Pedro Family Photograph: Richard Phibbs, May 2008
By: Eric Hagerman; Photograph: Richard Phibbs
May 6, 2008 - 6:18:06 PM
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, and toughened up a legion of kids.
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,
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 mellowed slightly. 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
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
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
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
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
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 weeks and then he's going
back. "To have a talent like that and not fulfill it” 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.
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