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Blog Bernard Letendre

Personal development, Culture of judo

It only works if it’s mutually beneficial

One very important but often overlooked aspect of effective collaboration is the requirement to engage with people on their own level, in a way that is mutually beneficial.

There is an exercise in judo known as randori (1), which has played an important role, over the years, in shaping my views on the true meaning of trust and collaboration. Randori, which is often translated as “free practice”, is best understood, for the purposes of this article, in contrast to shiai, which translates as “contest” or “competition”.

Outwardly, randori would probably look to you like fighting. If you were to step into a dojo during randori practice, you might be forgiven for believing that the players were engaged in an all-out contest, each attempting to secure victory over his or her opponent. But while the objective in shiai is to score a win over your opponent (as in a tournament), the purpose of randori is to learn and improve with the help of your partner. Far from the intense competition that it may resemble to the untrained eye, randori is an exercise in intense collaboration.

As on a team, there are no opponents in randori – only partners – and there is never a winner or a loser. As a result, there can be no feeling of superiority for applying a successful throw, nor any shame in tapping out from a well executed submission technique. The only way to lose in randori is to fail to strive earnestly and with the proper intent: mutual benefit – Jita Kyoei (自他共栄) – one of the fundamental principles of judo.

The best way for both partners to improve their judo through randori is for each to attack continuously, at the risk even of getting countered. But it’s not easy to open yourself up to a successful technique. Pride and ego can easily get in the way and many beginners find it very difficult to let their partner even appear as if he or she might be a better fighter.

Another great way to improve your judo is to work out with many different types of partners and it is in fact one of the most broadly accepted rules of judo anywhere you go that you should try to work out with all sorts of partners – whether bigger or smaller, male or female, younger or older, more advanced or less experienced – as there is much benefit for all in practicing with such a wide diversity of partners. (How could less experienced athletes, for instance, get the benefit of learning from more experienced ones if higher belts only trained with fighters their own rank? Or how can I learn how to fight someone who’s bigger than me if larger judokas will only practice with people their own size?)

But since in randori the partners are not necessarily well matched, a stronger, more experienced fighter could easily dominate and turn things into a completely one-sided affair – the exact opposite of mutual benefit. As for evenly matched partners, it would be easy for either or both to bring things to a complete and rigid standstill, preventing each other from applying any techniques whatsoever and making the exercise utterly useless for both.

For that reason, it’s my responsibility as a good partner to adjust the intensity of my sparring to the needs and circumstances of the person that I’m practicing with. I must strive to offer the right challenge – neither too little nor too much. With a stronger or more advanced partner, I may have to go harder in order to offer the meaningful challenge that is required for continued progress. There’s definitely no coddling but with a smaller or less experienced partner, I may have to tone it down and allow myself to get thrown again and again so that he or she will develop the confidence and the ability to attack without restraint. The key is to adapt constantly and honestly, so that your partner will benefit as much as possible from the experience.

As with anything in life, some judokas, unfortunately, practice judo for years without ever developing a true understanding of randori and the qualities of sincerity, openness and generosity that it requires. Despite admonishments to the contrary, they continue to approach randori with the wrong attitude, as if it was somehow a contest to be won, and their partner an opponent to be beaten.

Whether in the dojo or in the workplace, it’s hard to develop a trusting and productive relationship with a person driven by a selfish agenda. Judokas who fail to internalise this eventually plateau and drop off, however talented they might have been. People who look out for others, on the other hand, make great long-term partners, at work and in the dojo. Mutual benefit is one of the strongest foundations for enduring trust and collaboration that I can think of.

If you enjoyed this article, please see it’s companion piece – “Girls who go toe-to-toe with boys“.