40 Years of Judo and It’s Impact on my Writing

Forty years ago, I stepped onto the mat at my local judo club for the first time. Judo has been a part of my life ever since. I have been fortunate to have had many great teachers (sensei) over the years, and many more peers to practice with (judoka), and I am extremely grateful for all of that time on the mat, the friends I have made and the lessons I’ve learned. While I never became the champion I’d hoped to be as a kid, through judo, I have learned many valuable lessons that have made me successful so many dimensions of my life… as a father, as a scientist and clinician, as a professor, in my relationships with friends, in my time as a solider, and as a writer. I can’t describe all of this in a single blog post, but today I can share a little about how judo has helped me as a writer.

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Lesson 1: How to Fall

Ukemi— the breakfall.

There’s an old Japanese proverb that says: fall down seven times, stand up eight. If I had to reduced all of judo’s life lessons into a single statement, this would be a top contender.

This first thing you learn as a student in judo is how to fall. It should be easy, right? I mean, gravity does most of the work. But the point is to fall in such a way that you can stand back up again. You learn to spread your body out, and use our arms to transfer your kinetic energy to the mat in a directed manner that doesn’t involve breaking bones. You learn how to fall backward, forward and sideways. You learn how to roll out of a fall, protect your head, and come back up on your feet.

I have had a number of massive wipeouts in my life. Once, hiking in the mountains with the girl who would later become my wife, I tried to impress her by jumping down a rocky trail… and ended up in an ass over tea kettle fall. When I landed she had thought I snapped a femur! And I easily could have, but I managed to roll with the fall because my body knew what to do. I bounce back up, a little sore, but otherwise okay. Had I broken a leg, it would have meant a helicopter rescue, and given the remoteness of where we were, that would not have been fast coming. The thing is, even if that had been the only time judo saved me, it would have been worth it.

The point of course isn’t even so much the physical safety. Training your body to get back up after a fall also trains your brain. You learn that there are aspects of even the most chaotic situation that you can control. And you learn that you can get back up and keep going. When you do this on a regular basis on a mat, you can apply it to school, professional work, and even writing. When your manuscript is rejected, you take what feedback you can collect, improve it and move on.

That’s a skill worth more than gold.

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Core Principles of Judo

The first fundamental principle of judo is Seiryoko-Zenyo — 精力善用
(kanji from Wikipedia). It means to make maximum efficient use of energy.

In a competitive combative situation, each opponent has a fixed amount of energy they can expend. The physical techniques in judo (and many other martial arts) are focused on the strategic application of force in such a way as to achieve your goal (i.e. throwing your opponent on their back) while expending as little energy as possible. A fight or match is ultimately an optimization problem! No wonder it’s appealing to a physicist.

It’s self-explanatory how this concept applies to real life. Work smarter, not harder. Always seek to improve your skill set. Judo makes you do this on the mat and so it becomes habit to translate it to real life.

The second principle is Jita-Kyoei — 自他共栄
(kanji from Wikipedia). It means for mutual welfare and benefit.

The point of practicing judo is that all who do will benefit. This is why you can see fighters who can literally be trying to strangle each other in one moment, and then shaking hands and congratulating each other the next.

For me, this principle tends to make judo stand out as a martial art as well. Because of the mutual benefit rule, judo was designed so that it can be practiced at full speed with minimal risk of injury to the players. There are no (competitive) striking techniques. Other techniques that carry too much risk of injury are also omitted (or practiced only in kata).

This principle also has self-explanatory applications in the real world. Though a judo match itself is a zero sum game, both parties derive benefit from the match. Even when you get the wind knocked out of you, you get up and now you’ve identified a flaw in your technique.

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Translating Judo Experience into Writing

Write What You Know

Having spent so much time on the mat, I know what it’s like to fight competitively. I know how to apply armlocks and strangulation techniques. I know how to break someone’s balance and throw them to the ground. I know what it feels like to be choked out, how quickly one can physically tire, how anxiety, excitement, anger and fear can influence a person. Judo has given me a vast array of experiences to draw on when describing a character in danger or locked in a physical confrontation.

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The Outcome is Always a Dice Throw

Training, study, experience, physical fitness, size, speed, stamina, injury, and psychological motivation can all influence the outcome of a match in one direction or another. But there are no guarantees. These things simply make one outcome more probable than another. But I’ve seen a white belt (beginner) at his first tournament throw a black belt. Experienced fighters all know this. So no matter how good a character is, there are always elements that character cannot control.

As a writer you can take advantage of this so that you can move a story along as you need to.

The Difference Between Theory and Skill

I can show someone how to perform a throwing technique. I can break it down into its core elements of kuzushi (the breaking of your opponent’s balance), tsukuri (proper positioning to apply the technique), and kake (the final, forceful application of the technique). I can explain where the opponent’s (uke‘s) centre of gravity should be, and where that of the person applying the technique (tori) should be. I can review variations, setups, and combinations. I can show all of that and the student can understand it conceptually… meaning they understand the theory.

But almost always, the first time you try a new technique in free practice (randori) against someone who is not willing to let you apply it, it doesn’t work.

Skill is the ability to successfully apply the technique. It comes with years of training and development. You learn the subtle details about where to grab, how to move your feet. You develop muscle memory so you can capitalize on a split-second opening, without consciously recognizing it and needing to make the decision to attack. You work it into a larger strategy, using other techniques to set it up.

This applies to writing in general as well. You can learn and understand the “rules” – show don’t tell, avoid the info dumps, active voice, etc. but you need to work with them, practice with them and get critical feedback from audiences (editors, beta readers, critiquers, agents, people in your writing group, etc.) to develop your skills.

Should Writers Try Judo?

As a writer it’s important to try lots of things.

As a far as martial arts go, judo is quite accessible. It is designed to be practiced at full speed, so you get a full combative experience minus the head trauma or broken bones. But it doesn’t have to be practiced at full speed or even competitively. I’ve seen people practicing kata into their late eighties.

According to the International Judo Federation, roughly 20 million people in 199 countries around the world practice judo. It is well-established as an Olympic sport, and so it should be relatively easy to find a club or dojo near you, wherever you are. In my experience, it is relatively inexpensive for a martial art (certainly compared to a lot of other sports).

That said, you can get knocked around a lot. The risk of injury is certainly not zero. So it’s important that you go in understanding the risks.

For me the study and the practice of judo is certainly worth it, not just for what I can apply to my writing, but for the life lessons I’ve learned, the friendships I’ve made, and the life balance that comes along with it.