Judo is Dying: Talking to Cal Jones, Part 1

19 Sep 2023

There’s a quiet revolution happening in the way people teach sports.

Where once people insisted on rote drilling and calisthenics designed to turn military draftees into mindless copies, coaches are asking, “how can we help players find their own ways to excel?”

In the vanguard of this revolution is Cal Jones, Judo coach.

Maybe the British had an advantage from things like ‘Teaching Games for Understanding’, but between Chris Paines and Cal Jones, the way we teach grappling has been changing. Recently, Greg Souders even suggested that Penn State’s winning wrestling program is using something like the ecological approach.

But even if you’re not into sports, the talk I enjoyed with Cal Jones has a lot to say.

It’s a discussion about how cultural change happens.

And the cycles of how what it takes to get great in the beginning are often lost when a movement gets big.

We go over:

Cultural Difficulties in Introducing the Ecological Approach
Why bother trying to spread the Ecological Approach?
Tensegrity & Unity of Action

How did people find Cal Jones?
Lessons Learned in Applying the Constraints-Led Approach
The Mysticism of Names

Regulatory Difficulties for Rogue Gyms
Improving the Belt System
Where do Katas come from?

Emergent Skills
Games for Turn Throws
The Role of Memory

Cultural Difficulties in Introducing the Ecological Approach

What is the experience of trying to tell other coaches about the ecological approach?

It’s been really stark.

The difference between discussing ecological approaches with BJJ coaches and Judo coaches.

I’m a Judo coach: I’ve done Judo since I was five. I don’t mean to sound like a braggy douchebag. But I have the highest qualification they have in the UK. Maybe ten others have done it. Got a Master’s degree in coaching.

Whenever I broke [the subject of the ecological approach] on the Judo forums, all I got was, well, have you ever competed in the Olympics? Were you at the World Championships? What do you know about Judo?

Whereas with BJJ, I’ve had chats with Lachlan Giles and ADCC competitors. Guys who are producing players who are fighting in World Championships. IBJJF. Black belt gold medalists. The cultural shift between Judo and BJJ really must be just chalk and cheese. The newer, more vibrant sport seems to be engaging with modern pedagogy much more.

Judo is dying. I looked at the amount of searches that were done in the UK. People looking at Judo, versus BJJ. For the past twenty years. It’s not going Judo’s way.

It seems weirdly parallel to me, to the relationship between Jiu-Jitsu and Judo. Like one hundred years ago. Like there’s some sort of cycle. When something gets too successful, the success makes it more rigid.

There’s a size thing in there.

When you get to a certain size, inertia takes over. There’s always an undercurrent of Japanese fetishism that comes with Judo. So any critique of coaching pedagogies becomes criticizing the way it’s always been done.

“This is the right way because Kano-sensei said so.” Okay, but it’s just wrestling in pajamas. It’s not some mystic Japanese textbook written in 1880 saying we have to like Kata. When you get to a certain point, and there’s enough tradition that has existed, people pay homage to the tradition rather than understanding where it has come from and for what reason it was there. And don’t respect the fact that we’ve progressed a lot in our understanding of motor learning since 1880. And maybe what they were doing then wasn’t the best thing they could be doing.

You don’t see it in soccer. No one’s training the same way they did it in 1880 for football.

Is it the spiritual nature of the martial art or philosophy that causes that kind of defense?

Yeah, I presume so. I think Judo had a bit of its origin in Shinto. Jigoro Kano was a Shinto priest or something. So there’s a lot of stuff like bowing to the mat. Bowing to the room you train in. Thanking the spirits in the mat for the opportunity to train on it. That’s quite vestigial.

It’s just tracked over. People do those things without any understanding of why it was done. To question that is seen as disrespectful. Or belittling the historicity of the art form. You know, it adds value to some people.

I’ve always seen Judo as wrestling. I like combat sport. I enjoy that. Like, I’m going to try and throw you on the floor. And you’re going to try and throw me on the floor. And hopefully I’ll win. But if I don’t, we’ll shake hands.

That’s what interested me in it.

But there’s some people that want haikus and the cherry blossom in the garden. I say that with a cherry blossom [in my garden]. Oh my god. I see the irony. But in general there’s a bit of fetishization of Japan. “10 Japanese Principles Will Help You Improve Your Life”.

You see those Twitter threads everyday.

There is a generic thing we all believe. But a generic thing we all believe in Japanese terms…suddenly, it becomes cool.

I only started training in Judo last year. And they were like, here are these Japanese terms. And I’m like, why don’t you just say “outer leg reap”? If that’s what it means. Why don’t we translate it to English?

It would be a lot easier for me to understand what I’m trying to do if I had heard that first.

The majority of terms in Judo are just the description of what the person throwing is doing, right?

