INTERVIEW: on Training Judo
A LIFETIME OF TRAINING AND TEACHING JUDO
I met Henry while I was hunting for a room to rent for the summer. Along this lakeshore drive I’d noticed a particular house often, it seemed like the only one that was large and quiet enough, and just had a certain feel to it that invited me to go knocking. There was no advert for a room to rent, but I walked up in cold blood and knocked anyway.
He was friendly and inviting, a calm man with a good heart and a slow, careful way of speaking, we got along well. I didn’t get the room, but I did get an interview.
Henry – “I was born in 1937, and I’ve been training judo since ’59, so I was about twenty-two years old or so when I started.”
FORE-ORDAINED AS A WEE LAD?
“I have two brothers, and one of them, as a young fellow, would go nuts, ballistic, in anger. He once threw a sword at my other brother – who I knocked out of the way – and the sword sunk into the wall about that far. Maybe that’s why I did well later at judo – because I learned how to evade his strength when he was going to have a fit, how to just blanket him, kind of lay on him while he quivered and thrashed (ha). Gradually he just had to calm down, because he would run out of energy.”
JUST SOMETHING TO DO
“Funny story: I was in fencing (dueling with swords) and the instructor canceled the class after only three sessions. So I checked into the judo class – just something to do – and right away I was having fun. Entered my first tournament within a month. I liked everything about it. I had played all kinds of sports – rugby, basketball, soccer, boxing, gymnastics, all this – but in judo it seemed that anything goes.
What really picked me off (annoyed him): in university basketball the coach was always more or less trying to teach you how to cheat – you know, step on a guy’s toes before he jumps, this kind of thing. But in judo the competition rules are definite enough about striking and punching, they just aren’t allowed.
That really impressed me: I went to Vancouver for that first tournament, and after those guys fought their hearts out… they’re tired, they sit down back-to-back, and these guys from different clubs had no animosity. Like, ‘This is a game, we’re trying to do our best. It’s nothing personal’.
Everybody is trying to help each other. There’s camaraderie. And it’s been that way ever since. We get better together.”
IT EVENTUALLY ‘CLICKS’
“I think I did well at judo to start with because I did four years of timber cruising, where you’d throw eighty pounds on your back (in a backpack full of food, camping equipment, work supplies, etc.), climb off ten – twenty miles into the bush and stomp around for a week doing various jobs for the Forest Service. We did work up to ten thousand feet elevation. The work was excellent for balance and everything else.
I started with (his first teacher), he was a navy guy. I was very comfortable with this way of training because I’d been through a military-type situation. I fit in at the club just great. The people there were mostly cops, military.
And I never got down, depressed if I couldn’t do something during judo training. You work and you work at it… and then one day – around 1963, ‘64 – magic started to happen. It was happening. You go out there… I was always placing well in tournaments, even if not winning some of them. It was just there, the moves just happened. If you ask what I did… I don’t know.
I went to every competition. That’s the way the club was, we’d go everywhere. With my job I moved around a lot, if there wasn’t a club in the new town, I’d start one.”
JUDO TRAVELS WITH HIM JUST LIKE THE SUITCASES
“I’m a Forester by profession, a land-use specialist and a real estate appraiser. In the 1950’s I went out, we did the provincial inventory to determine the total forest resource of the province of B.C., and then to create ‘public working circles’, areas that would have enough timber on a sustained (ongoing, long-term) logging basis to establish local industry. Then we’d help set these industries up to be competitive. The industrial companies would bid on those areas, build their industrial plants there… and away they’d go.
I was in Vancouver from ’62 – ’64, helping determine the pricing of government timber. Then I went to Smithers in ’64 – ’67, where I started the Smithers judo club. I enjoyed my work with (the Ministry of) Lands. That was the best job ever. Looking back – judo was fine, my job with Lands was just great, I also had a wonderful family with two sons.
It didn’t matter where I was, I did my judo. Judo was like a big family. Anywhere. I go to meetings in Ottawa for my job, and I’d go see a judo club there. Just drop in.”
