Inclusive Judo in Slovenia – 25 Years, MMC RTVSlo
by Darij Šömen, judo master, Chairman of the JZS Inclusion Commitee

The judo clubs that are members of the Judo Association of Slovenia have been involving children and adults with various disabilities in their training for 25 years

The Judo Association of Slovenia has been developing the inclusive sports project for more than 25 years. The project is a sports, social, and also a health innovation in Slovenia. It is based on modern, generally accepted principles of the social work/profession, which is the primary profession dealing with vulnerable groups. The project achieves the overall expected effects in close cooperation with the sports profession in judo training programs, which take place in a normalized way, in a regular judo club.

 In general, the inclusion of vulnerable groups in a regular sports organization or sport in general is ethical nonsense if they are not accepted in it or if the sporting activity does not reduce their initial personal deficit due to disabilities in social, sports, health and spiritual areas.

 All vulnerable people involved in judo practice are full members of Slovenian judo clubs with all the duties and obligations arising from membership. In the general sense, they are part of the training corps of athletes and in this context we do not name them differently than we name other judoists / athletes. In the Judo Federation of Slovenia, we avoid terms such as parasport, parajudo, para-athlete, para-student, sports for the disabled, sports for the amputees, adapted sports, etc. Vulnerable people are initially disadvantaged in many areas of their lives due to their disability in life. Through inclusion in inclusive sports and acceptance in the community, vulnerable people can best compensate for this deficit. Their effort for personal self-realization is no different or is even more complex than that of a top athlete. Weare convinced that inappropriate terms unnecessarily indicate a vulnerable person or give a touch of inferiority to their sports activity.

Terminology in the field of care for the vulnerable is constantly changing. The social, pedagogical and sports professions in particular are constantly striving for more appropriate terminology. Inappropriate terms are a remnant of the history of the development of professions that deal with the treatment and position of vulnerable groups in society (including sports) and still live their lives through using legal and colloquial language. This is partially so because also some vulnerable people, their representatives, representative organizations of vulnerable groups, specialized sports organizations, some professions, and the state agree to their use.

How did you, as a judo master, design judo as an inclusive sport, what were your personal motivations?
On my own sports career, I went through all the usual stages in judo. In the end, I was a member of the Slovenian and Yugoslav national judo teams and achieved some (at least for me) top sports results in the 90s. After the end of our competitive career, a group of sports colleagues, with whom I worked professionally in the social field, and myself began to include people from vulnerable groups on the Slovenian coast in judo training at the club. In addition to intensive networking with similar initiatives across Europe, creating coaching practice in Slovenia, connecting professions, and systematically placing activities in the Judo Federation of Slovenia, we actively established links with the local community, institutions and associations. One of the most important goals we pursued in our work was to create an inclusive culture in the principal judo club. We soon found that the presence of vulnerable groups in the club sensitizes the feeling and focus for the needs of each practitioner, to mitigate the social damage caused by the selection of (sports) training process in the club and that this process broadly connects the sports club in the local environment different disciplines, stakeholders and resources. In this way, the sports club was established as an important socially useful organization in the local environment, which contributes much more to the community than just a sports result.

We did not achieve all this with sports tools, but rather through sensitive social communication and action!

It is the same at a higher level of a national judo organization. The project of inclusion in the Judo Association of Slovenia has the same effects – it makes it a better organization in all respects and it makes it more humane. On a personal level, as a judo master, whose principal task and mission are to care for the overall lifelong well-being of the practitioner and the community (but not exclusively for sports results), I found the true meaning of my work in sports only after finishing my competitive career.

How many people with disabilities are currently involved in judo practice in Slovenia?

Around 150 judokas of various disabilities and age groups are currently involved in inclusive judo in seven clubs of the Judo Association of Slovenia. This means a real inclusion in the sport, in the first Slovenian national branch sports association.

What is the situation in the world when it comes to inclusive judo?

There are many judo initiatives and programs for vulnerable groups in different countries around the world. The number of vulnerable people involved is growing rapidly, and the Slovenian inclusive model is enjoying a high reputation. We are an important part and co-creator of these European initiatives. We also help in expertly leading the inclusion project in Serbia, a project that has introduced more than 70 vulnerable children to judo practice. Slovenian inclusive judokas are very well received at all competitions in Europe and the world and win the highest medals there.

You say, “Judo is more than a sport.” How does inclusive practice work and what are its basic premises?

