Sunday, December 02, 2007

Kids' Martial Arts The Way it Should Be

Whenever people ask "What martial art do you recommend for kids?" I always answer "Judo. No question about it."

There's a lot of reasons for this. It's wrestling, and little apes love to wrestle. You learn to fall. Most people never get in a fight, but everyone falls down. It wears them out. It's great exercise and does wonders for balance and coordination. It develops fighting spirit in a good way. Striking is bad for young unfused bones and can lead to permanent joint problems in ways that grappling just isn't. It works just fine for schoolyard troubles with a lot less chance for accidental injury than kicking some kid in the head.

Most of all it was my own experience in the early 70s.

Saint Street goes from one side of Richland, WA to the other. It starts at the Columbia River and heads West past the water treatment plant. It goes up a hill and crosses Stevens Drive, right where Stevens merges with the Bypass Highway. The trees and grass end suddenly at the range of the last home sprinkler system and give way to bare dirt, tumbleweed and bunch grass.

Right across Stevens there's a gas station which used to say "Last Gas for 7o miles". In those days it was true. Back then there was a Coke machine instead of a mini mart.

Just beyond it are two WWII era buildings built by the government for some mysterious Hanford Project purpose. All that construction to the North and West in the picture came decades later.

The first one has a green roof and flaking white paint. It used to be a martial arts school. Sensei Rising taught Ju Jutsu, Aikido, Karate and a number of other mysterious things. Lord only knows where he picked them up. All I can say for sure is that he and a couple of the other teachers there had officially been frogmen during the Second World War. He had a signed picture of William "Wild Bill" Donovan in a place of honor and seemed to know a really strange array of martial artists. I'd still give a lot to know how to find the Ba Gua and Dog Kung Fu teacher he brought to the Judo school for a demonstration one evening.

Kids my age weren't allowed to study there. He sent anyone under 21 including his own sons next door to the building with the brown roof where a really great group of men taught Judo.
It's the standard by which youth martial arts should be judged. I've seen a lot of kids' classes - all the Karate/TKD/Kenpo variants, Kung Fu, and about a million "Little Dragons" and "Junior Ninjas" programs. Some of them are very good. The Richland Judo Dojo could hold its head up with any of them and outshines almost all.

The facilities were nothing much to look at. It was a mid-1940s military building, ugly and sturdy. There was some heat in the Winter, no air conditioning in the Summer, a kids' locker room, and adults' locker room, two rooms with tatami mats and a back room filled with dusty exercise equipment. Dues were minimal and barely covered the costs of the facility. A couple times a year one of the school mothers would do a group buy of gis.

The teachers were a collection of friends. Most of them had picked up their Judo in the Service. They were mostly steam-fitters, engineers, government employees and other people who worked out in the Hanford area. Many of them had sons in the classes they taught. Years later a lot of them quit Judo and formed an amateur soccer team. They had a refreshing faith that if everyone just went to the dojo three times a week and trained hard in Judo the world would be a better place. And do you know, I think they were right.

New kids were taught in a group in the back room. When they could fall without getting hurt and had learned a couple throws they were moved into the main class. There were classes for adults and advanced belts only, but for the most part everyone was taught together. Everyone did light randori together. Everyone lined up by rank together.

Competition was important. We worked extra hard and got a lot of motivation before big tournaments. But there were no display cases of trophies, and there was no special emphasis on the hot competition prospects (and there were some). The emphasis was taking part, fighting hard, and learning.

Looking back I'm impressed by the results. Over the four years I was there less than half of the students I started with left. Everyone progressed, but nobody passed a belt test who didn't deserve to. There was a group identity that extended outside the dojo. Effort was rewarded more than talent. A number of kids got things important things from Judo that they didn't get at home. We got good solid Judo training and had a lot of fun. You really can't ask for more than that.

Why was it so good? Can it be repeated?

It would be hard. It was a combination of time, place and people which made the school what it was.

There is a lot more martial arts now, and for better or worse people have expectations about them and what a school should be like. It is much harder for kids and parents to take a school on its own terms instead of in the light of Karate Kids, sword-wielding reptiles, Jackie Chan and the UFC. Judo classes were more an alternative to basketball or wrestling than they were to Karate or Ninjutsu. The only other dojo I had heard about taught Tae Kwon Do out in the wilds of West Richland.

Part of it was the teachers. They were an exceptional bunch. There was a most senior teacher, but he didn't run the school. A loose group of school mothers did that in one of those mysterious female networks what men wot not wot of. The fact that their own sons were in the class helped keep quality up. The fact that there were several prevented favoritism. They really believed in the benefits of Judo and felt that it was something bigger than them. They took a very paternal or at least avuncular role to the students. A lot of them had what I now see as a top sergeant's attitude. No nonsense, not soft, but dedicated to the people for whom they were responsible.

Another important thing was the students. Since there was no need to make money the teachers could take whom they wanted and teach the way they thought best. I'm sure a few kids never made it past the initial interview, and trouble makers shaped up or didn't last long. Bad behavior was not tolerated, and their response to the one ethnic slur I ever heard was grimly intolerant. They acted shamed that something so "against Judo" would happen in their school. They were there to get a workout and teach Judo. Part of that was turning out young people who would be a credit to the Art and their country.

The club didn't take any students younger than nine or ten. The childhood development issues that you get with the three-to-eight set just weren't there. It was a club that met in the evenings, not an unlicensed after school daycare program. And it was part of "family and friends life" for the teachers rather than a separate activity. All of this set the tone in a lot of subtle ways. Most of them were good.

I don't know if mixed-age classes were an official part of Judo at the time. That's the way it worked out. I think we were better for it. Most were at an age where they wanted to copy what adults were doing and were proud to be accepted into an adult activity as junior but definitely part of the group. We were all Judo players together. Obviously, a six foot four wrestler who had been to the Nationals was going to go easy on a skinny ten year old in light randori. Just the fact that they worked out together was valuable.


Steve Perry said...

Nice piece.

draggin904 said...

i attended the richland school of judo from 1966 to 1979 and everything said is of the best times of my life

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