Learning Judo by Refereeing

If you’ve ever considered refereeing, do it. You’ll get to learn a bunch about the sport rules, what the referees are looking for from players, what techniques people are getting to work (and how), and some pretty cool theory stuff. I’m pretty sure this is across the board true for any sport, but I can definitely say it about judo.

Just from yesterday I learned:

  • When you have someone off-balanced forward, the color of their toes changes. I’ve never even thought about this. I’m not sure how practical it would be to look at uke’s toes in the match as I’m getting ready to throw, but being able to visually see when someone’s actually off-balance based on the pressure in their toes is pretty cool.
  • There is a lot of going down into turtle without successful throwing. The snap-down (modified to be with the jacket so-as to not risk the neck), twisting to take them into turtle off of a collar-and-elbow, tori flubbing a seoi nage and just turtling.
  • You can tell who went to the seminar recently because no matter what club they’re from, they’re all doing the same technique.
  • Seoi nage and tai otoshi seem to be the most popular big throws in my area. People still work for foot sweeps, but those two are what they give everything to try.

I’m still nervous when I start the day as a referee. I just don’t do it frequently enough to relax off the bat. I’m hoping to break that. It’s actually a lot of fun once I relax and am confident in my calls. Those first couple of matches are still nerve-wracking though.

The Church of Grappling

My reasons for grappling have evolved over the years. When I was a kid I loved shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and as a result did karate. I can’t really explain why I wanted to do martial arts more than I thought it was cool. At some point, I got really disenchanted with karate because we weren’t doing flying sidekicks and fancy acrobatics. I ended up quitting. When I was graduating from high school I got into my head that I would find another martial art to do at college; anything but karate. I looked through a bunch of clubs and ended up finding the UW Budo Club. The Budo Club was teaching Waboku ryu jujitsu at the time. Classes were split up such that Mondays and Thursdays were standing joint locks and throws; the kind of stuff you’d expect from a jujitsu that falls more in the Japanese category (though WRJ is an eclectic American art). Wednesdays were ground work. At this point, I was just grappling because it was a martial art that I had become infatuated with, and I guess I never really gave up on my childhood dream of becoming a ninja. I pretty heavily believed in martial arts for self defense still at this point too.

After two semesters of having my ass handed to me by Evan and Alex I felt like the guard was my biggest weak spot. I couldn’t pass it well, and I couldn’t attack from it. Someone had mentioned BJJ did a lot of groundwork. I had never heard of it before, but set off to see if there were schools around me. I was heading back to my parents’ place for the summer to work, so I called up Justin from Third Heaven and naively asked if BJJ would be able to help me patch up the holes in my guard game. I don’t recall his exact words, but it was something to the effect of “yes, we do that.” Looking back, it was probably one of the dumbest questions I could have asked after 8 months of grappling experience. And so I started BJJ to improve my guard, but still just as part of fostering my infatuation with jujitsu.

By the end of the summer, I had fallen in love with fighting on the ground. It was like a mental puzzle. I was starting to put on muscle mass from doing BJJ and MMA five days each week, but I was still just a scrawny 150 lb. (~68 kg) shit. BJJ had given me the tools to overcome even bigger opponents by thinking through the position and angle if I could just get to the mat though. I was looking forward to schooling the guys who were consistently beating me on the ground just a short four months ago. My reason at this point was the mental stimulation that grappling could give – you can be put into an insane position and just by understanding the concepts could end up getting into a dominant position and submitting your opponent.

I continued that way through college – jujitsu and judo during the school year, BJJ and MMA during the summers. My reason remained constant – I love puzzles and this was one of the best, ever evolving puzzles I had ever encountered. At some point I stopped believing in martial arts for self defense. Jujitsu stopped being a thing that I did and became a part of me – a significant part of how I would describe my identity. My reason was no longer just the puzzle. I still loved that aspect of it, but I was continuing to train because I really couldn’t imagine life without it.

I had a normal list of injuries throughout college – broken fingers and toes from judo, a broken ankle when I dropped Tanner on it, broken nose a handful of times, dislocations and sprains, but nothing that really took me off the mat for more than about 6-8 weeks ever. My senior year of college brought with it the worst injury I had ever experienced up to that point. I broke the fourth metatarsus in my right foot on a foot sweep gone awry in judo. I walked on it for a week, insistent that it was just a really bad bruise. The result was being off of the mat for months and missing my normal MMA summer. I had a really hard time coming back to the mat, but I knew it was something I still wanted. This marked the point where I had to slow down, where I wasn’t doing every tournament I possibly could or trying to actively dominate every roll I was in no matter how futile. I’d end up getting two more major injuries that would slow me down further in the future, eventually getting to the point I’m at now.

