Master the Foot Sweep: Judo’s Secret Weapon

by Gary Goltz
Photos by Rick Hustead

Judo is a way to effectively use both your physical and spiritual strength. By training you in attacks and defenses, it refines your body and your soul, and it helps you make the spiritual essence of judo a part of your very being. In this way, you are able to strive toward self-perfection and contribute something of value to the world.

—Jigoro Kano, judo founder

Modern judo straddles the line that often separates self-defense from combat sport. Practitioners of the grappling art view that as a strength, however, because judo has managed to elegantly master both endeavors while sacrificing none of its founder’s directives.

As such, judo, which has been a popular Olympic sport since 1964, teaches techniques that function equally well in competition and on the street. One of the most useful and effective is the foot sweep.

First Things First
An essential component of judo is the fine art of getting your opponent onto the mat, and the foot sweep is a primary method for accomplishing that because it can be used against a person who’s advancing or retreating. It’s excellent as a counter and great for setting up combinations. Before you can begin learning it, however, you and your training partner must know how to fall. Skip that and chances are you’ll wind up bruised or broken in short order — even if you’re on a forgiving surface.

The name “judo” is composed of two root words: ju, which means “gentle,” and do, which is often translated as “way.” Combine them, and you get “gentle way,” a term that reveals much about the way the foot sweep is effected. To be efficient in its execution, you must yield to your opponent’s energy so you can use his force against him. At no point do you meet force with force because that would mean the stronger person always wins. The lesson: Don’t try to execute a sweep by using every bit of power your body can generate to knock his supporting leg out from under him. That wouldn’t be an intelligent way to fight.

If you don’t believe the lowly foot sweep can be effective against a skilled opponent, read an account of Anton Geesink’s match with Japanese champ Akio Kaminaga at the Budokan in 1964. Geesink was renowned for having been the only foreigner to win a gold medal (open weight division) at the Tokyo Olympics. In the final bout, he used a foot sweep to bring down his famous foe. Afterward, the Dutchman attributed his win to the top-notch traditional training he’d received at the Kodokan judo headquarters.

Time to Get Technical
The foot sweep is effective because it’s fast and doesn’t require great amounts of strength. Fringe benefit: You can use it from a distance without having to do a full 180-degree tai sabaki,or turning motion, which is required when you execute most of judo’s major forward throws. These factors make the foot sweep ideal for use against a bigger opponent as well as for use by older martial artists who suffer from reduced flexibility because of injuries to the knees and/or lower back.

The challenge associated with using the foot sweep in competition is that to become proficient, you need near-perfect timing, coordination and balance. I say “challenge” and not “obstacle” because the ease with which you master the sweep depends on the person from whom you learn it. I was fortunate to have trained under one of the world’s best technicians, Kyu Ha Kim, who was the South Korean national champion in the late 1950s. Standing 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing 210 pounds, he’s a big man to this day. With his long legs and thick ankles, he resembles Geesink in his heyday — which makes it not much of a surprise that he’s a master of the foot sweep.

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