By: Sensei Ian Sanderson
“An uke, a mannequin, and a limp noodle walk into a bar…”
The self-protection aspect of our martial art is fundamentally about learning realistic responses to realistic problems in order to ensure that we get home safe and sound. However, in order to learn how to overcome these problems, we must first do our best to re-create them every time we train. I believe this is one of the most difficult- yet most necessary- tasks that lie before us every time we step on the mat. The feeling of the dojo is very different than that of, say, a downtown side street late at night. The dojo is where we learn to deal with what might happen on that little side street, but how do we close the gap between these two radically different contexts? Most of us are not the kind of people whose lives are led with the pursuit of violence in mind. Rather, we structure our lives as best we can in order to create for ourselves and loved ones a sense of peace, safety, and security. This of course is something to be desired, but the drawback can be that many students have had little to no exposure to personal physical violence scenarios. Yes, I called this a “drawback”- in the sense that it leaves us with a unique challenge: If many of us have had little to no exposure in our lives to aggressors wishing to do us bodily harm, how do we realistically- yet safely- re-create that role as a training partner? Ironically, the ‘techniques of losing’ can sometimes be more difficult to learn than the techniques of winning. There are many ways to meet this challenge, but as always, we should start with the kihon, or fundamentals.
To this end, I’ve outlined below five ways that will help you safely and authentically step into the role of an aggressor, without actually becoming one:
In other words, strive to deliver realistic attacks in all their forms. This may seem obvious, but since we’re always training with people we don’t actually want to hurt, we can easily fall into what I call a “compassion trap”. Let me explain this. In our maintenance of the idea of being a good person, we feel that it’s not a nice or compassionate thing to actually try and punch any acquaintance, friend or family member in the face. In pretty much any other context, this would be true. But, compassion is too often confused with “niceness”. In the context of the dojo, this is especially important to remember. If we have a vested interest in helping ourselves and our fellow practitioners learn realistic methods of self-protection, we must be committed to delivering realistic attacks. Too much concern over “niceness” (i.e. punching the invisible parrot on your training partner’s shoulder, or punching the air in front of their face) can in fact be detrimental to a student’s growth, as it can build false memories of success. So, in the context of learning realistic responses to realistic problems, the most compassionate thing we can do is…punch them in the face! Remember: Ideally, nothing we do in the dojo is “fake” or “pretend”. It’s all real- just merely slowed way, way down to ensure safety.
In other words, imagine what that knee in the ribs or punch to the face would really do to a human body…and respond accordingly! Training slowly is beneficial in many ways; it can allow us to train realistically yet safely, and it allows us to see all the many subtler aspects of our technique, giving us greater insight as to how to improve. However, it can also lull us into a lack of mindfulness of what we’re actually attempting to safely re-create. We can forget what something would feel like were it happening at full speed. When this happens, we’re losing (at the least), one half of the entire fight dynamic- the tori might be applying proper techniques, but if the uke isn’t responding with what would actually happen to their bodies were it at full speed, the techniques might seem as if they didn’t work.
3. “This is a fight!”
Keep moving. A fight is not a series of static, frozen, ormechanical movements. It is a constantly changing dynamic relationship.
4. “First time, every time.”
Retain the energy of the first attack at the tenth—imagineeach time that you don’t know what’s about to happen, even though you do. Repetition is absolutely necessary in order for our bodies and minds to fully integrate the principles of winning we’re striving to achieve. At the same time, we also know that repetition creates patterns, and those patterns can in turn create(once again) a lack of mindfulness as to what the point of what we were doing was in the first place. In other words, we can go on auto-pilot. After we’ve been practicing a kata or drill for a few minutes, one part of the brain wants to say to another part “Ok, I get it- I’ll go through these motions and you think of the presentation we have to do in the morning.” Or, if you are receiving a technique over and over that hurts a little or otherwise makes you uncomfortable, your body will begin to pre-emptively sculpt itself in order to avoid feeling the technique again.
In this case, the technique has been verified, so slow down, don’t go to a “tap”, and stay in the fight.
5. “There’s only one ninja in the fight…”
…and as the aggressor, it’s not you. Put your tori skills aside as you act as an uke. There can be an irony to improvement along the path: as we improve our body awareness and learn how to integrate our movement (and this improvement doesn’t take long to see), it can be harder to be a good training partner because we can start moving in a way that your average street attacker would likely be incapable of. Remember that in real time an attacker would not likely have the time or the skill to make intelligent changes to adapt well to our techniques. As an uke, remember the concept of “That would really hurt”, and make your ukemi awesome so you can feel confident receiving techniques and going to the ground. One of the very best “go-to” ukemi skills you can have: Practice going down to a back rock-over from a standing position.
Remember, there is no paradox: The more seriously you take your training, the more fun it will be!