Left Turn Ahead

Lately, I’ve been trying to practice more on my weak side, my left. What I’ve found is that doing something on my weak side forces me to focus on what I’m doing, but in a different way, and helps improve my right side performance while (eventually) improving my left.

In judo, ideally I like to practice about 25% of my uchikomi on my left side. It makes me think about what I do on my right side and repeat it without the aid of superior coordination or muscle memory. The thought process goes something like this: “normally, I would have this grip with my left hand, and pull at this angle, while stepping with my right foot.” “So now, take the same grip but with the right hand this time, pull at the analogous angle, step with the left foot.” My right side technique gets more out of this uchikomi regime than it gets out of doing all of the reps on my right side. Over time, my left side even gets better too! I have found that because I can’t just power through the technique on my weak side, or compensate for inferior technique with superior coordination or muscle memory, in some ways, I sometimes have better overall technique with my left side. My left-sided osoto gari is probably technically superior to my right, even though I overwhelmingly perform the technique on the right and am “stronger” with the right-side attack. I’ve noticed the same thing in other sports. My left-side tennis backhand, e.g., is technically superior to my right backhand, even though my ride side is stronger and the one I use.

As far as actual randori or competition, I am aware of two competing schools of thought on how to approach a left-handed player, and although they are mutually inconsistent, I find both compelling. The first is that a right-handed player should not switch to left to fight a lefty. You don’t want your opponent to dictate the game and turn you around. You should instead seek to impose your game on them. I think there is a lot that’s correct about this line of thought. The other approach is to switch to left when fighting lefties. The reason is simple. Left-handed people aren’t any more used to fighting lefties than anyone else is. Overwhelmingly, lefties fight right handed players kenka yotsu (asymmetrical/opposing grips). Switching to the left puts lefties out of their comfort zone. Although I don’t think either of these approaches is wrong, I seem to have more success with the latter. I think fighting a lefty with a standard right-side grip is playing his game (kenka yotsu) while not playing mine (not used to kenka yotsu). Playing left may not be my game either, but it can get better with practice, and at least it takes my opponent out of his comfort zone.

I did not practice much on my left side before I was promoted to Shodan, and I kind of regret it. The main obstacles for me were patience and ego. As far as patience, judo is hard. Throwing people is hard. I always felt fortunate to perform a technique correctly and get it to work. Switching to my left side seemed too daunting, like too much of an uphill struggle when I was already struggling – too much like starting over from scratch. Ego also played a role because I didn’t want to look completely incompetent. “I am, after all, a green/brown/black belt. I don’t want to look like I don’t know anything. What will people think?” Nowadays, judo is still hard, and I still don’t want to look incompetent, but I am a little more patient, care a little less about how I look, and am looking forward to developing more skill on my left side.


The Keystone Games – Returning to competition

This past weekend I went with a few of my team mates to a state level tournament, the Keystone games. I wasn’t sure if I was going to compete until I actually handed them my money. I had been considering it for a few months but hadn’t been able to commit myself to actually doing it.

Its been nearly 7 years since I competed in judo. In my last judo match prior to this past weekend, I was getting myself ready to compete at nationals with a tune up event in Maryland. I had a couple of good wins and then fought a match against a good player. I had drawn a couple of penalties on him for a score of Yuko in my favor. I came in a little lazy and he planted me with a counter. I have been in enough matches to know an Ippon when i feel one and I knew the match was over. I resigned myself to it and started to get up when I realized it had been called Wazari. Reprieve! But, it was late in the match and i was down a Wazari to Yuko. My head wasn’t in the match as I had already believed I had lost. I still remember the thought in my head, “Stay busy, get a couple of attacks off, he hasn’t really attacked yet, draw another penalty and get to golden score, then steal the win in sudden death”. There’s a lot of downside to a strategy like this. You aren’t going out to dominate, you’re going out to screw around with borderline false attacks to draw a penalty. The result was i attacked something i never, ever used a left sided drop kata guruma, because I wouldn’t be countered and I could look busy. The result was a sloppy attack which led to my arm trapped behind his knee as he dropped his hap across the back of my tricep. POP! Torn bicep tendon… surgery… 2 months on the couch and the last time I was in great shape and at my physical peak.

