Concentration in Judo Training

By Neil Ohlenkamp

Seishin (Pure Mind) by Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888) My sensei was once asked if he practiced meditation in his Judo classes. His answer was, "Every time I step onto the mat." His students did not see him meditating, he never sat still, he did not close his eyes. Yet there was no doubt that his mind was free of extraneous thoughts. His concentration, control, and focus were obvious. He was constantly striving for self-improvement, mentally as well as physically. After years of martial arts training, the very act of training became a form of meditation.

When a student first starts Judo classes, it is often difficult to learn the basic techniques. Controlling your own body is the first challenge, and this cannot be done without controlling your mind as well. Self-control is an essential element for the successful student, and it is learned through disciplined training and focus. After years of such training the physical aspects of Judo become easier, and so do the mental aspects.

Stepping onto the Judo mat requires complete concentration for safety and success, so eventually it becomes impossible to step onto the mat without total commitment. The same degree of concentration is found in many demanding Olympic sports. But it can also be seen outside of sports in the mental state of a minister performing a holy service, or a pilot landing an airplane. It is a lesson of Judo that develops naturally during training, just as so many other lessons do, like the value of hard work and never giving up.

There is no question that an athlete entering an Olympic Judo match would need a high degree of concentration to face the opponent. This is one of the many challenges of competition training. However a typical student in any Judo class faces many situations where a lapse in attention could be dangerous or result in failure. Because Judo is a martial art derived from various Japanese combat methods, it maintains the mostly symbolic, yet serious, life-and-death approach to training. It requires a presence in the here and now so that decisive action can be taken immediately, before the opportunity is lost. The goal of diligent training is self-perfection both mentally and physically.

In Japanese, concentration is called Seishin Toitsu. Seishin is a pure mind, or the spirit. Toitsu is gathering together, or focusing on the here and now. Basically it means that the mind is focused toward achieving the task at hand. This unity of mind and body, spirit and action, is the same as giving total effort. It is only when a person is centered and focused that one can act decisively, as is required in Judo.

A Judo Competition Throw

For the sake of contrast, compare this with the western tradition of oil painting. An oil painter begins mixing colors and trying different strokes, adding layer upon layer of color until shapes become defined. The artist can step back to look at it from a different angle, look at it another day, or ask for an opinion from someone else. If it doesn't look right more paint is applied, replacing one color with another. Although a true artist may not waste a stroke, it is possible to keep trying various colors until the artist stumbles upon a beautiful combination. When this happens the final painting does not reflect every detail of the creation.

This is very different from Judo and other Japanese traditions, such as the art of calligraphy (shodo). Well-known calligrapher Eri Takase says, "But with the calligraphy brush, as with the sword, one cannot escape from the effects of indecisiveness and hesitation. One cannot start over. One cannot change what has already been done. With calligraphy as with the tea ceremony as with the martial arts, all movements are visible and an integral part of the art. The speed with which the line is drawn. The pause. The fluidity of one movement into the next. A powerful line. A gentle line. All visible. All an integral part of the art."

She continues, "This is the nature of Japanese calligraphy and the martial arts. It has been this way in ancient times and it is this way today. The end result is not the point. The end result will happen only by focusing on the process. Only when the mind (Seishin) is one (Toitsu) will the end result flow from the act. And so it is the process: the planning, the grinding of the ink, the mental preparation, the Seishin Toitsu that is all important."

One of the paradoxes of Judo training is that through concentrated effort one learns effortless action. Diligent, concentrated training is required to free the mind and body to act together in unity.

Meditation is a valuable training for the mind, but Seishin Toitsu can certainly be achieved by following many roads. Judo, the way of gentleness and pliancy, is one such path. Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), the author of "The Book of Five Rings", followed a different path and was known as a master of swordsmanship. However, he was also famous for his calligraphy and painting. The common thread found in all these Japanese arts is Seishin Toitsu.

My sensei often reminds me of how Judo has contributed to success in so many areas of his life. Although he has seldom used the physical skills of Judo off the mat, every day he benefits from the training he received in Seishin Toitsu.


Seiryoku zenyo: The Principle of Maximum Efficiency