It’s a propping, drawing, hip thing. The direct translations are just describing the kinematics of what’s happening in the throw. Mostly. Some of them have got cool names. Yama Arashi means ‘Mountain Storm’ or something cool.

But the majority are just a description of what’s going on.

The only defense I’ve heard for it that isn’t just ‘tradition’, is that it gives a common language when we’re at international events. So if you’re training in Holland, you don’t need to speak Dutch. You just use Uchi Mata, Harai Goshi, you know the words.

That is playing into a dated view of skill.

I don’t need to know the name. You can show me the practice task. And I can see what I’m trying to achieve.

It’s a vestigial thing there, as well.

I don’t care about the names of Judo throws. I sometimes tell the people I’m coaching the names of stuff. The majority of the time, it will be “back of the leg blocky front of the foot throw”. You know, just a description of what’s happening.

It is pitched at a very childish level. For five-year-olds to understand it. You end up with five-year-olds doing Uchi Matas, because you’re just describing the action.

It’s a vestigial thing.

But again, that’s from my perspective of Judo as pajama-wrestling. Not, “Judo is some deep art form that requires contemplation. White gis only. We need to wear Zori [sandals] to the mat.”

Is there a Greco-Roman wrestling tradition where you are?

We’ve got Freestyle. And Folkstyle wrestling traditions across the UK. Cornish wrestling in the north. Two hours away from me. But I presume it’s common across pretty much every culture. That wrestling stuff.

It probably came before any other kind of hand-to-hand combat.

Like I don’t break my fists wrestling, you know? If you’re Proto-Man, you don’t want to break your hands. That’s a pretty devastating injury to happen. It’s probably a natural play-fight.

You know, kids will naturally wrestle with each other. I have a two-year-old and a five-year-old. I’ve noticed they do that.

I used to do that. I was raised by very pacifist parents. I took on a very opposite life trajectory. But when I was a kid, I used to wrestle behind the school. No one taught us how to wrestle or anything like that. It just pops up. I guess it happens with puppies and kittens, as well.

There’s some really good research. They were looking at the amount of time- I think it might be bears. Looking at bears and the amount of time they spend in play, as cubs. The bears that stopped wrestling with their siblings earlier, died earlier.

The ones that wrestled for longer, the ones that had spent more time in rough and tumble play, had a longer life expectancy. They had a longer lifespan, which I think is amazing. Like a really, really telling thing.

Why bother trying to spread the Ecological Approach?

What is your motivation, with trying to bring this to other coaches?

I’m in a position that I quite like arguing.

It’s quite fun. I enjoy polemical writing. Debate bro, I suppose. That sort of thing. I like testing the things I think I know. Pitching it out.
Seeing if people can point out any flaws in my thinking. It’s a better way of having people come to you with good research.

If you say, “does anyone have a good paper that says this?” Nobody cares.

But if you come along and say, “Well, this is what I believe.” People come along much more readily. Going, “No, that’s wrong. This is a paper that shows it.” Then you can argue.

It is a joy. It’s really fun to engage in those discussions. When we have moments like ‘wall ball’. Like we had a couple months back on Twitter. That was so much fun for me.

The other half is, you capture people.

You get maybe 1 in a 100. Maybe 1 in 10, depending on the sport. It’s really gratifying to see it.

I work with quite a few BJJ coaches now. From all over the planet. A couple guys in New Zealand. Australia, America, Northern Ireland. ‘Consult’ is probably too strong of a word. I’m in correspondence with them. Acting as a sounding board. It’s fun.

It’s nice to have them using these methods. Seeing the benefits they are reaping with their students. A lot of them are full time. Big academies. Thousands of people in their training. Whereas I’m just a club coach.

I have people that come to me just once a week. They have no interest in going to the Olympics. I live on the north coast of Wales in a pretty small town. So my aspirations aren’t in turning out Olympic champions. I work at a school.

I’m quite content in my little house.

I live on the same street as my parents. I’m the most boring man you’ll ever meet. Some people want to climb Everest. I have two kids. A nice house. And I just putter about.

God it does sound boring. But no, I like it.

But you get to see a lot of the pedagogic principles. A lot of the stuff I believe in. Utilized at a level where people are being tested in international competition. So there’s that.

That’s fun, as well.

Are there any parallels between grappling and the verbal sparring of debate?

The joy of both is quite common. I like the best of people. Like, when you construct a really clever argument. You’ve put a trap in there.

You know they’re going to have to admit something that is going to come along and completely and utterly destroy their position. There’s a moment of guile. A bit of cunning that I always find pleasurable.

It’s the same when you’re in a combat sport, right?

I’m setting traps within traps. I know that you’re going for this strangle and you’re probably going to defend it pretty well. But in the defense of this strangle, you’re going to compromise your closed elbow position.

