Judo writing

2016 U. S. Judo Federation high school team’s visit to Kyung-Min High School judo team:
A coach’s perspective

by Lincoln Han, July 10 - 14, 2016

When Mr. Joon Chi (IJF A-level referee from the U. S.) invited me back April to join the U. S. Judo Federation high school team as a coach for a week of judo training at a South Korean high school in July, I was excited to have this opportunity. At the time I already had a trip planned to China and Japan for personal matters so I was reluctant to give my acceptance. Over the next two months as my schedule become clearer, I was able to squeeze four days in my schedule and I am glad that I did.
It is my first time visiting South Korea. South Korea is one of the top nations producing world class judo players and consistently a top powerhouse in Asia. I spent nearly a decade living, training and recently coaching in Italy, so as a judo player and coach, it is valuable opportunity to gain an insight into the South Korean system of training cadet and junior judo players. At a personal level, I always look forward to enrich my cultural knowledge and experience.

Our host is the Kyung-Min High School judo team. It is located in Uijeongbu city (議政府市), at Kyung-Min College (庆盿大学) which is a private Christian school that encompasses everything from kindergarten to college. It seems there are several specialized sport schools, including judo and tae kwon do.

Kyung Min College entrace, Korea
Kyung Min College entrance

I arrived Sunday, July 10 at the Seoul Icheon Airport. The other team members have already arrived the day before. I followed the direction given to me and arrived at Kyung-Min College after a little more than one hour. As I stepped out of the taxi, I saw Mr. Chi is looking for me. Once I grabbed my luggage, he led me to the dorm. The first thing I noticed is how many judo gis are hanging outside to dry, each with its owner’s name printed or embroidered. Once I entered the building, the first thing I had to do is to remove my shoes and put them along the many pairs of shoes on the shelves. Apparently, people walk bare foot inside the building. The surprise awaits me moment later is our accommodation. It is Spartan to say the least. In a room about sixty square meters, divided into two sections, we have the part near the entrance. In traditional Korean style sleeping arrangement, there is no mattress. The padding is minimal. It really consists of a duvet folded in half, put on the floor as cushion. Although I have slept few times poorly on the judo mat, I never slept like this on the floor, so it is something new to me.

Judo gi hanging to dry outside the judo school at Kyung Min college
Judo gis hanging to dry outside the judo school

The students went home for that weekend, so we had the dorm to ourselves. They are expected to come back the next day. It was a day to recover from the long trip for us. So Mr. Chi took us to a traditional Korean bath house / spa where we could relax. Apparently the public bath house in Korea is a popular past time to relax for the locals. We arrived at a building where several floors were devoted to this purpose. They have separate floors for male and female, plus a common lounge floor for relaxing, watching TV, snacking, and dining. After some hot, cold water bathes and sauna, we went to enjoy a bowl of Korean shaved ice with sweet red beans, green bean powder, fruit and other goodies.

Lounge area inside a Korean bath house
Lounge area where people can relax and nap on the hard floor


After we left there, we walked around and Mr. Chi picked a restaurant. Their specialty dish seemed to be rice served in a stone bowl, accompanied by spicy broth with a raw egg in it. Each table also gets some side dishes like kimchi, marinated leaves, fried fishes among others. I always enjoyed Korean food that I had outside Korea, so my first authentic Korean meal did not disappoint. The bold flavor of the soup is addictive and combined with the rice it makes a perfect dinner to conclude the evening.
Once we returned to the dorm, we met the other coach invited by Mr. Chi, Mr. Seung Jun Oh, at over 1.9 meters tall and 145kg, he is a Korean giant who is living in the U. S. and playing professional football. He is few years younger than me, and told me that he was a heavyweight player on the Korean junior national team and a product of this type of Korean judo system from fifth grade until end of high school. He thought he would never come back to this type of environment, but yet here he is, visiting the same high school that he used to when he was a young judoka. He is gentle and pleasant, and I enjoy having him around.

Appetizer for a Korean meal
Appetizers for our first Korean meal

Korean meal served in hot stone
Korean meal served in hot stone

Although I was very tired, my sleep was not very good that night between finding a comfortable position to sleep and waking up from the air conditioning set to too low a temperature at night (although thankfully they have it for the summer). Fortunately, no one snores in our group, which is usually the biggest concern from my past experience.

Sleeping on some thin blankets used as cushions
Our accomodation: all the students sleep like this.

Normally the training schedule is three times day, 6AM to 8AM – physical conditioning, followed by breakfast; 3PM to 5PM judo, followed by dinner; and 8PM to 9:30PM judo.  However, since the students went back home during the weekend, we did not have to get up so early the next morning. By 7:30AM we went to the field where Mr. Oh would lead the morning practice. I intend to join most of the practice, even as a coach. He made everyone warm up with some light jogging and stretching, followed by sprints at short distance intervals.

