Judo as Self-Defence – Mental and Physical Reflex

Someone to whom I owe so much
29 December 2007
Dual Nationality — When Elsewhere is Within Yourself
29 December 2009

Judo as Self-Defence – Mental and Physical Reflex

By Monica Lin Morishita

I have always wondered how effective judo is as a method of self-defence. All the throws and holds work well in class randori and tournaments, but what about in real life situations? If my husband or I were attacked, would we be able to protect ourselves using judo? What about our children? How useful and effective would judo be for them?

I’ve asked other judoka about this, but no one I know has ever actually used judo to defend themselves outside the dojo. As well, none could provide me with an answer that was complete enough. Little did I know that we were about to find out first hand.

The Answer Was Both Unexpected and Illuminating

About two months ago, on a cold February evening, my sixteen-year-old son Kale was walking home. He had been hanging out with a group of friends on a school night. Around nine o’clock, he and his friends said their goodbyes and headed for home. We live in a suburb of Toronto that is a mixed residential area, with both large and small homes. We are surrounded by condominiums and just a few blocks away there is a plethora of shops and restaurants.

Our neighbourhood is a generally peaceful one. It’s the type of area where children play together and neighbours know each other. From dawn until nightfall, there are plenty of people jogging or walking their dogs. We consider our neighbourhood safe and friendly.

Kale and a friend were headed in the same direction home, so they decided to walk together through a parkette between some townhouses where his friend lived. He saw his friend off to his home and continued onward, alone. In our area it’s common to see people out strolling in the evening even in the winter. However, there weren’t many out that night.

He turned right on to a well-lit street near his old elementary school. The wind and roads were quiet that hour. The sidewalks were lightly covered in snow and he treaded carefully on the ice. Kale’s phone was out of batteries and so he wasn’t listening to music as he sometimes did. He was thinking about his friends and what a good time they had hanging out together. He’s generally a happy-go-lucky boy and like many youths, probably a bit sheltered and naïve about the dangers lurking in the dark. His personal safety has never been threatened and up until that day, he never took our warnings about safety very seriously. In the span of a few minutes though, Kale’s firm sense of security would forever be destroyed.

Unbeknownst to him, a dark four-door car was quietly pulling up behind him. It had probably been following him down the street, waiting for the precise moment when the street was empty, with no other cars or people around.

Just as he was about to reach the corner, not far from the stop sign, the dark car pulled up behind him. Four guys wearing hoodies and balaclavas jumped out. They were all dressed in dark clothing with hoods pulled over their heads. Two of them rushed straight over to Kale while the other two stood by the car to keep watch.

Kale had been taking judo since he was eight-years old with Sensei Rick Koglin of the Budokai Judo Club. He is on the cusp of getting his brown belt. At 5’8’ and 155 lbs, he does a pretty awesome harai goshi on the mat.

From his early years, he and all the children at the dojo have grown up hearing Rick Sensei place great emphasis on not using judo in the real world unless you have to defend yourself because you could truly hurt someone. Although the children are empowered, they are taught responsibility. For those of you who are new to judo, our techniques are very effective when applied properly. You can snap someone’s arm with arm bars, dislocate parts or choke them until they pass out. Unintentional injuries happen in most clubs even under the most careful supervision.

The Budo Secrets

Just before, I tell you what happened next, I would like you to consider Kale’s mental and physical reaction in terms of the Five Principals of Judo. In the years of weekly practice, his senseis integrated the teachings I’ve paraphrased below.

Jigoro Kano’s Five Principles of Judo

  1. Observe the situation, people and the environment
  2. Seize initiative, move strategically
  3. Consider the whole picture, act decisively
  4. Know when to stop
  5. Always be prepared for a contest

The principles were not expressed to Kale and the children as written above but more naturally infused into the weekly exercises and lessons so that everyone could easily understand what to do in combat. For example:

Principal #4 above = Don’t be a hero. Tap out if you must

Principal #5 above = Always be ready to breakfall

When the two hooded guys approached Kale, his heart pounded. All he could see were the whites of their eyes. Concealed under their balaclavas were their nose, mouth, chin and neck. He noticed that the other two guys were standing by the car doors. The car was running. In that second, a million thoughts crossed his mind. These guys want to rob me. They are going to take my things. Are these guys gonna fight me? Get ready to fight. 

They demanded his wallet, money, phone and backpack. One of the guys moved in closer and frisked him. Kale lifted his arms slightly. They found his phone in his breast pocket along with a twenty-dollar bill. Kale could feel the adrenaline from his fingers to his toes but he remained calm. In free practice, and in tournaments, the adrenaline rush is intense but you can’t stiffen up. Your opponent will be able to feel it and probably use it against you. The guy asked for his backpack and Kale handed it to him. Judging from the way the guys spoke and dressed, these were high school kids, probably not from around here.

Later, the thought had crossed Kale’s mind to run, but then these teenagers would have chased and tackled him. He would never have been able to outrun a car. He was outnumbered.

They asked him for his PIN number. Kale told them that the phone was out of batteries, suggesting that the PIN would be useless now. They accepted that answer and with that the two guys backed away with his backpack, phone, bank card and $20. All four guys hopped back into the car and then drove away. They never got his PIN. Had they gotten that, they would have found all of his personal information.

The car took off speeding down the street, but not before Kale got a good look at the licence plate. He sprinted home, across the road, around the community centre and past rows of houses repeating that licence plate number over and over in his mind.

He pushed open the front door and frantically yelled for me. I ran down the stairs wondering what all the commotion was about. Kale tore into the kitchen drawer looking for a pen and a scrap of paper to write on. He was out of breath. I saw him scrawl down the letters CBDF 832.

