One of my colleagues noticed that I was favoring my left shoulder this morning (I have been for a week now, but who’s counting) and asked if it was “another judo thing”. I had to honestly answer that yes, it was a direct result of competing in last weekend’s judo tournament. They laughed and said that they hoped the medal was worth the pain. It wasn’t, but not the way it sounds.
I get asked that question a fair amount lately. As an older, very out of shape guy my return to the judo mats after almost 25 years absence has been full of challenges. Not the least of which is that judo is not easy on the body. Ask any judoka who has been practicing for any length of time, and they will regale you with stories of the dislocated or broken toes and fingers, cracked ribs, concussions, twisted (or worse) ankles… the list is endless. It is to be expected – it is a martial art first and foremost, and a sport second. Any continuous practitioner of a contact sport, whether it is football, soccer, rugby or judo will accumulate injuries over the years. In my case, add in three decades of too much McDonald's and too little activity and you have a recipe for injury and pain. So why do we do it?
The short answer is, I have no idea why others do it. Maybe they are masochists, maybe they have pain tolerances higher than anyone I know. Maybe they are so caught up in the adrenaline that they pass off the pain. Or maybe they have another reason, just like I do.
Judo is an individual sport, though its practitioners are still part of a larger team - being part of my dojo has given me a new social circle, one united by a common interest – no, a shared passion. Even those who aren’t actively practicing judo are still caught up in the excitement of their kids or their partners. And those who do practice not only cheer each other on, they support and train one another. Any given night on the mats is full of people with more experience helping those with less (often to the frustration of our sensei). And there are no secrets among us – if I ask any of my fellow students how they pulled off that amazing throw that sent me flying, they are happy to show me how and coach me until I get the basics down. So that comradery is certainly part of it.
As a sport or martial art, judo is also physically demanding – most martial arts are the same. You use muscle groups you don’t use in any other circumstances, and you are frequently giving far more effort in the three minutes of a match, or the hour and a half of training, then you ever thought was in you. Great sensei (like all of the ones at my dojo) can push you even further. An hour of judo training burns more calories than an hour of running or an hour of using an elliptical. There are very few workouts as intense, so as a result over the last 15 months of training, I have started to return to a state of physical fitness that I haven’t had in a decade or more. So that is also a part of it.
The sense of confidence that comes with challenging yourself, of knowing that you can rise to a challenge that seems insurmountable, is unbelievable. When you step on those mats, and on the other side is a black belt with ten times your skill and experience, you learn quickly that you have to put the inevitable doubts behind you, and give your best effort. When you bow onto the mats for a tournament, with a few hundred people watching you, your sensei screaming instructions to you and your opponent doing everything they can to drive you into the mat with all their technique and power, you have to believe you can do it. You can rise above the anxiety and fear gnawing at your gut, rise above the ache in your shoulder and that you can succeed. That boost in confidence carries over to every other facet of your life, and that is an undeniable benefit. But it’s still not the real reason I step on the mats.
The largest part, and the one that really makes it matter to me, is the way it makes me feel when I am on the mats. Focus. Determination. Calm. Those are feelings that are markedly lacking in my day to day life.
I live with chronic depression, a fact which astonishes many people who know me, but not those who live with me. They have seen me unable to get out of bed for days. They know that left to my own devices, I would crawl into a hole and pull it closed behind me. I struggle daily to get to work, to keep up my smile, to fit in and some days, just to breathe. The love and support of my partner holds me up when nothing else seems to. Antidepressants help, in fact they are likely the reason I can function at all. But even these only make a dent in the grey fog that I live in, a fog that follows me everywhere I go. Except onto the mats. It is my one place where, for whatever reason, I find a peace that is lacking elsewhere. The one place where colours are bright and where I can breathe deeply and fully. Judo has given me back my life. And that is why I do it. That is why I have learned to love my bruises (judo “kisses”), my mat burns (judo “trophies”) and my broken toes (judo “badges”).
Those of us who are adrift, whether it is due to mental disability or just to the peculiarities of what we all call life often need an anchor to hold on to. Some of us are extraordinarily lucky and we get to have multiple holds – our loved ones (friends and family alike), our passions, and maybe even our idiotic love of a thing that breaks us down, even while it keeps us together and builds us up, stronger than ever.