Judo writing

The evolution of the no-leg-grab rules at IJF Judo competition from 2010 to present

by Lincoln Han. Written in 2010, updated Jan. 2015

In early 2010, the International Judo Federation (I. J. F.) made a very controversial decision to change significantly the nature of judo in competition by limiting the use of leg attacks using hands or arms. The official reasoning behind this decision was that in their opinion, judo has became less exciting to watch as a spectator sport, and needs to reduce the number of leg grab attempts which often were sloppy when done poorly or as false attacks; they also wanted to differentiate judo from wrestling by emphasizing the up-right posture found in traditional Japanese judo.

Under the new rules, all direct hand- or arm-on-leg attacks are prohibited. That simply means you cannot initiate a technique by grabbing or locking the opponent’s leg using your hand or arm. You can still attack the leg using your feet or legs, however. The penalty for violating this rule during a match results in immediate disqualification from the match. However, you are allowed to grab the opponent’s leg as a second technique after a primary attack; or when you counter your opponent’s attack.

This would be applied to all IJF competitions, such as the Grand Prix, Grand Slam, World Cups, etc. However, most national and continental organizations quickly followed by implementing the new rules at their national or continental events. Naturally, it caused uproar among the judo community as the new limitations removed some prominent traditional techniques that are frequently used as the initial attack, in particular kata-guruma, te-guruma, and morote-gari. Kata-guruma and morote-gari (double leg grab) are generally considered very low risk attacks because the chance of getting countered is small compared to other techniques. However, they tend to be more effective as surprise techniques. When used often throughout the match, they become predictable and easy to block, which cause the “grab and drop” appearance of sloppy attacks.

Up until this point, many players, especially from the former Soviet Republics (Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, etc.), Mongolia, and Eastern Europe became highly proficient at using techniques like kata-guruma, te-guruma and morote-gari as their main techniques. There were some concerns that after the rule change, many of these leg-grab specialists will have difficulties achieving the same success in competition. Understandably, it takes on average two to four years to develop a competition-effective technique at the least. To give up one’s favorite techniques and develop another will prove a tough transition for many competitors.

In 2010, I was still training professionally with some top athletes in Italy, and we went to a training camp in Mittersill, Austra. For those who don’t know, the winter training camp in Mittersill held in the snow-covered mountain region in Austria is one of the most attended training camps in Europe. Many European athletes came, the overall opinion I gathered from the players and coaches was that they are in favor of the new rules as they believe these changes will make judo look better. The director of the new rule changes (I think it was Jan Snyder from the Netherlands) stated that it is unlikely any more changes will take place before the 2012 London Olympics.

In fact, I was surprised by the overall favorable response. Even the guys from Russian national team said it's better for judo - these are the same guys you see in the videos doing kata-guruma, morote gari, te-guruma, etc. I found out they also have very good classical judo techniques when I did randori with some top players.

I also asked 2000 Olympic champion Giuseppe “Pino” Maddaloni what he thought about the new rules. He too surprised me by positively approving and praising the change. This is coming from someone who is a specialist in kata-guruma and has won many matches with his unique kata-guruma – no less than the semi-final at the 2000 Olympic Games! He said he also uses other techniques (seio-nage, o-uchi-gari), so it's not such a big deal. Illias Iliadis (Olympic Champion '04), Aerial Zeevi (Olympic bronze '04) and other top players expressed similar opinions.

For me, up until that point, I also heavily relied on kata-guruma and te-guruma in competition. In fact, these techniques were some of my highest scoring techniques at the time. I did the occasional tomoe nage, sumi gaeshi, seio-nage and osoto-gari, but they were not as effective for me at the time as the first two. I was not happy because in 2009 I just took seventh at the U. S. National Championships (senior -73kg) and won the USJA and USJF Winter Nationals (senior -73kg), the prospect of having to adapt to other techniques when I am still improving my kata-guruma and te-guruma was a bit difficult to accept for the time factor.