Slowing me down brought with it a new facet of BJJ though – the almost religious experience. Some people’s religion involves going to a specified place, to do some rote actions, part of which involves a recognized leader/expert giving them a lecture about some of the finer points they should consider while doing those rote rituals. Mine does too. The mat is my church, the instructor my priest, and drills my prayers. When I get to roll against an advanced belt, it’s about relaxing and just letting instinct take over. It’s like moving meditation for me. My brain turns off. If I think about anything but the roll I get into a bad position for not paying attention. If I think too much about the roll I end up getting behind my partner because he’s still working on instinct, and instinct is much faster than thought. This kind of moving meditation makes the whole world fall away for that few minutes. Nothing exists except the roll. People seem to refer to this as “flow state” and it can happen with just about anything you do, but ground fighting provides a surefire way to get to it for me.

I still love solving puzzles, and I’ll still throw myself into positions I’ve never experienced before to try to figure my way out. I still consider grappling a key part of my identity. It’s not just a thing I do, but a thing I am. But what grappling gives me, more than entertainment or a sense of self, is a release. No matter how shitty the day, no matter how stressed I am; if I can get in a good roll with a trusted friend, I can let it all go.

The Skill Problem

Everything we learn in grappling is “use-it-or-lose-it”. If you don’t keep using the armbar you learned, at some point you’ll forget it. I’m finding myself watching old DVDs for refreshers of even the most basic techniques these days because, quite simply, I’m not using them.

The holidays have kept me away from Saturday BJJ and in judo the only groundwork we do is randori and turtle breakdowns. If you’ve been keeping score at home you’re well aware of how I feel about judo’s emphasis on the turtle.

So this is my latest problem – I miss being able to to do all of the awesome stuff I love to do on the ground and because I don’t have an outlet to practice it, I know I’m starting to suck at it.

Stalling In Judo

I alluded to it in the post about “survival” in BJJ, but stalling is a real problem in judo. There are explicit rules to try to force the action because of it. Let’s start by making a clear distinction – interrupting your opponent’s action by stopping for a moment so you can switch tactics, that’s not stalling. Stalling is getting to a point where you cannot easily attack or be attacked with the goal of the ruleset intervening on your behalf.

In judo it’s not uncommon to see a weaker player not only stopping attacks, but unable to initiate a counterattack so they’re just holding out. Their arms go stiff, their hips drop back, and it’s a heck of time to try to get in on them. There are ways to go about it, but the rules give penalties (shido) for such a defensive posture and for non-combativity. If you’re not there to play judo, why bother being there? But to be honest, my experience is that it’s far more common to see people stall on the ground. A failed throw and just about everyone turtles. In this case, there is no such shido for stalling on the ground.

Because you can safely stall there, we explicitly train it. Whereas the ground drill for the guard is that the person on the top should work to pass while the person on the bottom works to sweep or submit; the drill for turtle is the person on top should perform a turn-over or submission while the person on the bottom simply holds the position. In BJJ, this isn’t the case. Back-mount is 4 points. If you let them get their hooks in, you’re probably now down on points. No one is going to save you (unless the match is close to time) so you need to get out of that extremely prone position. In judo though, it’s an encouraged tactic.

As much as I tend to dislike the addition of new rules and restrictions in the sport, I think it would do us a lot of good to limit stalling on the ground. I’d wager it would make the sport more interesting to watch and encourage a higher-level of groundwork in judo if we issued a shido to individuals who used the turtle or half-guard to stall.

The messy part is when do we stand them up and what is stalling? If someone actively moves from being mounted to having half-guard and can’t do something due to being shut down, it probably doesn’t warrant a shido but they ought to be stood up; it’s not going anywhere. If someone gets half-guard and just hangs out without trying to attack or advance to a better position though… I’d say they should still be stood up, but also issued a shido for stalling. Yes, it’s completely subjective, but the current stalling penalty already is – was that an earnest attack? Are the competitors both working but equally matched? Is one competitor dominating so much that the other can’t recover? We have to take all of these into account standing. The biggest requirement here is really having referees who are comfortable enough on the ground to know what’s a slow setup and what’s plain old stalling, but most of the judo refs I know are good enough on the ground to tell that already – it’s when they determine to stand the pair up.

I think this alone would have the potential to equalize the importance of groundwork and throwing in judo. When you issue a shido for non-combativity to a player, it’s generally the case that both competitors start fighting harder, afraid of that second penalty. I’d like to see the same effect on the ground – issue a shido and the next time they went to the ground both people would actively work for a better position or submission. If the IJF wanted to improve ground game in judo, I’d bet money this would be the best way to do it.

Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and Survival

Let’s be blunt – it’s not really a secret that I’m not a fan of the philosophies and mythology surrounding GJJ. Recently Ryron and Rener made a video for Jits TV. After the “machine gun” history they show some techniques. It’s good to see that they’re so excited about BJJ and sharing it, but I’d like to focus on the philosophy they discuss in the history portion. The video notes that GJJ is characterized not by any certain techniques but by the philosophy we saw Ryron showcased at Metamoris – just survive. It’s one of the many mythologies that I don’t subscribe to. It’s a philosophy that we’ve seen other Gracie’s discuss – Kron has a gem of a video with a lot of statements that make me cringe and it discusses the same philosophy (there’s a lot of good stuff in there too). Even Saulo Ribeiro discusses the philosophy of survival in Case Study 1.0 of Jiu-Jitsu University when discussing Helio Gracie.

Maybe it’s a something that I’m missing, but for me, not losing does not equate to winning. Setting an arbitrary time duration and saying that at the end of that time the underdog is the winner relies entirely on that arbitrary time limit. It is in fact a rule set and therefor a sport. There are certain techniques allowed and disallowed. There is a certain point where both competitors agree to stop. Let’s be honest, it would be a boring as hell sport if both competitors subscribed to it as well – two people both sit on their buts and declare that the other is not beating them, the ultimate stalling.

Survival in a situation in which you would otherwise perish is good, but under the circumstances, I’d rather work to thrive. I see it in judo groundwork – when someone gets to turtle it’s like they’ve called “Base!” They have no incentive to try to attack or get to a better position, simply to survive an allotted amount of time. It’s up to the person who’s attacking the turtle to force the action, to put them in a worse position or threaten them with a submission. Wouldn’t it be better for us to actively work to get back to standing, or even to submit our opponent in this situation where we’re turtled? If both people just turtled next to each other and waited to be stood up, who would “win” on the ground? Neither of them lost, right?

Training to go for the submission, is, in my opinion, the actual goal. Not training for the arbitrary points of a competition, or how to stall for the arbitrary time limit, but in ending the fight/bout/competition in a decisive manner. Yes, go for the right position to have control to apply the submission, and don’t risk your control position for a risky submission attempt, but still, we should be training that from any position, even someone having your back, the goal isn’t just to survive, but to get to a better position with the goal of submitting our opponent.


Foundations BJJ did an introduction seminar yesterday. I couldn’t stay through the whole thing, but got up to the choke Arun showed. It felt good to do an actual BJJ warm-up for the first time in a long time. Matt started with the cross-knee guard pass, showing a lot of details that make the pass, then the transition to side-control after the pass. Arun picked it up from there with a way to take mount and then a circle choke from mount. Good stuff, I wish I could have stayed through Mike’s part.

There was pretty close to (if not over) 50 people there for the seminar. It will be interesting to see how many start showing up for classes (it’d be pretty cool to see 40+ folks for classes). Since they’ve taken the stance of welcoming everyone from any background/club/team/tribe it was a very eclectic group with a nice mix of all the belt colors.


Judo has been going pretty well. Refereeing is a lot of fun, I’d recommend it to anyone. You learn a lot about the sport aspect – why rules are what they are, what refs want to see in a match, what the direction it’s going in is. With a bit of luck I’ll be nikyu by the time winter ends.

Still, I feel like I’m missing something. Matt came to class on Tuesday and we went on the ground and it was like old times. It made me miss the ground all that much more. Don’t get me wrong, I love judo, but BJJ is what made me start this blog. Groundfighting is what I truly love, and unfortunately judo is not about being a ne waza technician. The rules are coming around, and maybe in 5 years will see the resurgence of ne waza as a real focus thanks to the influx of jiujitseros into judo. For now though, I miss BJJ, or heck even jujitsu.

Birthdays always make me look back on what I did this year and what I want. I wanted black belts in judo and BJJ before I turned 30. This year I’m 27, and now have a daughter. Still, I’m on track to get a judo balck belt in the next couple years; but since I’m already a purple belt in BJJ, if I buckle down, three years sounds reasonable. I guess it’s just a matter of if I can do it before my ankle gets any worse or something else goes south on me.

There’s a new school in Madison. It’s called Foundation BJJ. It’s a member of the Jiu-Jitsu Brotherhood and is being started by some really good guys. They’re running a clinic on Sunday and I’m hoping I can stop by. Not to get into the drama, but there’s only so many guys doing BJJ in Wisconsin, so this is a splinter group from another gym. It’ll be interesting to see what becomes of it.