Interview with USJA President John Paccione: Current State of American Judo

John Paccione Sensei, current president of the United States Judo Association, began his judo training, along with jujitsu and karate training, in 1979 in Staten Island, New York. Around 2003, Paccione Sensei relocated to Cape Coral, Florida, opening a school there. A nationally recognized coach that produces high-level competitors, Paccione Sensei took some time in early 2019 to discuss the current state of judo and what actions the three major American organizations are taking to remedy the situation. This interview was referenced in the book Aikido Comes to America.  

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Hello Paccione Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about judo.

John Paccione: Thank you for having me.

MAYTT: In 2003, when you opened your dojo, how do you acquire new students? Were there particular types of marketing methods and advertising outlets did used to populate your program?

John Paccione, President of United States Judo Association (USJA). Source: USJA.

JP: OK. When I first opened up a dojo, I was twenty-six years old. It was… I’m fifty-four now. You can do the math. It was close to thirty years ago and I did a lot of different things. At first, we used fliers because we didn’t have much money back down. But when I came down to Florida, about twelve years ago, there was no judo here. When I opened up my own studio in Florida, there were some people from my previous dojo who came with me to help establish a base to gain and attract students. I did some marketing, in terms of infomercials on cable TV and commercials on the radio, but that was brief. I did some thirty second commercials on TV and I grew my club to one of the top ten clubs in the United States Judo Association (USJA). I didn’t find that to work too much. I did also do those coupon books that you send in the mail which I did get a few students but most of it was word of mouth. We did demonstrations. We had tournaments and I was in the newspaper almost weekly because we went to tournaments regularly and I made sure that we got into the sports section.

MAYTT: What was the membership like? Was there a certain age range that was most common? And in comparison, what was the least dominant age group?

JP: Well, I would tell you that earlier on, it was mostly juniors ages six to maybe ten years old. But right now, my largest demographic is probably the thirteen-year-olds to adult segment, while my smallest segment is the six/eight to ten-year-olds.

MAYTT: So, it almost sounds like it was a flip?

JP: Yeah. It kind of did. I think it’s because of the quality of the technique we had and still have. There are not many dojo down here that have senior classes. To me, it seems to be difficult to establish and to keep a senior class here because adults have other responsibilities: work, girlfriends, wives, and some of them just aren’t willing to take the training. The training is tough in judo, you know.

MAYTT: Considering those membership age ranges, both past and present, what methods of advertising have you found to be most successful, especially for your specific age-dominant demographic?

JP: Recently, I haven’t been doing too much advertising at all. It’s been word of mouth. I do have a Facebook site. We do have a Twitter account. We are number one in the Google search engine for judo schools. You could probably say that Google has helped us a lot.

Paccione Sensei’s dojo logo in Florida. Source: Kodokan Judo Cape Coral.

MAYTT: So with the growing internet trends, your advertising has then shifted more towards a social media presence, and has found it somewhat successful?

JP:  I think you could probably say that. But you also have to look into the demographics of the social media now. I just went through the demographics of who’s clicking onto the USJA site. I’m the president and obviously you know that organization and the demographics of Facebook has now become a lot older. The younger people on Instagram and Twitter so you’ve got to make yourself seen in those areas.

MAYTT: Has there been any particular time over the years when did your dojo experienced its greatest membership growth? If so, was there a significant event or social trend that prompted or was responsible for that growth? Or has your dojo maintained a steady flow of membership regardless of outside influence?

JP: When I first opened, I had a tremendous growth stratum. There was no judo down here in Florida. I think there was a buzz about it. We were in the newspaper for going to a tournament. I had fourteen nationally ranked competitors in the school almost yearly or in that ballpark, I should say.

And people came to the dojo in families, so I decided to give a family plan which held and kept families and attracted families. For one student it was eighty-five dollars a month; for two students in your family it was $110. That’s fifty-five a piece. It’s a really good deal. If you had three or more students, I only charged you a hundred and thirty dollars a month. For a family that’s what they were paying for one student in another school. They were able to afford that. And not only were they able to afford it, if one student dropped out it, really didn’t affect my income levels.

MAYTT: Martial arts writer Greg W. and podcaster Dave Roman both have claimed that judo organizations do not offer much in the way of developing and growing new and smaller clubs/schools. From your perspective, do you see this to be the case? Is help more readily available to larger clubs who offer a bigger membership for the organization?

