Guest post by Gene Shin
“How long have you practiced judo?” I am often asked, and the simple answer is, all my life.
The larger truth is that my personal history with judo extends back through both my father and mother. They actually met through judo, and my mother tells stories about how she would play with me on their bed as an infant, rolling me back and forth and even letting me fall backwards onto the soft mattress, so that I would get used to the feeling of falling.
My father, Kyung Sun Shin, was born in Seoul, Korea in the mid-thirties, and began his judo training as a young teenager. At this time, Korea was just emerging from the Japanese occupation, and formal instruction was not often available, so he and his school mates would train independently for months, punctuated by periodic visits from advanced instructors. As a result, success in my father’s judo experience was largely defined by competition, and the lessons and stories he has passed on to me reflect that focus.
Of the many expressions my father uses in his teaching, one of my favorites is; “it is ten thousand falls to black belt!” He used to say this a lot when I was small, and I say it to encourage my own children and students when they have taken several falls in a row, but I began to wonder if this is what my father meant by it as well. So one day I asked him what it meant, and he said that falling is “important [in order] to learn technique…”
GTS: So you’re saying if someone wants to learn how not to get thrown with seoi-nage…?
KSS: You have to practice with somebody good on seioi-nage.
GTS: Just let them throw you?
KSS: No, no. Let him practice, if very weak against somebody good on seioi-nage, he have to practice. So body automatically defend. Reason that I find out when I went to university, the guy’s very good tomoe-nage. He have only one tomoe-nage. Everywhere he go, he throw everybody. Championship, you know? Include he throw me all the time. So, I got mad one day. I randori him six months every day! Every day! After six months, I throw him all over the place. He couldn’t throw me, tomoe-nage. That’s what it is; judo, you must practice someone better than you for certain technique, you have to keep practice, you have to soaking wet to your body for defense technique, offensive technique.
GTS: But why do you say ten thousand falls to black belt? Why not ten thousand throws to black belt?
KSS: Because that’s how much you need to practice. When you practice, you get better and better? You have to practice with someone better and better!
GTS: I see! And you’re going to get thrown, because you’re always playing with someone better…
KSS: Right, right. I just explain to you, many different way. Somebody do hane-gosh? If you very weak for hane-gosh for defense, then you have to keep practice, so he cannot throw you hane-gosh anymore. Same thing o-uchi-gari, harai-gosh, uchimata, seioi-nage…So always I ask my student who went to tournament: “How did you lost? What technique? Where he from?” That’s my first question, so if somebody throw him by seioi-nage, I’m going to take him to practice with him all the time. That’s what I want to do. So always my question is “How did you lost? What technique he use? Where he from?”
You know, judo is not one day learn, you gotta practice. Practice, practice. Technique must soaking into your body.
My mother, Sandy, did not start judo until she went to the University of Chicago, where she learned from one of the earliest American teachers, Dr. Harper. However, as a natural athlete, my mother learned very quickly and soon earned her black belt. In fact, her love of judo was so strong that she continued to practice through physical trials that would have driven most people away forever.
The first happened in practice, when she was caught in a bad o soto gari. Her knee was severely injured, and yet not only did she refuse medical aid, she returned to practice within a few days despite the fact that she could hardly walk. My mother did eventually have surgery, but she waited for two years to do so, and in the meantime learned that in order to throw, she had to perfect her timing and technique, as she could no longer rely on her right knee to support her weight.
Another physical trial came after her marriage to my father when she became pregnant with me. In the early 60’s, it was common for women to cut down on strenuous physical activity, and I was actually born in a hospital called “Lying-In”. However, my mother was not one to follow instructions, and continued to practice despite her pregnancy, although she did “limit [her]self to light randori and practicing/teaching techniques in the end.” In this way she maintained both her fitness and her reflexes well into her third trimester, which was most fortunate, because one day while walking down the hospital corridor where she worked, she slipped and fell forward suddenly. However, she was able to convert this into a perfect, rolling breakfall, and came right back up to her feet. Without breaking stride, she stepped on to the elevator she had been heading toward, and only then noticed the astonishment of the people around her, who could hardly believe their eyes.
These experiences, and expressions like “Ten thousand falls to black belt” illustrate how together, my parents wove judo into every aspect of their lives, building a highly successful business, establishing a dojo, and of course, starting a family. Without speaking about it much, my parents taught me through judo about the commitment one must have to continually learning something new, to seek out and learn from those who know more, who are better than you at something, again and again, to endure pain and suffering until the technique has soaked into your body. It is a commitment not only to learning, but to excellence they have threaded through my life from the beginning, from the way they played with me on the bed as a baby, to growing up in our own dojo, to traveling across the world to train with Olympic and World Champions…
…until today, when I have the great fortune to share with my own children in my own dojo, all the joys and lessons my parents gave me. Playing with my children on my own bed, watching each one of them learn to walk on the mat, to take good falls, to learn to strive and reach and grow, this is my judo lineage, and I cannot express how happy I am to know that it will last far beyond me.