Judo writing


Skill Transfer in Judo: Why it is difficult to duplicate the judo skill of a great athlete who turned coach


By Lincoln Han
Jan. 2015

Most advanced students of judo can perform cleanly most techniques with a cooperating partner (“uke”). They also have their own effective techniques against a resisting opponent. But why is that no one has been able to produce the success of Kosei Inoue using uchi-mata, or that of Toshihiko Koga using ippon seio-nage? Their techniques have been studied by thousands of coaches and players worldwide, and many have been instructed at seminars by the famous master themselves. Yet, no one could consistently duplicate their techniques’ success in competition. On a more local level, senseis or coaches often have their own favorite techniques which they perform with high effectiveness and success, yet few students are able to perform the techniques in such style. The question is how does skill transfer function in judo?

The goal of skill transfer is slightly different from knowledge transfer. It is not enough that the student understand conceptually how to perform a skill, but how to apply such skill. In judo, that means applying it in randori or a match.

To master judo requires a high level of proficiency of certain skills that takes many years to achieve. On the contrary, the time spent alone does not necessary guarantee that a person will achieve mastery in any set of skills in judo. Certainly anyone who has devoted a significant amount of time will achieve proficiency in certain skills, but that does not automatically translate to a high level of proficiency or mastery. More often than not, even great coaches cannot duplicate their own skills in their students in the same way that a formula can be taught and duplicated. Teaching judo is not simply a matter like algebra or physics: When students are taught a formula, they could reproduce the same result, consistently. Of course, at a high level math or physics, a mastery of the subject is also required, but the experts in math or physics will still produce the same result from the same formula.

Not so with judo. You can have twenty students of similar age, weight category, and physical development to begin judo at the same time; they study under the same coach for eight years and you will find them each with their own preferred technique. Certainly, sometimes, some of them will choose the specialty technique of their coach, and even have success with it, but it is not a guaranteed thing like teaching a formula.

Taking the above group, even after controlling for variable of age, weight category, and physical development, there are still other variables including but not limited to individual physical attributes, natural ability, psychology, perception, learning preference and speed, et cetera. Even in the same weight category, there is a range of body types, and each player may prefer certain techniques for his body type. In addition to this, judo has many skill sets to acquire, not just the techniques, which when made into combinations can be several thousands; beside that, there are the skill sets related to the performance of techniques, but are not the techniques themselves, vary from person to person. Some of these skills are: balance, reaction speed, flexibility, strength, power, and endurance. Since during a judo fight, or match, the opponent’s action and reaction are rarely predictable, each player’s action and reaction will vary. For the same counterattack to an opponent’s forward push, one player may prefer using ippon seio-nage, and another may prefer using uchi-mata, yet another may prefer using kata-guruma.

Imagine your typical judo club with a mix of age groups, skill level, experience, weight category and body type, the variables increased again. With such overwhelming combination of variables, where does one start? Fortunately, statistically, competition-effective judo techniques are more or less around a dozen that are most frequently used throughout judo history. Most of these techniques fall into the basic judo teaching even beginners learn.

For a higher skill to become effective, first the student must build a solid foundation in both the techniques and related skills. To learn a technique, regardless if it is for standing or ground, one has to have a good sense of balance, reaction speed, flexibility and strength to execute the technique effectively. These are the foundation of learning and applying a technique, after comes the technical knowledge of the details about a technique. Often these are intertwined as the development and practice of one leads to improvement in the other. The basic requirement for any judo student is to be able to effectively perform a technique on a static, cooperating partner with control and grace. Only after this is achieved, the student will be able to move onto performing such technique in dynamic movement with a cooperating partner.

Over time, after certain proficiency is achieved in both static and dynamic application of a technique. The student will be learn by himself or from the coach the gripping and body positions suitable for executing this technique against a resisting opponent. After studying these situational positions, the student should gain more confidence in making his technique effective. This is tested in randori against many different players to help the student to adjust to various body shape, sizes, and reactions.
In randori, the student should test his technique against some lower rank students, and if he proves to be consistently successful against the less skilled opponents, it is time to test against opponents similar to his level. This is likely where he will be spending most of his time crafting a technique in randori as a similar level opponent gives strong resistance but opens enough opportunity for making the student’s technique effective every now and then.

At least one out of five randori, the student should try his technique against a more skilled opponent. The more skilled opponent can block or counter a poorly executed technique with more ease, and allows the student to realize his errors and improve upon them. Eventually as the student increases his frequency of success using such technique against opponents of his own skill level, he should increase his randori with more skilled opponents. When he is able to consistently use this technique against players of all levels, this technique is the result of skill transfer.

Usually to develop an effective technique for use against people of similar skill level, it takes two to four years or more. So the effect of the coach teaching techniques is not immediate, and not everyone will be able to adapt to that one technique. Hence, when faced in a typical environment of a judo club, the best thing to do is to teach a fundamental range of techniques and exercises that helps to create a solid foundation. Like one of my good friend’s keen observation, judo is a martial art, with emphasize on the art part. It seems obvious at first glance, but when you think about it, judo is more of an art than science. Unlike teaching a series of formulas, it is closer to the study of art or music, which the students learn some fundamental techniques for drawing, painting; note reading, composition for music, and through many years of practice and develop their own style. While it seems that to study judo one needs to learn and repeat many rigid techniques, in reality, once the foundation is made, judo becomes a creative art, just like music and art. It is difficult to impose or predict the eventual preference or effective techniques of a student, but one thing is certain, once the student became proficient in the fundamentals, the road to mastery is made with creative execution and adaptation of the fundamental techniques.

Of course, there are certain skills easier to effectively teach to a large group of people, especially when they are geared toward competition. Grip fighting, drop seio nage, morote gari tend to fit into this category. Some techniques demand more skills from outside the technique, such as: uchi-mata (balance and flexibility), tomoe-nage (spatial awareness, reaction speed), ashi-waza (balance and speed). From my own experience, I have trained under coaches who are very successful at the first, as almost all the students have good grip fighting skills and drop seio-nage as these coaches realize that in order to focus on competition result, it’s easier to focus on the lowest common dominator skills. However, this approach often comes at an expense of technical breadth as the students become specialized too early in their development.

On the other hand, there are also coaches who prefer to teach in a more generic approach focusing on the techniques that are general enough to teach most essential technical concepts and skills. This approach can take longer time because the players have to become proficient in a bigger number and more complex techniques, before finding their own preference to specialize.

Regardless of the approaches, skill transfer in the sense of duplicating the coach’s style is not a guarantee thing. I have seen coaches who were very skilled and accomplished athletes not able to transfer their skills to most of their students; I have also seen coaches who are moderately skilled but can transfer their skills to most of their students to expand and improve upon. But, with enough dedication, everyone can learn the fundamentals well and adapt something to them. After all, judo is a martial art, not a martial science. A production-line approach in training is not a guarantee to make all students perform equally well, apart from the numerous variables influence a player’s learning and performance, coaches need to keep in mind a sense of individuality and creativity is just as important.


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