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by George Weers

The primary objective in the game of Judo is to control the space between you and your opponent. The one tool that you have to control that space is your gripping skills. The space is important because it’s the area you have maneuver through to get into position for your attacks. It’s also the area that your opponent has to travel through to attack you.

The term ‘gripping skill’ is a very generic and can mean anything from the gripping configuration used in Nage no Kata to the wildest over-the-back, up-side-down and inside-out bear hug. To be able to analyze and evaluate gripping skills we need to have a consistent taxonomy of gripping tactics, strategies and configurations. Gripping configuration is nothing more than how you and your opponent take hold of each other. Perhaps the simplest place to begin understanding gripping skills is with the configurations used in Judo competition.

In order to study grip configuration I reviewed two hundred sixty one (261) video taped Judo matches from the 1996 Olympic Games. The matches included competition from all divisions, both male and female, as-well-as contests from first round through the finals. The objective of the research was to:

  • catalog grip configurations
  • determine frequency distribution of gripping configurations

Intended use of the information is;

  • benchmark gripping skills of elite Judo players
  • provide insight to gripping strategies
  • provide coaching guidelines for training players in gripping skills

I based the analysis of the grip configuration on placement of the power hand. The power hand is the side of the body with which you drive the defender’s back toward the mat, during your throw. The placement of the power hand is easily discernable. The power hand is usually the highest hand on the defender and the attacker invariably stands with the power hand side turned into the defender’s torso. The players even simplified the task of cataloging grip configuration by using the same gripping configuration throughout entire matches.

Throughout 261 matches only four grip types were observed. Matches were contested using:

  • Same grips; both players took either a right or left power hand position.
  • Opposite grips; players adopted a right against left (or left vs. right) power hand position.
  • Sleeve end grips; the dominant player gripped both of the opponent’s sleeve ends.
  • Gripping without form; the dominant player did not allow the opponent to secure a power hand and did not commit his/her own power hand unless attacking.

The table below represents the distribution of gripping configurations observed.

Same Opposite Sleeve End No Form
Men’s Divisions 8% 45% 4% 43%
Women Divisions 14% 50% 6% 30%
Combined Data 10% 48% 5% 37%
Review of the data indicates, at the international level, less than two out of ten matches are contested with both players using the same side power hand. Something is definitely wrong with this picture because ninety percent of the people in the world are right handed. I know I looked it up on the Internet and the three sites that I checked said the same thing. Now, if 90% of the world population were right-handed then you’d expect to see the majority of Judo matches contested by two right-handed players, right? The data has revealed an incongruity. Over half the matches were contested in a left against right hand posture. If 90% of the world is right-handed why do we see so many players in a left-hand posture?

Gripping Strategies

The fact that Olympic Judo players do not conform to the profile of a right handed world is not surprising. We have to recognize that when a person eats or writes with his/her right hand it doesn’t necessarily mean that they should play Judo in a right-handed posture. The determinate factor in which side of his, or her, body a player chooses as the power hand side which of the attacker’s legs is strongest. After all, the power hand merely transfers the force of the throw generated from the driving leg.

The question that’s been raised by this information is not why are there so many left-handed players. The question is really, why do so many players choose to use a specific fighting posture? The answer is obvious and very simple. The players aren’t just choosing which power hand to use; the players are employing personal gripping strategies.

A gripping strategy is much more than which power hand you prefer to use. Your gripping strategy, the way you manage your hands, shoulders, hips and footwork, is nothing less than your chosen method of controlling the attacking space.

The question now becomes; how does each gripping strategy control the attacking space and, by extension, the over-all match?

Same Side Power Hand

Playing with the same power hand as your opponent means that you both use a right posture or both use a left posture. Playing with the same power hand as your opponent requires moderate preparation. Competitors that play with a same power hand as their opponent set the power hand early and wait for an opportunity to attack. ‘Same side’ players rely on the fact that there’s a minimum of space between themselves and the opponent. Minimum space means that the attacker will have to rely on a high level of mobility to open the attacking space. Conversely, the defender only has to generate a minimum of defensive mobility to avert the attacker’s preparation maneuvers.