First morning training with USJF coach Mr. Oh
USJF High School's first morning training led by Mr. Oh

Mr. Oh told me that although he grew up in the Korean judo system, there are some things he does not agree looking back. So instead of training for stamina using long running at moderate pace, it would be better to focus on intensity at intervals, which is closer to judo matches.
After the run, we had breakfast, which is served on a cafeteria-style steel tray, consisted of a soup, some kimchi, eggs, rice and another side dish. You are free to get refill of the rice, soup and side dish, so it’s more than enough for a breakfast.

Korean breakfast served to the judo team at Kyung Min College
Delicious breakfast (from top left to bottom right): Fried dumplings, eggs, kimchi, rice with a bit of chili paste, egg drop soup.

After breakfast, most of us decided to get more sleep. Lunch begins at noon and the afternoon training begins at 3PM. Most students started coming back in the morning.
Their lunch is similar to breakfast, although it had some variations such as a meat or fish dish, tofu, and or dumplings. Most of it were easily digested within 2~3 hours, which makes it suitable for the training at 3PM.

The afternoon training began with a light warm up, followed by many uchi-komis. Both the boys and girls train together and there were about fifty regular players on the mat. There is no air conditioning in the training hall and even with the windows open there is no cross ventilation, so it quickly became hot and humid.

Newaza session at Kyung Min college judo hall
Newaza session

I noticed that the players all had very sharp form for their uchi-komis, and they were doing harai-goshi and uchi-mata uchi-komis differently from most places I have seen around the world. They usually take the behind neck grip, and make the entry with a firmly planted (stumping) back foot, and rotate their hips completely before returning to the starting position. It was crisp and precise.

It must have been at least forty minutes of uchi-komi. Then we had a break before starting probably eight rounds of five-minute newaza randori. I practiced almost every round and had no problem with anyone.  After the conclusion of the newaza randori, we began doing tachi-waza randori. They have very little rest time between rounds, one minute at most, and they continue to fight round after round. This is something that I am not used to, as in my previous training we generally focus on trying to maximize performance during each round, that means at least three minutes of rest between five-minute rounds. With this type of continuous randori, it is difficult to be explosive and fast after two rounds. I had to rest between rounds, while it seems the high school students are used to it. I did randori with some of their best players and they were difficult to throw, and I had to be on guard at all times. It was not as easy for me as in newaza, but even at twice of their average age, I could still hold my own. The room was hot and humid, and with the volume of training one has to be in very good shape to survive until the end.

At 5PM, the training finished, the players gathered to salute the coaches and went to shower and eat dinner. Dinner is served similarly to breakfast and lunch, and had some variation in the main dish. Many players went to nap after dinner because there is another training session from 8PM to 9:30PM.
Time quickly passed and the evening training began. After a short warm-up, we started with what is commonly known as “Korean uchi-komi”, which is uchi-komi consisted of three players, one player does the technique on another with as much power as possible as if to throw, while the third holds down the second person not to be thrown. It is a very tiring exercise to develop technique entry and power. We did five sets of fifteen. After that we had a five minutes break, and the randori session began. The randori is essentially ippon change, when one of the two players achieves ippon, both look for a different partner.

US Judo Federation High School team with team leader Jun Chi, coaches
US Judo Federation High School team with team leader Jun Chi, coaches

At around 9:30PM, the last training ended. The players retreated to their dorms to clean up and get ready for bed. I think everyone slept soundly, and I used my judo jacket as a cover during the night to keep myself warm from the cold air conditioner.

The next morning we began to wake up around 5:30AM and all the male players got ready by 6AM for the first training. The first training mainly consisted of calisthenics. One person walked on his hands with another person walking behind while holding his legs, the parameter of the mat is 72 meters, and each person had to walk twice in a row. So that’s about 144 meters in length. They did this several times. Then they had to carry a partner in various positions and walk around the mat. For the legs, they had to do duck walk around the mat, followed up frog jump. At the end, they had to do 200 thrusting push-ups to finish the morning training, although no one had good form after the first thirty.

After breakfast which most ate veraciously, we were informed that Mr. Oh has arranged for us to visit the Korea men’s national judo team at the Olympic training center. It came as a surprise because we were not expecting to be invited there on this visit. However, Mr. Oh thought since we flew a long way and has a brief stay, we should gain more experience by visiting the national training center at least.
In the afternoon, we gathered to go to the Olympic Center located at the Korea Institute of Sport in Seoul. The drive is about forty minutes. The men are women have separate training facilities. The men’s dojo is located in a building and takes up the entire top floor. It has large windows on three sides, and one side is made of floor-to-ceiling windows, which give plenty natural light. The coaches were invited to change their cloth separately in an office. I soon met Mr. Dae-Nam Song, the 2012 London Olympic -90kg champion, who is now the head coach of the Korean men’s team. I did not recognize him immediately because he seemed to be smaller and shorter than I imagined, as -90kg players are generally much bigger. Often top -90kg players drop several kilograms to make weight (sometimes nearly ten kilograms), and become even heavier after retirement. It seemed that he had to put on weight to make -90kg, being a former -81kg player. It’s good to see that despite being one of the smaller people in his category, he won an Olympic title. Furthermore, he kept good shape even after retirement.

