Spotlight On... Judo

Ian Johns

It’s a Paralympic summer, but don’t just watch the sports, try them! 

Parasport's Spotlight On… series offers a quick glimpse into the world of a Paralympic sport – the thoughts, feelings, emotions and behind the scenes details that may be hidden to the outside world.   

In the next part of the series, we spoke to Ian Johns, who bounced back from an ACL injury while competing in judo to become head coach of ParalympicsGB’s judo squad in 2014. 

Judo made its Paralympic debut at Seoul 1988 and is set to thrill fans worldwide as it makes its return in Tokyo this summer.

Ian told us all about his journey into the sport and why he thinks it is one to get involved with. 

Tell us about how you got into judo and your progression to where you are today

“I’m probably the luckiest coach on the planet because I just sort of fell into the role. Sometimes I wonder how I’m here! I retired as a fighter in 2012 - I snapped my ACL - so I was pretty much done then.  

“In 2012 I did some coaching for an England programme and there were two of the Paralympic boys there. They got invited to a para potential week in London, so I took them along. 

“It gave them an insight into what a Paralympic Games looks like, and it was great for me even though I’d never dreamt I’d coach at that level because I was still learning my trade.  

“Then I qualified as a PE teacher in 2014 and on the same day I got a call from the performance director of British Judo saying they had a role for me, which turned out to be the Paralympic role.  

“I knew nothing about para judo. All the guys are visually impaired so I knew nothing about what that would look like, but I did know a couple of the lads on the team which made things easier.  

“I’ll always remember one of the lads saying, ‘listen we want to be as good as the Olympic team’, so we started out from that footing of making sure our standards were exceptionally high.  

“You don’t have to help with everything because the guys are very adaptable. I’m quite an honest guy and I make a lot of mistakes, but taking that in your stride is one of the lessons I learnt early on.”

Why judo over other sports?  

“I was a rowdy kid and full of energy - I used to climb trees and fall out of them, and play football - so I was taken to the local judo club where I fell in love with the sport straight away.

“I love rough and tumble, I love the challenge of someone being able to throw me. My earliest memory of judo was when I was six or seven a young lady threw me against a wall and my foot went through the wall.  

“With visually impaired judo anybody can do it, if you’re visually impaired and you start on the grip it’s very safe.  

“There’s this misconception about para judo because the last thing some people would expect the athletes to be doing is fighting. But it’s about the art of the fight - it’s sport and it’s quite safe.   

“The lads on the team, they’re all athletes, real athletes who like to fight.  

“If you can get over those first few bumps, then you’ll love judo because it gives you that competitive feeling. Even if you can’t see, you can still compete.”

What’s the one thing you now know that you wish you’d known before getting started in the sport?

“Just that I’m a bit more patient than I thought I was.  

“When I first started as a para coach, I’d try to do everything for everybody all the time. I’ve realised these guys are so independent that I don’t have to help them with everything, but I did definitely try to do too much for everybody.”

What’s been your favourite memory in the sport so far?

“Probably when I first walked a fighter out at the Rio Paralympics. I didn’t quite make it as an Olympian myself but when we walked out in Rio we felt like we belonged.  

“We got to three bronze medal matches and lost all three, but I was so proud of the team. 

“Going to Tokyo, I can’t believe I’m still the coach of the Paralympic team.” 

What's the best thing about judo?  

“The competitive nature of the sport and the fact it gives visually impaired people the opportunity to achieve dreams.

“For them, the opportunity to throw someone flat on their back is as good as scoring a goal in football or a try in rugby."   

What’s something only a judoka would know or appreciate?

“Probably my aftershave!  

“The struggle more than anything else - these guys have lost their eyesight or are losing their eyesight and they still have to get around the world.  

“One of the boys is exceptional at getting us around. I don’t get us around - he does! They have the attitude of never giving up and it’s just unreal.” 

What would you say to someone considering trying judo?

“Get on it. Judo is an exceptional sport and it’s so inclusive. Just because you’ve lost your vision doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

“It’s essentially wrestling in pyjamas, and it can send you around the world.”


Gain an insight into the world of other Paralympic sports by visiting our Spotlight On… series hub page here.

Want to give judo a try? Check out our club finder!