Many people had a bigger concern: referee’s interpretation and competency during a match. Since the referees especially at the national level are not very well trained overall, when the new rules came in effect, it was a mess as many mistakes were made. The new rule was so strictly enforced at the beginning that even if you accidentally touched your opponent’s leg with a hand or an arm, you could lose the match. When you consider the principle of Kodokan judo, that’s no way to lose a match, and the winner would not feel the win was deserved. In fact, at the early stage of the new rule implementation, some players habitually touched their opponent’s legs and got disqualified. Some players even baited their opponents with a weak attack that exposed a leg. Some people even quitted competition or judo all together.

Of course, things need to be put into perspective too. Although IJF is the biggest international organization and the Olympic representative of international judo, it is not the only organization. There are other organizations at every level who could organize their own competition events under their own rules. Neither could a national organization dictate what type of judo is practiced at a judo club. So if someone does not want to play under the new rules, he simply does not attend any competitions following the new rules. Although, as an Olympic sport, most of the elite players from around the world have to follow the change as they would otherwise not have the opportunity to qualify for the next Olympic Games. Introducing this type of significant change in the middle of an Olympic cycle was not the brightest idea.

When I first heard of the new rules, I used to joke that my judo is finished. The fact is that two of my most effective techniques are kata guruma and te-guruma. However, after analyzing the techniques, I realized although I cannot use them as primary attach techniques, it is not too hard to use them as a follow up techniques. In 2010, all the competitions I participated had adapted to the new IJF rules and I had to adjust my style. It was not a good year for me as I had to experiment during training and in competition to see if my new techniques could work. By then, I was already developing a standing ippon seio-nage, improving my seio osoto-gari, and a variation of kata guruma. In this period I relied more on newaza to win matches.

Two years later, I had developed a much more effective repertoire of techniques and tactics for competition. My ippon seio nage, seio osoto gari, and ko-uchi-maki-komi (followed by my arm securing my opponent’s leg after entry) are coming along. As a consequence of training always for the new rules, my posture became more upright when fighting too. By the end of 2012 I had improved competition result over the year before, although there were still occasions during competition that I found myself wanting to grab my opponent’s leg.

At the world level, ironically, the new rules’ effect did not make Japan the dominant nation in judo as many had predicted. At the top events, most of the same top players simply adapted to the new rules and began using different techniques and tactics. The Russians and many central Asian nationals who were known for their kata-guruma and other leg grabbing attacks, turned out to also have some nice traditional techniques like seio-nage, uchi-mata, or o-osoto-gari. The Mongolians were particularly successful with their version of hugging ko-soto-gake. The 2008 Olympic champion at -100kg from Mongolia, whose unforgettable performance in the 2008 Olympic final against his Japanese opponent Keiji Suzuki using morote-gari chasing him half way across the mat to land Suzuki for ippon, won a silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, without trying to grab his opponents’ leg even once! The Russian men’s team had a historic win by taking the most gold medals ever in judo at the same Olympics. Clearly, the top player had enough techniques and fundamentals to adapt. On the contrary, Japanese men’s team did not take a single gold medal in judo for the first time in their Olympics participation. Although it is easy to draw a correlation to the surprising result with the new rules, it is most likely a coincidence.

By 2013, the IJF introduced new rules again, among them an even more strict limitation on leg-grabbing techniques. Over the last two years, as many predicted, the rules even at the highest level were inconsistently applied about leg grabbing and touching. So, they decided to completely eliminate any leg-grabbing technique, as a follow-up or counter attack. The reasoning was that the inconsistent refereeing was confusing to spectators, and the athletes themselves, so it is better to not allow any leg grabbing techniques at all! Part of the decision may have been influenced by the fear of sharing the fate of Olympic wrestling, which was dropped from the Olympic Games. The IJF wanted judo to be more TV-friendly and exciting, and stay in the Olympics. So, now Olympic judo took a new life of its own by getting even farther from Kodokan or traditional judo, all in the name of keeping judo relevant in the Olympics.