GROWING MORE EXPERIENCED
“(At his various clubs) We had people visit from Japan, so I got training from some of the top people in Japan. I’ve been to Japan. I’ve been to competitions in the States, tournaments in Spokane (Washington), and in ‘72 I took a group of judo students from Campbell River down to the North West Olympic eliminations for the States.
I didn’t go there to compete. I hadn’t been training much, I just took the kids there and they said, ‘If you don’t compete, we won’t compete.’ I came fourth.
Thirty years ago I thought I knew how to do it all. Awhile back I did my sixth dan. (‘Dans’ are levels of accomplishment in judo and many other martial arts. They may be accompanied by different colored belts, or stripes on belts) My teacher phones and says, ‘You are ready for your sixth dan testing in six months’. Then he phones me a couple weeks later and said it would be in a month and a half or so – so I started working out every day. I really figure that I know what I’m doing now, but I still have lots to learn.
Before, I had an idea of what I knew of judo. But knowing something – your body’s got to physically know it. Your body’s got to be able to just do it, you can’t think about the moves. If you have to think, it’s too late. Being well-trained means that you don’t have to think, you just do what is appropriate instantly. Your body knows what your thoughts don’t through training, and all you have to do is let it perform. This is the transformation that’s required to gain expertise. That’s what trained means: instant reaction.
There was a period when I was unbeatable… but I never felt like I was. Just did it. But now I’ve been around enough to know there’s always someone who’s gonna catch you. The way it works is: somebody does some technique or style that’s successful (in a fight or a match), so then a lot of people will copy that, try it. Then people start getting accustomed to it, learn how to beat it… then some other technique will take over. There’s an ebb and flow to it.
To become truly great at judo I would have had to train a lot more, but I started late (in age). I did as much as I could and still had a successful career and family.”
A GENTLE WAY OF MAKING YOU TOUGH
“It teaches you to have no fear. And it teaches you to accept the energies of your opponent and use them to your advantage. And because it’s a sport, we’re always learning to look after each other, positioning people so they aren’t hurt. Practitioners have a good, helpful outlook on life.
When new students join, they’re afraid. You’ve got nothing to be afraid of here, we’re looking after you, putting you down gentle. If we’re about to break your arm, choke you out… you just tap if something’s going wrong. (In the practice of judo, a clear ‘tapping’ anywhere you can reach on your opponent’s body signals them to STOP)
Students need to be able to go with the flow and do breakfalls when necessary so they don’t get hurt. When mature strong students start, they frequently have difficulties because they are used to maintaining their stability through strength; when they finally do fall, they land with a crash.
This group is the toughest to keep coming back to the club, as they tend to get too sore before they learn how to give way so as to protect themselves. No matter how gentle the instructor makes training, mature athletes seem keen to use too much strength to try to achieve their objective. Their fear of getting hurt, whether self-inflicted or not, is not conducive to learning.
If they get past this stage, then they tend to stay, and start to learn the gentle way.”
Unfortunately, some martial arts instructors use harsh methods even on beginners, so beginners almost need to be tough already just to start the class, and to withstand the rigorous training.
But there should be a balance: to toughening up through hard training, yet not crossing over a line into harshness. Harsh training gratifies some peoples’ egos but ultimately isn’t necessary to becoming a good martial artist, and it can do considerable short- and long-term damage to your body. Judo exemplifies being careful, while still toughening you up.
BUT IT DOESN’T ALWAYS FEEL LIKE ‘FAMILY’
“Your partner is part of your practice, he has to participate. (To be agreeable, helpful to the lessons) Once, this bonehead – in a class, not a tournament – was acting like an idiot. I asked him what move he was going to practice… then he didn’t do what he said he was going to do. Next thing, my leg was out dislocated.
The other time I was in a tournament. I fought this guy – I think he had placed high in the All-Japan tournament – he was a tough cookie. He beat me, but… I pitched him around a bit. A month later I go to this judo clinic, and here is this fellow again… and he wants to practice with me.
All of a sudden when we’re practicing he does this earth-shattering osoto-gari (a judo throw), bounced me on my head. And this isn’t competition, it’s a practice. Then he did it again. They (the clinic officials) threw him off the mat. He was deported the next day after they got into a confrontation.
