Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What Is A Good Uke, and Why Is One Important?

I’ve run across some discussions within gendai budo arts with people talking about the varying qualities of the uke they encounter as they train in different dojo.   The quality of ukes and the training people do with them is thoroughly inconsistent.  All of this brought two questions to the fore for me.  First, what is a good uke?  Second, just how important for training iis it to have a good uke to work with?

When we train in most martial arts, we have to have a partner to train with.  It is difficult to practice solo, whether you are training in an unarmed or armed art.   In arts like judo and aikido, many people seem to view uke’s role as simply being able to take the fall when we throw them.  While I agree that uke must be able to handle being thrown, I believe this is the smallest portion of an uke’s skills.  I was witness to a recent discussion of people from one art complaining about the quality of attacks their uke were performing.  The poor attacks were making good practice difficult.

When we go to the dojo to train, we need partners to train with.  Our training partner, our uke, actually determines just about everything that happens in each training encounter.  Our uke sets the spacing and speed of the encounter, as well as the determining how much energy will go into it.  This is true for judo, aikido practice, kenjutsu kata, jo kata, kendo training or any other practice with a partner.

To be a good uke is not just to be able take the fall for however hard your partner thows, or to be able to absorb the attack with the sword, jo, or naginata.  To me, being able to survive the technique is the basic prerequisite for learning how to be a good uke.

A good uke
  • understands the appropriate distances for various attacks
  • knows how to make the different attacks effectively
  • can adjust the speed and power of their attacks so tori can practice whatever element of the technique or kata they need to focus on
  • understands spacing and timing intimately so they can teach us when we are too early or too close, too late or too far.
  • can handle what tori is doing without trouble.  
  • can present new problems for tori to learn from

Being a good uke takes a lot of skill.  In places where only people who are skilled at the role act as uke the training  environment is far more intense, exciting, and most importantly, effective .   The skill of the uke means that there is never any question of them not understanding their role in the technique or kata being practiced.  They provide the optimal learning and training experience for their partner.  

Getting to the point where you can be a good uke takes time, something a lot of modern dojo don’t seem to want to give students.  The first step in becoming a good uke is learning the fundamentals on the tori side.  You really have to know the techniques and the kata from that side before you can do an adequate job as uke for someone.    Learning the tori side is where you lay a foundation of good technique, timing, maai and reading your partner.

A good uke understands the technique you are doing and can offer the right feedback to help you improve.  This feedback won’t always be verbal.  A lot of it is just not letting you get away with sloppiness in posture and positioning and energy application (some people say “force” but that is a crude an inaccurate description of what we are doing).   This level of understanding is critical.

Once someone has a solid understanding of the technical side they can start learning the uke role.  I have vivid memories of the first few times Matsuda Sensei called on me to act as uke for someone he was teaching.  I was really honored, but it didn’t take long to realize that I was there to be taught every bit as much as I was to help the other guy.  Sensei offered as many corrections and advice to me about how to make the learning experience better for my partner as he did to my partner.  

That was my first lesson in being an uke. It was not my last.  I’m still getting lessons.  And everything I learn about being uke also informs my understanding of being tori.  It all cycles around.  On the foundation of techniques you learned as tori, you then build an understanding of the various attacks and how they need to be done for each of the techniques or kata your partner is learning.  Not every attack is so hard and deep it blows through tori if they miss, nor are they all so light that there are no consequences for tori if the fail the technique.  A good uke controls that intensity and can pull the attack if they see tori isn’t going to be able to handle it.  Uke can dial the intensity up and down as needed.  

One of the things that a good uke can do is push you outside of your comfort zone.  Whether you are doing kata training or randori, a good uke can push you by making you practice what you are weakest at, and by moving things a little faster than you are accustomed to, by changing up the timing and spacing.  All of these are critical lessons.

It is very easy to get comfortable and not venture out of safe, known territory.  If you are always in a neighborhood you know well, you aren’t likely to learn anything or to improve.  You have to go out where you aren’t comfortable and where you aren’t sure your technique will work. In fact, you need to go out where your technique will fail so you can learn what is necessary there, and grow enough so that your technique will work.  Taking you to where your technique can fail safely and you can make your next steps forward is the responsibility of a good uke.

