The Informed Coach


Resources Article


    Sensei's by Hayward Nishioka



                                                                                  By Hayward Nishioka


     What is a judo sensei? A coach, a teacher, a guide, somebody a cut above a friend? Who are some famous sensei’s? Why are they famous? What are they remembered for? Perhaps for the many champions, they helped to develop. Maybe something even more simple. They were there to help you develop into more than you could be by yourself.

    In my day, in Nanka Yudanshakai, the sensei’s of note were Kuniyuki, Hagio, Murakami, Inouye, Nagano, Kikuchi, Kiyohiro, Tashima, Okada, Horiuchi, Nagaoka, and perhaps a dozen and a half more whose name’s I can’t remember, but whose faces I can still see in my mind eye. They came from another time zone with practices unfamiliar to us today; of practicing to the point of having to crawl out of a dojo from having been practicing to exhaustion and beyond, of being choked out, I mean choked OUT, even when you tapped out, especially if you tapped out too quickly. It was common practice to find oneself in randori with an opponent, for whatever reason, you were in a “judo street-fight” with, - - right in the dojo. Ricochet throws off the walls and even those off the mat were accepted practice as long as no one got seriously injured, and even then no one complained. They just shuck it off, bandaged a bleeding part, tapped fingers and toes after self-articulation of the joint and continued practice. It’s just the way things were before, during, and shortly after WW II. People were tough then because they had to be. Social conditions were different then, and so were the people who lived through that time.

    It’s a different story today. Emerging from the shell of the middle ages where “might is right,” and “the strong did as they willed and the weak suffered what they must,” our journey seems to be towards a “kinder, gentler society. So says Social Scientist, and author, Steven Pinker in his Bestselling book, “The Better Angels of our Nature.” Gone are the genocides that were common practice in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While they still arise in small areas from time to time they are not on the scale found in the Russian and German genocides where multimillions of people were killed at the pleasure of one man or a small group of people. As the bar has been raised and there is increased prosperity due to our technological advances in food production, medicine, technology, and methods of living in ever-larger societies there has been an increase in the evaluation of life itself and the individual’s rights.

    Even on the playgrounds of America things have changed. We have gone from ten-foot-tall iron monkey bars and titter-totters, to wooden obstacle courses to now short plastic slides atop cushioned padding floors. Even here, in a safety-conscious environment, litigant worries abound. Where once kids played baseball in open lots or even in the streets now everything is supervised by trained coaches or done at all. The shift has been from opportunities of naturally evolving play to one of directional timely play. What many forget is that play is learning, learning to get along with others, learning about one's body and its possibilities and limitations, learning that rules matter, play is a microcosm that extends into successful adult life. That if we think of a goal, and we try to attain it through determination and practice our chances are increased that we can attain our goals. Oh, and let's not forget the physical health and stress relief attributes that are also gained from physical exercise. All of this learning is accomplished through well-informed sensei’s that know that winning is just one experience.

    With increased sophistication however, the door is closing on this type of play anywhere, anytime learning. Even YMCA’s and Boy’s and Girl’s Club’s have shifted gears to “pay for play.” Where once institutions like these were originally devised to keep kids busy in a positive way and off the street, away from street gangs. Modern parents now search out safe havens for their children. These types of institutions are finding it ever more difficult to find qualified donors and volunteers to help defray expenses to run their programs. So then, how much is a good sensei worth?


    Judo likewise is being affected globally and locally.  Globally the US Olympic committee estimated some twenty years ago that it took somewhere near a million dollars to produce a gold medalist in the Olympics. Olympic silver medalist, Travis Stevens reportedly spent approximately $70,000 a year for 4 years keeping up with the necessary International points needed to qualify and to keep sharp enough to beat off all comers, save for one. Remember an athlete has to travel, get room and board, train, have ground transportation, get to a coach that has a plan for success for him. In between time, these sacrifices take away from school, jobs, relationships, family, for about 5 to 10 years of your productive youth time to decide what your life is going to be devoted to judo. Basically you eat, sleep, and think judo to the exclusion of everything else that life has to offer you. It becomes your primary goal in life. Impossible you say! Crazy? Yes, but there are Olympic Champions to prove it’s possible. The great majority of these champions are from other countries.