In general, we kept the whole framework and all of the rituals of judo training. On the one hand, this means that the training group calms down before the beginning and at the end, shows respect by kneeling and bowing, and on the other hand, they wear kimonos and in some way change their identity, they are no longer “in-valid” but become judokas, athletes, part of the sports community. An inclusive trainer works with the group and adds assistants when needed when he has a very heterogeneous group. In judokas within the spectrum of autistic disorders e.g. we provide one assistant per athlete. We use Slovene terms instead of Japanese to make them easier for intellectually disabled judokas. We adapt the learning of judo techniques according to the physical abilities of the practitioners and follow the basic principles of performance that are behind the techniques. As the judoka progresses and we create a suitably inclusive club environment, they and the coach can also participate in training sessions in the standard club judo sections. The type of exercise always derives from the individualized treatment of the person.

We use the following types of exercises in inclusive judo:

  • – recreational judo training with anticipated positive effects (social activation, creation of a sense of belonging to a group, formation of new social networks, positive health effects on the trainee);
  • – Judo practice with anticipated target effects (pronounced in some vulnerable groups, e.g. autism spectrum, mental health);
  • – practice of judo for competitive sports (possibility of participation and personal realization in competitions organized within the Judo Association of Slovenia or competitions organized in Slovenia and abroad within specialized sports systems for individual groups of vulnerable groups).

The judo coach plans and searches for the best sequence and combination of types of exercise for the maximum benefit of the practitioner. Always in the perspective of their wider social and health well-being and security. The coach’s attention is always focused on taking into account the judoka’s disability and on developing all the preserved potentials of the trainee.

You are the Chairman of the Inclusion Committee at JZS. Who supports judo as an inclusive activity? Who do you collaborate with?

The project with the concept of networking and promotion in judo clubs and local communities is growing naturally (from the bottom up) due to the participation of local
communities, professional institutions / professions, politics, disability associations, volunteers, parents, supporters, etc. It uses existing resources that the state has already
invested or is investing in the field of care for the vulnerable and in sports in a logical, rational and efficient way.

With its internal logic of development, the project goes beyond many failed attempts, when decision-makers and their advisers judged that inclusion in sports could be promoted from top to bottom with national promotional events, artificial establishment of organizational structures or even the establishment of new specialized (disability) sports organizations, forgetting the inclusive culture of existing sports organizations where the process is supposed to take place.

You say: “Slovenian sport is the last sector of Slovenian society that ‘legally’ excludes and discriminates against people.”

An inclusive intergenerational society is a strategic direction and commitment of the Slovenian state and the EU. This is due to the finding that community-based forms of care for the vulnerable and cohesion and intergenerational cooperation are the cheapest and also the most ethically acceptable for society, all of which must be understood in the context of an aging population in the EU.

In Slovenia, persons from vulnerable groups of the population have been or are being included in all aspects of life. Both a social consensus on this and high standards have been
reached. A lot has been done in the last 30 years because we have removed many barriers, because professions, parents, representative organizations have been involved, because we have seen and understood the full needs and benefits of man and community.

In Slovenian sport, we pursued mostly the competitive result and forgot about its huge potential in the field of wider social benefits. The sports profession is also oriented towards such an evaluation, which in this perspective also treats vulnerable groups (on the basis of legislation) exclusively in specialized sports organizations. And this being only some vulnerable groups.

Try to find training sections for athletes from vulnerable groups in Slovenian sports clubs or active programs for them in national branch sports federations. Ask a parent who has a child or adolescent with special needs which sports club they can include them in! What sports can they choose for their child? And where?

The fundamental question of inclusion in sport is which culture / value system in the sports organization directs the organization and communicates with internal and external publics, and which culture and why the state pays in public sport.

This is not at all about the competition systems in which Slovenian athletes compete, but about where the training of all Slovenian athletes (including the vulnerable) takes place. In inclusive sports, this can only be the environment of a normal sports club. In a separate or combined training section, of course within the national trade union of an individual sport. Normalized and included in the community!

The project of inclusion in the Judo Federation of Slovenia seeks and convincingly finds its mission in the spiritual original Khan’s heritage (judo), in the Constitution of the Republic of Slovenia, in all signed EU commitments and declarations of the Republic of Slovenia on non-discrimination in any sector of society and last but not least in the conclusions of the Council of Representatives of Governments and Member States, meeting within the Council, on strengthening the role of sports coaches by improving opportunities for the acquisition of skills and competences, as published in the Official Journal of the EU, 2020 / C 196/01

Inclusive Judo in Slovenia – 25 Years