When James Pedro entered a rough Boston dojo as a spindly teenager, it was to learn self-defense. Thirty years later, Big Jim has developed a fitness system that has spawned Olympic champions, sculpted rock-hard weekend warriors, and toughened up a legion of kids. Not to mention a judo dynasty. As his son takes the philosophy beyond the mat, scientists are declaring what the Pedros have known for decades: The ancient sport strengthens the brain as well as the body.
Brothers (and sisters) in arms:
Ricky Pedro Age 8 Green belt
A.J. Pedro Age 10 Blue belt
Casey Pedro Age 12 Blue belt
Marie Pedro Age 39 Yellow belt
Taila Pedro Age 4 months
Jimmy Pedro Age 37 Sixth-degree black belt
Jim Pedro Age 61 Seventh-degree black belt
Mark Falco Age 41 First-degree black belt
Tanya Falco Age 36 Second-degree black belt
Daria Falco Age 12 Green belt
Frank Falco Age 10 Blue belt
Kaylyn Falco Age 7 Yellow belt
Big Jim Pedro wants his shoes back. Now. It's a chilly Sunday afternoon in Wakefield, Massachusetts, and a statewide competition is winding down at Pedro's Judo Center. Banners that hang from the roof--respect, confidence, focus, discipline--spell out the syllabus. Pedro-trained students, as usual, have dominated. The giggling suspects in the heist--Big Jim's 12-year-old granddaughter, Daria, and one of her friends--scamper across the mats and down the back stairs of the dojo when they see him coming. "I'm going to beat the shi--" he says, catching himself before swearing in front of a benchful of spectators. If a man can look menacing padding around in white tube socks and navy satin sweats, well, this is the guy. But then, James Pedro's reputation precedes him by more than three decades.
A seventh-degree black belt, Big Jim, 61, could choose from 100 ways to take you down, snap your elbow, or choke you into unconsciousness--temporary or otherwise. He is a martial-arts master whose tough training tactics and novel grappling techniques have produced half a dozen Olympians and almost 100 national champions. And as patriarch of America's first family of judo, he coached his oldest son, Jimmy, 37, to four Olympic appearances and two bronze medals, five national titles, and one world championship. Under Big Jim's strict tutelage, his ex-wife, Susanne Reynolds, 60; his youngest son, Michael, 25; his daughter, Tanya Falco, 36; and Tanya's husband, Mark, 41, all earned black belts. Six of his seven grandchildren have already won national medals at the junior level. The newborn Taila will learn to crawl on the mats too.
Jimmy now runs the dojo, but his father plays the role of Zeus, a thundering disciplinarian who issues instructions from on high and shouts down any who dare ignore them. Though he no longer whacks noncompliant students in the hamstrings with a kendo stick, he's not above throwing a pupil up against a wall. "If my kids cried and said they didn't want to train, I'd tell them they were going three times instead of two this week. It's haahd work," he says, his Boston accent kicking in. "So what? People bring their kids here to get tough." Despite his swept-back silver hair and ruler-straight white mustache, he is not to be mistaken for Mr. Miyagi. Big Jim knows the word judo means "gentle way," but he has his own interpretation.
Pedro's Judo Center trains about 200 adults and kids, as well as 12 elite judoka, three of whom are hot prospects for the summer Olympics in Beijing. Building on the foundation laid by his father, Jimmy has perfected the family's judo training system and created a holistic approach to the development of well-rounded athletes. "Goal one is to produce leaders and champions off the mat," says Jimmy, who was accepted to both Harvard and Brown universities to wrestle and graduated from the latter with a 3.7 GPA. "Goal two is to produce judo champions."
As the Pedro family's approach to teaching judo (and parenting) has evolved, so too has the scientific thinking about the discipline. It has physical benefits, naturally, but new research shows that there are also neurological benefits. Jimmy believes that judo, which is booming in America, is gaining traction because it embraces a traditional yet modern approach to mind-body strength in a culture that has been chipping away at the male psyche, and it offers parents an antidote to raising pampered, video-game-obsessed brats.
The best way to bond a family, Big Jim says, is to get everyone involved in the same activity, working toward the same goals, and rooting for one another. He took it to the extreme (he introduced his ex-wife to the sport by bringing her to a judo tournament on their honeymoon), and although he is no less obsessed these days, he has mellowedaslightly. Likewise his legacy of ruthlessness. The further the message gets from the source, of course, the harder it is for him to control, and that can be irritating.
His shoes are probably in the freezer. That's where they usually turn up. "The girls like to aggravate him because it's the only way to get back at him for making them train so hard," says Tanya, Daria's mother. "He has a good sense of humor, actually. On the right day."
Big Jim doesn't believe in giving kids a choice. His own dojo was a grittier, more singularly focused place than his son's. If you didn't do exactly what he said, when he said it, he would come after you, win or lose. Practice was worse. "I beat the living shit out of thousands of kids," he says. "I wasted a lot of kids because they couldn't take it, and they were gone."