Since it is just a month before the 2016 Olympic Games, the national team is inviting the top high school and college teams from Korea to do rotational training. Beside us from Kyung-Min High School, the team from the top judo university – Yong-In University, also came. In addition, I was surprised to find a small team from China, including their three players who qualified for the Olympics and some training partners (-66kg, -73kg and -90kg) players visiting, as well as few players from Indonesia who are currently staying with Yong-In University judo team.

Randori at Korea National Judo Training Center
Randori at Korea National Judo Training Center under very bright natural light

After a short warm up consisted of uchi-komi, randori begins. We had ten rounds of six-minute tachi-waza randori, separated by weight classes, 73kg and below are one group, 81kg and above another. I did not have success finding partner every round, but I still managed to get six rounds of randori.

Randori at Korea National Judo Training Center waiting for the next round
Randori at Korea National Judo Training Center, group two is waiting for the next round


At the conclusion of training, Mr. Chi told us to quickly gather as the van is waiting for us. So we rushed to get out as quickly as we could. Soon we found that we are going to eat at a restaurant. We arrived at a nice Korean restaurant, and it soon turned out that the current China Men’s National Team head coach, Hoon Chung (鄭勲) invited Mr. Chi and us for a dinner for Korean Bar-B-Que. Mr. Chung was the former head of Korean men’s national judo team before he was hired by China to run theirs in 2014. From what I heard about him, he is very severe and tough coach who is very demanding of his athletes. I previously met him at the World Cup / Continental Open in Rome 2014, so I was surprised to see him again in this occasion. He was polite and nice toward me each time. 

Korean Bar-B-Que is about grilling the meat and vegetables by you. The dinner was really a feast of various cuts of beef, grilled by Mr. Oh to perfection on the table center grill. The side dishes were equally delicious. Not far into the meal, Mr. Chung decided to get some soju, or Korean rice wine, for us. Although Mr. Oh and I normally do not drink alcohol before or after training, as Mr. Chung has given us the honor by offering us the drinks himself, we could not refuse.

Korean BBQ
Authentic and delicious Korean BBQ

I told Mr. Oh, that already with all the meat we are eating it’s going to be impossible to digest them all in time for the next training at 8PM, on top of it there is the soju. Fortunately as coaches we don’t have to practice in the training. I actually liked the taste of soju, it is a bit sweet and quite light, and does not make me feel much effect. We chatted about various things, among which the development of the China men’s judo and Mr. Chung’s expectation for this Olympic Game. Already they made big stride by directly qualifying three men without using the continental quota, which is a big accomplishment; but Mr Chung said for China men’s judo, it’s a long road and progress will come slowly. I asked what his plan is after this Olympic Game, he said he will return to Korea. (Post writing update: Cheng Xun Zhao, from China, fought -90kg at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, performed spectacularly and took the first bronze medal in men’s judo for China at the Olympic Games)

USJF judo group dinner invited by Mr. Hoon Chung
USJF group dinner inivited by Mr. Hoon Chung

After everyone is satiated, we all thanked Mr. Chung and took some photos with him before parting. In less than half an hour, we arrived back at the dorm at Kyung-Min high school.

Evening training started off with 15 x 5 sets of three-man uchi-komi, followed by 50 normal uchi-komi. I did the warm up but felt particularly tired as I was still digesting the dinner. After a short break, randori began. We learned that tonight’s randori format is winner stays in the center and continues with a new opponent until he loses by ippon. This type of format is particularly hard even for someone who is very good. One of the boys from our team did quite well that evening and fought many rounds.
After the training, Mr. Oh told us that there is a possibility we will not have the early morning training, partly because the students will have their school photo taken that morning. Instead we will visit the Korea women’s national team at the Olympic training center in Seoul.
 
Shortly after I went to bed, I felt something moving on my face. So I brushed it off. I sat up and used my phone’s flash light to see what it is. Instead of a feather or even a fly, it turned out to be a house centipede! I actually did not want to kill it, so I went to find some tissue with which I could use to grab and throw it outside. However, in the mean time I was looking, it moved somewhere else. So I had to look for it, otherwise it may come back to my face again when I am sleeping. After few minutes, I found it, and regrettably had to smash the poor creature. When one sleeps on the floor, it makes easier for crawling insects to come up and cuddle against your will.

Centipede decided my face is more comfortable than the floor
According to the Koreans, this is supposed to bring you luck.

