Scott G. Goldstein knows how to take a fall. And how to litigate one for a client.
The irony of his day job as a plaintiff personal-injury and medical-malpractice attorney at Goldstein, Fluxgold & Baron P.C. and his extracurricular work as a judo instructor isn’t lost on him.
“Judo is a contact sport, and someone can get hurt if they’re not doing it properly,” he said. “We … stress safety, and we make sure that everyone practices their back falls, forward falls and that they have the proper knowledge of how to take a fall while they’re competing or practicing.”
He pauses, then adds with a laugh: “To try to avoid those types of injuries that would come to my office.”
A family affair
Goldstein, 40, has been an assistant judo instructor for 14 years at Menomonee Judo Club in Lincoln Park and is also a continental-level certified Paralympic coach for USA Judo. It’s the largest judo club in the country for people with physical and intellectual disabilities and is a designated Paralympic National Training Center.
He has a third-degree black belt in judo and has coached students of all ages and abilities.
Growing up in Riverwoods, Goldstein was introduced to judo at age 7 by his father, Louis S. Goldstein, who recently retired from his law practice.
Created in Japan in 1882, judo is a grappling sport with both standing techniques — in which competitors use their hands, arms and feet to throw each other onto the ground — and ground techniques that resemble wrestling, where opponents try to pin each other.
The elder Goldstein did judo himself as a young man and passed his love of the sport onto his three children. The family’s weekends were often spent at the dojo or on the road traveling to judo tournaments locally and around the country.
Tournament judo matches are based on age and weight, and as a child, Goldstein was usually one of the smaller competitors in his weight category. He also wrestled in high school in the 103-pound weight class.
“I took my lumps initially,” he said. “Note: I said initially.”
In 1990, at age 16, Goldstein earned All-American honors for winning first place at the USA Judo Junior Olympics. He took a roughly 10-year hiatus from the sport while at college and Northern Illinois University College of Law, then got back on the judo mat after reconnecting with an old friend, Brett Wolf.
Wolf and his sister, Hillary, who was on the U.S. Olympic judo teams in 1996 and 2000, trained at the same dojo as Goldstein when they were kids and often traveled to tournaments together.
Hillary organized a family-and-friends reunion in late 2000, Goldstein said, which was when Wolf encouraged him to stop by the dojo and consider becoming an instructor. Wolf had become the dojo’s owner two years prior and was looking for help.
A few months later, Goldstein went to the club after work to see a class. He was still wearing his suit and tie when Wolf said, “Get on the mats. Help me teach.”
He was hesitant — at first.
“I took my suit coat off, took my tie off, took my shoes and socks off and got on the mat and started teaching,” Goldstein said. “I’ve been doing that ever since with him at Menomonee Judo.”
The discipline involved in judo has traits that are similar to the practice of law, such as being respectful, developing strategy and having confidence.
It’s also a sport that teaches life lessons.
“It’s you against your opponent. There’s no one there to protect you,” he said. “So you learn how to deal with the winning — not being the one who celebrates in the other person’s face.
“But also, you learn about how to make yourself a better person if you come off the mat as an individual that ends up on the wrong side of the match.”
Back on the mat
It’s Saturday afternoon at the club, and between the class’ determined grunts and the loud smacks of bodies hitting the ground, Goldstein’s resonant laugh carries throughout the dojo.
While Goldstein is known for his sense of humor, his students also describe him as a serious coach.
“He makes a lot of jokes, but when it’s time to get down to it, he is serious and he pushes us hard,” said student Rob Anderson, 20. “He makes sure everything we learn, we fine tune.”
As students work on their fighting skills, Goldstein circulates around the room to provide instruction, tips on form and technique and demonstrates moves.
In one teaching moment, he lies face down on the mat while student Ben Glick straddles his shoulders and grabs onto his belt and right arm to demonstrate a flip. Glick quickly rolls over, and Goldstein is face up and locked under his leg.
“See how he’s got my arm?” Goldstein said to Anderson. “You’ve got to trap the whole body. If he doesn’t get the arm, it’s illegal, you can’t do that.”
Shortly after, Goldstein is on his feet critiquing another pair on their standing technique and offering encouragement.
“Don’t go on top of him,” he said to one student, whose arms are locked with another in midair. “He is taller than you. There you go! Focus.”
The students call Goldstein “sensei,” a Japanese term martial arts students use for their teachers. Goldstein started teaching one class a week in 2001 and today teaches for a few hours after work three evenings a week.
Menomonee Judo leads classes for the Chicago Park District as well, so he also spends his Saturdays traveling to different facilities on the North and South sides to teach.
While a few of Menomonee Judo’s programs are structured based on age and ability, most of their classes integrate able-bodied students and those with disabilities together.
Techniques are modified for special needs, disabled and visually impaired students. Competitors usually stand about 5 feet apart at the start of a match, for example, but visually impaired students start matches by holding onto each other’s uniforms.
Inclusiveness and equality are an important part of the club’s philosophy, Wolf said, and the athletes all support each other, with help from the senseis, to reach their goals.
Along with passing on his passion for judo, Goldstein said, watching friendships develop between students of different ages, abilities and socioeconomic backgrounds is one of the best parts of his job.
Senseis, athletes and their families spend a lot of time at the dojo and frequently travel to tournaments together, Goldstein said, so they develop close bonds and consider each other family. The senseis have been invited to dinners, birthdays and holiday gatherings.
Wolf said Goldstein often drives himself and students to class, workshops, conferences and tournaments.
“He is very caring and giving of his time and energy with the students,” Wolf said. “He’s been a vital part of the growth of the program over the last nearly 15 years.”
A ‘big brother’ jokester
Standing about 5-foot-5, Goldstein literally looks up to many of his students.
The teenagers joke around with him about it in a good-natured way, like siblings ribbing each other. And like in any family, Goldstein dishes the playful teasing back in his own ways.
“Almost every Saturday, he picks me up in the morning, and he always pretends to drive off when I’m about to get in the car,” said Michael Mutz, 13. “He once left me at a gas station on the South Side.”
Anderson describes himself as being “pretty shy” when he came to the dojo. Goldstein was the first person to talk to him and immediately told him a joke. It instantly made him feel comfortable there, he said.
Glick, 16, said Goldstein is like a “big brother” who is fun and “very good about teaching without being mean.”
Mutz, 13, said Goldstein hasn’t just helped him develop as an athlete.
“He’s taught me also how to be a good person,” Mutz said. “We give him a lot of harassment and we joke a lot about him, but in the end, he’s a really good person.”
Goldstein also works with adult students, including veterans through the dojo’s Warriors Without Limits program. Some are recovering from or learning to live with injuries sustained in combat and participating in judo helps them rebuild confidence mentally and in their physical abilities.
“All the students, whether they’re able-bodied, special needs or have visual impairment, I get a joy from working with all of the groups,” he said. “They’re tremendous to work with.”
As a sensei, Goldstein said, one of his goals is to make the dojo feel like a safe place where students can turn to him for guidance both on and off the mat.
“Being able to help people make choices and to respect the advice that’s being given, I think that’s another thing that ties the legal work and the judo together,” he said.
“It’s probably why I love them both.”