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Blog Bernard Letendre

Leadership, Corporate culture, Culture of judo

Having fun learning serious things

There’s a game we get our judo students to play from time to time. I don’t know who invented it and if it even has a name. I call it simply “Drag your turtle”. A seemingly silly game that offers some important lessons.

One student goes into a defensive position on their knees and forearms, back rounded and everything tucked in tightly, looking like a decent impersonation of a turtle. Two other students position themselves near the “turtle”, one on either side. Their job is to drag their turtle twenty-five feet or so across the mats, all the way to the opposite wall. They have to coordinate with their partner, they can’t do anything that will hurt or injure the person defending, and they have to keep at least one knee down on the mats at all times (No standing up!). The turtle’s job is exactly what you would expect: Fight like heck so they don’t get dragged across the mats by the two opponents. Now picture ten or so of those groups of three, all lined up against the wall, coiled and focused, waiting for the signal.


The dojo explodes in noise. Dragging a determined turtle is not an easy task, even if there’s two of you.  — “Push! Push! I’ll pull from the other side!”  — “Noooo!” — “Grab her belt!” — “On this side! On this side!” I give it thirty seconds or so – quite a long time when you’re going flat out. Some teams manage to drag their turtles to the far wall, but others don’t manage to get that far. And every once in a while, a really determined turtle manages to drag the other two students all way back to the start line. The dojo gets really noisy, with students grunting, panting, and laughing loudly.

Everybody has to play the role of the turtle, so we do a least three rounds, perhaps up to six. By the time we’re all done, perhaps ten minutes have gone by, and the students are exhausted. No amount of pressure could have made them push themselves harder than they did of their own free will – because the game was fun and they really got into it.

The first time we play this game with the students of a new Beginners class, I like to have them come around after we’re done, so that we can take a few moments to reflect together on what just happened. Teachable moments are all around us if we take the time to look for them.

Me: “How did you find this?”

Student 1: “It was really hard!”

Student 2: “It’s not easy to drag someone who’s resisting.” (It is not!)

Me: “Yes, you were all fighting really hard. Did anyone find this frustrating?”

Student 3: “No way! It was a lot of fun. We were just having a good time.”

Me: “A key thing I’d like you to take away is that we’re all here to have some fun – like we did just now – even when we’re fighting really hard – like you did just now. In a sport where losing your temper during a fight can have serious consequences, understanding the proper state of mind to be in is real serious stuff. When we start sparring, in a few weeks, remember the state of mind you were in today, playing this game. You never want to lose it.”

One reason I bring up this story is that we often forget the importance of keeping things fun. My students are all young adults, and they love it when we play games like “Drag your turtle” (I often jump in and can confirm that it’s a lot of fun for older adults, too.). There’s a time for being calm and serious, but people can’t always be serious and injecting some fun in what we do – even with adults – really helps with the overall learning process. And if you structure your activities in the right way, participants will walk away with some important learnings even if they never realized – in the moment – that they were being taught something very serious and important. All that’s needed is a bit of time right after the activity to help them reflect back on what they just experienced. Who ever said that learning should be tedious?

Another reason I bring up this story is that it nicely illustrates how bonds can be quickly created between people through a short and intense collaborative experience. It can be intimidating to get thrown together with new people. But intense games of collaboration like the one I described above act like quintessential icebreakers. One minute, the students are strangers and barely interacting. Ten minutes later, they’re chatting away in small groups while sipping down their water.

This matters a lot because one of the key reasons people of all ages engage in organized sports is “the opportunity to be part of a community or social group” (Stenner et al., 2019), “getting to know new people” (Diehl et al, 2018), and “the development of connections (on and off the field) to others who share common interests” (Eather et al., 2023). What I get to witness in real time through those nascent relationships is the first bourgeoning of mutual trust, which is foundational in a martial art like judo and any other type of collaborative endeavor. People care about community, and many seek out the benefit of “a positive kind of peer pressure that serves as a motivation to be physically active”. (Diehl et al, 2018) Others offer us a path to push ourselves and improve – like the students playing the turtle game to everyone’s pleasure and benefit.

Because they’re focused on fun and relationships rather than high performance, recreational activities don’t always get the credit they’re due. But recreational doesn’t mean low effort, low quality, or low benefits. Perhaps our work environments should draw from the best that recreational sports have to offer (not the worse) and strive to create communities that are both ambitious and fun – because both concepts are certainly not mutually exclusive and together they offer a path – one of very few paths – to truly sustainable performance.


Diehl, K., Fuchs, A. K., Rathmann, K., & Hilger-Kolb, J. (2018). Students’ Motivation for Sport Activity and Participation in University Sports: A Mixed-Methods Study. BioMed research international, 2018, 9524861.

Eather, N., Wade, L., Pankowiak, A. et al. The impact of sports participation on mental health and social outcomes in adults: a systematic review and the ‘Mental Health through Sport’ conceptual model. Syst Rev 12, 102 (2023).

Stenner, B. J., Buckley, J. D., & Mosewich, A. D. (2020). Reasons why older adults play sport: A systematic review. Journal of sport and health science, 9(6), 530–541.