A new student joined the class recently. There is a well known thing in Aikido where new students, especially men, tend to be tense & a bit awkward when they start, which makes it harder to make stuff work on them. I like this, to a point. It gives everybody else, especially the physically weaker students, someone to practice with who’s reactions are not the trained and sanitized ukemi we normally deal with in class. So I hold of on the “this is how you respond the right way” talk for a little while, let people get used to dealing with the awkward person.
So two weeks ago during class two of the younger students had trouble getting ikkyo to work on the new guy. So we worked on it, focused on the principles at work and let them try how it could work for them. Then I designed the lesson plan for the next class around this problem.
There are to my mind four issues to consider in this situation, all of which actually solve a slightly different problem. They can probably be broken down further, but I like using the model of four things: Ukemi; technical ability; technical adaptation (Henka Waza, in some styles) and re-framing the problem.
Ukemi we talked about only briefly in the class, since I want to hold off conditioning people to predetermined responses for a little bit. It’s still important though. In Aikido, most techniques rely on fairly specific “gifts”, conditions the threat creates that we can exploit. To me this is the combative part of the whole “Aiki” principle. Anything we do in a confrontation creates some kind of gift for the other guy, if he can find it. Anything he does gives us a gift. A straightened arm gives me the elbow, a bent arm often the shoulder. Forces, structures, empty spaces, balance etc., there is always something. So in class, when practising technique the partner should provide the appropriate gift. Okeeping in mind we also have to practice more free-form, to get people used to finding which gift is given, and let them feel what it is like if it’s not.
Another concern with ukemi is safety, often times tense and resistive ukemi against a well applied technique can be dangerous. I’ve seen & felt people get their necks wrenched, joints sprained and various other unpleasant things in training because they decided to be tense, and either assumed their partner would not be able to make a technique work or else was unwilling to hurt them. Which is not to say we should inflict pain on tense training partners deliberately, far from it. But it can happen by accident. It should be remember that uke is also training as well as subconsciously conditioning himself, and conditioning to rely on the other person not being willing to hurt us in a fight is a really bad idea. Ukemi is a huge subject by itself, these are just a few of the issues to consider. Last point I want to make here is that many schools over-emphasise this factor with new people. Technique doesn’t work well on the new guy? Tell him he’s attacking wrong. Problem solved. But not the problem of the students not being able to work the technique on someone tense, that’s still there. Instead the problem that was dealt with is the persons ability to perform ukemi, which is also important. Its always a good idea to know what problem we’re solving.
OK, factor 2: technical ability. Put simply, getting better at the technique, and more importantly the principles behind the technique. And to clarify, I consider ability to adapt a part of it. Using ikkyo omote as an example (in non-Aikido speak, it’s usually an arm leverage take-down), I can adapt the direction once I have contact and feel resistance. With tension from the partner it s easier for me to find where I am tense myself or where my structure and motion are not quite what they should be. I can change the direction if I feel resistance where I was going. For ikkyo a common adaptation would be to step out along the arm if uke structures against me going forwards and down. This also lets me work on not reflexively tensing up if I feel resistance. If we only ever work with nice soft ukes, tension and resistance can come as a bit of a shock, and the natural instinct to meet strength with strength can sometimes kick in. Getting used to staying relaxed is therefore quite beneficial. I consider the technical ability factor very important. Just as some Aikido schools over-focus on correcting the new students ukemi, some schools (not so much in Aikido, more in other styles) over-focus on switching the technique if something doesn’t work. While that is important and has its place – see factors 3 &4 – if that is the immediate solution we never become very good at the actual techniques (and principles). This factor works to solve the problem of our own ability to apply the technique..
Factor 3 is the variations and switches to different techniques that are in whatever system we study. In Aikido, most locks have a few versions that follow from a partial Ikkyo. In many styles that is actually the first version of the locks taught. Some arts have codified henka waza for when uke resists in specific ways. Others have elaborate flow drills going from technique to technique. All good, adaptability is important. There is a spectrum between different styles regarding how specific the responses are. I’m generally more of a fan of a principles based approach and good improvisation, but there are some good specific transitions. Often the best ones come either from very old styles passed down with reasonable accuracy, which still have the feeling that someone actually used this to solve a problem. Or from stuff that has been recently applied in the specific situation practised; this is less common in the martial arts and more with stuff taught by/to violence professionals (cops, security etc.). In class we practised this factor by transitioning to nikkyo, paying particular attention to how this allows me to overcome the resistance and how to keep control of uke. The problem solved here is how to work around if the original technique becomes unworkable. And using the alternatives recorded in our art gives us a better understanding of how it’s core tactics were originally put together.
Factor 4, re-framing the problem, is very broad. Could go all the way from changing context to introducing non-force options etc.. For the purposes of this post I’ll stick to the physical problem. So in class I demonstrate ikkyo. Uke resists at the point he does, in this case the arm is up, uke stiffens his shoulder and turns away from me, resisting the take-down. I can still make it work without too much trouble, but that does not show what I want to show. From this position I ask the students if this is a problem. Yes it is. Then I ask where I am standing. Behind uke controlling one of his arms. I ask again if this is a problem. Expressions of comprehension follow. I am behind the threat, his ribs are stretched and exposed, one arm is on the elbow leverage point the other one available for use. So from here we work on free-form, slow motion follow ups. We let everybody improvise a bit, as long as the movement is good. Strikes, pushes, leaving, all good. With the focus not on the problem of “Ikkyo doesn’t work” but on “I need to deal with the threat”, suddenly it’s not such a big issue from that position. A nice side effect of this sort of training is that after this drill some people’s ukemi automatically improves as they realise resisting by, for example, turning their back or letting go of an arm are not necessarily the best of ideas. This one addresses the problem of only seeing prescribed solutions.
Of course as mentioned above this does nothing for the problem of “ikkyo doesn’t work”, so we also need the other stuff. The danger with reframing and alternative options is that it makes it really easy to “handwave” away issues. E.g. “oh, I don’T need to do it that well, if he resists I’ll just hit him”. And the alternative options need to be trained, this is crucial. If we assume that in certain situations where the threat reacts differently we hit him, then we better pactice some hitting! We need good (and varried) ukemi, solid core techniques, to understand the tactical alternatives our art gives us, and then to see the other options available to us. Balance is the key here.