JP: Well, the organizations are very important. For one, they give you insurance. We are a club so we can’t operate without being insured because when somebody sues you, you’re screwed. Secondly, they’re provide the outlets for sanctioning the tournament and everything else in the USJA, maybe not USA Judo and United States Judo Federation (USJF). In USJA, we have a development fund and this – did Roman say that? Well, I will tell you that even Roman’s kid received funding from the USJA on two occasions of national level events totaling about a thousand dollars. He may not think it did but, believe me, it did. Then you get to use the name of the credible organization behind your school where, without it, you’re just another individual with no credentials.

And on another note when it comes to the funding, we fund high level competitors to train their students. We’ve had Olympians and people from abroad come that the organization paid for to train. Then, the USJA members are able to come to these clinics for free.

MAYTT: In addition, Greg W. also suggests that one surefire way to help judo grow is to develop solid instructors to assist in establishing smaller judo clubs and schools. Do you see this as a suitable and realistic way for clubs, both small and large, to become more unified in creating a larger network of like-minded learning institutions?

JP: Well, I agree that we need instructors, particularly when we start going into the schools. The biggest problem is making sure that we have qualified instructors to get in there and teach the programs. Instruction is important and also having diversity in their training. For instance, in my dojo, I have a class that’s geared towards older students and non-competitive students so that they can learn the technique and practice judo, but they’re not drilled as hard as a twenty or twenty-five-year-old for a national level tournament. These classes help keep them involved and demonstrate to them that there is a place for them in the school as well.

MAYTT: How does your dojo address developing new and future instructors? Do you have a program or offer additional training for those who wish to pursue teaching the art?

JP: Well, what we do is when they become brown belt, I give them the key to the dojo if they want to come down and train with a few guys they can. But they’re also required to assist in class. They don’t take over any classes right away. For example, I have them do the opening workout. I have them as an uke. They see how things are instructed and, if they look like they’re progressing, I let them teach a little bit while under supervision. By the time they reach black belt, they can take over a class without any supervision and train students on their own.

MAYTT: From your years of experience, what, in your opinion, separates a good instructor from a great instructor?

JP: Well, it depends what your perspective is. I mean, everybody has a different perspective on judo. If you look at some competitive dojo, they would say that a great instructor is somebody who produces national and international competitors, which I’ve done every year. If you look at a dojo that’s non-competitive and maybe traditional in a sense, they are looking for somebody that’s going to teach from tradition, show them techniques in different situations – maybe in a self-defense form. So that to me is a question that you have to evaluate what type of school you would like to be in.

MAYTT: Recently Josh Gould of Aikido Journal, along with several other martial arts writers, claimed that traditional martial arts, like judo, karate, and aikido, have been on decline since 2004. Is this something that is widespread or is it more of a case by case basis? Has your dojo experienced or been affected in any way by such a decline?

JP: Well, my dojo hasn’t experienced such a decline, but I’m involved in the statistics of all three organizations. I talk to those representatives and I have interviews with them. We have meetings once a month and we go over the numbers. Judo in America has declined probably since before 2004 and there are a number of reasons for that that are probably not within our control.

You got to remember in the 1950s and 60s, when World War Two ended, there was a mystique about the Japanese martial arts, whether it was karate, aikido, or judo. People wanted to get involved in that. They wanted to learn it. As time went by it, became more sport oriented in terms of this MMA stuff where you’re just going into a ring and you brutalize one another. The theology behind the martial art has disappeared – the bushido, the honor, the respect, the loyalty; the things that people went to the martial arts for that were outside of just learning the technique.

Then there’s another factor. The factor of the United States government here and, particularly, it does not support their Olympic athletes, including their judoka. They really do not. If you go to Europe or Asia, or even South America, and you make an Olympic judo team or you place in a national level tournament, those governments pay for you to go to high school or college and train in judo every day. So when you look at all of these programs and in grammar schools, middle schools, and high schools abroad, every one of them has a judo program. We have maybe a handful throughout the United States because people here are more concerned about track and field, football, baseball, and football and even other Olympic sports. The United States is not interested in judo or any other martial arts for that matter in terms of implementing it in regular day curricular activities and physical education in their schools.

United State Judo Association - -USJA
United States Judo Association logo. Source: USJA.

And that is the biggest problem with growing judo to the levels the other countries are at, when you compare those countries to this country and judo.

MAYTT: Sensei, those same writers also contend that the eighteen to twenty-nine age group/demographic seems to be almost vacant in traditional martial arts dojo across America. Has this been your experience? If this is the case, what do you think is contributing to the decline of that age demographic coming to train and can these traditional martial arts survive without those specific age groups?

JP: Well, I will say that between sixteen and twenty-five, those age groups are really important age groups because they are at the peak of training ability. Unfortunately, because we don’t have a judo program in the schools, they get involved with girlfriends, they get involved with jobs, they get involved with their life and are not really interested in training to the caliber that we would need them to train to progress the art of judo. And that is an issue. Now, if judo was, let’s say, in colleges and in high schools and people were taking that as part of their gym classes, then all of these sixteen to eighteen to twenty-two-year-olds would be training in judo. And when they get out of college and they would want to continue to do judo, they have an option for that. But, sadly, we don’t have that. So that’s the hump we as a judo community have to cross right now. We’re working on we have a scholastics division in the USJA. I know that USA Judo is working with some of the charter schools. We’re working with a lot of Catholic schools and we’ve recruited a few of them in the last six months. Speaking of which, USJF pretty much has a great school program out in Hawaii. So, we’re trying to build upon that to get the United States in the same category as some of the other countries. It’s going to take some time, however.

MAYTT: In your opinion, how can traditional martial arts, such as judo, adapt to the changing modern martial arts landscape as well as the American business model? Is there a way for schools to maintain tradition and integrity while staying current with the times? Is there a need to stay current?

JP: Well, the problem is that judo has not stayed traditional. Right now, if you look at the average judo program out there, I like to call it the Judo Jock Program. You may as well have another sport and not martial art. And if Americans want to go to a sport, as we’ve discussed before, it’s going to be baseball, football, or track and field, so that element of mystique of the martial art, the respect, the loyalty, and the honor are not present. All of those elements are not in the sport aspect of training. Staying traditional is very important and if students kept to that model and trained to the highest level, those students would probably do a lot better.

For instance, look at Kokushikai Dojo in New Jersey. That’s run by three-time Olympian Celita Schutz and she has Sensei Yashiro Matsumura in the school who, at seventy-nine years old, came to the United States from Japan. They are extremely traditional but they’re extremely competitive! So they’re students are getting traditional training but at the highest level. And Schutz is like the number two school in the USJA, which about 150 students registered.

MAYTT: In comparison, the membership numbers of judo and karate appear to remain at least consistent as opposed to aikido and its current drop in membership based on Aikido Journal’s recent findings. Why do you think judo and karate are somewhat more consistent in numbers? Have they  adapted to changes in the market,

JP: I think aikido had some issues early on. The effectiveness of the technique was not validated. They lost a few competitions when they entered against other martial arts. I think it was a publicly show. I think that people really want something that’s going to be effective and I’m not trying to belittle aikido or anything. That’s my opinion on it. Judo, however, has declined in some of the organizations. For instance, the USJF now is down to about 8,000 people in their organization. They were up around 14,000 at one time, maybe even 15,000. Only a couple of years ago they were above 10,000. USA Judo is up about 2,000 from 8,000, totaling to 10,000 but that’s because they acquired them from USJF. The USJA is approximately 7,000 students give or take right now. We’ve been that way where we’re actually at a consistent number. So we’re actually stable for a number of years.

MAYTT: When martial artists, particularly dojo owners, talk about the changes within the industry over the last fifteen years, many gravitate towards the rise of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) as two of the major factors affecting traditional martials arts programs. Do you feel that MMA and BJJ are responsible in any way to the decline of traditional martial arts? If so, what does MMA and BJJ offer in comparison or contrast to judo and other Japanese martial arts like karate and aikido that seem to have people more interested or inclined to join?

JP: Well, I got to say when BJJ came out, it was a blessing for judo because the art was in a decline. This was mainly in part because karate was picking up and people seemed to want that from the sort of flash on TV. The Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee, and all of that hype had siphoned off some of the judo people. Yes, BJJ is easier to learn if they’re very skilled. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not belittling their technique but they’re not taking the big throws! They’re starting on the ground, developing their ground game. Nobody has to take those hard falls like in judo. What we did in the USJA is we restarted what they did in Japan and have been doing since the 1800s – the Kosen division. Kosen Judo is where you can throw your opponent and the match doesn’t end there. Much like BJJ, the match continues on the ground for a bit longer. This does two things for judoka: one, it gives people from BJJ an outlet to continue to do judo and two, it also develops our judoka to have higher level ne waza, or groundwork techniques, to compete with the BJJ practitioner who only practice ground techniques.

MAYTT: Thank you again Paccione Sensei for taking the time to talk with us and share thoughts and experience.

JP: Thank you for having me; it was a pleasure.

This interview was referenced in the book Aikido Comes to America.


One thought on “Interview with USJA President John Paccione: Current State of American Judo

  1. I am Dave Roman and I just found this blog. Really good stuff here. I just want to make it clear that I think Mr. Paccione was referring to another “Roman” because I do not have children who do Judo.
    Who is Greg W.?


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