I remember watching my 4-year-old son, Henry, at his first Judo tournament. I was warned -- they all cry the first time. I can understand why; the goal is to either throw someone or pin them for 20 seconds.
I anticipated a lot of tears, but when Henry won his first match, the only tears that (almost) fell were mine. The look in his eyes, the confidence, it was amazing. He didn't even realize he won until the referee pointed to him. His coach yelled, "Looks like you won't need that white belt anymore."
With a quick hug to celebrate his win, Henry said, "Did you hear? I'm getting a new belt!" The joy of winning was vastly overshadowed by a new shiny belt. Motivation works.
You might be wondering, why did I sign my son up for a sport/martial art that involves takedowns, pain and anxiety? Well, the answer is simple: Confidence, resilience and, of course, the influence of Bruce Lee.
When I was kid, all it took was watching a Bruce Lee movie with my dad and I was hooked. I tried a wide range of different martial arts, but never mastered one. Sadly, in this day and age, it's more important than ever to know a little self-defense. Judo is very much a self-defense discipline. Instead of learning to punch and kick, you are taught how to pin someone on their back and throw them to the ground.
Henry's judo journey has been a complex one. It began one Halloween when we were trick-or-treating. I saw a car parked at a house with a Cohen Brothers Judo sticker on it. I had heard of the studio before, so I asked the guy if he was one of the brothers. Long story short, RJ came over to our house and taught a judo lesson to Henry and a few of his friends. Henry was really into the idea, so we took him to the gym to check it out.
Henry went to the class for a month - only he refused to participate. There were a lot of kids in the class, many of whom spoke in another language, and he was overwhelmed. The instructors were unfazed. They said it often takes a few weeks for kids to feel comfortable and I shouldn't give up. Then, my magical wife, along with RJ, convinced him to try it out. That night he came home excited, "Get me a gi!" He wanted the uniform the kids wear.
The class is no joke. It's over 30 minutes of intense calisthenics followed by 40 minutes of learning moves and tossing around your partner. At the end of the class, they often make the kids climb 20-foot ropes. As a fitness professional, I think it's an amazing way to build strength, stamina and acquire skill.
The tournaments are amazing and gut-wrenching all at the same time. Imagine watching someone you love getting thrown to the ground, and all you can do is watch. One time, Henry tossed a kid down so hard that the kid was slow to get up. I felt awful. We checked on the boy (he was fine), and Henry said, "I hope you feel better." These long, sweaty events are lessons in humility and competition.
I've also watched Henry go from anxiety-ridden before matches to chatty and friendly with his opponents. And in another important life lesson, most of the tournaments only give out medals for gold, silver and bronze, teaching kids you don't always bring home a medal.
Almost three years in, I am an even bigger advocate for judo than I was when I first started researching options. Henry has made new friends, built confidence and developed a nice headlock throw (never thought I would be saying that). Recently, Henry flipped an opponent, and that kid's dad turned to me and said, "Remember that first day? And now he looks great."
Henry told me the other day he wants to quit judo for other sports, namely team sports. I was a little heartbroken; I'll miss chatting (or watching him sleep) while driving to class, bonding in random towns in Wisconsin and Illinois, and screaming, "keep fighting." Then again, I'm pleased with the excellent athletic base judo has given him and the tournament experience that he'll carry over into many other facets of his life.
Plus, my youngest is almost old enough to start!