Meditation Can Enhance Judo Training
by Bill Cabrera

(this article addresses the 'why' of meditation, but not the 'how to')

Looking for the Advantage

I usually say that if two judo opponents are equally matched in their technical abilities, then the one with greater strength, and better developed conditioning or fitness level will have an advantage. Conversely, if the two are equally matched in size, physical strength, and conditioning, then having superior technique will give one fighter an advantage over the other.

As judoka, each of us has experienced times where we were able to overcome a stronger or larger, but perhaps less experienced,
Bill Cabrera
opponent by using our better-developed technique. Likewise we ourselves have sometimes been overpowered, or maybe used our own greater size or strength to overpower an otherwise better technician.

I've oversimplified these qualities mentioned above, for sure. For example, we also use strategies and tactics, and are aided by the voices of our coaches that we hear in our heads (if we've been good students). Still, you get the idea.

So what happens when these two fighters are so closely matched physically and technique-wise that neither has an advantage in any of those ways? After all, top-level fighters spend their days making sure that they have those bases well covered. Well, that's where we need to take a closer look at our mental training for the extra edge.

By 'mental training' I don't mean visualizing ourselves performing perfectly executed techniques, for example, which can certainly be another important tool for competition training. Instead I'm talking about developing focused awareness and clarity. We can use our well-developed abilities to focus, and to concentrate single-mindedly, to help put a razor-sharp edge on our physical abilities. We want our physical abilities to be able to shine through, unimpeded by mental noise or distraction. We need to be able to act and react instantaneously, without a thought to slow us down.

Now to some degree, we judoka do naturally develop these abilities through our years of practice. It isn't hard to notice the calm attention and focus of higher-level players. Sure, some of that calm comes from them having confidence in their abilities to handle a challenger. But the more valuable part comes from them intuitively understanding the usefulness of that crystal-clear state of mind where a throw is able to happen seemingly without effort. They have felt it many times over, and want to be in that mental space as often as possible.

Personally, I believe that this feeling is actually one of the things that keeps us coming back to the dojo again and again, in spite of the pain and injuries that we sometimes find there.

Meditation and the Mental Side of Judo

We often talk about being 'in the zone'. But we tend to think of it as something which just 'happens' to us, if we're lucky. Well, fortunately for us, we don't have to wait for years of judo training to slip by before we can start to have this experience more frequently. We can train ourselves to find this mental state more easily by practicing to make it happen. And it's easier to do that first while off the mat, without the distraction of someone trying to throw us. This 'off-the-mat' mental training practice is meditation.

Now for some people this word 'meditation' brings up some weird or foreign ideas or imagery. There's no need for that. Just be clear on this part: Meditation in itself has nothing to do with religion, or robes, or burning incense. Yes many religions make use of it in some way or another. But meditation is just a very practical tool for enhancing and developing mental clarity, stability, and penetrating observation. Meditators can and do use this tool for differing purposes.

It just so happens that these qualities (clarity and focus) are two extremely useful abilities for a martial artist of any kind to have. It isn't any coincidence that there is such a long history of meditation associated with the study of martial arts. For example, an expert swordsman in feudal Japan stood to lose not just a match, but a limb or his life if his attention wavered the tiniest bit at the wrong moment. A person in that situation would obviously benefit from clarity of mind.

Benefits Specific to Judo

For a judoka, the main benefits of practicing meditation are the same two qualities mentioned above: clarity of mind, and stability of focus. Meditation will also improve other areas such as the rate and depth of our breathing, which is of course closely tied to our mental state and physical condition. Ever notice how quickly novice (and even intermediate) players start panting and puffing in the heat of battle? They might even be in great physical condition already. But it isn't just a physical thing that brings that on. I believe it comes at least partially from the agitated mind of the fighter, as well as from the adrenalin and physical exertion.

The quality of mental clarity will help the judoka to get an accurate reading of what is and isn't going on during a battle. "Is my opponent faking this entry or is it the real deal? Are his eye movements an attempt at distraction? Is she out of gas but trying to hide it? Am I really out of gas, or is my mind feeding me a negative outlook on things and I'm falling for it?"

Mental clarity is about seeing the reality in front of us, and not being fooled by the endless, error-prone narration going on in our minds. We each experience a steady stream of thoughts, one after the other, describing, labeling, judging our perceptions, and evaluating our options. And we tend to think that they are correct when, actually, they are not the whole picture.

Focus, or stability of awareness, is the ability to place our attention exactly where we want it to be, and to keep it there. It is sometimes called single-pointed awareness. It means that our opponent's attempt to divert our attention elsewhere will fail. That the outburst on the neighboring mat goes unnoticed by us. Attention placed powerfully on one object can also prevent us from noticing something else that we'd rather not, such as an injury that is hounding us.

Good News and Bad

First some good news: the practice of meditation can be very easy and simple. It can be done practically anywhere, and in short sessions of a few minutes, or for much longer periods. It can be done cross-legged on a cushion, or sitting in a chair. Being kept off the mat by a major injury should not be an obstacle to your mental training in the least.

On the other hand, here comes a reality check. Meditation takes serious commitment, not mainly in terms of hours, but of regularity. Judo done intermittently gives unsatisfying results for the practitioner. Meditation may be worse.

Meditation is best done every day, even if only for short periods. One of the biggest problems is that your progress in meditation is dependent on your mental state and activities. The fruits of your meditation practice can be undone by the remaining sixteen hours of mental noise of your day if you let it. No generation before us has endured anything even close to the amount of distraction and data-sifting that now we experience daily.

Meditation practice is easy, at least physically. But most people seem to lack the patience to stick with it long enough to see a result. I think many people try it on and off for a while, and then move on to the next thing they find that grabs their attention, rather like many a novice judoka.

So, again, meditation is easy. The potential benefit is there for you to own. But it's only yours if you have some discipline. Do you?


Bill Cabrera was first introduced to judo as a student at California State University Long Beach by the late Ernie Gutierrez sensei. He then continued his judo studies with senseis Hayward Nishioka, John Ross, and Joel Carlson, before finally moving to North Carolina with his wife Anne. Since February 1994, Bill has been head coach for the Carolina Judo club at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Regarding his meditation background, Bill first started studying and practicing in the mid-1970s. Since moving to North Carolina, he has studied meditation with Tibetan Buddhist monks two or three times a week for about ten years.