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Blog Bernard Letendre

Leadership, Culture of judo

The joy of lighting a spark in others

I work mostly with very seasoned professionals. We like to laugh and have some fun but we also tend to be a focused bunch and I’m not sure that “wide-eyed with wonder” are the top words that anyone would pick to describe us; not jaded in any way for sure, but imbued for the most part with the sober demeanor of people who have seen a lot and are not that easily moved or impressed. That’s entirely in the order of things and the corporate headquarters of a global financial institution is not the first place where one would spontaneously go looking for the excited oohs and aahs of ingenuous discovery.

That may be why I get such joy and satisfaction every year from teaching the beginners judo class at University of Toronto’s Hart House, whose mission is very appropriately summarised in three simple words: “Delight in Discovery”. Now, I should mention that the class I’m officially in charge of is the advanced class. I should probably also mention that I’m always on the mats for the intermediate class as well because, well, I try to attend all the classes. But there is something quite unique about teaching judo to complete beginners and I make a special effort to be on the mats for every beginners class. The reasons for this will become clear in a moment.

Yesterday was the day when the thirty or so young men and women in our beginners class received their brand-new judo uniforms (or gis) and it’s always one of my favourite days of the year.

The beginners class has been running for exactly one month and up to now, the students had been working out in regular sportswear. Learning judo in T-shirts and sweat pants just isn’t the same so today marked an important milestone for the students. Right before class, they picked up their new uniforms, headed to the locker rooms with smiles on their faces and reemerged a few minutes later wearing their bright white gis with unmistakable pride.

As they milled about on the mats waiting for the class to start, many of them holding their white belts in their hands, small groups formed spontaneously as more experienced students started demonstrating how to tie their belts in the traditional way. I took one of the small groups and noted with some amusement the frowns of concentration on the students’ faces as they struggled to master this new skill.

To beginners, everything is new and intriguing and interesting – even tying their belts properly. Things that more advanced students don’t even give a second thought to – things that people people who have been practicing martial arts for years do through habit and take completely for granted – take on a completely different color in the presence of beginners: how to kneel, how to bow, why we bow – even the decorum and ceremony of the dojo is a source of delight for many of them. And then there’s the waza (technique) that the students signed up to learn: breakfalls, throws, pins, chokes and armlocks, to name only those.

Throws and breakfalls are some of the most spectacular aspects of judo and the source of seemingly endless awe for beginners. The way I like to introduce students to throws and breakfalls is to have one of the senior students throw me repeatedly with some of the biggest, most spectacular throws we do – and keep getting up for more. The looks on students’ faces during the first few demonstrations are always priceless, with eyes wide and jaws dropped in amazement. To them, something that happens hundreds of times during any class takes on an almost magical quality.

There is undoubtably a bit of showmanship involved in all of this and it would be disingenuous of me to deny the considerable satisfaction that I get from blowing the students away with those demonstrations, and seeing the looks on their faces. But that, after all, is one of the most important aspects of my role: To keep things fun, fresh and exciting as a way to inspire; to light in them the desire to learn and take the first steps towards what they see more experienced judokas doing. Then there’s the look of amazement on their faces when they start practicing some of the basic throws we teach them and realize that yes, it’s true – they too can toss with little effort people that are bigger than they are.

Teaching judo to beginners reminds me that things that I may otherwise take for granted are in fact awesome and amazing, imbued with a kind of magic that shines in a very unique way through the eyes of beginners. I realize every time I teach beginners the critical role that teachers, parents, mentors and leaders have in lighting in others the spark of wonder, the desire to learn and emulate – and perhaps to rekindle that flame in people who may have lost the sense of wonder and excitement that initially got them going down their own chosen path.

Having the opportunity to share your passion with others is a great privilege and yes, the teacher does get at least as much out of it as the students do.