Judo is solely a sport, not intended to be efficient in real-life situations. It does, however, cover some aspects of self defense training like falls and groundwork (ne waza).
So, is judo good for self defense? Can you use it to counter attacks?
This article will provide a straightforward answer.
What is Self Defense?
Self defense is the method of defending oneself physically against an attacker, be it with or without weapons.
It can also involve less-than-lethal countermeasures. They include escape and evasion techniques, avoidance and de-escalation tactics, and self-defense mechanisms like pepper spray or a personal alarm.
Self defense is a basic human right, and one must always seek to maintain safety when threatened by harm or injury, be it in the street or elsewhere.
What are the Parts of Self Defense?
A self defense situation can be classified into three phases, according to awareness, danger avoidance, and escalation.
- Awareness means knowing what’s going on around you and keeping alert.
- Danger avoidance means taking steps to avoid a dangerous situation if possible (by crossing the street or changing directions).
- Escalation means preparing yourself to fight back if necessary ( getting ready for hand-to-hand combat, finding cover, or drawing a weapon).
The Threat of Violence
Threats may either be:
- Direct (the attacker displays a weapon, threatens to use it, or makes an explicit verbal threat), or
- Indirect (meaning that the attacker doesn’t necessarily have a weapon but appears dangerous in some other way, for example, is in a confined space with you and moving closer).
Being aware of the threat is important, even if you’re not attacked. For example, if the person looks like they’re reaching for a weapon or acting erratic in some other way, it’s best to get away from them.
These three aspects are part of what makes up self-defense training. And judo, as a sport, has drills that cover all three phases.
Lethal vs. Less-than-lethal Weapons
Self defense training must take into account the possibility of lethal force (e.g. guns and knives) being used against you. It’s important to develop an awareness of this possibility so that you can take steps to avoid a dangerous situation from developing.
Judo’s Not a Street Fight
Judo is a sport, not intended for direct self-defense. However, it will give offer an advantage in case you find yourself in situations that compromise your safety. While self defense is done by taking advantage of an opponent’s weaknesses and/or mistakes, judo is about winning with technique.
While there are many similarities between sports techniques and street attacks, there are more differences. In a street situation, your goal is to neutralize the threat and get away, while in judo you have an opponent who’s trying to do the same thing.
Judo is not intended for use against multiple opponents either. If you’re attacked by a group of people, it’ll be harder to fight your way out.
Real-life violence is also much more unpredictable than judo randori (practice). There are many ways in which you may be attacked, and the number of attackers can vary too.
You’re not always going to have the time to get into a good position for groundwork or break falling, and you might be wearing inappropriate footwear or clothing. There’s also a chance that your joints and bones will become damaged in a fall (especially when you do counters to take-downs).
Bear in mind, however, that if escape is not immediately possible then it may be necessary to protect yourself with groundwork techniques.
What Does Judo Have to Offer?
In judo, you learn how to fall safely from great heights, as well as how to defend yourself with groundwork techniques. You also gain an understanding of balance and momentum, which is used both for falling and striking.
By learning these skills you’ll develop more awareness of your surroundings and have a good idea of what’s likely to happen in a dangerous situation.
You’ll also learn how to combine unarmed techniques with projecting (throwing) your opponent, which is quite useful for safe escapes. Even when you’re not armed, this ability can still be used to disable an attacker.
By training regularly in judo you’ll develop a lot of physical and mental toughness, which can help you get through a dangerous situation.
There are also some natural “weapons” that come with training in judo – for example, your voice is an effective tool when used properly, and a judoka’s balance gives them a powerful advantage even when they’re not making use of techniques.
In short, judo contains several very useful physical and psychological tools that you can use to defend yourself.
The Problem With Emphasis on Physical Techniques
Many current or former military personnel take up sport judo as a means of maintaining fitness and staying in shape. This is all well and good… Except for the fact that they tend to prioritize the physical techniques (throwing and groundwork) above all.
It’s not unusual for someone with this background to be proficient in kata-waza (patterns of basic techniques), but lack practical experience when it comes to shiai (competition). This is a bad combination because competition requires a much higher level of proficiency to be successful.
Many sport-judo schools that I’ve seen give no practical training at all and rely on competition as a means of teaching students how to fight (this is mainly for adults). This is not an ideal way to prepare people for dangerous situations.
Training Physical Techniques Doesn’t Prepare You For Violence
Any physical technique can be countered if your opponent knows what to expect. It’s only when the first strike catches them by surprise that it’ll land with full force.
Sport-judo has become very much like karate (striking art), where victory is only possible if you hit your opponent before they hit you, and you arrive at the point of contact before them.
This is a very ineffective way to prepare for street encounters and can give students a false sense of confidence.
It doesn’t matter how well you perform a technique if your opponent has the time and ability to counter it.
Street fights and competition matches (or randori) are two very different animals. Even if you’re able to get in a good shot or throw someone, that doesn’t mean that it’ll work against a potentially armed opponent who’s ready and able to fight back.
If your physical techniques suck, you should spend more time perfecting them in the dojo and less time worrying about competition results.
How to Plan for a Street Encounter
As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to focus on how you protect yourself with groundwork techniques when escape is not an option. You should develop this aspect of your training more than anything else (the natural weapons like joint locks, chokes, and strangles are a bonus too).
You must focus on both your entry (the initial blows that set up the situation for you) and your “finish” (how to end the encounter decisively while protecting yourself from counter-strikes).
There’s no point in training how to throw someone if they’re either not on the ground for you to control, or they can counter your throw and continue fighting.
When I was getting into fights on the streets of Japan, my focus was always on disabling my opponent’s hands while keeping myself safe from their kicks. After all. If both of their arms were disabled, it wouldn’t matter if they kicked me or not.
My number one priority was always to safely incapacitate them so that they couldn’t harm me.
The people who gave me problems in fights were the ones who either had weapons or could kick my face while I was focused on disabling their arms. If you can keep yourself safe from counter-attacks, your fight problems are over.
Is Judo Good for Self Defense? Conclusion
Hopefully, I’ve explained my point of view on modern sport-judo enough for you to understand what I’m getting at. I don’t hold anything against people who do judo or compete in judo competitions. I just feel that there’s more to self-defense than throwing and groundwork.
People with a background in judo are often very good at what they do, but they lack the context to tell them when they can or can’t rely on their techniques.
As I mentioned previously… Competitions are great ways to motivate people and help them become better martial artists, but competition training is an entirely different activity from preparing for a physical altercation with an unwilling opponent.
The two things may overlap sometimes. However, training should focus on how to protect yourself when striking and groundwork techniques fail to work as expected. Not if they work at all.