Gripping with the same power hand as the opponent is a neutral position. Neither player is committed to offense or defense. Either player has the ability to change to offense or defense quickly. The fact that both players have both hands on the opponent restricts mobility. Restricted mobility requires greater effort to mount an attack, which is appealing to conservative players.

Opposite Side Power Hands

Playing with the opposite power hand as your opponent means a right against left position. Gripping with a power hand opposite to the opponent provides a very strong defensive posture from minimal preparation. Playing with opposite power hands seriously limits your mobility. Opposite power hand competitors do not actively seek attacking opportunities. Opposite grip players tend to set their power-hand into the opponent’s ribs, armpit or chest and hold the attacker out with all available force.

Sleeve End

Sleeve end gripping is self-explanatory. All you have to do is grasp both of the sleeve ends and hang on. Sleeve end grips provide a neutral gripping posture, i.e. both hands on the opponent ready to attack to either side. Sleeve end grips afford high mobility with moderate power. Gripping the sleeve ends requires moderate preparation while balancing offense and defense through moderate mobility.

The sleeve end gripping strategy controls the opponent through a combination of grip control and movement. The grip is set with both hands early in the encounter. The sleeve-end player searches for opportunity through movement. Sleeve end grips can be very frustrating to the defender. The detriment to gripping the sleeve ends is that direction of throws needs to be adjusted and power development is limited.

No-Form

I call this gripping style ‘no-form’ because the players that employ the strategy do not overtly commit to power hand placement. Players that employ same-side or opposite power hand strategies set their power hands and leave them in place throughout the period of contact with the opponent. Players of no set form only commit to a power hand as opportunity dictates. Players of no set form probe and move and pry, looking for an opening.

The most obvious difference between the four gripping strategies is that players using same, opposite or sleeve end grips, concentrate on placing both hands on the opponent before anything else. i.e. Players that use same, opposite and sleeve end grips employ gripping as a separate and distinct skill. ‘No-form’ players use their gripping skills as natural flowing integral step in the attack sequence.

Gripping without form means not committing to a power hand until you’re actually attacking. Playing without commitment to a power hand requires a very high level of both offensive and defensive mobility. You need offensive mobility to actively seek attacking opportunities. You need defensive mobility to maintain a safe space between you and the opponent without having to rely on force. In other words; you move so that you don’t have to commit to using defensive force. Gripping without form means that you have minimal contact with maximum space that allows you to balance offense and defense through high mobility.

There is one liability to gripping without form. Playing without commitment to a discernable power hand takes great courage. It takes courage because all that movement requires a high level of aerobic stamina. Playing without form also requires a very high level of creativity. You have to be able to move and think and recognize opportunity. Playing without form may not be for everyone but it is for champions.

Who Does What?

We can see how each gripping strategy effects the player’s ability to move and attack. What effect does each gripping strategy have on the outcome of competition? To evaluate effectiveness we need to determine who uses the gripping strategies.

You can divide Judo competition into three phases:

  • Preliminary/Elimination Rounds
  • Repechage Rounds
  • Elite Rounds

All competitors participate in the ‘Preliminary/Elimination Rounds’. During the elimination rounds we see a neutral distribution of gripping strategies. Distribution of gripping strategies is neutral because players of all skill levels are indiscriminately mixed.

Preliminary rounds eliminate the weakest players of the day. The quarterfinal matches set aside the stronger players for the medal rounds. The combination of preliminary rounds and the quarterfinals leaves the second echelon players to compete in the repechage for a chance to advance into the bronze medal round. Distribution of gripping strategies will remain mixed, with weight towards secondarily effective gripping strategies. In other words, the best players in the repechage use a gripping strategy that may not be effective against elite players but it will win through to a chance for the bronze.

Elite rounds include quarterfinals, semi-finals, bronze medal matches and finals. Distribution of gripping strategies, during elite rounds, heavily favors the most effective approach.

The tables, below, represent the distribution of gripping strategies. Distribution is reported by percentage of matches contested using each gripping strategy.

