Falling with dignity in the Dojo

11:14am Monday 12th May 2014

By Fraser Watson

HONOUR, discipline, and respect.

Sadly, all terms rarely associated with a modern day sporting World that is dominated by controversy, media hype, and money, writes Fraser Watson.

Therefore, my visit to Neyland Judo Club for my eighth Commonwealth Games challenge was sure to prove an enlightening on – as I prepared to debut in a sport renowned for combining aggression with self control.

The club was formed 48 years ago by Bill McGarvie, before he passed over the reins to his son Damon. Bill still assists with the group’s junior section while Damon, a 3rd Dan Black Belt and former Welsh Masters champion, tutors the seniors.

Over the years, the club has produced five Commonwealth Games players, and another product, Lee Beddington, went on to be both Canadian Open and American Open champion.

“It’s a cracking club here,” said Damon, as he led me into the ‘Dojo’ at Neyland Athletic Club.

“We have just over 70 members and their enthusiasm is great.

“And importantly, we are family orientated and have parents supporting their children. Quite often, fathers will watch their sons or daughters for a couple of sessions and then decide to join themselves.”

Indeed, the healthy diversity within the club is evident, with members ranging from the age of five to 66.

“A lot of our members will enter junior or senior competitions and travel all over the country, but it’s not all about picking up medals.

“We have people who train for enjoyment, because they enjoy the social aspects and camaraderie.”

But after getting kitted out in my hastily borrowed judo attire – any hopes I had of a gentle training session to ease myself in soon evaporated.

The session began with an announcement from Damon that club member Ria Jones, who began with the group as a white belt novice, had been awarded a 2nd Dan Black Belt.

Her reward - a traditional club ritual where every single member took turns to throw her onto the mat. I suspect my own shabby effort at least provided her with brief respite.

Then the warm up taught me a whole new meaning to the term ‘core strength.’

Despite being no stranger to sit ups and various other abdominal exercises – I was tested to the limit by a series of forward rolls, backward rolls, commando crawls, and crocodile and alligator movements (both variations of the ‘plank’).

“These things are fundamental to the sport,” explained Damon.

“The technique for the forward and backward rolls is important because these drills teach you how to breakfall properly (essentially landing safely when being thrown to the ground).”

“If someone has a good breakfall their judo will improve.”

“Also, we also do a lot of core and fitness work through circuit training, weights, kettle bells and medicine balls.”

Damon entrusted Barry Watson, a 2nd Dan Black Belt with almost two decades experience in the sport, with teaching me the ropes as we worked through a variety of throws and leg sweeps.

To Barry’s credit, he remained patient as he talked me through my early mistakes relating to the positioning of my feet and landing techniques.

“When going down it’s important to keep your chin forward and your landing arm straight,” he advised.

“I once bent my elbow on the way down and it cost me three months.”

Overall we worked through four different throwing techniques, and at the culmination of each short drill, I noticed Barry would turn and nod at me in a mark of respect before walking off the mat.

And the element of discipline within the group was emphasised in the next exercise – two and a half minute bouts where we only allowed to apply the throws we had just worked on. Anyone breaking this rule, of which there were two – were subjected to a throw to the mat from each individual member. Fear alone, ensured I stayed in with the rules.

But what struck me was the obvious need for patience – as members grappled and grabbed each other while waiting for an opportunity to strike.

For one brief round, Barry kindly passed me over to Ria, who was so at ease with my fruitless attempts to get in the ascendancy she was able to talk me through tactics while keeping me at bay.

“You spend a lot of time trying to get your opponent off balance,” she said.

“You are not allowed to punch, kick, or make contact with the face so you have to keep your self-discipline and not get frustrated.”

The session culminated with submission holds, and myself and Barry took it in turns to try and pin each other down for 20 seconds – which means automatic victory during a standard fight.

Thankfully, Barry chose not to apply the ‘tricks’ he told me fighters have to endure – namely when opponents try to dig a knee or elbow in to apply more pressure on the body.

But regardless, one he had me locked down, there was little chance of me emerging unscathed within the allocated time.

“It’s important to avoid being in a submission hold,” he explained.

“Senior fights last five minutes, but you can be dominant for four of those, get caught in a hold, and suddenly it’s all over.”

Indeed, what had become evident to me during my 90 minute session was that concentration and mental strength was imperative to a good judo player.

“Sometimes you can reach the end of a five minute bout with no points scored” said Damon.

“Then you have a golden point sudden death situation. Quite often, whoever is the fittest will win which is why we train so hard.”

Besides the aching and fatigue - one thing was at the forefront of my mind as I wearily dragged my body off the mat.

The group evidently trains hard, but that work ethic is accompanied by a desire to conduct themselves with dignity.

Coaches are listened to, instructions are followed, and senior members will not hesitate to assist a junior member and offer advice.

“Judo can help you in all forms of life,” Damon added.

“It encourages respect, self control, good behaviour, and qualities that can help you as people, not just judo players.

“You have to train and fight hard but when a contest is over, no matter what you have to be humble, shake hands with your opponent and move on.”

After just one 90 minute session with this excellent and superbly run club - I have no hesitation about echoing those sentiments.

However, my only slight gripe lies with the Japanese translation of the word judo -‘the gentle way.’

Personally, I would prefer ‘hard but fair.’

Bill Carne's verdict:

I felt confident that Judo might just be up Fraser Watson’s street because he loves the physical aspect of sport, is competitive by nature and doesn’t mind taking a tumble.

And I wasn’t far wrong because he clearly enjoyed every moment of it.

We met up with Damon McGarvie who presented Fraser with a judo outfit – so the Western Telegraph’s intrepid reporter looked the part as he bowed to enter the Dojo.

He lined up with a complete cross-section of judoka (the name for participants) from aged eight to 38 and was introduced to the group. I stood watching with Bill and Joyce McGarvie, who started the club 48 years ago and are still involved.

I had the honour to present Ria Jones with her new Black Belt Second Dan, and then watched another super tradition where everyone on the mat, including Fraser and Damon, had to throw her as a reminder that she is still part of the team!

The warm-up was right up Fraser’s street, with loads of action that included squirming across the floor on his back and then belly, before the real stuff began.

Ria and another Black Belt Second Dan in Barry Watson were assigned to look after Fraser as they practised certain techniques and then put the practice into the real situation where they competed against each other, using only those moves shown.

Fraser was soon grappling away, and trying to fall properly when launched into the air. He also managed to throw a very obliging Ria once or twice!

We left with me delighted to renew old acquaintances and make a few new ones at a smashing club, and with him having had a rattling good time - and I wouldn’t be surprised that when he finishes rugby he might have found his next sport!

Tune into this week's Radio Pembrokeshire Friday Night Sports Show from 6pm-8pm to hear Bill Carne speak to Fraser about his judo session, as well as coach Damon McGarvie and his members.

For more on judo in Pembrokeshire, visit the Sport Pembrokeshire Facebook page or www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/sport.

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