Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Training with Zdenek Matl

I had the honor of being invited to go train with Zdenek Matl, 8th dan judo, at his beach house dojo in Port Lavaca. The experience was challenging and rewarding. The event helped me gain an understanding for the man and his passion for the art of Judo. I had been waiting for a year to be invited to one of his training sessions. So of course the night before my brain was boiling with fever. My fever broke at 2 in the morning so come 11 in the morning I bounced out of bed, trying to convince myself I had the strength. Mike stopped by to pick me up and we made the three hour drive.

When we arrived Matl Sensei walked out of his ocean front dojo and greeted me and Mike with an unusual, "Watch for snakes!". What? I thought to myself, snakes? When we walked in the house there was a picture of a previous guest holding a 7 foot rattlesnake over a stick. The words "MAYBE YOU WILL NOT BE SO LUCKY" is written below the picture. I turned to Mike with my best Samuel Jackson impression and said, "there are snakes in this this mother !@$#%@^& dojo!"

Then the training began....

After doing 6 hours of training with him on Saturday evening I think I can say with certainty that the man is a Stalin era Soviet super solider project. How else could you explain his super human energy? He never stops. I think the only reason he gives breaks is so the rest of us won't die. After 4 hours of training he wasn't even sweating and the humidity was 100 percent! Did I mention he is almost 70?

One interesting fact I picked out from his stories is the reason he left Czechoslovakia around 1980. He was active in anti-communism movement. He said that the main repercussions against dissent at this time was not against the protester, but against their children. He said his children had been tagged and would never be permitted to have education or employment. So he left with his family for America. Brave man.

One of the things I noticed about Matl Sensei is that he always trains with the class. Even at his respectable age he does throw for throw with every single person he trains with. He is not a side line Sensei. I suppose honestly maintaining his training for over 50 years has helped him gain that freakish endurance of his.

I can say with certainty that Matl's judo is unique. He has taken ownership of his own art and removed techniques and applications that require the the of power or lifting. From my experience Matl's training program is largely centered around a core group of ashi waza, or foot techniques. The techniques all fit together nicely to create a wave a continuous attacks. I have only done shiai with him once and it felt like he cut my supporting leg with every step I took.

One feature that seems a major theme in his application of the art is head control. In the majority of his techniques that I have been exposed to, scooping the opponents head and controlling it close to your own body is of vital importance. Whether you are face to face, or are turning in to do a uchi mata - head control (at least in his basic waza) are present in the many of his teaching techniques.

Another feature of his judo style that I have not felt in other artists is that it feels like his body is crunching down the whole time. It looks and feels like he is doing an abdominal crunch as the main energy generator for his technique. The effect is that his body becomes a collapsing ceiling on his opponents weak structure. Maybe it is not the main energy generator, but it might be the way he promotes loading weight to cause kuzushi, or the crumbling of the opponents structure. I will have to think about it and ask his opinion.

On Sunday we worked more of the Goshin Jutsu style techniques, rather than the Judo shiai techniques. With the arm and wrist techniques I found some ground to disagree with some of the applications of his ideas. I believe mostly because I have some strong opinions about them coming from an aikido and aiki-jujitsu background. I get the feeling Matl is not a big fan of aikido, and his arm techniques reflect it. Overall his versions were still effective and solid, they just felt,well...different. I guess they felt like a judo masters versions of the techniques, rather than the aikido versions my nervous system was used to feeling.

What a great weekend. 8 hours of training with a great bunch of guys and a wonderful teacher like Matl. Overall I can say, every time I train with the man I come away with months of things to ponder and work on. He has fantastic, effective and soft judo. His methods will remain a path of my refinement of my own art and a basis for things to come. The influence of his Judo will forever be on my work.


  1. Sounds like an exception experience. It's amazing how judo and jujitsu at a high level can seem so effortless.

    His abilities and endurance at that age are one of the greatest gifts of the old arts.

  2. Matl Sensei is a very profound teacher. We worked on a few things of his tonight in class. His brush-back kouchi-gari is simply sublime.

  3. Very cool!
    I only hope I can keep going like that in twenty years.
    Probably much, much softer...

  4. Thanks for the great read!
    About the head control and the "crunch"... did Matl-sensei ever train with, or study the work of, Moshe Feldenkrais?

  5. So, I'm not sure if you were aware at the time, but Sensei Matl has a very strong background in tomiki aikido. He comes around here to do seminars, and he said that he thinks everyone should start with Aikido. His style is largely influenced by aikido focusing mainly on relaxation, and taking people's structure to make the technique effortless. This is probably why he puts so much emphasis on controlling the head. I would think this is the reason he avoids techniques that require excessive strength, but that would just be my hypothesis from the little I have talked to him.