Interview with CEO of USA Judo Keith Bryant

In this interview, Keith Bryant, CEO of USA Judo since 2016, discussed judo and America’s largest judo organizations’ responses to the decline in popularity of the martial arts. Such topics include membership numbers, creating a new American judo development model, standardizing teaching methods in the Coaching Task Force. Interview conducted in April 2019.

MAYTT: Before we get started, I would like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to partake in this interview.

Keith Bryant: It’s a pleasure! Thank you for having me.

MAYTT: Since becoming CEO of USA Judo in 2016, do you find that with judo being an Olympic sport, it helps to promote the art more so than if it was not? And do you feel that judo would remain an interest to people even without its Olympic connection?

Keith Bryant of USA Judo. Source: USA Judo

KB: I do believe that the connection to the Olympic movement does help the sport of judo, but I do still think it could be popular without it. You know, I would say close to eighty-five or ninety percent of our membership currently doesn’t compete at the elite level. If that’s any indication that people still like to participate in judo recreationally as well as that ultimate competitive levels, then it’s okay.

MAYTT: According to the USA Judo website, the organization’s membership numbers are on the rise. After talking with John Paccione, the president of United States Judo Association (USJA), he mentioned the opposite; that his organization and the United States Judo Federation (USJF) memberships are currently either decreasing or stagnating with membership. Many martial arts journalists have claimed that in recent years, traditional martial arts, like judo, karate, and aikido, have been on the decline since 2004. How has USA Judo continued to grow in memberships when two of the other major American judo organizations appear to be not?

KB: Well first of all, I’m surprised to hear John say that USJA membership is in decline because if I recall from their annual meeting, I thought he mentioned that they were on the rise. However, I did hear USJF membership was on the decline, but that was probably before the meeting. Either way, I can tell you that in the two and a half years that I’ve been here, individual membership has grown about twelve percent and the participation in our four national events last year was the highest it’s been in the last five to ten years that we’ve had records of.

I don’t think there’s any one silver bullet solution to increase membership numbers. I think there’s been a lot of things that have happened to have caused our membership increase. I think part of it is kind of more transparency – more financial or fiduciary responsibility – that we’ve implemented here. A few of our main strategic initiatives directed by the board to myself and the staff are 1) to grow the sport of judo, 2) to better promote the sport, and 3) create an infrastructure to do both those things. So for the last year, especially this last year, that’s really what we’ve been focusing on.

We’ve been trying to come up with new initiatives to grow the sport, whether it’s judo in schools programs that we’ve piloted or we’ve tried to offer judo for free three times a year – three weekends throughout the year – around Presidents’ Day, Olympic Day, and then also World Judo Day in October. We’re working with law enforcement agencies right now to do more judo training with them. We’re working with the city of Los Angeles with their Rec and Parks Association to do a home-grown program leading into the 2028 Olympic games, eight years from now. We are really focusing on the disadvantaged youth in L.A. area. So, I mean there are a lot of things that USA Judo is doing to try and get more members and create awareness for judo. I think also that Corinne Shigenoto, who used to be our chief operating officer, is now the manager of membership services. Since she’s working remotely, she’s able to dedicate a lot more time to being more service-oriented to our individual and our club membership. So those are some of the things that we’ve been doing. We’ve been very aggressive and assertive in trying to find ways to grow our sport. So, I guess that’s what I can say from USA Judo’s perspective of why our sport is starting to at least grow within our organization.

MAYTT: When discussing membership age demographics, traditional martial arts styles often point to the almost non-existence eighteen to twenty-nine age range of its members. What has been USA Judo’s dominant age demographic in the last fifteen years and what methods of marketing has the organization found to be the most successful for that dominant age demographic?

KB: That’s a good question and I don’t know that I can give you a direct answer right now. I was just asking about some of our youth numbers here, right now. I can tell you I looked at it earlier today and as of this morning, USA Judo is at 10,566 members. We’ve been hovering kind of around that mark for a couple of months now. You have to keep in mind that membership will always fluctuate. When I break it down, let me just do some quick math here… I would say about a 50/50 split between people that are nineteen and under and those are twenty and over on that. It’s just a very rough number. And so, I don’t have the specific age group demographics. I mean, it depends on how you want to slice and dice it. So, I don’t know if I can give you specifics on that one right now.