He explained how he was robbed. I looked at that piece of paper and then at him. To say that it upset me was an understatement. The thought that the guys could have pulled a knife or a gun on him takes the wind from my lungs. This precious child of mine, whom I love even more than I love myself could have been taken from me. I touched his face.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m OK,” he said.

I still remember the look in his eyes as we stood there by the kitchen island. There were beads of sweat on his forehead and on his warm, red cheeks. I’d never in my life, seen anyone braver.

Right after that, I called the police.

Kale gave the police a full statement and description. It took him one and a half hour, maybe longer. The police commented that Kale provided a level of detail that was more than many his age could do. Some children are in such a state of trauma that they can’t remember anything. Some can barely speak and others experience PTSD. Don’t get me wrong: Kale was completely shaken and stunned that night. He was probably in a state of shock for a week. So were my husband and I. We were lucky though. Most importantly, my son arrived unharmed. But he is forever changed.

Judo Gives Children Mental Preparation

This experience has launched us into some deep thought about children’s safety. None of the verbal warnings that we’ve ever given Kale could have prepared him for that horrible night. None of the expensive piano lessons, private swimming or skating classes, tutors or camps he has ever attended would have been of any use that night. I believe that the main reason Kale reacted as coolly as he did was because of judo. The psychological, physical and mental training that goes into learning a combat sport has a value that is unquantifiable. It’s survival. His state of mind would likely have been different if he had never taken judo. Having learned judo at an early age has ingrained an inner calm in situations of attack or physical stress.

Whereas other children might have panicked, Kale was able to think and assess the situation. I feel that he was able to maintain his composure because every week at judo, he practices newaza and randori. Physical movements are studied, observed and analyzed. Every week, he throws and pins people. They do the same to him. Judo is an art and discipline. When you get good, you learn to read and sense the opponents every movement and develop physical and intellectual awareness.

For adults and children alike, perhaps, one of the greatest merits of judo as a recreational sport is the mental game: The ability to think and intuit using Kano’s principles. This capability is valuable in times of danger.

Regardless of Circumstances, Judo Will Help You Defend Yourself

So back to the question about the effectiveness of judo as a method of self-defence. For young adult men and women thinking about taking judo, this is one of the main motivators. In a hand-to-hand combat, without weaponry or weight advantages, the short answer is: yes, it works. When martial arts were created, they might have been the only methods to safeguard oneself. Nowadays perpetrators often carry knives or guns. In a physical attack, a bottle of pepper spray might offer a higher chance of escape if you are an ordinary person with no judo training. Knowing judo will offer you a higher chance of survival than not knowing judo. The more judo technique you acquire, the better able you will be to defend yourself.

When an attacker is armed, the use of your bare hands is nothing against his gun. If you are being robbed, it’s probably wiser just to give over your jewelry, wallet or purse. These items are replaceable but your health and life are not. If somebody is trying to kill you, kidnap you or rape you, that’s when you must defend yourself with everything you have. If you are fighting for your life, judo will absolutely help you.

For women, the objective of most modern, lifesaving self-defence classes is not about defeating the opponent. It’s about strategies to give you the time and opportunity to get away. Having examined Kale’s situation again and again, and putting myself into his shoes, I have come to the conclusion that regardless of your age or gender, proficiency in judo is a huge benefit because of the mental and physical development of a reflex response.

The Purpose of This Story

Later that night, I asked Kale to check on his friends to make sure they all got home safe. He got online and told them what happened. When they heard, they were naturally shocked. They spread it across the school and their social media circle. There was an outpouring of support from his friends, teachers and parents because he is such a terrific kid and it happened in our generally peaceful neighbourhood. They helped to replace his notes, textbooks, and my husband Mark got him another phone. There was a lot of informative conversation among his friends who then told their parents.

Over these weeks, Mark and I have recounted this story dozens of times. The main reason we told this story was so that our friends could use it to open discussions about safety with their own children. A true-life example about someone you know makes kids listen better. We want our friends, family and neighbours’ children to be protected and well out of harm’s way. Now that I’ve written this story down, I hope it reaches and helps other families. Maybe they will take the plunge and sign up for a martial art (Mark and I have taken other martial arts and judo is obviously our favourite). For others who are already involved in judo, I hope this inspires them to continue practising towards mastery.

Good News From the Police

Just when I had finished this blog, we received a call from the officer in charge. Kale’s backpack had been recovered. On the night of the incident, the police had run the licence plate number and discovered that the car was stolen. The perpetrators had also stolen a second car. Later that week, the police spotted that second car at a gas station. It looked suspicious because the back window was smashed. The driver and passenger were detained and questioned. Kale’s backpack was found in the backseat along with items from others whom they had robbed. Upon further interrogation, police located the original car. It perfectly matched the licence plate number Kale gave them. Everything was tied together. The thieves were between the ages of 16-20. They were handcuffed, arrested and charged.

We were called into the police station to identify the backpack and belongings. Kale received everything back except his cell phone and $20. As we left the station at 32 Division, we walked arm in arm. I was so proud of him.

Kale said that he always thought, in a situation like this, he would be more scared than he was. Not only was Kale was far less frightened than he thought he’d be, but he bounced back quickly from those shocking minutes. This terrible incident has made him stronger. I had put Kale in judo mainly for fitness and to acquire discipline, but he has gained so much more.

This blog is dedicated to our wide community of senseis for passing on their wisdom and expertise from generation to generation. The knowledge you impart is far-reaching and more valuable than you know.




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