And I’ll have armbars for days because of it.

I like that.

That’s the thing I find fun. The meta-planning that goes on in the flickering of an eyelash. That you get these moments? I enjoy that.

There is some commonality there.

I was a bit of a Christopher Hitchens fan. The classic. I liked politics. Arguments. I liked religion arguments. Yeah.

This is just another string to my bow.

Discussing things. Where one side has this view. The other side has this view. And I might be wrong. And hopefully, if I am wrong, someone on the other side will come up with some good evidence and convince me.

One of the tactics I appreciate is being very clear, without hedging statements. So that people have something to attack easily. Because those statements are perhaps so infuriating. If there is a good argument against it, it will come out at some point.

One of the really frustrating things is when people hedge, they end up doing the middle ground, centrist ploy of bits of this and bits of that. The difference between right and wrong is still wrong. It’s just less wrong.

A lot of the Gray Matters people on Twitter? If you’ve ever stumbled across them? They’re UK. Very cognitivist, very IP [information processing]. They talk about these blended approaches.

Where there are shared mental models. But also, when it’s convenient for them. We have direct perception. You can’t have both of those systems going in. It’s the least parsimonious answer. So it seems really implausible.

They keep shifting the goalposts.

When you come along and say, “well this makes much more sense with Direct Perception as the underpinning mechanism.”

They just throw up their hands and say, “Yes, we agree, it does.”

And then they talk about planning, strategy, or tactics. Which is more complicated from an ecological perspective. You’ve got a temporal understanding. Time, as a concept, plays into that. It becomes very complicated.

The idea of memory is very challenging from an ecological perspective.

But you don’t get to throw your hands up and say, “Well, we haven’t solved this. So the math in my head does it. It’s just a computer that lives in my head that does all the work.”

It’s a bit Deux Ex Machina, for me.

I guess the relationship with time is trying to address the fact that memories are spontaneously created, as opposed to something that’s retrieved?

There’s a thing that’s quite simple for me to get my head around:

There’s a difference between remembering something and knowing something.

If somebody puts a boiling hot plate in front of me, I don’t have to remember that hot plates burn. I don’t have to go into my brain and go, [searching noises] Ah! ‘don’t touch the hot plate’.

If I’m playing football, soccer, futbol- I don’t have to remember that I can’t pick the ball up and run with it.

It’s just something I know. I’m aware of it.

So there is a difference between processing, recalling, and using memory actively- and passively having memory. It throws a spanner in the works. A lot of that becomes very complicated.

And then we have the fact that all of perception is happening in the past. There’s a bit of a time delay in almost everything we do, anyway.

So when you start talking about memory, it sort of shifts and blurs that. It becomes a gradient. Of what the delay is. What the information is, that’s being processed. Which again, becomes very confusing.

I’m also looking at one [a paper] that’s linking tensegrity to sport teams. Are you familiar with tensegrity?

Tensegrity & Unity of Action

The structure that keeps the organism together?

Pretty much. Have you seen the tensegrity architecture? So that you have like, chairs that are held up with chains. But the chains are under tension from themselves?

I have not seen that with furniture. Just the no-motor robots.

The ones on the beaches? Yeah. Very cool.

Tensegrity structures. It was put forward as a way of explaining how our biology works. Rather than our spine being a column that supports us, we have all this tension and flexion that keeps us in position.

I thought it was quite a clever explanation of how teams form structures without having to have mental models. Processing things at play.

That used to be a strong focus of mine. Collective decision-making. How groups form. What makes them have more unity. When they don’t. It took me many years to realize that most of the time, it’s wilful. On the part of the individuals. That they don’t actually want to do what they say they want to do.

Working as intended.

That’s one of the things that always makes me laugh. I had it today. Where somebody said they wish they could play piano. And you just think, ‘you don’t wish you could play piano’, right? You’d like to take a pill that would let you play piano tomorrow.

But if you wished you could play piano, you’d like to play piano.

That’s how things work. The things we say we want, the things we think we might want, and what we actually want, are actually different. That plays out in these dynamics a lot.

People might say they wish to be a part of this group.

But yeah, that’s not how the world works.

It’s one of the things I appreciate about combat sports in general. I feel like it’s a little harder to get away with that. You still have to be one step ahead of wanting it more than the other person.

It’s one of the things I like most. You’re completely at fault. There’s no team that you can [blame], “Oh I was really good today, but Barry was rubbish and that’s why we lost.”

You can’t do that [in combat sports]. You could be having a bad day, or they could be having the best day of their lives. But we know that person was better than me, in that moment. That flash of time.

They beat me.

Nothing I can do about it.

That is a beautiful thing. A genuinely nice thing.