The last time I competed in BJJ was about 2 years later so around 5 years ago. It was the Brown belt division at Pan-Ams. I had dominated the preceding match with a take down then remained on top for an easy win. In the finals, It was late in a scoreless match and I had no idea who the referee would give the decision to, if there was no score. Neither of us had done much. I said screw and it and went to throw. I had been dealing with a shoulder injury for the months before the tournament. The real problem was my shoulder would dislocate which is an absolutely ghastly injury. When i went to turn and throw my shoulder popped out and I dropped with the other guy on my back. I had yelled but no one was sure if i was hurt or trying hard. My shoulder actually popped back in, but I was in a turtle with a 290 lb guy on my back with 30 seconds to go. Needles to stay we remained there for the rest of the match and he was awarded the decision. The secondary result was I had surgery to repair my shoulder when I returned to Philadelphia. Four months on the couch and a painful rehab made me pretty leery of Shoulder surgeries.

So, in my head, my last BJJ match and my last judo match both led to pretty major surgeries. This was a lot of history for me to get past to think about competing again. I really like competing, I love wining and it motivates me to be a better player and coach.To get myself to the place where I was able to be read to compete, I went with the classic waffling tactic. I made no commitment to anyone, least of all myself, just mentioning it as a possibility. I then was able to put myself in position to have a chance by saying I was just going to coach some of my students. Then when we got there I walked in and took the form, I filled it out and handed my money over like I had planned to do it the whole time. I was on the verge of crumpling the paper and tossing it in the trash until I handed my money to the woman at the desk.

This was a surprisingly large mental hurdle for me to overcome. I have been training hard and regularly for years now despite the surgeries and everything else. I should have just slid right back out to competing with little muss or fuss, but, it was a lot harder than I expected it to be, to get back on the horse. All in all it felt great to do it. I survived and did well. No injuries and some good video doing the techniques I practice, which is always a point of emphasis I for me in class. I felt good, my wind was better than i expected. My technique felt a little slow but, that is also the result of just getting older. I felt like I should have done even better, which is a good thing. I still love the feeling of winning. Now to make sure it’s not seven years before I get to feel it again.


Keystones clock choke

Keystones – Ippon

Who’s Got the Fire

Lately, I’ve been thinking about something Art discussed a while back, thought I would share it as reflected through my own lens.  It concerns the three core areas involved in competing in judo or jiu jitsu (and most any other combat sport).  These are (1) technical proficiency (technique), (2) athletic ability and conditioning, and (3) fighting spirit.  The goal is always to be well developed in all three areas.  All of the top competitors have good technique, are athletic with excellent conditioning, and fight with a lot of spirit; they set the example many of us seek to emulate.  Most of us, however, are usually stronger in some these areas than in others.

Whatever your particular strengths and weaknesses, it is important to have at least two of these factors in your favor when competing.  As important as any one of them is, one factor alone is usually not going to be sufficient.  For example, technique is obviously critical.  It is rightly the focus of most classes and is important for many reasons beyond the sporting aspects of judo or BJJ.  That being said, I’ve seen people with very nice technique who were lazy and out of shape, had no heart, and had a very tough time competing.  Good technique and a lot of spirit, however, can go a long way in a competitive setting and do much to overcome a weakness in the conditioning area.  Similarly, it is not uncommon to see competitors who do not have great technique, but have good conditioning, a lot of spirit, and win a lot of matches while (hopefully) working to develop better technique.

I’m going to go out on a limb and express my own opinion that of the three factors, fighting spirit is arguably the most important.  I say this is because of the three, fighting spirit is the most intangible and the hardest to teach.  A good instructor (Ray) can teach most people to have some technique, and he can help them get into better shape and develop their athletic ability within their potential, but it is very hard to teach someone to have heart – to want to go out and win more than the other person.  Usually, that has to come from inside the competitor.  I also think that with enough fighting spirit, when you lose, you really don’t like it.  You want to win, so you want to develop better technique and better conditioning and are willing to work to develop those areas so that you can go out and win the next time.

One reason these three factors have been on my mind recently is having watched some of our competitors at a recent BJJ tournament.  In particular, one of the girls lost her first match and was getting beaten for over half of the second match.  But she had spirit, and did not give up before the match was over, kept her head in the game, kept fighting, and in the end, won with a nice submission.  Those are the types of victories that inspire me because they require spirit – mental toughness.  I think anyone who has competed to any significant degree knows what it’s like to fall behind early to good player, and to have to keep fighting against him/her and against your own mind telling you to give up because you’re going to lose anyway.  Technique and conditioning do not overcome that self-talk.  Fighting spirit does.