Big Jim, who grew up in a rough section of East Boston, Massachusetts, didn't discover judo until he was 19. By that time, he was working at the meatpacking plant where his father was foreman. They drove past a judo school every day, and Big Jim joined because he wanted to hone his fighting skills. Several years later, he became a fireman, and the schedule allowed him to train five days a week. It took him just two years to earn his black belt, and in 1972, he opened his own dojo and set his sights on the Olympics. Although he competed in the 1976 Olympic trials, his contribution to the sport is clearly as a sensei. He immersed himself in technique, studying in Japan and Europe, and in 1979, was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame. He turned the deceptively simple act of gripping an opponent's gi into an art form, which Jimmy has since perfected. "Everyone knows how to grip," says Ed -Liddie, a trainer for USA Judo, "but the Pedros take it to another level. They're able to teach it and execute it better than anyone else."
Big Jim's prized student and the one who received the toughest treatment was Jimmy. He was a small kid--in his freshman year of high school, he weighed only 88 pounds--and his father was that much harder on him for it. One of his harshest lessons was delivered off the mat, after a tournament in Buffalo, New York, when Jimmy was 9. He had just finished winning the last of nine straight matches to take the junior nationals title, and as the crowd migrated back to the hotel, he and his father split up to look for Tanya. Jimmy found himself in an underground passageway, alone except for three older kids, and they started chasing him. He lit up a flight of stairs and ran smack into his dad. Safe, he thought. "He goes, 'What the hell you running from?'" says Jimmy. "He looked at the three kids and said, 'Which one of you wants to fight my son?' He grabbed one kid, and we had a fistfight right there with all these people watching. It was just a kiddie fight, but honestly, it seemed like the longest time in my life."
What's astonishing is that such episodes didn't drive Jimmy away. Perhaps it's because as much as Big Jim pushed his kids, he pushed himself even harder. There was never any doubt that he believed judo was good for his kids, because he was on the mat fighting alongside them. "Usually, if you're passionate about something, your kids will want to emulate you, and that's the best sort of learning," says psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, a Harvard Medical School faculty member and author of The Over-Scheduled Child. "Most of us don't have that kind of clear-cut example. It's a complicated world, and it's much harder to find a way that you can learn to be a man."
Dr. Rosenfeld doesn't believe that the cold criticism of tough love is the best way to instill a strong work ethic. On the other hand, warmth doesn't mean mushy. "There's an idea afloat that you should never criticize your kids," he says. "I don't subscribe to that. For parents to expect their kids to make something of their lives is incredibly appropriate."
Jimmy didn't lose a match until he was 11, and not again until age 14. That's when he caught Olympic fever himself, instead of merely being "scared shitless" to lose. He competed in the 1992 Olympics, and went on to dominate the 161- to 178-pound weight class for more than a decade. At the '96 Games, he won five of six matches with decisive takedowns to earn a bronze medal. Tanya, who was there in Atlanta with the rest of the family and about 50 people from the dojo, says she detected tears in her dad's eyes. "Jimbo climbed up the bleachers, and they just hugged," she says. "It was like everything in my dad's entire life was complete. Even though it wasn't gold. Jimbo had done everything to a tee, and my father knew that."
The Science of Judo
It's hard to imagine a better sport in which to immerse your family. Judo involves a con-stant give-and-take that teaches the physical principles of applying leverage and directing energy. Developing an acute awareness of your body and its surroundings is a form of adapting to changing circumstances, and this is the basic law of survival. Consider the choke hold.
"There is no comparable sport because of this maneuver," says German researcher Christoph Raschka, who studies the physiology of judo. "In nature, if someone grips at your neck, it's a dangerous signal. It's an evolutionary reaction." In a choke hold, as your opponent compresses the carotid arteries on each side of the neck, blood flow to the brain is restricted, depriving it of oxygen and nutrients. If the opponent has mastered the move, his arm will also put pressure on the vagus nerve, the sensory pipeline connecting the heart and lungs to the brain stem, which might plunge your heart rate from 120 beats per minute to about 50. Your heart can't pump enough fresh blood to the brain, and before you can count to 20, it's naptime.
Raschka says you would expect such depravation to dull the senses. But when he examined 57 judoka who agreed to be choked in the name of science, he found just the opposite. Before and after a move called kata juji jime was applied, they took a timed test to see how quickly they could read through flash cards with the names of colors. The trick is that the word green might be printed in red. To Raschka's amazement, everyone's vision, hearing, and attention improved immediately after being choked. He suspects that the brain somehow temporarily boosts the nerve signal quality to these areas even as it is being starved of oxygen. "This is such a basic threat to life that your body tries to encourage all kinds of senses to survive," says Raschka.
His findings might merely be interesting were it not for another research project reported last year in Brazil. Neuroscientist Wantuir Jacini, of the University of Campinas, conducted a groundbreaking study in which he compared brain scans of judo experts, marathon runners, and nonactive controls. Scientists in his field have known for a decade or so that, in rodents, running dramatically enhances brain plasticity (the ability of neurons to form new connections in response to a stimulus). This is the basic biological mechanism for how we learn.
