Gym using judo to help kids tackle larger issuesby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — In the sport of judo, contestants try to flip, fling or wrestle each other to the ground and keep them there; and in north Minneapolis, some neighborhood residents are using judo to help them tackle some larger problems.
As a cold winter wind blows outside, the air inside Doc's Gym is heating up. About a dozen kids and teenagers are getting limber by running around a large, spring-loaded mat. After a few laps, the young judo students stop mid-stride and roll into forward somersaults. Their hands and feet slap the mat.
Watching the group of mostly brown-skinned children in bright white belted robes, called a gi, is the manager of the gym, Jay Drangeid - aka Judo Jay.
Drangeid is a large man -- over 6 feet tall. He's top heavy, with broad shoulders and a barrel chest. Drangeid's stoic, rosy-cheeked face belies his Scandanavian heritage. Even at 48 years old, Drangeid looks like he could still compete.
"Yes, I've competed - I'm past my competitive prime right now," Drangeid says. "I've had a couple of hip replacements, so I mainly coach."
Drangeid was a collegiate wrestler before he turned to the martial arts. Judo was a natural fit, as it requires a lot of the same speed, strength and flexibility as wrestling. But Drangeid says he was too flexible for his own good. His hip joints wore out from years of stretching and doing the splits. Now, Drangeid says he gets the most enjoyment from introducing young people to the sport he loves dearly.
"It's great to see kids come in and not just learn judo, but things like self discipline; they learn how to channel aggression; they learn respect," he says. "A lot of kids come to us and they have to be told three, four, five times to do something. Within a few weeks, they're responding after one or two commands."
Sometimes Drangeid has to bark at the younger kids in the class to get them to pay attention -- no easy task, considering some of them have kitten-like attention spans.
But the older students, the teenagers, focus on their coach and listen. Judo parent David Ross says he's glad his three boys have a place to come where they can get some exercise and be safe.
Ross lives nearby and says the surrounding neighborhood still has problems with crime. Just down the street from the gym, a group of young black men - not much older than Ross' boys - are standing in the parking lot of a liquor store. Ross wants his boys to have something better to do.
"There's just way too many influences out here for them," Ross says. "And that's what I was telling Judo Jay; why I love bringing them down here."
Judo also gives the students a good workout. Drangeid says Judo and other grappling sports are arguably the most energy intensive of all. It takes speed and strength to grab, tackle and pin an opponent who's trying to do the same to you.
And some of the kids in class look like they don't get enough exercise. Arnette Beasley says her kids are 'a bit on the chunky side.' She giggles when her 9-year-old daughter Kayla complains about being slammed to the mat by a younger boy.
"That's not funny. That hurt," Kayla says. "And that boy's only 7 years old."
The more experienced kids in the class have learned how to fall to avoid injury. But of course, the object is to avoid being thrown or pinned. And students like Kenya Robinson, say learning how to escape your opponent's grasp is a valuable skill.
"We learn a lot of speed, so that if we're on the street or something happens, we have the speed to get out of it quickly," Robinson says.
There are other sports that instill some of the qualities in young people that Judo does. But Judo Jay Drangeid says Doc's Gym is doing something else which sets them apart. The gym has teamed up with the federal government to promote the 2010 census.
A large Census 2010 logo is emblazoned on the gym's banner and is on the backs of the uniforms worn by gym staff. Drangeid says a lot of people who live near the gym move around a lot and it's important for them to participate in the Census.
"They might rent an apartment one year and then they might live in a different part of the city the next year," he says. "They never get counted, and there's a lot of things like federal money that goes to certain areas based on how many people are there."
Drangeid says the partnership with the Census is good for the business as well as the neighborhood. And he wants to continue coaching and promoting Judo for as long as he can.
Young people will always have a propensity toward rough housing, and Drangeid says the safest way to control that child's aggression is to put them in a gi, give them some rules and a padded surface and let them work it out.
- All Things Considered, 12/30/2009, 5:51 p.m.