  What I would say however, is something like, “ok, well let me just show you how I do it, and see how that feels.”

Ippon-Seoi-Nage

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My wife, Heidi Moore, always says, you can ask 20 black belts to demonstrate a technique and get 20 different versions of the same technique.  My best throws are ippon seoi nage and morote seoi nage.  I do ippon to the left side and morote to the right side, both with a right-handed grip.    I have won matches with several different throws over my competitive career, but if you look at my career as a whole, if I won a match with a throw, there is a 99% chance it was with left ippon seoi nage.  My style of seoi nage tends to be a little different than the average seoi nage.  I do not believe my style of seoi nage is any better than any other style or that I am a master of that throw.  I do believe I have a seoi nage that works and has been very effective for me in competition and I believe my style is the best style for me, period.

People get so wrapped up with the idea that “my sensei showed it to me this way, so this is the only way I will do it” mentality.  I had an excellent sensei, Connie Lavergne, who taught me seoi nage as well as most of the other throws I know.  She taught me what we always called “text book” seoi nage, which meant, the way you would perform the technique on a belt test.  I always thought, and still think, she was one of the best teachers/mentors I have ever had, in any subject, including life, but my seoi nage doesn’t look much like it did back when she taught it to me.

Ippon Seoi Nage

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When I went to my first Paralympic training camp back in 1993, my favorite throw was uchi mata.  The coach, Larry Lee, asked me why I was doing uchi mata, to which I replied, “It’s my favorite throw!” To which he replied, “Well, it sucks!”  He gave me some pointers and told me to go home and work on it and at the next camp he had me show him how I was progressing.  He looked at me and said, “Oh my God, it’s worse.  You should never do that throw again.”  He showed me what he called a double-fist seoi nage to the left from a right grip and had me work on it the entire camp.  When I got home and showed my sensei, she didn’t tell me that I should ignore him and do seoi nage the way she had taught me, she said, “that’s interesting,” and helped me work on it.  She wasn’t offended that I was doing a throw that was totally different than the way she taught me, she agreed that style of seoi nage along with the way I had developed my morote fit my body type and fighting style.  Once I had developed it and was starting to get it a lot in randori and tournaments, she had me teach it.  I have to admit that after several years it has evolved again.  I don’t know when that happened but one day a teammate asked when I started throwing it “that way” after I had thrown it in a tournament and I asked what he was talking about.  He showed me the video and I was surprised, and said I hadn’t noticed I was doing it differently, but it stuck.

So I learned a great lesson from her – my way is not the only way, or the best way, it is the best way for me.  It might not work for you, but it might. How will you know if you do not try?  Heidi and I have been the head instructors at Denver Judo since Larry turned the club over to us back in 1999 and when I teach beginners seoi nage, I teach it pretty much the way my sensei taught it to me.  In the advanced “competitive” class, I teach it the way I do it.  Some students like it and some do not.  I always tell them, “this is the way I do it, try it, if it works for you, great, if it does not, that’s ok too.”   I want my students to be exposed to different ways of doing techniques, not just my way.  We have several other black belts and instructors in our club, some of whom have been our students from white belt and some whom have come to us as black belts, and they all have their own way of doing things.  You can recognize our style in many of our students but those who have gone to other clubs and training camps have taken what they have learned from us and other instructors and adapted techniques to fit their body type and fighting style.  As a coach, it is also my job to help my students, for the purpose of competition, to find throws that best fit their strengths and style, like Larry did for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I have had students learn something from someone else and come and ask me about it, and I have wondered if either the other instructor is crazy or if my student completely misunderstood what was being taught.  I would never go to another club and have someone demonstrate something and openly disagree with them, especially in front of their students.  What I tell my students to do, is to try what is being taught, whether you agree with it or not then when you leave, if you do not like it, just forget it, but if you do like it, bring it back and show us.

The other thing I don’t get is the proprietary mentality some instructors have.  I had a teammate back in the day from another state who said if he wanted to go train at another club he had to sneak, because his instructor would not allow his students to train at another club.  I don’t mean any offense, but that is a foolish notion and only hurts your students.  When I moved to Denver, every club in town practiced on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday and we had a Friday night practice too.  Sometimes we would cancel our practice and go to another club, but the first thing I did when the club was turned over to me was move our practice days to Monday and Wednesday.  This allowed two things to happen, both of which were positive:  1) It allowed students from other clubs to attend our practices which benefits our players by having other people to train with and 2) It allowed our students who were serious about competition to visit other clubs.  It also allowed Heidi and me to visit other clubs so we could train and not be responsible for teaching.  Ok, that’s 3 things.  I was going to the OTC on some of those days but if we couldn’t or didn’t feel like driving down to Colorado Springs, we could go to Northglenn or Hyland Hills to train and they could do the same.