Jacini, however, was interested in the effect of more complex exercise, and since you can't teach rats judo, he took 170 MRIs of each of his four dozen human subjects. The scans revealed that the judo players have significantly more gray matter, and the implications are huge. "The principle is that the practice of judo stimulates certain areas of the brain that are responsible for concentration, working memory, and motor movements," says Jacini. "In these areas we have more connections, and that's good because the cells become more efficient." Now he's working on proving that the beefier areas actually translate to better brain function.
This brain science might explain why there is so much anecdotal evidence that kids who practice judo sit still and pay attention better than others. Or why the Pedro grandchildren are all such excellent students. The overarching gist of the past decade of neuroscience research is that connections between brain cells react to challenges much in the same way that muscle fibers do: The more you use them, the stronger they become. If you're forced to focus and learn complex moves while your partner is trying to throw you off balance and your sensei is shouting at you, you're flexing your brain.
Passing the Torch
Twenty-nine school-age judo students in thick white robes kneel in a crescent around Jimmy as he demonstrates the front quarter nelson on one of them at a recent Monday-night practice. Big Jim watches from his perch at the sideline, like a raptor. With the boy facedown, Jimmy hunches over his back and hooks one arm. "What you want to do is stuff his head this way, as hard as you can," he says in a clear, sharp voice. "Grab your wrist and stuff it. As hard as you can." The kid groans. Jimmy continues. "It's painful, but sometimes you've got to give them a little pain for it to work." He shifts around 180 degrees, spinning his limp charge with him to show the reverse view. He claps, and his pupils fan out.
The session falls into the usual rhythm--huddle, observe, practice, and repeat--as Jim and Jimmy circulate, cutting in on sparring partners to demonstrate, constantly reiterating instructions. Father and son work in synch, never discussing the judo with each other.
Jimmy uses his dad's expertise and authority strategically, but he admits that it's tricky to balance what he calls the "two conflicting cultures" at the dojo. "I'm more of a positive-reinforcement coach who tells somebody they did something good and then corrects him," he explains. "With the recreational kids, it's praise and correct. My dad will automatically go to 'No! No! No!' and call it out in public. That's just his style." In some aspects, the Pedro rules remain the same: Jimmy believes practice is invaluable for teaching discipline, respect, and hard work, and that competition builds character. "My approach is that it's not about winning, it's about trying and doing your best, and I tell my kids that all the time," he says.
As it always has, the Pedro Way emphasizes fitness: You may not be as good as your opponent, but you can always be in better condition. Pressure, pressure, pressure until he breaks. During an elite practice, a student fights fresh opponents on one-minute intervals for 10 minutes. In the weight room, it's timed circuit training. Mike Pedro, who studied biology and sports physiology at Brown, worked as a fitness trainer until starting medical school last year. "We do odd stuff," he says, "like doing a clean with your partner's body instead of a barbell and climbing a rope backward to strengthen grip."
Jimmy has dramatically broadened the Pedro approach. Though things are no gentler on the mat, Jimmy's operation evokes the sport's deeper philosophy. Partly, this is the influence of his wife, Marie, who is half Japanese and has encouraged him to add traditional elements. It's also Jimmy's business savvy. He has established a class for 5-year-olds called Little Dragons. The first things they learn are how to fall and how to bow, but they also play "snake in the grass" at the end of class. It's a broader approach designed to lure students in, not scare them away.
At home, the atmosphere is different from the all-judo all-the-time upbringing that Jimmy, Tanya, and Michael had. Marie sends the kids to Japanese lessons every Saturday. Crucially, according to psychiatrists like Dr. Rosenfeld, the Pedros do such activities together. Jimmy plays with the kids at recess, and the whole family goes out to lunch afterward. Casey and A.J. are both in drama, and all three kids play an instrument and at least two other sports.
In Tanya's house, the Pedro Way is facing a test. Her son, 10-year-old Frankie, is taking a break. He's a two-time national champion, but he recently put judo on hold for football, and Grandpa is not happy. Tanya has mixed feelings about forcing Frankie to stick with judo, because she doesn't want him to burn out like she did. At 15, she was on track to go to the Olympics, but when her parents divorced and Big Jim moved out, she quit. She knows the value of rearing kids in the dojo, but wants Frankie to have at least an illusion of choice. It's a subtle difference, but it worked with her two daughters, who stopped judo briefly, and then returned on their own. She's giving Frankie a few more weeksaand then he's going back. "To have a talent like that and not fulfill ita" she trails off. "I don't want him to miss out on fulfilling how good he is."
The gut-level genius of Big Jim's doctrine--and what Jimmy is holding on to even as he upgrades the Pedro Way--is that if you survive the training, you'll be that much better equipped to survive the next thing. From the roots of our biology to the mysteries of our psychology, Pedro's judo is about building capable, confident kids. Perhaps even little Ricky understands this on some level: In a recent tournament after Grampy Jim scolded the 8-year-old for crying during a match, he won his next bout against a boy he'd never beaten--in overtime.
Source Citation:"A Legacy of Strength." Best Life 5.5 (June-July 2008): 132. Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 27 Sept. 2009
United States Judo Association - USJA
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