But I saw double for six months. Some guys are idiots. I guess he just wanted to show… that I got off easy in the tournament, or I had to suffer, or some nonsense. Also, I was told later that he had been banned from tournaments in Japan because in one of them he had a guy in an arm bar – the guy gave up – then he went and broke the guy’s arm anyways.
I hadn’t met idiots like that before. Thank goodness.”
PERSEVERANCE: YOU KEEP TRAINING EVEN WITH THE ‘OW-IES’
“I was learning to ski and I stretched my knee, separated something, so that put me off judo for the rest of the season. Another time, in Prince George, a guy did a judo move that separated my knee, so that put me off for quite awhile too. Here (in Penticton), I tore my ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) in my knee a few years ago.
It’s six weeks in a cast each time, but you can still do other things; if your leg doesn’t work you can still use your arms. I always kept training, always tried to do something. And it had to be at the club, not at home, ’cause I was running the clubs, even the Vancouver judo club. When you’re injured you just get senior students and instructors to do a lot more of the physical work with the classes.
I was in a really horrendous car accident in Vancouver, had a subdural hematoma; the next night I was on the judo mat, trying to make it happen. At one class there was this experienced student who during one exercise drops me on my head – after he knew I’d had this accident. Couldn’t trust that guy anymore.
This makes you realize that we must take responsibility for our own safety – which means that we have to have a good understanding and agreement with our training partner, before we start our activity, as to whether it is to be gentle or strenuous training.”
MAYBE POSTPONE TRAINING JUST THIS ONCE…?
“Getting over that injury took a long time, there’s a bunch of blood congealed inside your head. I was in a business meeting with the mayor of Sechelt, and as I’m talking I realize that what I’ve just said isn’t right, didn’t make sense. I went to see the doctor.
I asked him, ‘What happens if I get emotionally, physically upset?’ He said, ‘You’ve got a wad of blood in there… you might break that off and have a stroke’. I said, ‘Well… maybe I should take some time off’. ‘Good idea’.
I more or less slept twenty hours a day for a couple weeks. Felt measurably better after that. It took months for my skull to return to its normal size. I lost short-term memory from the accident, and my high-frequency hearing.
I feel normal now. I really don’t know the way I felt before. I don’t know if you can picture the way you were twenty years ago, the way you remembered things and saw things. I’ve got nothing to compare to. I do know that my judo’s slowed down… but then, I’m getting a little old, too.”
ANY WISDOM FROM TRAINING?
“I’m afraid I didn’t really notice any personal changes in my life (relationships, discipline, etc.) due to my judo training. At least, not back then at the time.
Although… many years ago I had this work crew in Quick, B.C.. It was the end of the work season, we had a big party in a bar, some gals were serving. The next thing, in comes this carload of guys who had just got out of prison. Out-of-control guys… drunk, disorderly.
I really didn’t know how to handle that. Everybody’s having a good time… except me, who’s in charge, and fearful. I sat back and analyzed the whole thing, and I decided: the girls seemed to be able to handle these guys… but they were driving me crazy. So I disappeared. Simple as that.
I came back a few hours later… everything was fine. Nothing was wrecked. I was smart enough to recognize that… you know, I was the problem. The only problem was in my mind.”
We worry that, because we’re in a position of ‘boss’, of control, we’re supposed to do something to control a situation. It takes some advanced wisdom to learn which situations to just ‘let be’, which ones don’t really need our input at all to work themselves through just fine, thank you.
SAME WISDOM, MORE RECENTLY
“I’m chairman (for judo) of the B.C. Winter Games, have been for twenty years or so, so I know what to do. We were in Alberni one year, and had this new young fellow to run the tournament locally.
I set up all the forms, the itinerary for the day – medal presentations at a certain time, television coverage coming in, etc. But this young fellow had produced all his own forms; since he had run tournaments before, he knew what it was all about, so he ignored everything that was provided and brought all his own.
I just ‘let it happen’. And it happened just fine.”
BEYOND BEING A ‘SPORT’? SELF-DEFENSE, AND LEARNING TO READ DANGER
“I’d feel confident (of his abilities) in a street fight, if I had to. Yeah.
