Learning how to take a beating

Teacher: Elaine Down

From: Hillingdon, Middlesex

Lesson: The basics of Judo

Elaine Down flattened us all within seconds. Despite being half our size, there was nothing we could do to prevent being rolled over her head, pinned down and forced into submission. While laying there, flat on our backs, we realised we had to learn this skill. Not to get revenge (Elaine has 40 years experience, after all) but to learn how she could make throwing two 6ft, 14 stone, men look so easy.  

Before getting to the throws, we had to learn how to fall. Elaine taught us how to ‘break fall’, which essentially just meant slapping the mat with an open palm to reduce the impact felt in the rest of the body. She taught us how to fall sideways, forwards, and backwards before moving us on to the impressive stuff. 

We learnt a few basic throws, then squared up to each other like rutting stags. With so much pent up excitement, keeping our discipline was tough, but we managed to stick to the throws we’d learnt and even managed to break fall properly. After four intense bouts, the score between Matt and Nick was 2-2, which seemed the most polite result to finish on. Meanwhile, Alice made flooring her opponents look effortless and mastered the technique like a pro.

Alice from teach us steps onto the judo mat

Alice from teach us learns how to hold an opponent in Judo

As a final bit of fun, Nick asked Elaine to take him on, hoping he’d be able to get one over on her. Thanks to the two hours of tuition, he was able to hold Elaine off for at least 10 seconds. It was clear that he’d need a few more years practice if he was to ever stand a chance. 

When Elaine isn’t flooring grown men, she’s the Attendance and Admissions Officer at The Harefield Academy. Enforcing law and order in a secondary school might not seem like a particularly pleasant job, but Elaine has no problem with it at all. As a professional Judo referee, she’s got bags of experience in bringing order to heated situations. She’s also very well respected – being an Olympic referee and former national competitor goes a long way in a school that’s so focused on sporting success. It also makes her an incredibly interesting person, and one that we were keen to know more about.

What have you been teaching us today?

I’ve been teaching you the basic fundamentals of Judo: standing, ground work, break falls and a bit of a competition.

Can you tell us one interesting fact about Judo?

It’s a minority sport. There are only two female referees at my level in the country. I’m the only woman who’s refereed at two Commonwealth Games (and an Olympics), and my husband and I are the only married couple in the country who are both qualified referees.

What level did you get to when you were competing?

I was an international and national player at junior level for Great Britain back in the late 70s early 80s.

How did you get into it?

Back in the 1970s when me and my friend started going out, exploring the world a little bit more, our parents wanted us to be a little bit safer and know how to handle ourselves. They said they’d like us to learn self defence, and one weekend while in the library, we saw Judo lessons being advertised and decided to go along. The rest, as they say, is history. We started together 40 years ago, but my friend gave up after six months and I carried on.

The teach us team get into the Judo starting position

Who has been your biggest influence?

One of my biggest influences initially was my coach Dave Farr, who I still see occasionally. He was a great inspiration to me, giving me a lot of confidence and supporting the group of us youngsters who were all from different backgrounds but came together as a family. My husband has also been a great inspiration to me, especially when it comes to refereeing.

What’s your favourite thing about the sport?

It’s the feeling it gives me inside. I know when I’ve done something well as a player or as a referee. If I’ve performed a perfect technique or witnessed and been a part of it as a referee, no matter whether it’s junior or world class level, it’s great to be a part of it when the skills all come together.   

What’s been your proudest moment?

Being at London 2012 and officiating there was incredibly special. But really, it’d be hard to beat watching my daughter become national champion. Watching her grow and enjoy something that I really love has been incredible.

Have you done much teaching?

Yes, I’ve run my own clubs for 20 years locally, but when my career at international level (and my husband’s and daughter’s competing) started to require more commitment, we had to let the club go. We do still spend time teaching young referees around the country, though.

Elaine Down puts teach us Nick in a position he can't escape from

What do you like about teaching?

Teaching somebody a new skill means I get to transfer a little bit of my passion, and give them a little extra confidence. Learning the sport doesn’t just give you the joy of judo but it actually can give you alternative confidence that you can use in your everyday life.

Can anyone learn judo?

Yes! Judo can be for anyone from 5 to 85, you just do it in different ways.

What are the most common mistakes?

The most common mistake made by beginners is getting the break fall wrong. They put their arms out straight, which can lead to damaged elbows. Another common thing in beginners is to have long toes or fingernails, which can also cause problems.

How long will it take to get to dan level?

There are two routes in Judo: competitive and noncompetitive. You don’t have to be a competitive player to enjoy Judo, but most people go through the gradings when they come into the sport. There are 8 colour belts leading up to the Dan grade and within those belts there’s a second modular system. At senior level you have two levels of the same colour belt, so you have lower orange and upper orange, lower blue and upper blue, and so on. You don’t jump colours very quickly in that system. Some of our olympians are only brown belts because they haven’t had time to do their gradings due to being so involved in competition. Despite being the best we have, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re the highest graded in the country.

Elaine Down shows teach us Matt how to put on a judo belt

How many people are at 10th Dan?

The UK has one 10th Dan – George Kerr. It’s very unusual to find 10th Dans outside of Japan, and there are only a few in the world.

How were we today

You were brilliant! No injuries that’s the main thing! You were very engaging, very open to be taught the basic skills of judo. You were absolutely where you should be at your very first level, if not a little bit more.

Who’s the most skilled person you know?

The first name that comes to mind is Karen Brady, who’s an inspirational female in the world of sport. Football is a very male dominated world, but what she’s achieved has been phenomenal.  

Is there another skill you wished you had?

I’d love to be a tap dancer, believe it or not. It’s just that I’m so aggressive in my sport, I don’t know how I’d make the transition!

Matt throws Nick from teach us onto a Judo mat

The teach us team with their Judo instructor, Elaine Down

Matt and Nick from teach us bow to each other before commencing a Judo bout

What we learned

  • Learning to break fall means you reduce risk of injury
  • Despite being the best, Olympic competitors might not have the highest belt colour grading (because they don’t have time to attend gradings)
  • Judo is not a martial art, but a sport instead
  • It’s important to bow every time you face an opponent, referee or step onto a Judo mat. A bow should be slow, with your head facing the mat and hands on your thighs. It’s more respectful this way.
  • An ‘Ippon’ is the most certain way to win a Judo bout. Ippon is achieved by throwing an opponent so they land squarely on their backs