So, I have often found this breakdown helpful – (1) technical proficiency, (2) athletic ability and conditioning, and (3) fighting spirit.  Developing all three areas to the maximum extent is what makes for a good competitor.  If you find yourself on the losing end of a match, ask yourself why you lost, and work on your weakest area.  Most important, have heart throughout the process.  A good dose of fighting spirit will make the other areas easier to develop.

The Joys of Coaching

We have begun to have some of the students from Osagame Brazilian JIu Jitsu make appearances at tournaments. I’ve always enjoyed competing and it’s gratifying to see my students begin to compete very successfully. Because of the responsibilities of running the club and making sure all of the classes are available and instructed as much as possible, I don’t get to go to all of the tournaments to support and coach my competitors in person. I wish I did because I enjoy watching them compete and I also feel that effective match side coaching can make a difference in results for students.

This isn’t really true for all students. Some don’t like to be coached and don’t handle it well. they don’t like to give over any control of what they’re trying to do. Often, they are doing something that may be hard to see from the outside or can feel a problem with what is being suggested that may not be evident from the outside. Also one of the funniest coaching mistakes I see is when a coach points out an opponent’s mistake to his student, hoping his player will be able to capitalize on it. Much more often the student who has made the mistake hears the coaching and corrects the mistake themselves.

However, when a coach has a student who is receptive to being coached and is willing to act on the instructions it can be a huge advantage. At the New York Open one of my favorite students was competing in the white belt division. He followed up on his game plan and swept his opponent but, he came up into a guillotine. He was in a little trouble, but, would almost certainly have worked his way out of the submission. From the outside I could see the easiest way out of the choke. When I called out the instructions he followed them up and escaped the sub, passed and from there it was quick work to mount and submit his opponent.

Coaches can also take care of important logistical issues, making sure competitors are in the right place to compete and can focus on getting ready to compete. Likewise keeping track of the score and the remaining time can be crucial to putting students in the best position to be successful. During the match decisions on strategy should be dictated by the situation. Without all of the data to make the best tactical decision opportunities can be missed.

The other thing a coach can do is help students maintain a proper competitive focus. There are a lot of things that go into be mentally prepared to compete. Being ready and focused and not distracted by logistics is part of it. Being intense but not so nervous or intense that you fatigue yourself. Some people play best when they’re crazy and ready to rip someone apart some people play better relaxed and comfortable. with time a coach will be able to develop a rapport with his players that allows him to do the best for each person. It’s a mistake to treat everyone the same. Every players needs different levels of attention and encouragement. I’m really enjoying developing a sense of my students and what will be the best way to help them succeed. The downside is that with all of the responsibilities running the club and taking care of my family, I don’t get to be with my team as often as I would like. I am very fortunate to have an assistant instructor, Eric Silverman, who has developed into an excellent on the mat coach to back me up when i can’t be there.

The BJJ program is just beginning to develop competitors. So far the people who have competed representing our BJJ team have been extremely successful. I’m looking forward to seeing more students compete and doing all I can to help them be as successful as possible.

The best reason to compete in Judo or BJJ

Our club recently participated in the Liberty bell Judo Tournament, I don’t always get to go to tournaments because of my responsibilities at the club. Whenever I am able to attend and see everyone compete, I learn a lot about the status of the club as a whole and many of the particular team members.

I saw some problems that were particular to some of the competitors, but, I also saw some problems that quite a few people had. When a problem like this becomes evident, it let’s me know that we need to address a problem and make some changes to our training. In this case I saw a particular gripping problem that cropped up quite a few times. I also saw a general lack of commitment to finishing techniques. There was a little bit of a hesitation or inability among many of the competitors to get into the deepest part of the attack and aggressively try to finish the throws.

This tells me we need to focus more on finishing throws and throwing more in general. In general I was pleased with what I saw. Almost everyone did some things well. so we build upon the strengths. Likewise everyone did things that need to be improved. So we can address the weaknesses.

Here is an example. Isidore is one of our top players and dominates this match, but watching the match and the replay we noticed he was cutting his angle on his Osoto Gari a little too shallow. This was allowing him to throw, but the shallow angle was turning techniques that could have been Ippons into Yuko scores. this type of thing is most obviously revealed by seeing it in competition.

Competing is fun and there are very few things like winning. Competing regardless of the result is a great way to build character.The camaraderie and pride that comes from competing and representing your team and friends is a great experience. I encourage all students to compete for all of these reasons.

But for instructors, it’s important to see your people competing, to have the best chance to help them achieve their goals and improve their skills and address their weaknesses, there is nothing like seeing students tested in the reality of competition. Instructors shouldn’t be obsessed with winning and try to hold students back so they can win matches. The best long term results will be to challenge students to succeed at the higher levels. This will allow their weaknesses to be exposed and then the real work of addressing them can begin.