 

Combined Men Same Opposite Sleeve End No Form
Preliminary Rounds 10% 49% 3% 38%
Repechage Rounds 10% 54% 7% 29%
Elite Rounds 2% 33% 2% 63%

 

Combined Women Same Opposite Sleeve End No Form
Preliminary Rounds 19% 55% 7% 19%
Repechage Rounds 18% 57% 7% 18%
Elite Rounds 7% 40% 4% 49%

 

Combined Data Same Opposite Sleeve End No Form
Preliminary Rounds 14% 52% 5% 29%
Repechage Rounds 13% 55% 7% 25%
Elite Rounds 3% 25% 2% 70%

Implications for Coaching

It is likely that the competitors, observed during this research, developed their personal gripping strategies spontaneously. I’ve come to this conclusion for two reasons:

– Different players, from the same country, utilized a variety of gripping strategies. The lack of a consistent approach to gripping suggests that the national coaching structures did not focus on, or even address, gripping skill development.

– We simply don’t see the development of gripping strategies addressed in current books, magazine articles or videotapes.

A gripping strategy is the most important tool that a player develops. After all your gripping strategy determines your ability to attack and, more importantly, how well you defend yourself. It is a major Coaching error to leave something as important as the development of gripping strategy to chance.

Players need to be trained to use movement as an integral component to gripping from the very beginning. Coaches must learn to demonstrate and teach skills with an emphasis on movement over technical detail. You must learn to reinforce and encourage movement during feedback sessions and as preparation for competition. You must also develop drills that place your players in situations that emphasize movement over static defense.

The development of a champion does not just happen. Successful Coaches will develop a systematic approach that includes everything from gripping strategy to newaza defensive skills. It’s not an easy task but the truly dedicated Coaches accept it as responsibility.

The tables of data present statistical verification that the best players use movement as a vital component in their personal gripping strategies. The following list offers a more tangible representation of what the tactic of movement as part of your grips can, and does, result in. Following is a list of competitors observed using a no-form gripping strategy during this research.

Players are listed in the order observed.

  • David Douilett World and Olympic Champion
  • Sergei Kosorotov World Champion
  • Johanna Hagen World Champion
  • Angelique Seriese World Champion
  • Sun Fuming Olympic Champion
  • Aurelio Miquel Olympic Champion World Silver Medallist
  • Pawel Nastula World and Olympic Champion
  • First name? Nakamura World Champion
  • Nicholas Gil World and Olympic Silver Medallist
  • Brian Olson World Medallist
  • Oleg Maltsev European Medallist
  • Jeong Ki-Young World and Olympic Champion
  • Cho Min-Sun World and Olympic Champion
  • Hirotaka Yoshida (verify first name) Olympic Champion
  • Toshihiko Koga World and Olympic Champion
  • Djamel Bouras Olympic Champion
  • Jennifer Gal European Champion World and Olympic Medallist
  • S. Liparteliani Olympic Medallist
  • James Pedro World and Olympic Medallist
  • Nicola Fairbrother World Champion
  • Martin Schmidt European Champion
  • Kenzo Nakamura Olympic Champion
  • Khaliun Boldbatar Olympic fifth
  • Driuluis Gonzalez World and Olympic Champion
  • Legna Verdicia World Champion
  • Hyun Sook-Hee Olympic Medallist
  • Josef Czak European Medallist
  • Marie-Claire Restoux Olympic Champion
  • Udo Quelmalz World and Olympic Champion
  • Yukimasa Nakmura World Champion and Olympic Medallist
  • Aiyu Li World Medallist
  • Kye Sun Olympic Champion
  • Ryoko Tamura World Champion and Olympic Medallist
  • Georgi Vazagashvili European Champion
  • Nigel Donahue European Champion
  • Nikolay Oyegin World Champion
  • Natik Bagirov European Medallist
  • Sarah Nichilo European Medallist
  • Amarilus Savon Olympic Champion
  • Tadahiro Nomura Olympic Champion
  • Joyce Heron World Medallist
  • Girolimo Giovinazza Olympic Medallist
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Return to the Judo Information Site Main Menu. This page is provided by Neil Ohlenkamp, Encino Judo Club, California, USA. Research provided by George Weers. All rights reserved.
Last modified September 12, 1998