MAYTT: How do you see the membership numbers panning out based on age groups and member retention?

KB: What I would say is the highest retention is probably with the adults and the biggest turnover is with the youths. I’m just looking right here, between the zero to thirteen age group, and there are about 4,000, give or take. So, we’re looking at a pretty large number of youths who are in the sport to begin with. Then, I think, our challenge is keeping them within judo when they get into the teenage years with all the other options that can distract them from the sport.

MAYTT: Martial arts writer George W. and podcaster Dave Roman have claimed that judo organizations do not help much in the way of developing and growing small and new clubs and schools. From your perspective, do you see this to be the case? How does USA Judo help develop smaller and newer clubs compared to that of other organizations?

KB: Well, I think historically those are probably accurate. I think one of the things that we’re working on between USA Judo, USJF and USJA is, since we’ve created the American judo alliance agreement in 2018, there were some concessions made I think from USA Judo to USJA and USJF and in return have asked that we work together on a unified coaching education program and building the American judo development model.

I don’t know, Antonio, if you read about ADMs, athlete development models, in other sports the main gist is to build pipelines or avenues to the desired sport. There’s been great success in some of the larger sports as well as some of the smaller ones. When I entered this job, I asked a lot of people that had been in judo for a long time, “What’s the American model for judo?” and there really wasn’t one. We’re trying to create that pipeline by working together with the three largest organizations.

We’ve had a task force of six people that have been working together for about eight months now, with two representatives from each of the three organizations USJA, USJF, and USA Judo. From that, we’ve created a foundational document that we’re now looking to build upon. With that, we’re trying to create a Coaching Task Force that will comprise of six representatives from the coaching community within those three organizations. The hope is to build a program that will talk about the five levels that are age based and four that are skill based. We’re trying to implement programs like this one into clubs throughout the United States so we can attempt to bring more people into the sport, giving them more resources to build a pipeline for athletes, coaches, club owners, and referees. I think the comments of those individuals are probably correct historically, but we are, right now, in the midst of change and creating catalysts of change to be able to better support the clubs at the local levels.

MAYTT: Is this all part of what USA Judo, USJA, and USJF are currently doing to create a new American judo model?

KB: Yes, we’re working pretty hard on a lot of things and to be able to try to work collaboratively, I think, with the other organizations it’s something that’s new to everyone. Based on past history, it’s been challenging to bring everybody to the table, but I think the one thing every judoka and organization agrees on is that we need to grow the sport in this country. That’s all we’re trying to do.

MAYTT: Contemporary martial arts writers also agree that the eighteen to twenty-nine age group or demographic is almost vacant in traditional martial arts schools across America. If it is true and the eighteen to twenty-nine age group is not being represented, what do you think is contributing to that vacancy and can traditional martial arts survive without this specific age demographic being part of their mainstay membership numbers?

KB: I would probably have to dig into that one, Antonio. I don’t have those figures right in front of me so I can’t say from USA Judo’s perspective. I could probably look into it and get back to you. I would say that is a pretty important demographic and one of the things that you look at is at the front end of that demographic: it’s college aged individuals. It also seems that with wrestling, being a very similar sport to judo, I’ve heard and seen throughout the two and a half plus years I’ve been here, that a lot of people in high school will start the transition to wrestling in order to be eligible for a college scholarship. Another initiative that we’ve tried to do is work more closely with the National Collegiate Judo Association, trying to grow the number of participants and also the quality of judo in the colleges. And as I said, we’re trying to create a pipeline that hasn’t existed before. So, whether we’re hitting kids from kindergarten to twelfth grade through the judo and school programs or the pilots we’ve been doing in South Florida, we’re trying to give a little bit more money and support to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to try to bolster their programs, mainly judo.

