The Ai-kitchen

An Aikido blog. There could also be food. Maybe.

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Problem solving

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.

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CRGI Instructor Development Course

One of the advantages of practising martial arts is that when, like yesterday, I wake up in the morning and my ribs hurt, I know why. And I’m happy about it.

This has been a really busy week, good weekend though. When I started writing this yesterday, I was sitting in a cafe, looking at the palm trees across the road through rain pouring down outside while the sun is shining. Now I’m back in the same cafe, this place is sort of my second office, anything productive I can do from here and almost all of my studying is done here.

I have some things I’d like to write about, but first as promised my review of the CRGI Self Defence Instructor Development course.

Some background first. CRGI stands for Conflict Research Group International, which is a group of people with a variety of experience with different aspects of violence who came together and set up some online resources for solid information.

This course was the first of its kind, taught by Rory Miller & Garry Smith. The subject was an overview on how to do self defence instruction and do it well. Even for people not teaching self defence but pure martial arts, a lot of the material would have been quite applicable. The course ran for two days, mostly in a classroom style set-up.

The group of attendees was small, mostly experienced instructors, in some cases 30+ of training. I was attending with my fiancée, and we were amongst the least experienced folks there. Decent mix of backgrounds, mostly form the RBSD side or Jiu-jitsu. Unsurprisingly, we were the only Aikido practitioners present.

The admin was nicely done and signing up was uncomplicated. Gary was nice enough to recommend a close hotel, and it was easily possible to get to the location on foot. All very conveniently arranged.

The first day started with an introduction of framework of what self defence and the related training are and are not. Already some very useful information and ways of looking at it here. Coming from a traditional martial arts background there was some discussion of the differences in context and training mindset.

Some discussion of experience thresholds and how people with different amounts of experience see the subject, and how they tend to act as teachers or students. This part definitely made sense in light of people I’ve come across in the past, and provided good context for some viewpoints I had had trouble wrapping my mind around. The last part of the intro was going over some of the mysteries, things that there is currently no solid explanation for. Interesting, and valuable for understanding how isolated incidents and stories may not always be good sources of information.

Part of the rest of the day was spent on background,which was for us a bit of recap. We’ve trained with Rory a couple of times before, so this gave us a chance to retake notes and focus on getting new insights from the material. First was context, the seven things that if we claim to teach self defence, we need to cover. See the book “Facing Violence” for a good overview of them. This is generally a list for instructors, but it seemed to me even more teaching focused this time, and going through the material again was quite useful. I’m bit fuzzy on the order, but I think next was Garry talking about UK self defence law, in the most practically applicable and useful way I’ve come across. Very good overview of the material and what you have to know, illustrated with some stories from Garry’s rather interesting past.

Other things covered here were violence dynamics in some detail, the social/asocial violence divide etc.; then a very quick version of the Logic of Violence seminar set-up; then introduction to principles based teaching, how to break down principles and building blocks. This part is pure gold, and involved some physical stuff to demonstrate the concept, using joint locks as an example. We also got homework, breaking down our own systems in this way. Really interesting especially to hear everybody else’s list. Finally details and impacts of different teaching methods.

Next day – I think -was how to evaluate techniques, especially how to recognise bad ones, identify training & safety flaws and to some degree work around them. How to do an after action debrief so it supports long term improvement. We did an exercise for honest self evaluation as instructors, which was very valuable for highlighting what we do well and where we need to do some work. With that came homework for a definite one year improvement plan (which I’m still working on) Some group discussion on problems that could come up in class and types of problematic students and ways to deal with them in the most productive way.

Discussion on having our paperwork in order and what type of documents we should have. Some stuff here I hadn’t thought of. Reading students, which is huge and really highlighted the difference between looking for martial arts and looking as a self defence instructor. Some of the stuff on recognising people with previous trauma was eye opening if somewhat creepy.

Did designing lesson plans as an exercise and tried to design one for a seminar which was new for me.

The last part before Q&A was on teaching professionals. This was not really relevant for me at this point, but it was very interesting.

Overall the seminar was great, lots of the topics covered are very important, and I think everybody who in any way, implicitly or explicitly claims to teach self defence would benefit greatly from this course. More importantly, their students would benefit. The delivery and organisation of the material was good and the group discussions valuable. The instructors are very approachable and answer questions readily. What could be improved would be the amount of time, this course needs to be longer. There are more topics in this subject, and some of the things, especially on day two, ended up being a little bit rushed. Rory has an after class ritual where you give your one takeaway for that day. Sometimes when I think back to the seminars, my long term takeaway ends up different than I thought. Not this time, my takeaway was that I need to look really hard at the stuff we’re doing in class and continue to make it better. And that’s still it, and for that alone, and providing the tools to do it, the course was absolutely worth it.

Some related links:

Garry’s site & the course ad:


Rory’s blog: