Proper Technique?

By Steve Scott

Dai-Nikyo

A few comments made recently by different people in different situations prompted me to write this article. The subject is “proper technique” and what that implies. I may get kind of opinionated on all of this, but keep in mind that I’m not really a bad guy, just one with an opinion based on objective criteria and a fair amount of experience.

One of my black belts who lives in another state recently e-mailed me and told me about a conversation he had with a judo instructor. This instructor told my guy that he “would rather lose and place fourth in a tournament using proper technique than have to use competition-style judo.”

I recently met another fellow who is a black belt in judo here locally and he told me judo in particular and the martial arts in general are in a sorry state of affairs and that his instructor “taught proper technique,” and “not the stuff that it takes to win.” Like the first guy I mentioned, this gentleman told me he would rather lose and use “authentic judo” than have to resort to “this new stuff they use these days.” (Now here’s a fellow, who by his own admission, has never trained outside of a few clubs in the Kansas City area, told me he hasn’t put on a judogi in 10 years, but has the inside scoop on what is “authentic.”)

harai goshi Another example. Some of you old-timers (like me) may remember this one. Back in the late 1960s or early 1970s, a gentleman who was the U.S. World Team Coach one year for judo was lamenting about the poor technique used by many of the European judo teams. He said something like (and I paraphrase from memory) “I would rather have my athletes lose and do correct judo than win and use flawed technique.” It was also reported that he said he preferred “the U.S. team to do properly done breakfalls than improperly done throws.”

It’s a flawed premise (hence, the name of this article) to assume that the only way to win at sport judo (or any other combat sport) is to not use “proper technique.” Does that imply only “improper technique” wins? Does that imply that “proper technique” is not good enough to win in a sport (or realistic) situation?

What is “proper technique” and who is the final arbiter of deciding what is? Jigoro Kano, the founder of Kodokan Judo, shook the jujutsu world in the 1880’s and was criticized often for his approach to teaching jujutsu. It’s my estimation that while Prof. Kano did his best to retain ties to the traditions of the older jujutsu schools, he wanted to develop a system of jujutsu (his Kodokan Judo) that would be utilitarian, functional and adaptable to every situation so it would work, and work with a high ratio of success.

I would agree that poorly performed techniques or skills are not to be encouraged, and we’ve all seen some situations where one guy was “less bad” than his opponent and won the match. But if we assume that all matches are won in this way, then we are making a false assumption. But, good judo is good judo. It doesn’t have to come out of a mold or mimic a Japanese master. Nothing wrong with the Japanese masters. I respect them. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a firm believer in giving credit to where it is due and the Japanese gave us a wonderful gift in judo, jujtisu and the other martial arts. If for nothing else, this deserves our respect and thanks. I’m not a fan of those who dismiss anything that is “old-fashioned” as ineffective. We see that a lot these days in the martial arts and it’s not a good thing.

Fortunately, there are enough people who respect what has been taught and try to add to the body of knowledge that exists. Not dismissing it as old or ineffective, but not going to the other extreme and insisting that anything the deviates from exactly what someone taught you is not “proper.” When someone does a hip throw ehn he’s been asked to do a foot sweep, that’s obviously not “proper” or “correct.” he didn’t do the rigth throw. When that same someone does a foot sweep, but does it so poorly that it doesn’t work, even with a non-resisting partner, then that is also not “proper.” The bottom line here is that the technique has to work. To make it work, the person doing it must perform the physical and mechanical skills of the throw to make it have the desired effect on his opponent or partner. To make that happen, the person doing the move must adapt all movements in the technique to fit to his body and fit to the situation at hand. No one does the same technique in the exact same way as another human being. These things are like personalities. We all have one, but they are all unique.

But there is something definitely wrong when someone says that he would rather lose and do “proper technique.” If his technique is “proper” then it should be good enough to win. Good skills will stand the test of time. That’s why throws like uchi mata (the inner thigh throw), seoi nage (the “shoulder” throw) and o soto gari (major outer reap) work as well today as they did 50 years ago. It’s simply common sense to acknowledge the fact that we study the basic skills of a move and if the technique suits our body type, strength level, attitude, style and other physical, mental and emotiional factors, we mold it to fit our needs and make it work for us. That’s simply human nature and that is very authentic. No one does a throw or hold the exact same way someone else did, especially in the realistic situations of competition or self-defense. I mentioned this a paragraph or two ago, but it’s worth saying in a different way.

Back in the 1980s, I had an interesting conversation with a referee at the junior nationals. Kenney Brink, one of my athletes, won his age and weight class and won all of his matches by ippon. He had about 5 or 6 matches. I remember this so well because of my conversation with the referee I mentioned.

The referee told me he “hated to referee” Kenney’s matches. I asked him why. The referee told me that Kenney had the potential to be a good judo man, but his technique was “so sloppy.” I pondered that for a moment and quickly reviewed Kenney’s performance that day. He won 2 matches with an uchi mata for an ippon, won another match with a seoi nage (shoulder throw) for an ippon, won another match with a juji gatame (cross-body armlock) and another with a kesa gatame (scarf lock) for an ippon. I listed all of this to the referee and he replied that sure, “Kenney is good, but he doesn’t do judo like the Japanese.” I asked exactly what did that that mean? The referee couldn’t define it, but he insisted that Kenney didn’t have “good technique.” I mentioned that all of his opponents were other young black or brown belts, and Kenney didn’t have an easy opponent all day, but it wasn’t good enough for this referee. Now, granted, the referee had never competed in a national tournament himself and he readily admitted that to me.

Seems to me that it’s a lot easier to be critical of someone when the critic has never tried doing what he’s critical of to begin with. I have found that, for the most part, people who haven’t trained to the limit of their abilities (whether it be in the arena of competition or self-defense) are quicker to criticize others than someone who has put it on the line. I’m not saying that you have to have been a world-class athlete to offer a critique or make a comment. But, one can’t have empathy unless he or she has at least made an honest effort and participated to his or her best effort.

I sincerely believe that Prof. Kano stressed efficiency when he developed Kodokan Judo. Certainly, elements of older jujutsu schools were retained in his Kodokan syllabus, and any individual who wants to really understand Kodokan Judo should take the time and effort to study this phase of the art. An important part of the study of judo is the inderstanding of its “roots” and the concepts that form judo. “If we don’t know where we came from, we don’t know where we are” is an old mariner’s saying that certanly applies here.

However, what we often see are people who use the excuse of “proper judo” for lazy judo or inefficient judo. This is what I am addressing in this article. For instance, when someone practices nage no kata, he should actually do the throws and perform the skills in such a way that uke doesn’t have to “jump for tori to make the throw look good” (as I once heard a semi-famous American judo instructor tell a young black belt at a kata clinic who was having trouble with uchi mata).

Jumping for tori isn’t what doing nage no kata is all about. Same with doing any technique or skill. The technique has to actually work.

Judo has solid principles based on sound mechanics of human movement. This is why techniques like uchi mata, osoto gari, juji gatame and all the others continue to work. What happens is that each human being performing any of these skills will alter them in some slight (or significant) way to make the technique work for him. It won’t work at all if there is no sound mechanical skill behind it. As John Taylor, one of my black belts, said “Technique is the foundation, not the house.”

And because Kodokan Judo is based on sound priciples, it has the capacity to accept new techniques and skills. The only condition is that these new skills must be based on the same, solid core values that have already been established and have stood the test of time. These core values are the mechanics (kuzushi, tsukuri and kake, among others, for instance) that make judo a workable and effective system of physical education, sport, recreation and self-defense. This is because of the utilitarian concept and philosophy of “ju.” This is a brilliant concept. We see “ju” in many things in life. This is why “ju” is so much more than “gentle”.

Sure, there is lousy judo seen in tournaments. But, there is also excellent judo seen in tournaments. The flawed premise is that anytime we change a technique to make it work in a competitive situation, it is not “proper judo.” Kodokan Judo is such that it can, and does, accept new innovations and stand the test of time as I said before. A good example is the great judo champion Toshihiko Koga and his unique way of doing seoi nage. He took a judo throw that novices learn, seoi nage, and clearly mastered the mechanics. He then took it a step further. He did what is natural to every human being who does judo…he made the technique work for him. He altered so that it fit his body and made it so that he could throw opponents with a high ratio of success.

Neil Ohlenkamp demonstrating inside out seoinage Now, that is Kodokan Judo in action. Was Koga’s seoi nage the standard textbook approach? No, but he applied all the concepts of Kodokan Judo when he altered it so that it works for him. And, believe it or not (this is why I use Koga as an example), I actually heard a person (of limited experience and understanding) say back in the early 1990s that Koga’s seoi nage was “lousy technique.” (Apparently because it wasn’t the same cookie-cutter approach to seoi nage that this person had in his limited experience.) It’s this type of thinking that prompted this article on the flawed premise.

I guess what the upshot of all this rambling is that there will always be those who view anything new as not “authentic” and there will aways be those who view anything they consider “old-fashioned” as ineffective. Arrogance is a good companion for both those who lack knowledge and those who lack experience. To equate “proper technique” with something that doesn’t work in a realistic situation is missing the point of why we train in judo, jujitsu and the martial arts. These things should be functional. Their function separates them from dancing, aerobics or other methods of physical education or recreation. If we’re learning (or teaching) how to fight, then let’s learn (or teach) how to fight effectively. Good technique is fundamental, but if it doesn’t work, then it’s not good technique.

Okay, that’s out of my system. Hope it has stimulated some thought on your part though.