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This is basically a question about how to encourage randori (free play) versus shiai (competition) during throwing practice. Randori is supposed to be friendly; the objective is further development of both partners rather than winning an athletic competition. Behaviors such as falling on your partner while throwing (makikomi) are discouraged in randori due to injury risk, but would not be in shiai.

At the judo club where I practice, there is a tendency for randori to be at shiai intensity. For people of higher skill levels, this is not a problem, but it presents an injury risk for beginner or intermediate practitioners, especially when there is a size disparity. In particular, this has been an injury problem for women, who tend to be smaller than the men and frequently do not have options for training partners of comparable size.

Aside from repeating lectures about the difference between randori and shiai, what are ways to develop good habits for randori?

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I've trained in many martial arts schools. There have always been one or two individuals that didn't know their own strength or who simply had some kind of mental issue that caused them to scare everyone else in the class who had the misfortune of partnering up with them.

And I'm not even talking about sparring. It could be a nice, smooth, flowing, stationary Taiji push-hands exercise where the object is to use as little force as possible to unbalance and get your opponent to take a simple step, never grabbing, never shoving, and never striking. And then suddenly you hear "thud" after "thud" on someone's chest across the room as they're obviously beating on someone, and you look over there and see some guy being thrown into a mirror on the wall. Seriously, this actually happened.

Well, the instructor needs to step in, take the offending guy aside, and explain that this level of force or intensity is not helping them, and that everyone else in the class is scared or angered by them. They should be given a second chance. But if they continue with their behavior, they should be tossed out and told not to return.

Often times, though, students are actually unaware of it. They don't know they're scaring or hurting others. Once they're told, they cringe and apologize. They didn't mean to be mean. And they improve from that point on.

On the other hand, others I've run into had this idea that martial arts training is supposed to teach students how to fight. So each thing they do in class is a kind of fight, with the same intensity and the same contempt shown for ones opponent. And they think everyone who doesn't play hard like them is just weak and shouldn't be training in martial arts if they have a problem with it. Like it's their job to show them the way of the warrior.

Those kinds of people are not easy to fix. They should be told that they're in the wrong school, and that they need to enroll in an MMA prize fighting school instead. After all, that's going to give them exactly what they want. And if they do actually go to one of those places to train and try to pull the hard core "warrior" crap with them, they're going to get beaten to a pulp.

As for Judo in particular, one thing an instructor should do is to sit the class down and explain to them that it's much better to lose to your opponent in class while trying to learn from it, rather than winning merely by forcing yourself on your opponent. The only thing you've learned in the latter case is that you were physically stronger than your classmate, which does you very little good. In the long-run, training without trying to force things will result in steady improvement.

My Judo instructor was a woman, by the way. She was a 5th dan at the time. She observed that female Judo students would learn the key concepts quicker than male students did, in general. And the reason she gave was that the males tended to want to compensate for their lack of skill by using their muscles to force things, whereas the females didn't have that option. Lacking muscle strength, the females needed to be more skilled in order to win. And so they "invested in loss" and learned easier and smarter ways of overcoming each situation.

Males can do the same thing, of course, if they're actively trying to be aware of their use of muscle power. Speed is still just fine. But powering through a technique is not. Using leverage, using positioning, using body mass, using timing and speed, all of those things are what you should be working on.

So if you're in Judo class, and you're rolling with a much weaker opponent, make sure you're not using more strength than they are. Make it a game. Make it a rule if you like. Or have your instructor make it a rule. Each partner needs to use only the level of force that the other person is showing, and no more, even if it means losing. This way, your wins will be more meaningful, and your losses will teach you something.

One other thing. You can extend this rule to every other attribute as well, besides just muscle strength. If your partner in class prefers to go slow and remain calm and analytical, you should go slow and remain calm. If your partner is a white belt, and you're a black belt, use only white belt techniques and skills they might have and nothing else. If your partner weighs significantly less than you do, try using only that much body weight against them. Don't attempt to smother them. Etc. You get the idea.

Hope that helps.