Ippon Seoi Nage

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I get that not everyone is into competition and we, of course, do not require it, but we do encourage our students to go to other clubs.  We have a lot of really good coaches in Colorado, as well as some really good athletes.  Even if you are not into competition, you seriously limit yourself and your knowledge of judo if you only ever train in your own club.  I don’t care how great your instructor is or how strong your club is.  Plus, as much as I loved competing, judo is a great community and I love going to other clubs because I have known many of the instructors and athletes for years and I enjoy working out with them and hanging out and chatting after practice or even going to get something to eat afterwards.  I love judo, not only for the training but also for the community.  I have friends all over the world, some who have only known me over the Internet but have taken me to their clubs and even into their homes when I have visited their town or country.  I love my club and the people in it like family, and I am so proud of how hard we all train together, but I am even more proud of we encourage and support one another.  I love our hard practices on Monday and Wednesday when the mat is full and everyone is working hard and Friday night with not as many people, but still going hard, but one of my favorite practices is Saturday morning, because we get a good workout then several of us go out to lunch.  Not every Saturday but most of them.

The other great thing about having other people visit your club is being exposed to their techniques.  We get a lot of visitors to our club from Colorado, around the US and even the world.  We always ask our visitors to show us some of their favorite techniques.  Even though it might be a throw we all know, they may show a new way to do it or to set it up.  I have learned a lot over the years by having visiting black belts teach their favorite techniques.  We had a visitor to our club last week from Iowa who I had heard a lot about from two of our club members who had trained at his club when living in Iowa.  He has some excellent judo and showed a really cool way to set up tai otoshi.  I promised I would give him a shout out when I pulled it off in randori.  I’ll have to do that on Facebook because it has not happened yet.

People get so wrapped up in competition and keeping their techniques a secret, because no-one else in the world does ippon seoi nage “like me”,  that they forget what judo is really about.  By the way, in case you missed it, that line about no one doing ippon seoi nage like me was sarcasm.  Give me a break.  As good as I think my seoi nage is, I certainly don’t think I’m the only one doing it that way or that I am the best at it.  It works for me and I have been successful, but I hold no secret key to unlocking the power of ippon seoi nage or any other technique.  Ok, I do, but that’s another blog.  Just kidding!  The secret is thousands and thousands of repetitions and thousands of missed attempts in training and competition.

I am guilty of this to some extent, in my role as Paralympic team coach, my job is to prepare our athletes to the best of my ability and theirs for competition.  My role as coach/sensei at Denver Judo is to teach my students all of judo, not just for competition, though we tend to be pretty competitive for a “recreational” club.  And teaching them judo does not just mean teaching them to win tournaments.  We have many students who do not want to compete in tournaments, but love judo and work just as hard as everyone else and they are just as much a part of our judo family as the serious competitors.

I use to think it was a cliche when I would hear people talking about judo being a lifestyle, but I get it now.  I want my students to experiences all the great things I have through the sport of judo, not just medals, though winning medals is nice too. And at the end of the day, judo is so much more than just winning and losing.  As I said, I have so many good friends all over the US and the world because of judo.  I even share judo with my wife and son, which is such a joy, except when Heidi chokes me!  Not everyone gets to spend so much time doing what they love, much less with the people that they love.

Scott Moore at a Paralympic camp

Scott Moore at a Paralympic camp

Ok, I’m starting to get into a whole other topic now.  My point in this article, actually two points: be open to learning not only new techniques but new ways of doing the techniques you already know.   That is one of the great things about judo, I have been doing it for almost 26 years now and I am still learning all the time, and not only from people of higher rank than me or even high level competitors.  I have often learned from people who I out rank and even my own students.  When I went to Paralympic camps I would learn so much I would have to write it down or video the demonstrations and the first thing my sensei would do when I got back was to ask me to show her what I had learned, not only so she could help me continue working on the new techniques but so she could learn and pass on new things to her students, and I try to do the same thing.

The other point is to share with others.  That’s a good life lesson too by the way.  See, I’m not only a judo thug, I’m a philosopher.  But seriously, for those who think you have the secrets to judo and will only share with those who pay you, get over yourselves, you don’t know anything thousands of other people don’t know too.  Maybe you do have a unique way of doing something, but even if you have adapted something to fit your needs, you most likely are not the first or the only person to come up with that variation.  Besides, if you adapted something, it is something that someone else shared with you, so be a valuable asset to the judo community and pass it on.

As always, thanks for reading.

Talk to you soon…