Schools may have been neglected once but no longer as Judo Scotland prepares this year's championships and a new grading syllabus, writes Roddy Mackenzie
Judo has traditionally flourished in the many sports clubs around Scotland, with some considerable success achieved on the international stage. Now schools are being seen as an important foundation block in the future of the sport.
Next weekend, on December 8, the second Scottish Schools Judo Championships will take place at Meadowbank in Edinburgh. At the inaugural championships last year, 300 players attended from 170 schools throughout Scotland. That was close to capacity, with Judo Scotland setting the limit at 320 competitors.
This year, says Derek Scott, development officer for Judo Scotland, the entries have "flown in" and could surpass last year's total. The response has encouraged the sport's governing body to look at extending the championships to two days in future or staging regional qualifying tournaments.
For this year's championships, more weight categories have been added and the primary school age band has been extended to allow P5 as well as P6 and P7 entrants. With competitive judo starting at the age of eight in Scotland, P4 children could be welcome in future.
Mr Scott believes the championships have filled a void in the sports calendar and sees them as playing an important role. "Although many of the children will be club members, the championships are the only event in Scotland where you can represent your school," he explains.
"Many of the children will be taking part in a competition for the first time.
"And as it is a national event, Judo Scotland will also use it as a talent identification competition."
The number of judo players in Scotland has been rising in recent years and there are now more than 6,000 registered Judo Scotland members, of which a high proportion (about 90 per cent) are children. However, Mr Scott acknowledges that there is a high drop-off rate: many primary school-age children take up judo in their local area and then drop it after a couple of years before they get into serious competitions.
Some independent schools, such as Edinburgh Academy, have a strong judo tradition. Now several state schools are bringing in coaches to take classes.
Peter Gardiner has recently returned to Scotland after a stint as coach to the Danish national team. Now at an Edinburgh club, he is setting up come-and-try sessions in the Borders and attempting to strengthen links between clubs and schools in the area.
Judo Scotland acknowledges that there is a difference between children practising judo exclusively in schools - perhaps only 10-15 per cent - and those being nurtured in clubs, but there are moves to accommodate them as much as possible. The new grading syllabus, which is expected to come into effect next summer, will take into account the fact that judokas in schools can find it difficult to progress.
"At present, children who want to get their green belt and upwards really need to be competing regularly and, in essence, be beating other children," says Mr Scott. "For children who are only doing judo maybe once a week in school, this proves difficult when club players can be practising two or three times a week.
"The new grading syllabus, which we are working on now, will be based more on technique and whether children can demonstrate throws and be strong technically."
Mr Scott puts the recent growth in interest in judo down to the clubs being better organised and actively recruiting from schools.
Media exposure has been greater too. Scotland has raised world-class judokas such as Billy Cusack and Graeme Randall and after Scotland's success in the Commonwealth Games this summer, Judo Scotland's telephones were "ringing off the hook" with people wanting to know where they could take up judo, he says.
There are also more opportunities now for youngsters to go on and reach their potential in judo.
"Since Nigel Donohue took over as national coach, the sport has had a higher profile in Scotland," says Mr Scott.
"In the past, our best players would go to training centres in England, such as at Kendal and Camberley, but that policy has been reversed and some of the best English players regularly come here.
"The drain has stopped and our top players now attend the Scottish Institute of Sport, which offers them the best facilities. There are now 21 judo players at the institute.
"Fortunately, a few years ago we had a few quality judo players and it has snowballed from there."
Evidence of the wellbeing of school judo will be provided at next weekend's championships. "Schools are an area that have pretty much been neglected in the past," says Mr Scott. "We're now trying to make an effort to develop our sport in schools and getting children active. We have been greatly encouraged by what we have seen so far."