Maybe to some this seems like splitting hairs, but it’s my belief that to fully understand how and why judo works at a realistic, functional level, we need to put some thought, time, and effort into exploring the biomechanics behind the application of skilled technique against a fit, motivated, and skilled opposition. Putting it another way, how many times have we seen a great judo champion slam an opponent to the mat or secure an armlock that forces his opponent to submit? It’s poetry in motion, really, and it’s something even an untrained eye can appreciate.

An onlooker may ask, “How did he make it look so easy?” The answer is that it took a lot of time and effort for that champion to mold that technique and make it work for him—and make it work for him against a skilled, fit, and resisting opponent. In other words, that champion made his judo work for him. As we have observed, skill is how you make a technique work for you. It cannot be said enough that skill is the practical and optimal application of technique.

Technique: A technique is a distinct movement pattern in and of itself. It’s the generally accepted way of performing a throw, hold, choke, or armlock (or any movement for that matter). Every movement the human body performs has a “technique” to it. Take walking, for example.

There is a specific gait the human body has when walking efficiently. We all know what it looks like for a human being to walk normally. It is apparent when we see someone walking with a limp or an odd gait. However, there are no two human beings that have identical physical attributes and as a result there are minor (and in some cases major) variances in how each person walks. From a child’s first steps, that child develops the skill necessary to walk most efficiently. While there is an accepted gait or technique for walking, everyone does it a bit differently.

Now, let’s use this understanding of technique and apply it to judo. When someone thinks of o soto gari (major outer reaping throw), a specific, distinct, and finite movement comes to mind. We all recognize it as a technique where the attacker uses a forceful reaping action of one of his legs to throw his opponent. There are, however, many different ways of applying o soto gari. It’s such a versatile throwing technique that it is used by people of all sizes and strength levels. All the factors involved in how the thrower actually applies the technique (and the success of his efforts) determine how skillful the whole action really is.

Each technique is different, having its own individual movement patterns, shape, form, and structure that comprise it. Seoi nage is different than okuri ashi barai. One is a forward throw with large body movements and the other is a fast-paced foot sweep. Each technique has its own function and purpose. Students should study, practice, and make every effort to master the mechanical movements of each technique—in other words, to master the basic structural movements of each technique, realizing there may be minor differences from one person to another based on body type, coordination, strength, and other factors.

Once the student or athlete gains confidence and fundamental mastery of the technique (that is, the understanding of the technique’s purpose and the skillful application of the structure or mechanics of the technique), he will be able to adapt it in such a way that it will become functional and work best for him.

A Technique Is a Tool

Think of a technique as a tool. How a person uses that tool is skill. A skillful application of a technique means you have used this tool in the most effective way possible under the circumstances or in a specific situation. There is more than one way to use a tool, and there is more than one way to use a technique.

This ties in with the overall concept of controlling the movement of an opponent. In other words, impose your will on your opponent as often as possible and in every possible circumstance. Make him fight on your terms, not his. This is true in both a competitive situation and in a self- defense situation. To be able to do this takes a lot of forethought, planning, and preparation. Skill in applying a technique doesn’t happen overnight—it takes a lot of practice. In this instance, a throw is just like any other tool in that you have to learn how to use it and how to use it efficiently in order to get the best results from it on a consistent basis.

Some Historical Perspective

At this point, please bear with me while we take a detour into the history of judo as a sport so that the context of what we have been discussing, especially relative to the discussion of functional application of technique and skill, can be better explained.

Historically, the accepted approach to the teaching and learning of judo techniques was to learn the particular parts comprising a technique for the sake of mastering the specific movements of that particular technique. In other words, a technique was to be learned simply for the satisfaction of learning it the way it was taught in as exact of a manner as possible with no tangible alterations.

Process Driven

Aesthetics were just as important as the practical application. Every technique had a specific “look” and any deviation or unconventional use from that was considered bad form. The student was expected to adapt his body to meet the expectations of what each particular technique looked like. A description of this approach to teaching, learning, and application could be called “process driven.” In other words, the process of adapting a human body to the requirements of the technique is paramount.

A person achieves satisfaction from having mastered the movement patterns that comprise the technique. The form of the technique dictates its function. While this certainly provides a great amount of satisfaction in learning and mastering a technique for the sake of learning and mastering it, it limits judo exponents in their range of exploring and mastering new technical skills.

For example, for many years it was a generally accepted fact that a tall person could never really be all that good at seoi nage because he had to squat so low and his long legs prevented him from getting down so low to the mat. While the structure of seoi nage was (and is) biomechanically sound, the accepted application of what it looked like and how it was taught limited the scope and use of the technique to only those who could attain the right posture so that it would look like what a seoi nage was supposed to look like.

As a result, a long-limbed person tried to perform seoi nage the same way a short limbed person would. If your body type didn’t fit seoi nage, you did something else. People with different body types were attracted to different techniques that better suited their body types. In other words, while the biomechanics of judo techniques were fundamentally correct, how people taught, learned, and applied these techniques were not practical or functional except for those whose body types best suited the mechanics of the technique.

However, it must be stressed that if the coach, student, or athlete wants to pursue a “process-driven” approach to the teaching, learning, practice, and application of techniques, that is a certainly a valid choice. It’s probably obvious that I am pragmatic in both theory and practice and favor the “results- or performance-driven” approach to the subject. But this approach may not be for everyone and the activity of judo is certainly big enough to accommodate everyone’s point of view and approach to the teaching and learning of skills. In the formal, pre-arranged practice of any of the Kodokan Judo kata, every movement is precisely established and the person’s skill performing the kata is judged on how closely each technique matches the established application of that particular movement for the technique.

In this case, the person performing the technique adapts his body to the structure of the technique rather than fitting the structure of the technique to his body. This is why kata is important in judo. It provides the normative structure or form of each and every technical movement in all aspects of technical application. Kata is the alphabet of judo. Each letter is shaped differently.

A person must know the alphabet before he can spell a word. Kata is what “spells out” how the form or structure of a technique should be because each technique is shaped differently. From this basic technical form, variations and adaptations can be made if so desired or found to be necessary.

History Changed Judo

In the 1960s judo was growing. With the wider demographic of people wanting to participate in judo, change was inevitable. As judo became an international sporting activity, cultural and sociological changes came along with that growth. The social and cultural developments in judo’s history and their consequences have shaped judo’s form and structure as a sport as well as a method of physical education. Consequently, when making an analysis of technical skill and movement in judo, all of this should be taken into account.

The above is an excerpt from the Judo Advantage: Controlling Movement with Modern Kinesiology by Steve Scott, publication date March 2019, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594396281