2012 IBJJF Pan Ams Experience

Recently I took a trip out to California for the IBJJF Pan American Championships.  The tournament is the largest I’ve ever competed in;  spanning  four days with over 3,000 competitors.  While overall I didn’t do so well, I’m happy with the way I fought.

I ended up losing by an advantage which seems to be a common theme for me lately.  I played my game though working the brabo choke, transitioned to a triangle, worked some open guard (which I’ve been working on lately), and even some deep half guard.  My one regret was playing it a little safe.  The score was tied and I had the triangle. In fear that she wouldn’t tap (as most girls are annoying in that respect), I tried to transition to a sweep to get points to put me ahead and in the process lost the submission.  I obviously can’t be certain doing so would have won me the match, but I do regret losing the good position.

I don’t usually make specific goals for competing, but I always have an idea of where I want to be in relation to skill level  and competively for different increments of time.  It’s been almost a year since I got my blue belt, but I still consider myself an early blue belt.  That being said, I didn’t expect to win the gold (though I still tried).   The greatest thing I took away from my experience is the fact that I’m close to believing I could have won it all.  That probably sounds wrong, but it’s hard to describe.  It’s not that I think that I am an amazing competitor, but more along the lines that I can see the gap between where I am and where I need to be gradually shrinking.

All in all, it was a very productive trip; I think I’ve watched more jiu-jitsu in the past week than I have in my entire life! Haha.  There were some upsets and surprise outcomes, but overall,  lots of clean technique.

Check out some pictures from the event (unfortunetley none of me):
IBJJF Facebook Photos



Beating the Lurkers – When do I stop being countered in Judo and BJJ?

One of the things I love most about Judo is the idea of imposing your will and your technique on your opponent. When you’re working take downs and you throw your opponent with a big, devastating take down for Ippon. It’s even more satisfying when your opponent knows exactly what you want to do and you do it to them anyway. so my strong preference for a style of play is to attack aggressively and dominate your opponent. My least favorite style of play is the player who waits and then tries to tackle the person who attacks. This truly is Judo (and BJJ takedowns for that matter) at it’s absolute worst.

It such a defeatists position to lurk around playing hyper defensively and then when the other person finally attacks, sometimes even from a bad position, to grab them and try to counter them. This can clearly be an effective strategy, even more so in BJJ than in Judo.. But, iit can work in Judo too. However, It’s effective but only up to a point.

Players who depend on running away and then countering their attackers are fooled by their early success. Against less experienced opponents, this lurker strategy has some clear advantages. When you don’t really have confidence in your offense, most people would rather try to depend on the defense. defense seems easy, make your arms stiff and push your opponent away, push your hips as far away you can, never actually risk anything by committing an attack of your own. Voila! You now know everything you need to know about just trying not to get thrown but very little about actually throwing your opponent. Couple this with trying to tackle and drag down someone who actually attacks and you have the strategy of way too many BJJ players and more Judo people than you might think.

Recently in class, I was asked, “When do you stop being countered?”. For me I stopped (mostly) being countered  around I made Shodan. But, it wasn’t about the rank, it was about my confidence in my technique. When I fully committed to throwing the my forward technique, Harai Goshi and my instructor told everyone in the room, that was all I would be using for the next year, It was open season on being countered. I was regularly crushed with Tani Otoshis and Ura Nage. I didn’t mind being countered like that. It was usually the black belts and it was usually a big well executed throw. But, I didn’t like the lower ranked students who would just wait and then try to either tackle me or just sit and try to drag me down. This worked for a few months, then my technique improved. I gleefully began to exact vengeance on the ones who would try to just run away and then try to sit down and drag me with them.I did this by throwing and landing on them as often and as hard as possible. The first thing this taught me was total commitment once you attack. Holding back at all is the quickest way to get countered. The next thing I learned was sometimes you need to recognize an attack is going to fail and bail out on it. When you give up on a forward technique, you can either try to back out or you can drive yourself to the ground. I learned that I much preferred driving all the way to the ground and never, ever, ever back out a technique.