The hope is that someday kids can stay within judo and maybe, not only get a scholarship, but be able to get in-state tuition or breaks on home schooling where they don’t have to leave their sport or their primary sport, I should say judo, for another. So, I think that kind of covers that eighteen to twenty-two demographic. Then from the twenty-three to twenty-nine demographics, you have the young professionals. I have heard, though I do not have any hard data, that oftentimes once they’re back in their communities or getting into work, they seem to gravitate back into judo and want to get re-engage.

I do think that time is an important one because those young professionals are still young enough to be on the mat and be competitive. But yes, I have to again look at the numbers, but those are also the years where people are trying to refocus their energies and time management probably on new jobs, new families, new places to live, and raising money to support themselves. So yes, I think that judo competes with those things, just like a lot of other activities and a lot of other sports. I don’t think it’s only the martial arts in that area.

MAYTT: Traditional martial arts practices are based on cultural traditions but also on a lineage-based teachings. Is there a way for schools and organizations to maintain this sense of tradition and integrity while staying current with the times? Do you believe judo can stay up with the times without watering down the curriculum to increase membership or decrease its rank standards? Do feel the new American judo model can make this possible in your opinion?

KB: That question could go a lot of different directions. I guess that’s why I wanted to clarify. I think, from a marketing and implementation standpoint, I think that we do need to become more modernized. I think that we undervalue our product and the sport of judo. I think some of that ties to historical values, but we have to recognize that what we can offer with our sport is something of value. You know, it’s one of the few sports I would say or martial arts that are really core based in values and principles, stemming all the way back from the samurai, when it was kind of brought over through Jigoro Kano. That’s one of the things that I constantly advocate for when I discuss placing judo programs in schools to principles and administration, saying things like “Oh, here is our youth. They are having issues with respect, they’re having issues with bullying, they’re having issues with self-confidence, they’re having issues with physical fitness,” all of these kinds of things. I say to them, “Oh, we have a program that can cover all that.” “Oh, what is it?” I say, “It’s called judo.” I think that our society is yearning for those things that are traditional in terms of being based on values. I think we, as a sport, throughout all organizations, really need to go back to that, to the core foundational elements of what we’re teaching. It’s not just a sport. It is a way of life.

When it gets into the actual sport itself, with the techniques, things that we want to teach in the American judo development model and more unified coaching, I think one of the challenges that we have with judo is that it is not a fast tracked accomplishment program. Belts and ranks do take a while to garner and to earn. I think if there are organizations that look to fast track, it just cheapens the sport a little bit. We have seen some other martial arts that have expanded the number of belts that can be achieved because they do want the quick bucks and allow kids to be able to achieve new belts every few weeks or months. But where judo is in all of this? It’s a little bit countercultural to the immediacy – like I want an immediate return on my input. So, I think there are some challenges there but now we’re not looking to dilute the training. I think, if anything, we’re just trying to make it easier for clubs to be able to administer ranks to people on multiple ages and skill levels.

I’ve talked to some people that have created judo training for law enforcement, I said, “Would we be able to share this information?” and that individual said, “You know this is not my information. These techniques have been around in martial arts and everything since 1200.” So nothing really has been created in the last couple thousand years when it comes to combatives. I think that’s something to keep in mind that a lot of these things have been out there whether wrestling, judo, taekwondo, karate, or whatever; they’ve been around a long time. We want to keep some of those foundational elements and also adapt them to a high-performance situation, like competition. Some of the traditional judo needs to be adapted a little bit from a competitive standpoint and with International Judo Federation, tinkering with the rules a little bit to encourage big throws, like no more touching the legs. We do have to adapt to those who are going to be competing nationally and internationally, to try to stay with the times in that regard. But some of the core foundational pieces, I think, do have to stick with the tradition that is a part of judo.

MAYTT: Throughout my research, I have found that many judo schools are actually listed as clubs and are often associated with colleges or are sharing a location or training space with several other martial arts styles as opposed to having a standalone school similar to other Japanese martial arts such as aikido and karate. In your opinion, is a club a better model to pursue than the popular standalone school for martial arts? Is it more economical and manageable given today’s current radically changing business climate?