Uke controls what we learn.  Uke has to be able to take us outside our comfort zone to work on aspects of technique that need practice, whether it is timing, spacing, speed, power or a combination of all of them.

So just how important is a good uke to learning budo?  As important as having a good teacher.  The teacher leads and points the way, and your uke provides the grinding stone you shape your early technique upon, and the fine grit polishing powder that you polish it with when you understand the general shape of the art.

You can see then why I cringe when I see beginners working together so much of the time in many judo and aikido dojo.  A beginner training with other beginners will have a difficult time trying to learn anything useful.  The attacks they receive won’t help them learn distancing or timing.  They may even learn the wrong lessons.  If they learn to react to attacks that would never reach them they are learning bad distancing and timing.  The same if they think someone has to stand very close to initiate an attack.  Attacks that are too weak don’t give tori experience with appropriate energy levels, while attacks the are too energetic too early can easily injury tori, or cause them to react with energy they can’t control yet, which can injury uke.

When a beginner acts as uke for a beginner, tori can’t practice good technique.  Tori needs attacks geared to their level, and feedback from how she deals with those attacks.  That feedback is critical to making good growth and progress in the art.  If the beginner uke’s attacks aren’t teaching a good understanding of timing and spacing, the feedback they give to tori’s techniques is worse than useless.  They don’t know what a good technique is yet, so they can’t guide tori’s technique in the right direction. They are more likely to guide their fellow beginner in the wrong direction without realizing it.  These are, lessons that may take years to undo.

Good uke provide the framework within which a good teacher can work.  The teacher can’t practice with everyone all the time.  Senior students who are good uke do that.  The good uke gives their partner the chance to assimilate what the teacher shows and explains.  They provide the correct feedback immediately, and there are never 2 students staring at each other because neither one knows what they are doing. The good uke provides a great training experience, even if the teacher isn’t around.  They can train well and help tori raise her level every time they work together.

I would also say that good uke speed the learning curve immensely.  I believe a student who has ample time training with good uke will develop several times faster than one who does a lot of training with other beginners.  I’m not saying never train with other beginners.  In many dojo, especially outside Japan, there just aren’t enough seniors to go around.  But I will say that you should try to train with skilled uke as much as possible.   One of my favorite dojo in Japan doesn’t allow juniors to act as uke until they are at least 4th dan.  I was shocked by this the first few times I trained there.  Practice starts with everyone doing solo kihon, and then the seniors line up and all the juniors do paired kihon with the seniors.  Then the juniors are paired with seniors and they practice for 45 minutes together.  The final 45 minutes the juniors watch the seniors practice.  This works even more effectively than it sounds, because the juniors get the opportunity to carefully watch the kata being done at a high level of skill, so they can see how the corrections and lessons they have just received are applied.  From this watching and thinking they can get a deeper understanding of the kata for their next practice.

As dojo develop sufficient depth, I think they should switch to the older practice of junior students training with senior students.  That is the way it works in the mature dojo I have seen in Japan, both koryu and gendai. This is not just because it’s traditional.  It’s traditional because it works best.  


Ronin scholar said...

So very well thought out. I am surprised to be the only person leaving a comment. This is so true, and so counterintuitive to a lot of US dojo practices. While it is true that many dojo (mine included) sadly lack the depth to have seniors to any extent working with juniors, in my experience here, there is only one place where I have trained that makes a conscious attempt to recreate senior/junior pairing common in traditional dojo in Japan. I think it is because that particular teacher was himself taught that way.

Besides the lack of depth you mentioned, it seems the other reason juniors are often left to their own devices is because the more senior students want to practice "advanced techniques" with the teacher and don't have the sense of responsibility to new students. That is actually the teacher's fault. As you [point out, being a good uke IS senior training, even though not everyone looks at it that way.

Unknown said...

A great, thought provoking read. I believe one of the biggest issues in modern dojos these days is ego. "I'm a 'senior grade', I won't train with a beginner!". I have always made a point to train with as many different grades, sizes and skill levels as possible in order to improve my learning. When attending a seminar, I will purposely seek out a member from a different club whom I have never trained with, especially if they are from a different discipline. I have learnt so much and the bonus... I have trained with so many fantastic people.