I once was in a meeting… this guy accused me of ruining his business (through Henry’s work with Ministry of Lands). He’s getting pretty worked up, ripping off his shirt. Everyone around him is, ‘No, no, don’t do this!’ My adrenaline got going, wondering if anything’s gonna happen. Finally I really looked at him, just listened… and just knew… nothing’s going to happen. He’s just blowing off steam. But everyone else was still getting excited, starting to get people outside.
But I have not faced combatants on the street. Although… in Vancouver, I’m walking back from a lunchtime meeting with (an official). I’m also walking with a lawyer, others, and this guy comes out from behind a bridge abutment. He’s in his ‘battle fatigues’, he’s got a club raised, and says, ‘Give me your money!’
I look at him, and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve practiced this’. So it gets to the point where he should be making his move… I’m ready for his move. The guys with me were doing a song and dance, jumping nervously about. I didn’t do anything, he could tell I wasn’t acting afraid, I was ready. He goes, ‘Uuhhhh…’ and just walked.
The funny part of it is: I thought afterwards that it was more like I’d just gone and worked out at the club. I thought, ‘Why the hell didn’t we phone the cops?’ It just seemed like part of a practice.”
A MORE SERIOUS SITUATION
“We had a (judo) guy in Victoria inadvertently kill a guy. After a workout at the judo club, he went to a beer parlor to meet his girlfriend. There was this loudmouth, obnoxious lout giving people a rough time. Things escalated, so the two took it outside. The judo guy did a throw on the other guy, inadvertently smacking his head on the curb.
Crushed his skull, the guy died. He was charged with Manslaughter… his life was hell. And it was totally inadvertent – he was trying to settle an argument, the guy took a whack at him, he let go with the throw.”
Knowing a martial art is a serious, sometimes life-and-death responsibility.
“It’s like owning a gun. It’s like these guys with their hot cars: things happen, get out of control easily.”
CLOSER TO HOME
“I was watching out here one night (his house is across the street from a beach), watching some kids rough-housing. This one kid takes another and splats him down – pure judo moves.
I thought, ‘That has to be one of my guys! Little bum!’ I advise all my students to only do judo in the club or with other judoka, due to the possibility of injury to the uninitiated. So I walked over to the beach and inquired and found out that he had taken some lessons but had dropped out.”
GENTLENESS, CARE, EVEN FOR THOSE WHO ARE ATTACKING YOU
“Unruliness starts usually by grabbing or shoving. You’re not usually trying to punch and kick the hell out of people right away, so it makes sense to be able to gently subdue these guys… handling their rush-on punch and then controlling them a bit until they figure out there’s no percentage in doing this.
That’s better than having to punch them in the face to begin with.”
Many egoistic young men dream of being known as tough, having their names in the news, becoming famous for stopping some criminal, etc… without any consideration for the harm they may cause in their blind ambition.
How many grow up and start to care about strangers, even antagonistic strangers, and care enough to learn to efficiently stop altercations while doing as little damage as possible to the attacker? That’s advanced!
“Teaching at the clubs, you’re always trying to impart wisdom. The biggest thing to learn is the efficient (and caring) use of power to achieve your goal.”
“That’s it. Judo’s been good. Teaches you to face your problem, deal with it in an appropriate manner. Now, I’m old and frail. This guy – I think he was number two (-rated competitor) in his weight class in Great Britain – came to the Vancouver judo club, he wanted to have a go at me. I said, ‘My head… I can’t do anything like that, I have a serious concussion at the moment’.
He said, ‘Come on, come on!’ I said, ‘Okay, but you’ve gotta throw me nicely; you know – don’t jar me’ (ha). So he got his throw in. And that was it, he was happy. That was fine.
I’ll still go out and have a go with people, but I’m not under any illusions that the ‘old master’ is going to beat the most vigorous young fighters.
Here, we’ve got some really strong guys… but I can still maneuver and hold ’em down.”
After this interview Henry showed me through his beautiful home. He’s added various rooms, has an extensive library of books on judo – many of them signed by the authors and masters he met or trained with – and has pictures of himself with some of the highest judo masters.
One of the new rooms is a home judo training gym, complete with mats.
And he remains wonderfully active: I later house-sat for him for a month… while he trekked to the base camp of Mount Everest.