27 January 2023

These Canberra judo coaches are on a mission to end schoolyard bullying

| James Coleman
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Anti-bullying judo

Olympia Judo Club head coach Stephanos Georgiadis, Grappling Brothers coaches Rafael Landim and Kostas Levas, and CFMEU secretary Zach Smith.
Photo: Gary Ramage.

“Gentle way.”

The definition of “judo” may not be the first thought that comes to mind when you’ve been laid flat on the tanbark by a schoolyard bully. But for volunteer coaches Kostas Levas and Stephanos Georgiadis, learning the ways of the Japanese unarmed martial art is key to avoid being bullied in the first place.

Casually dubbed “anti-bullying judo”, there are multiple classes every week in Canberra.

Originally from Greece, both Stephanos and Kostas spent their early life in Europe and Russia (or USSR as it was back then) where they learned judo. The martial art that began with a small group of disciples in 1882 has spawned millions of clubs around the world, not to mention a fully-fledged Olympic sport.

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What made an impression on Kostas was his coach, who went out of his way to help students with more than just how to pull off the perfect throw.

“At the end of each class, he would sit down with the kids and talk to them about manners, etiquette and friendships,” he says.

“He helped set them on a reasonable path from a young age. And even when the Soviet Union collapsed, he stayed on to help those kids stuck in the broken-down society and keep them from turning to drugs, prostitution and crime. I thought that was amazing.”

Never imagining he would do something quite as impactful, Kostas settled back down in Canberra in 2000 as a self-employed construction worker. A wife and two children followed.

Kostas and a student in action.

Kostas takes a student under his wing. Photo: Gary Ramage.

Several years later, other family members showed a keen interest in judo so Kostas looked around for a local club and came across Grappling Brothers in Belconnen. It all went well, until COVID arrived and one of the coaches was unable to travel in from Sydney.

“The owners asked if I would like to step in for a few weeks as a volunteer, seeing how much I enjoyed it,” Kostas says.

When he truly got to grips with the students, he realised just how many of them were shy and struggling socially.

“The majority of them had similar issues – low confidence and low social skills,” he says.

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Reaching out to Stephanos, the head instructor at the Olympia Judo Club and St Mary MacKillop College judo classes, they partnered on a new type of the martial art.

In between COVID lockdowns – “when the kids really suffered” – Kostas summoned his inner Russian coach and tried to build their confidence “because these are the type of kids that get picked on by bullies at school, and later in life in other situations.”

The judo moves are mixed with Nerf gun wars and other playful competitions. And at the end of each class, students are encouraged to look their peers in the eye and mete out hearty handshakes. Kostas often follows up with a conversation about how they’re coping at home and school.

Anti-bullying judo

Judo coach Stephanos Georgiadis going through ground techniques with junior students. Photo: Gary Ramage.

Kostas says it’s all about building confidence – with judo as a byproduct – but not confidence gained by an ability to punch someone’s lights out. It’s about putting fears and inhibitions to the side so you can act with courage in the moment.

“You challenge yourself in judo,” he says. “You’ve got to find it within yourself to dust yourself off and go again. It’s about willpower and determination. And that’s what gets you through your adult life.”

Before long, the results speak for themselves.

“The parents are amazed by the transformation.

“Between judo and the other games, they’re having so much fun, they don’t even realise they’re building confidence and skill. They run around and play with each other, and even organise themselves now.”

The classes began with eight students at a small room at Grappling Brothers. It now numbers about 80 juniors and teens, with several classes each day at Grappling Brothers. The Olympia and St Mary MacKillop College judo clubs host over 60 students with four classes per week.

As for the future, Stephanos and Kostas aren’t giving up anytime soon.

“If we can help 100 kids become kids again, maybe of those, 50 will go on to help 100 other kids,” Kostas says.

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