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The gentle art

Judo offers children far more than just physical exercise. Crispin Andrews visits an out-of-hours club with a difference

On Monday afternoons at Highfield Primary School in Plymouth, it's not unusual to see pupils grappling on the floor and taming their peers with arm locks. It's not the Highfield posse initiating an after-hours rumble but members of the school's judo club.

Due to the enthusiasm of teacher Mike Askew, children at Highfield are being given the opportunity to practise what is believed to be the only primary school-based judo club in the country.

Askew, who has been involved in judo since the age of 12, set up the club to "offer something a bit different from the traditional sports". As well as the benefits of regular physical exercise, the children are also taught self-discipline and gain self-esteem.

As part of Plymouth local education authority's money from the New Opportunities Fund Out of Hours Learning scheme, Highfield was given pound;11,000 to set up and run the judo club for three years. Equipment was bought, coaches hired and pupils offered free sessions and judo suits at subsidised prices.

Each week, 15-20 children take part in sessions led by ex-international Andy Cooper, a 4th Dan black belt. He says: "These children are so enthusiastic and committed. Tonight one girl forgot her kit but stayed behind to watch, and another came to judo club rather than go out for a birthday treat."

After warming up, children are taught how to fall and throw safely. They practise without inhibition or fear of failure - working happily individually and in pairs. Reinforcement is given where needed, before variations, combinations and more complex techniques are introduced. Then an element of competition is added, during a period of randori or free fighting, where the children get the chance to put their skills into practice.

Winners stay on the floor with three fights going on at once, and losers join the queue at the edge of the mat, awaiting their next turn. This is the most popular part of the session and 10-year-old Stacey Hancock, who has been coming to the club since it started last April, says: "Randori gives you something to think about when you're fighting with bigger or smaller opponents."

Her classmate Lauren Mitchell agrees, saying: "Randori is very challenging and we can learn skills from other people."

The etiquette of judo is adhered to throughout, teaching the children to respect themselves, each other, their surroundings and the sport. Japanese terms such as tomanage (stomach throw) and matte (stop) are also being absorbed.

The expertise and experience of the head coach is obvious, and the children respond enthusiastically to his instructions, praise and technical advice.

However, the hands-on involvement of a teacher shows that the judo club is an important part of school life. School clubs taken by outside coaches can often be plagued by sporadic commitment levels if the message that the activity is important and worthwhile is not being reinforced in school by those who have daily contact with the children.

Mike Askew fulfils this role admirably. There are termly rewards for attendance, improvement and best newcomer, presented in special school assemblies. Even maths lessons and his own assemblies have been based around Mike's favourite sport. By his own admission, he is "always going on about judo". The success of the judo club was a key factor in Highfield achieving its Activemark award from Sport England in January this year.

Headteacher Paddy Marsh believes the club has bought a new dimension to PE at the school. "It complements the wide variety of curricular and extra-curricular sporting opportunities we offer, many of which are geared more towards participation in school teams," he says.

Although, the impact of the club on the development of those young people who take part will undoubtedly be significant, Mike would like to see those benefits sustained in the long term. He says: "There are two judo clubs in Plymouth, but they are on the other side of town and even though many of the children are keen to go, transport is a real problem. We need to think of other ways of sustaining the children's involvement after they leave the school."

Something new, exciting and successful has been started at Highfield, the benefits of which mustn't be lost, he says. The area around the school is not an affluent part of Plymouth but there are several organisations - the local sports college network, the city's two judo clubs, not to mention the city council and national organisations such as Sport England and the Youth Sport Trust, who could devise and fund suitable opportunities to encourage the students to continue with the sport.

Roots of judo Judo - roughly translated as the "gentle way" - was created in the early 1880s by the Japanese professor Jigoro Kano. Variously described as an art form, a method of combat and self-defence, the sport has its roots in the centuries-old martial art of jujutsu.

Its distinguising feature is close-contact combat, with throwing, grappling and choking holds. This Olympic sport helps to develop co-ordination, power and flexibility; style, technique and timing are rated more important than strength and size.

The British Judo Association does not allow contests between under-eights, but has developed the Kano Club which allows children under that age to learn the basic moves and rules.

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