KB: I think if you make a business of it, then probably yes, a conglomerate probably is a better approach. I know a lot of our most successful judo clubs do also have a wrestling component to it as well. Again, there’s some great crossover but when you look at the core numbers of participants in judo vs. wrestling, you know, they may be more passionate about judo but to be able to keep the lights on, continue to teach their craft, and get more people into that sport, they also need multiple opportunities to generate revenue to support themselves and keep their business open. I don’t think that we can get so isolated and just have one sport available a majority of the time. If you look at those dojo that do only offer judo, they’re probably only open two or three nights a week, for two to four hours a night. And that’s really hard to keep that business open, unless you’re in a setting where you don’t have a high rent, or any rent, and things of that nature. I do think that the multi-sport approach is probably helpful at the club level. The multi-sport concept is something that is really growing among all sports. This is especially true for ADM models that advocate cross training within other sports to prevent burnout, overuse, injuries and things especially for youth.

MAYTT: Again, writer Greg W also suggests that developing solid judo instructors can better help establish smaller schools and clubs, which he believes is a missing component. Is this as valid suggestion on the writer’s part and is it a realistic way for clubs to become more unified in working to create a network of like-minded individuals and future learning institutes?

KB: I would say, if I understand the question, yes and I think that’s really the focus to why the American judo alliance organizations are trying to create a unified coaching certification model. We want the model to be delivered consistently, at a high quality, so we all want to take best practices from with the three organizations. Then that ties into the American judo development model, to be able to provide training, resources, and like-minded individuals that want to develop athletes in certain and positive ways, both from a technical and a sport performance perspective. I think doing that would help and I think that’s the methodology that we’re trying to implement right now.

MAYTT: How does USA Judo address the development of new and feature instructors compared to that of other organizations? Is there a focus on this sort of education?

KB: Well, I think we’ve had a coaching education program for a while that’s been led by Patrick Burris. He also had instructors throughout the country that can deliver some of the basic, core elements of the coaching and whatnot. I know that USJF and USJA also have online and in-person programs as well. There are some similarities and there are also some differences. What I have noticed, just in my brief time in attending a few different coaches workshops, is that we spent a lot of time on issues that are off the mat and not really as much time on the issues that are on the mat. From a business perspective, I think these are missed opportunities to better the situation. This is one of the reasons I think we need to create and improve a unified coaching program at the national level.

MAYTT: When martial artists, particularly dojo owners, discuss the changes within the martial arts industry in the last two decades, many point to the rise of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) as two of the major factors. Has the rise of MMA and BJJ contributed to the decline of traditional martial arts interest in your opinion? Do what these particular styles offer, in the way of reaching individuals interests, compare or differ in the way traditional arts operate? Do they offer something more?

KB: I think that the jiu-jitsu market has done a much better job with its general marketing and getting the word out there about it. I think it’s something that we’ve looked to try to create more alignment with versus MMA. I think the MMA market has been tougher, but with the success that Ronda Rousey had as a judoka and now Kayla Harrison, I think there are possibilities there in the jiu-jitsu market. I too think it’s because there is an economic opportunity for those people to capitalize on the skills that they’ve learned in judo or martial arts in general, but I don’t think we’re as aligned to MMA as we might be to the jiu-jitsu community. I think it kind of gives people a new perspective to get in.

You know we’ve been doing some test marketing with Fight to Win, with promoter Seth Daniels. He does shows all around the country that have been primarily BJJ, but he’s starting to infuse judo because he was traditionally a judo guy. I attended the one in Denver and I can tell you that when the judo match came on, people were much more engaged, on their feet, and working with Seth. He’s increasing the number of matches that are getting great reception. To me, just as an analogy, there are people that may be interested in BJJ, but once they see judo, they start to become interested in some of the stand-up techniques that can be learned through judo that aren’t necessarily applied within the context of the jiu-jitsu. As a result of this, I have heard in some jiu-jitsu clubs that when they see a couple judo players at the end of the mat, they want to come over and learn a few moves from them. I think there is some benefit to doing that.