The next morning, we did not have to get up too early, just around 7:30AM. During breakfast we have the confirmation that we will visit the Korea women’s national team later that morning. We arrived there before 10AM. The women’s national training center is in a separate, adjacent property next to the Korean Institute of Sport, where the men’s national training center is located. It used to be the men’s training center and is just as big. We saw the current head coach, Won-hee Lee, 2004 Olympic champion in -73kg men’s division. There was also Jae-Bum Kim, 2012 Olympic champion in -81kg men’s division, who recently announced his retirement and is now a coach of a college team, among other coaches who were all accomplished athletes.

Beside the national team women, other teams (including male) came to work as training partners. Again, after a short warm up, followed by fifteen minutes of uchi-komi, randori starts. First we did 5 or 6 rounds of 5-minute newaza, followed by 10 rounds of tachi-waza. I did all the newaza but none of the tachi-waza. Some of our boys did tachi-waza randori with the women.

Kyung Min College high school judo team with visiting USJF high school team group photo
Kyung Min College high school judo team with visiting USJF high school team group photo

After training we went back to the dorm. We were to last to have lunch as we came back the latest. The afternoon training was the same as the previous night’s training. It was intense and tiring.
After the training ended, we were told there would be no training at night. Their team has a tradition; Wednesday is a day of relatively light training with no night training so the members could catch up with rest, cleaning and errands. In fact, many students did laundry, cleaned the dorm, and just enjoyed the rare time off in the week. We ended up going to the bath house again to relax and enjoy some shaved ice. It was a good way to conclude my stay.

The next morning the boys did some running around the school, up and down hill, followed by rubber band exercises. I have a shoulder injury from one of my fights at the Olympic training center so I just did some leg exercises. Afterward, I prepared my luggage as I will leave Korea later in the afternoon. I bid my farewell to my teammates, fellow coaches, and took a taxi to the long-distance bus station and got on the bus toward the airport. It was a short four-day stay that I will never forget.

Elastic cord morning training at Kyung Min college
Early morning elastic cord training for the judo team at Kyung Min College

Although I am familiar with the Chinese and Japanese culture, I am still impressed by the sense of tradition I see in South Korea. The deference given to elders and superiors is clearly visible in the daily interaction. Youngsters often greet or bow to the elders; and adults to their elders and superiors. The cost of eating out is economical, no more than the U. S., and in many cases, less.

From a judo perspective, I am impressed by the volume of work they do. I was told this is traditionally how they train young people in judo. While there is no doubt that South Korea is one of the top countries with the most consistent performance, they do benefit from the volume of players and training. I came from a very different school when it comes to high-performance training where we focus on higher efficiency in training with less volume. It is not to say that our volume is small, but more purposeful. I think the type of training for high school students who specialize in judo is too much. It does not give them the time or energy to recover and focus on learning other skills necessary for their age.

It also seems the students get burned out from this type of training, although there is no doubt they are all very competent judo players. Perhaps 1% will go on to become world class players, and the rest may or may not continue judo. Most of the students with whom I spoke do not enjoy this type of training as they are fatigued mentally and physically and do not see themselves practicing judo after graduation. It is easy to sympathize with them.

With a large number of players, Korea could afford to do this because those who remain by natural selection are the top players in skill and mentality. If nothing else, certainly after years of this type of grueling training, it will make everyone mentality tough and physically strong. Korean judo at the high level is known for its high rhythm and relentless attack during each match. I can see the root of this style of fighting.

Tachiwaza randori in the judo hall at Kyung Min college
Large volume of uchi-komi and randori, day after day

Still, I think instead of focusing on volume, more efficiency in training methodology will permit the students to achieve similar level of skill and ability, while giving them more time to develop in other areas, especially academically. It is possible to achieve good international competition results using other training system too. For the sake of the children, the coaches should consider it. Still, I admire their toughness and perseverance and respect their level of judo. However, one must keep in mind that with a large number of players, almost any system could product some top players. One must not confuse correlation and causation.

In the end, I am very glad Mr. Chi and U. S. Judo Federation offered me this opportunity and thanks to the generosity of the coaches and staff at Kyung-Min College and the Olympic training centers, we could live like the students from one of the best judo high schools in South Korea. It is truly an eye-opening experience. Our experience was made even better with the presence of Mr. Seung Jun Oh, whose mother-tongue being Korean, combined unique experience with the Korean and American school and sport systems, regularly gave me unique insight, feedback and commentary, this truly helped me and us make the most out of our brief stay.

Judo training takes a long time to show effect, often in small incremental improvement. One week training, no matter how tough, is more for to gain a window into another system and people and oneself under such condition, than to improve one’s judo overnight. However, without it, it’s not enough just to read about it or watch it on video, to experience it truly allows a person to embrace and experience and help the person to grow.

 

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