The single worst misconception about Judo is the idea that it isn’t safe to practice, or less safe than other combat arts or sports. This perceived lack of safety is a myth at schools that understand how to get students practicing safely. And for schools that don’t? It’s self-fulfilled prophecy.
People used to watch practice at my old Judo club and say, “I don’t know if I could take those falls!” Sometimes we in the Judo community begin to wrongly take pride in this perception, like we are the special few who can engage in this dangerous activity.
Well, that’s utter bullshit.
My reply to the person who claims they can’t take a Judo fall is always the same.
“Do you know how to fall? No? Then you probably can’t take a fall. And you probably shouldn’t jump off a diving board if you can’t swim, or get behind the wheel of a car if you can’t drive.”
Unless they were sick, abusive people, your parents didn’t throw you into a pool before you learned to swim. And they didn’t hand you car keys before enrolling you in driver’s ed. We don’t think of them this way, because they’re so routine and easy for most everyone, but driving and swimming are two of the most dangerous activities one can engage in if not properly initiated.
We understand that there is an initial safety training period in any such activity, the purpose of which is to build core safety precautions before moving on to more intermediate and advanced aspects.
Judo is no different.
Safety on the mats works in two ways – safety as a tori (thrower), and safety as an uke (person being thrown).
Safety as an uke can be summarized with one word – “Ukemi”, the art of break-falling. Everybody who trains not only Judo, but Sambo, BJJ, even traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, should know the basics of ukemi. Students should understand how to take proper falls, no excuses.
Uke can also help themselves and tori in other ways while taking a fall from a throw, such as not keeping your legs spread apart when being lifted, and making sure to look to the side instead of straight down (avoids taking an overhead spill).
For the tori, it is imperative that you learn to be a good partner. Uke is lending you their body for practice – respect that. Follow through on your throw, don’t let uke drop like a sack of potatoes in mid-air. If your technique is too sloppy and you aren’t sure about your ability to complete the throw, put in more uchikomi instead of risking injury to uke. (This is where good coaching comes in, too)
In our no-gi Judo program at Earthbound dojo, students must complete 50 classes before engaging in any significant randori (practice matches). They must also complete 25 classes of ashi waza (leg based throws) before moving on to hip, shoulder, and sacrifice throws where risk of injury is more significant.
This ensures that students have put enough time into learning ukemi, newaza, and simple ashi waza throws that convey important lessons about footwork and balance, so that I as their coach have a baseline of trust in their ability to protect themselves and others.
I think it is important that beginner students learn how to be safe first and foremost, and be introduced to Judo through fun exercises and the slow drilling of techniques on the feet and on the ground. Too many instructors embrace the old school Japanese method of trial by fire, immediately putting new Judoka through rigorous uchikomi and hard fitness drills. And if the student decides it isn’t for them, well then they never belonged in the first place.
Hard, rigorous work is critical to the practice of Judo, but so is falling in love with the art. My belief is that new students should learn to love Judo, the philosophy, the methodology, instead of getting the “this is so hard that I resent it” treatment right off the bat.
Developing passion in beginner students is important, because they’ll be eager to work hard later on.
How did we get from safe practice to being passionate about Judo? They go hand in hand. Understanding the importance of falling, and how the methods behind proper ukemi have echoes in the throwing techniques we practice, will give purpose to the repetitious falls. And they will be worth the price of admission if students can move from ukemi to slow, enjoyable technique drilling.
Over time, they will learn to appreciate the core aspects of Judo, and the importance of ukemi. In my opinion, ukemi is the single most important skill you’ll ever learn in Judo, because it retains its real-world relevance for life. You won’t always need to defend yourself. You might never need to. And you might never choose to compete with or without the gi. But you will fall, I promise. From skiing, to motorcycle accidents, to falling off a bike or even tripping over a curb, I have heard and personally experienced countless situations where ukemi has saved the person from significant injury.
Judo IS for you. Those falls aren’t so hard if you take the time to learn how to do it. And if you train in a school where respect for your own safety and that of your partner’s is in the fabric of the culture, then your chances of getting hurt during practice will be exponentially lower.
So how safe is Judo? Well, there’s always damage that comes with a certain amount of mileage in any physical activity. But just remember: Judo is one of the only organized activities in the world where safety is built into the curriculum.
I hope that encourages those hesitant people to step onto the mat.