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Blog Bernard Letendre

Leadership, Culture of judo

The free-loader problem

The 16-week beginners’ class that our university judo club runs twice a year is a fantastic laboratory in which to observe all kinds of social behaviors. Over the course of 32 classes, I see trust developing, friendships forming, and group norms evolving.

One of the most interesting dynamics I get to observe every single term is what has been coined in social sciences as the free-loader (or free-rider) problem.

To understand what will follow, a bit of context is required. Unlike many judo clubs, our club doesn’t train out of a permanent dojo. We train in a multi-purpose room with a hardwood floor and mirrors along one of the walls. There’s also a massive stone fireplace at one end!

The important point here is that we have to set our room up before our workouts, by laying down mats, or tatamis, to cover the entire surface of the room. Tatamis are 1m x 2m and 4cm thick, and each one weights about 18.5 kg (or 40 pounds). Our room requires 56 tatamis, which weigh in at a total of 1,036 kg (or 2,240 pounds).  If everyone contributes, it works out to about two mats each, for a total of two minutes of work per person. For a single person, it’s half an hour of vigorous work and you’re definitely sweating by the time you’re done (2,240 pounds!).

Our beginners, by definition, are new to judo. They are also new to our club, and to our club norms. One of those norms is that everybody who attends a class has to help set up the room. I always communicate clearly, at the beginning of each term, that everyone is expected to show up 15 minutes before the class to help set up the room. That’s the rule. It takes a few gentle reminders but a few weeks into each term, we get to a point where we can set up the room in 10-15 minutes and start the class on time.

Creating and changing rules is the means by which we have succeeded at aligning the interests of individuals, allowing them to cooperate to produce greater public goods. (Raihani, p. 253)

That’s when the free-loader problem usually becomes salient.

When we bowed in for our class yesterday, at Noon sharp, I had exactly 9 students on the mats. When we bowed out at the end of the class, I had 26. That’s a total of 15 students who got to enjoy a nice judo class with their peers but did not raise a finger in contribution to the common good.

As I have written here previously, judo is about more than learning technical skills. The founder of judo, Kano Shihan, was concerned with developing kind and generous people, people motivated by a desire to serve the common good. In Mind Over Muscle, in a section titled “Judo and Moral Education” Kano wrote the following:

“[W]hen there is a group of two or more people, it simply takes one person to act selfishly, and conflict can easily arise. But if every person in a group avoids acting selfishly and acts considerately to the needs and circumstances of the other people in the group, then conflict can naturally be avoided and harmony achieved.” (Kano, p. 70)

This is all top of mind for me because I just finished reading a book titled The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World, by Nichola Raihani, a Royal Society University Research Fellow and Professor in Evolution and Behavior at University College London.

As Raihani explains, reciprocity works well in the small circle composed of family and friends. (Raihani, p.144) This may explain why free-loading is much less prevalent (although not unheard of) in our Intermediate and Advanced classes. Our club, as I often say, is like a large family and our members are connected through a strong web of friendships (friendship, after all, is one of judo’s 8 fundamental values). But this is not yet at play with our beginners and “without the right incentives, cooperation is fragile and easily eroded by the actions of self-interested individuals.” (Raihani, p. 145)

In truth, many of our new students seem to require very little incentive. They accept to pay the cost (in time, in energy) of contributing to the common good. And while I’m sure they do it out of the goodness of their hearts, they also, in the process, develop a good reputation with their peers and their instructors. “Curating a valuable reputation”, Raihani writes, is “an investment, but one that pays dividends in the long run.” (Raihani, p. 157) It really does.

But what do you do when no amount of encouragement will work? And how do you enforce the rules when one of the objectives is to keep people coming back for more?

I once had a group of beginners less inclined to cooperation than most. One Saturday morning, well into the term, I got to the university early. I had time to spare so I started laying down the mats on my own (as I always do). As time went by, I put down a third of the mats, then half. Still no students. I started to feel disappointed, then irritated. As Noon approached, I put down the last mat and inspected my work. Then on the strike of 12:00, the students started filing in. I delayed bowing in, waited ten minutes or so to make sure everybody was there. Then I had the students line up as they always do and informed them that the class was cancelled.

Many looked at me in disbelief. Some started recriminating: “But I came all the way in from home!” I pointed out the reminders I had offered at every class over the previous month and a half, that they should show up early to help with the mats. And I asked them if they thought it was fair that they should get to work out when I had set up the entire room without any help. Then I sent them home.

Only once, in all my years of teaching, have I had to resort to punishment of this sort. Truth be told, I was quite nervous as to what would happen. “Although the threat of punishment does seem to be an important ingredient in promoting cooperation” Raihani writes, “punishment that is executed can just as easily destroy cooperation as uphold it.” (Raihani, p. 146)

At the next class, everyone was there 15 minutes early and many students apologized for the previous class’ incident. I did lose a few students who never came back but for those who decided to stay, free-loading was never again an issue. And most of the students are still part of our club’s extended family, where members hold obligations to each other in the spirit of mutual benefit – Jita Kyoei (自他共栄) – one of the fundamental principles of judo.

Judo is martial art, physical training, intellectual training, and moral education. It offers a microcosm of society more broadly and that is why it is often referred to as a “school for life”. There’s not a day that I don’t learn something new in the dojo, or when I step back after the fact to reflect on the lessons big and small that it offers me. Yes, people can be tempted to pursue their selfish interests. But we are also “one of the most cooperative species on the planet”, set apart by our “concern for the welfare of others, the ability to take another person’s perspective and to understand and share their mental states”. (Raihani, p. 126) And very soon, I predict, free-loading will be a thing of the past for this beginners’ class.

Kano, Jigoro. Mind Over Muscle: Writings From the Founder of Judo. Kodansha International, Tokyo, 2005, 155 pages.

Raihani, Nichola. The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2021, 304 pages.