Ukemi for Beginners, Part II
I frequently see students practicing rolling very sloppily. They come up to the mat, lean forward and fall through, allowing their legs to stick up in the air and usually slamming their rear ankle on the ground on the way out. They don’t care because it’s on a mat, and when they have to take a fall in training, they do awkward things to get out of doing a roll or breakfall when that would be best option.
In real life, you’re not going to have the same freedoms you have practicing rolls on a nice runway of mat, and will be unable to pull off your best dojo roll if you take an unexpected fall or someone is really trying to hurt you. So if you start out sloppy and reckless, the degraded roll in real life might get you injured or killed.
Refine the basic movement to a point of extreme control. You should be able to stand up and move in any direction from any basic roll, into a kamae, or a full sprint. You should be able to flow straight into another roll in any direction, or exit the roll into a prone position and assess the situation from the ground (as you might if you took a roll to reach cover from gunfire or an explosion, and needed to stay down to see what was going on, for example).
You should always experiment, try different awkward angles, new types of dive rolls, picking up or holding weapons, etc. But if your basic roll is poor, you are just cheating yourself by always doing a dive roll or always doing a sloppy falling roll from a standing position, which is what I see a lot of poor rollers doing consistently.
I think the main reason some students feel weak on ukemi is that they don’t practice it regularly enough. For five years I trained in the dojo only once a week, but after doing rolls for literally thirty or forty-five minutes every single class, and frequently outside the dojo on my own, I felt fairly confident.
Another problem I’ve found (which I’ve only just started to correct in my own training in the last two years or so) is that people don’t take ukemi in the way that makes the most sense for the fight. They don’t think about whether or not rolling is the best thing to do. If they see a chance to roll, or just feel like rolling, they take it. Some students always try for the most graceful (or cool) escape, rather than the most practical one.
Hatsumi Sensei has talked about this many times. Sometimes the opponent might let you roll, so that he can kill you easier. This might sound unlikely, or too sneaky for someone to actually do, but it’s not that hard. You just throw the guy, hold onto him while letting him roll out, then step on his throat or kick him in the head as he lies helpless on the ground. Easy. Any random thug could do that without a thought, or a single bit of martial arts training, if the victim took the bait.
A lot of students don’t keep tabs on the opponent when taking ukemi because they aren’t thinking like this. Sometimes they don’t even keep tabs on other, uninvolved people in training, and end up rolling into other students or being landed on, because they just weren’t paying attention. Many students allow limbs to get trapped unnecessarily, or land on their own free hand and can’t get it out, even to tap. They give up the fight as soon as they get hit or start to fall, instead of looking for openings to attack or escape. (Whether or not you take those openings, you should be aware of where they are.)
Imagine someone who takes ukemi as a continuation of the fight. When he gets taken down, he does it in a way that keeps as many weapons aimed at the opponent as possible, protecting himself, and if he can, setting up a counter. He doesn’t always roll just because you let him. You cannot take a nap after you throw him, because he will reverse the situation and kill you. He is like a wild cat that always lands on its feet and is dangerous until incapacitated; he won’t stay down and he won’t stop.
When I take down most people in training, I feel that they are already dead before they hit the ground, not because I’m so great, but because they give up. I’m not saying you should always try to resist or counter the technique, but the attitude is important, the will to survive and win, even when you’re losing. Giving up is a bad habit that should never be allowed to take hold.
The uke should be training, at least mentally, as if it’s a real fight: looking for the openings and trying to gain the best position, even while allowing the tori to complete the technique. Think: you just threw a punch at someone, for a good reason, and now you are losing. Do you just give up? Do you fail to take even basic precautions to protect your head and vital targets from further blows as you go down? Do you maintain any type of guard or protective position when already on the ground?
Do you rely on the opponent to be your friend from the dojo who will give you a hand up? Or do you train as if this is someone who attacked you, maybe someone you just tried to knock out preemptively, because he pointed a gun at you, or your wife, looking like he planned to use it, and now you are on the ground and he is trying to kill you?
It’s important, because the way you train is the way you will behave in real life. Whatever you do in the dojo, you will do in real life, only not as good, because you will have a lot of adrenaline, an inability to observe things accurately, make decisions logically, or exercise fine motor control. The opponent will not be your friend, and he will not give you a second chance. So, why not train to win?
Missed Part I? Read it now!
(Originally published in Muzosa Journal 3/3/06. Author retains all copyrights.)
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