    In the midst of Nanka, we have had possible contenders to this status of “judo kichigai’s” (judo crazy’s) that could become these champions. They don’t start out that way, but then we have a lot of judo in Southern California, at least a lot of tournaments to test one’s mettle and to gain experience and confidence. Those who do well go on to more difficult tournaments: State, Regional. The more talented ones go on to National, International qualifying tournaments, International tournaments, International qualifiers including Grand Slam’s and Grand Prix’s, and finally the World Championships and the Olympic Games.

    At one time it was possible to have been a National Champion and a few months later find oneself fighting at the World Championships. That was in the 60s, but impossible today with the increases in judo popularity, population, and sophistication. Also for Nanka it has become impossible to figure out what to do with our most talented individuals who, but for the lack of finances, could be on a National team or on our International teams. During the Fullerton Presidency Era our International USA Judo Teams were fully subsidized. That included USA shirts and sweatsuits, sometimes even a judogi. From the mid-’90s and on as other Presidents promising a better deal but coming up with less were voted into office, things got worse. After the “2006 Downsizing years” monies evaporated from the competitors needs and appeared solely for the few on top.

    It was during this time that USA Judo said that they were the ones solely in charge of Elite and International Judo Teams. USJF and USJA at this time established the “Grassroots Judo” program. Thus USAJ was to take care of Elites. The problem was that USAJ has not taken care of their end of the bargain. This coming 2020 Olympiad there may be no representative, at least qualified to medal or at least place in the top 5 best, be they athlete or referee. Why have they failed? Travis Stevens said it best, “They don’t have a plan for success.” They don’t have a coaching manual or blueprint to train. They don’t even use their best possible coaches to train the next generation of champions. You know, -- the ones we train and send to them, our Nanka kids because USAJ are the only ones that are supposed to have the right to train and send US athletes internationally. What can you do about this?-- Nothing! --Why nothing?-- Because you have no voice or vote in the matter thanks to the makeup of the USOC encouraged 10 member USAJ Board that doesn’t have to answer to anyone. It only has the semblance of representation but is actually an ersatz, a poor imitation of an organization that is ruining US judo. Meanwhile back at the ranch, many blame the USJF or the USJA or even Nanka because we are at the fron lines of judo and available to everyone. We answer everyone’s frustration filled questions. This is actually how it should be even with USAJ. Open to debate, reason and where possible corrections, a vote followed by positive action. Unfortunately, this type of action is only exhibited in the USJF and USJA’s sphere of influence. Is seems only in Grassroots judo now. USAJ is in Elite judo. That’s where dissatisfactions about the state of our International Judo teams should be directed. USA Judo is the organization that is supposed to provide a program for elite athletes, USA Judo is supposed to train elite athletes, USA Judo is supposed to support elite athletes, Sadly, they do very little of this because they are poorly equipped to do so.

    Getting back to the yudanshakai system and its mission. We are part of the Grassroots movement. That’s what we are in charge of now. We are supposed to be doing recreational judo but somehow we do more. Mainly, because of our tradition of having made champions in the past, we continue to do so even today. Yes, we are competitive. Yes, we love champions. Yes, they represent some of the best qualities of judo; a never say die attitude, a search for excellence, bravery, physical artistic-ness, and all those qualities we cherish and want to see in our sons and daughters. These qualities should be identified in our athletes and expressed by our sensei’s as qualities we aspire to in judo. Unless, you as a sensei, say this to your students, they will not think of them as qualities that are being developed in the judo dojo, they will only remember the techniques.

    Osugi sensei of Sawtelle Dojo goes a step further, he has their students write essays about how judo impacts one's life. Kano sensei once said, “ small judo is the practice of executing sound techniques of judo. Big judo is expressing how judo is manifested in one's life for the betterment of mankind.” It is this author’s belief that for the most part, the Yudanshakai system is doing its part in developing champions of character. We need to do both small and big judo, and we need to verbalize it. It’s up to us as sensei’s to illuminate the bigger picture of what judo is and do it the widest audience we can find.

United States Judo Federation

National Teachers Institute

Mitchell Palacio, Chairperson

United States Judo Federation

P.O. Box 338

Ontario, OR 97914-0338


Phone: 1-541-889-8753

Fax: 1-541-889-5836