Backing out of a technique is the fastest and easiest way to be countered. When you try to retreat you are totally exposed to being dragged down by a lurker. Total initial commitment to the attack makes it hard to back out of an attack anyway. Couple that with a refusal to retreat, instead, driving forward until you’re on the ground and your percentage of successfully throwing skyrockets and your percentage of being countered becomes extremely small. That sounds like a pretty good exchange to me. It doesn’t necessarily have to be just the one attack either. You can attack with a technique and then follow up with another technique, the key is to not give up and just stop attacking and try to retreat to neutral. That moment is when you’re most vulnerable to being countered/tackled. Here is a great example of that idea captured by Lex at Eastern Open Judo tournament. One of our competitors Lee Wentz is fighting. You can see his constant attacking through out the match. Several times his opponent tries to grab him and tackle him but fails. Finally, Lee crushes a belt grip Harai Makikomi as the culmination of a series of attacks.

The key element is the commitment to the attack. If he had been lazy with his attacks and tried to back away from the attack, there is a chance he could have been tackled and lost to a clearly inferior opponent. Instead the result is a technique of the day level ippon.The key to not being countered is commitment to your attack and never retreat once you’ve attacked. The only way out of a failed attack is forward.

I do want to emphasize, though, that there is a place for counter techniques. All players need to practice their counters, like every other technique. There is a time for them. counters should be used in the exchange of offensive technique that both players should engage in. If you’re attacking and the opportunity to throw your opponent arises, you seize it! What you don’t do is play ultra defensively, running from the fight, and hoping to tackle your opponent who is attacking you.

Counter techniques at their best can be crushing and when executed properly are an important weapon in the arsenal. My favortite counter is Te Guruma (also call Sukui Nage). Which is a great counter to Osoto Gari, Uchi Mata and the belt grip

There are also some huge Ura Nage counters to Lazy forward throws  Ouchi Gari and Uchi Mata (which I learned the hardest and frequent way possible as a brown belt).

The unifying failure of these three attacker(who were absolutely crushed btw) Was they were unable to get their hips through the attack zone. This is when you are most vulnerableto Ura Nage.

The other most frequently seen counter is Tani Otoshi, which is by far my least favorite. It is the one that can most easily be used by the lurkers and a student who becomes overly dependent upon it runs the risk of developing a lurker style. I have gone so far as to actually ban it from randori when students begin to use it too much. Not only does it hinder the improvement of the student who depends on it, but it can frustrate the attacking student who begins to question his technique.

These are beautiful techniques executed by skillful players at the highest level, but, the failure that led to the score was the attacker hesitating with his opponent behind him. Once your opponent is behind you it’s time to throw or fail, failure to throw successfully by itself does not lead to defeat. Hesitation once you have committed to the attack leads to defeat.

So, What I have come to believe is that Judo is about throwing the other person down, whether they like it or not. So go out and grab them and toss them. If you don’t want to be countered then you need 100% commitment to your attack and never retreat. If you fail, then fail driving forward. Counters are important and should be used but, only as a supplement to your offense not and a replacement for your own technical shortcomings.

Setting Goals for 2012

I think it’s hard to accomplish much in the dojo or in life without setting measurable goals. By “measurable”, I mean you can determine precisely the progress towards achieving that goal.

An example goal would be to attend 150 classes in 2012. Does that sound like a lot? It is in one sense, but if you’re dedicated and consistent, it’s easy! Just make sure you come in 3 times a week, every week, without exceptions. Unless… you absolutely positively have to miss a class, then make up for it by doing 4 next week.

That’s just an example. Everyone approaches the sport of judo and jiu jitsu differently, and looks for different things from it. But whatever you want, be consistent about it! To me, doing something every day is the only way to do things I love. Even if it’s just 30 minutes… Once the activity becomes part of my daily ritual, it becomes much easier to not skip. So go ahead, make a plan and stick with it. The first 2 months will be tough, but after that it’s a piece of cake (for the most part, of course)!

I try to make goals throughout the year, but it’s nice to make a tradition of setting a couple of big ones at the start of the year. For example, last year I set two goals: (1) do 100 matches in competition and (2) spend a certain number of hours on the mat (training judo and jiu jitsu). I exceeded the second goal and just fell short of the first.

It helps to keep a record of data relevant to your goal, whether that be the number of classes you attend, your body weight, or the number of times you successfully throw tai otoshi in randori.

This year my goals are:

  • 100 competition matches.
  • Beat 15 black belts in judo competition (making it 20 total).

I like to set two goals. One that’s tough but doable with 80% chance, and one that’s really tough but still doable with 20% chance. Beating 15 black belts is my 20% percent goal. Much like in the Occupy Wall Street movement, if I want to be part of the 20%, I’m going to have to occupy the mats :-)