In the judo community, apart from the Olympic-oriented national teams, at the common level, people began to organize tournaments under the traditional rules. One such organization is the International Freestyle Judo Alliance. However, they are still a young organization that does not have the influence or the wide reach of the IJF, which still is the sole representative of international judo at the International Olympic Committee.

If the IJF wanted to discourage sloppy and false attacks by players using leg-grabbing techniques, why not just penalize it using shidos (small penalty) instead of disqualification? Judo without its traditional and safe techniques is not a complete representation of the principle of judo, even within the limits of sport. Why not just give penalty to players who perform leg grabs without making an effective technique? Why not limit the maximum score from a leg-grabbing technique to wazari? This will encourage players to use more traditional techniques. To completely remove it from competition is a disservice to judo players and the principle of judo. While it is manageable to win when fighting within the same weight category, it could still present difficulty when fighting a tall or upper-body-strong opponent. Fighting in the Open Weight division is nearly impossible for a light or middle weight because using the hand or arm to block the opponent’s hip is essential to prevent an attack’s effectiveness, especially if such opponent is much taller and bigger. Famous judo masters such as Katsuhiko Kashiwazaki and Isao Okano, both were light to middle-weight players who famously won some of the toughest Open Weight tournaments, agreed that fighting under the new rules made it impossible for smaller players to win in open weight.

By 2013 I had nearly three years to refine my other techniques for the new rules and felt comfortable using them. I also re-discovered yoko-tomoe-nage, which I stopped using much for several years. Although by this point in my judo, I can deal with the latest change begrudgingly. Not having the leg grabbing options makes fighting taller or bigger opponents or countering certain techniques (uchimata, makikomi) much harder. As much as I dislike the elimination of leg grab in competition, however, if one cannot apply effective non-leg-grabbing techniques, then the person is not complete in his judo.

On the other hand, I see the benefits it could bring, such as non-leg-attack kata-guruma variations and forcing players to use other methods to win such as better timing, techniques and newaza. From both offensive and defensive point of view, now the players must focus more using the body angle, hip movement, wrist and shoulder to initiate an attack or block the opponent’s attack, which in the long term, actually helps a player to develop better, more graceful judo.

It is much easier to learn a double-leg grab than uchi-mata or getting the timing for foot sweep, but relying exclusively on leg-grab attacks can severely limit a player’s judo development. Good judo comes from having flexible and powerful hip movement, together with good body angle, shoulder and wrist movement. The upright posture promotes these fundamental skills. Minimizing leg-grab and a bend posture can be encouraged and achieved without having to eliminate the leg-grabbing techniques, why not try to penalize them only when they are unsuccessful? Give a smaller score when they are. Disqualification is too harsh.

Since the vast majority of the judo players will not compete at an event under the IJF rule, this really is not going to affect their day to day judo training. At the national and regional level, it's up to the governing organization to decide how to organize the tournaments, as they could do it under the old rules, but they are likely not. At club practice, the new rules do not have to affect the training at all, because people can still do all the leg attacks they want. Just as few at the club level follows the competition rule for newaza to stop after twenty-five seconds of osaekomi.

Although I don't train much leg grabbing techniques since the new rules came out, it is not the same thing as not knowing them. After all, they were once my specialty too. When I entered the Italy Cup freestyle wrestling tournament, my opponents' leg attacks were not a problem as long as I controlled the distance and their shoulders. No one was able to throw me. However, my knowledge of single and double leg is not nearly as specialized as the wrestlers. It’s a different game with different rules, and the rules encourage different specialization. Under the 2014 IJF rules, judo is more pleasant to watch, but it is not the complete Kodokan judo. I think it is only true to the spirit of Kodokan Judo that they modify the rules again to permit leg-grabbing in the near future, perhaps after 2016 Olympic Games.



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