  • I am really looking for guidance on the "Make it a game" aspect. What should games/drills look like so people unconsciously start applying the same lessons outside the game? – mattm Feb 18 '16 at 14:08
  • Instructors can demonstrate what it feels like. Like take the kesa-gatame hold. Show how to power out of kesa-gatame. Then show a gentler way to escape. To emphasize it, have the smallest student do the hold on the largest student. Tell the larger of the two to power out of it. It was easy. Now reverse the positions so that the smaller student is being held, and tell him/her to do the same power move. If the smaller student can't do it, then it shows that the technique won't work reliably for the larger student either, if he encounters a larger opponent than himself. – Steve Weigand Feb 18 '16 at 21:14
  • I think most grapplers appreciate being shown escapes, reversals, etc. that seem effortless. For the "make it a game" aspect, this comes with experience. Once students learn more and more of them, they want to try them in randori. So, instructors should make it a part of their regular daily lessons, emphasizing calmness and using your head, not your brawn. When students are exposed to this kind of thinking enough, they'll do it all on their own. They'll get it. It just takes experience and training. – Steve Weigand Feb 18 '16 at 21:20
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As a former 'offender' myself I hope I can offer some insight.

TL;DR: do not allow them to do randori until they do at least several thousand throws. Let them build up confidence in falling first. When I say 'confidence' I do not mean the fake confidence that serves you only with no opponent. I mean real confidence that makes me believe that I'll be OK even after you tossed me on the mat.

When I started judo I obviously know nothing about it, but due to years of serious weight and kettlebell training I had physical strength that exceeded that of most people including my fellow judokas. (As a sidenote, I am sorry to say that many martial artist are terrible athletes)

I guess judo throws are the most complex movements that the human body capable of. There is so much that needs to be just right: the movement, position, stance, dynamic, and timing, timing , timing. Any throw needs to be practiced a gazillion times to get familiar with it.

They however just showed me the throw but they failed to allocate enough time to practice and digest it.
As if it had been a crash course we just ran through a bunch of throws but I digested none. It is not that they did not try to explain it to me, there was no shortage of explanation. I just lacked the time to absorb the technique. As I said these judo throws are tremendously complex movements especially if you come from pure strength training background where something like a proper deadlift is considered technically complex. After that I 'learned' some throws and some basic breakfalls I was said to be ready to do free randori with a guy who actually had 10+ years to master that throw. I lacked the confidence, but I trusted their judgement. And I was thrown and that did not feel as a play. So consequently I decided not to be thrown again. (actually I voiced my concerns about the lack of practicing, but that was somehow misunderstood as if I needed more explanation. When I say I needed more practice I did not mean that I needed to do seoie nage ten more times. I needed to do seoie nage as long as it takes to absorb the technique including the role of the uke. Hundreds of times over and over again. I suspect they wanted to keep the whole class somewhat consistent so I did not get the opportunity to work on the basics. As a result I did not really learned them.)

When I was asked to do randori again I did not decline it. But in order to reduce my discomfort I resorted to what I was good at: brute, physical strength.

Now I train at a different dojo. Here I do not want to practice anything other than the basics. But I want to practice the basics over and over again. Until I develop real mastery. This way I'll build up enough confidence in throwing and in falling that make a playful randori possible. And hopefully I won't be forced to use brute strength as a last resort.

I hope it helps.

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One thing that can keep sparring safe is "positional sparring".

Rather than have the two contenders face off in a mock bout... Start with something simpler, like competing to see who can get their opponent onto one leg, or who can maneuver their opponent across a line or outside of the ring.

This will help students develop an understanding of body mechanics, balance, etc, without dropping each other on their heads.

We often do this in novice BJJ classes, where we compete to see who can get to a slightly better position, rather than who can submit the other.

It's also good to practice catching your opponent. You don't need to throw them across the room, just take their balance & hang on to their gi so they don't hit the floor too hard until they know their breakfalls.

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If a judoka is using excessive force, it would be better to have a quiet word with your sensei or instructor. He can monitor the judoka in question. If there is a problem the sensei should give a lesson explaining in the club you are here to practice, not for medals or street fighting. The judoka you are practicing with more than likely has work in the morning and doesn't want an injury. Throws known to give hard landings should be practiced on the crash mat for lower grades. In randori (free practice) throws should be taken to point of throw but Uke (defender) must respect the fact that Tori (attacker) has stop the throw knowing the throw would have been executed to the finish and does not counter attack when Tori stops the throw. For experienced judoka, randori (free practice) means free practice so throws at this level would be allowed because the Judoka would have the experience in ukemi waza and have the experience not to keep using heavy throwing techniques in every practice with every Judoka.

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