To relate back to your former question, there needs to be some culture kept within the arts, but also, we need to be able to adapt to the times where we can do a better job marketing and getting the word out there. Word also needs to get out there that though there is hard falling in judo, people can learn to take a break falls correctly and not get injured, creating a safe sport.

MAYTT: Podcaster Dave Roman also claims that judo focuses a bit too much on the competition and sport aspect of the training to the point where rank advancement is linked to the amount of wins a judoka earns during tournaments. Is this accurate? Do many judo clubs within USA Judo promote heavily on competition wins or other point based methods?

KB: I don’t know that I am equipped enough to give that answer. A lot of that goes through our Rank and Promotion Committee. They have some standard guidelines to promoting folks and so I don’t feel real well equipped to answer that one. My personal opinion is that people are not awarded belts based on competitive results as much as they know technique. But again, I’ve got a pretty short experience being immersed in the martial arts community, specifically the judo community. I can’t really say strongly one way or the other, but my feeling is that that’s not necessarily the case.

MAYTT: Also according to Dave Roman analysis, judo does not offer much in the way to an older adult compared to BJJ, going as far to say that judoka who transition to BJJ tend to stay in BJJ. Do you see this as a possible age specific demographic deterrent for either membership retention or potential membership growth?

KB: Perhaps, but I think you also need to adapt instruction for judo, or any sport, based on age or skill demographics. If an older person wants to get involved in judo, maybe they’re not going to be doing the kind of throws that a teenager or early twenties would be doing. I can say from even working for the YMCA – the two YMCAs here in Colorado Springs for three years – that with the aging population, the Silver Sneakers population, there are a lot of programs like building better balance that that could be helpful for the older generations. I think that what judo provides is some of that as well. By balance, I mean learning how to fall properly. I can tell you, just some of the various stories of people of all ages – whether they’ve tripped off of a curb or flown off the handlebars of their bike – the way that they’ve been able to learn how to fall by doing judo has saved them a lot of injury and pain, maybe even death by being able to fall appropriately. There are so many injuries, broken hips, and things like that from older people falling so I think that judo can actually be a help if it gets presented properly, especially to older people. I don’t think that an older person is going in there to gain a lot of combat experience. It might be more than just keeping in shape; it may be being part of the culture that judo has, which we talked about earlier – it’s not just a sport, it is a way of life. Learning judo could be a barrier to a degree for the older generation, and that’s not counting some of the other benefits as well.

MAYTT: From your experience, how would you describe the Olympic judo community? Is it a welcoming community of individuals and organizations looking to promote and grow the art? Or is there a level of separation?

KB: It’s a little bit complicated, I think, because I worked for the U.S. Olympic Committee for almost seventeen years. I’m aware of Olympic sports in a lot of different sports, but until you’re immersed in that community, like I have been with USA Judo for the last two and a half years, you learn a lot more detail of what’s going on. I think that judo people are very competitive and sometimes combative both on and off the mat. Not necessarily physically, but through the whole spirit, mind, and body – the holistic approach to it. But as Americans, I think we all want to win, which is one of the goals that we have. Sometimes they can become very passionate and can become personalized, resulting in differing opinions. Sometimes with social media, those debates become more public without all the other contexts that can come out with that. I think that’s just kind of a societal issue as well. But I think everybody wants to come together, support, and grow the sport. As the United States, we want to demonstrate that we’re a strong country and we want to have that in our sport performance as well for judo.

Going back to what is the sustainable model of judo, the Olympics, the Paralympics, or otherwise in this country, there is not a defined style or model. There are a lot of different approaches to the sport. Some foundational ones are the same across the board, but then there’s differing opinions on how to develop an athlete, as there are in every sport. So those have been kind of my experience: that it’s been somewhat unorganized in the past and we are trying to work towards changing culture, creating more long term athlete development, and succession planning so that we do have a broader base of more people to compete. The analogy that I often use, Antonio, is that if the base of the pyramid grows, the peak grows as well. That’s what we need to do: to be able to have a consistent high performing group of Team USA judoka competing internationally

MAYTT: Thank you again Sir, for your time and participation in the interview. It has been a pleasure

KB: It’s been fun talking with you, Antonio. Good luck to you.


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