Missing the Forest for the Trees

Several weeks ago, I had a visit from an entire Japanese family: two kids, two parents and two grandparents.  Grandpa had done Judo at the university level in Japan, and mom had a very good knowledge of the turmoils the Japanese Judo team was going though.

We managed to get the kids on the mat for their free trial lesson, during which they learned gymnastics skills, pins, throws, escapes and a few other things.  Half way through the lesson, while the kids were working out with my assistant instructor, I approached the family to see if there were any questions I could answer.  Grandpa jumped in right away and wanted to know when the kids were going to do ukemi.  As soon as he mentioned ukemi, I said to myself, “Here we go again.”  This is what happens when people are told that you must practice ukemi, the “mat bashing” type, before you can do Judo.  This is the sole model of Judo instruction they know, and if it’s not present in the way they envision it, they will have a dim view of the class.

Grandpa had watched the entire practice, but didn’t realize that the kids had actually learned ukemi.  He had failed to see that my ukemi practice came in a package with a different wrapping. Since he saw no solo “mat bashing,” his erroneous conclusion was that ukemi had not been practiced.  Grandpa couldn’t connect the dots, and failed to see beyond his myopic understanding of ukemi practice.  He missed the forest for the trees.

At Judo America San Diego, ukemi is practiced from day one in conjunction with throws where uke is either sitting down, squatting or on his knees.  These low starting positions make this type of training safe and functional.  Anton Geesink, 10th dan and 1964 Olympic gold medalist, held similar views regarding ukemi practice.  In his book Judo: Based on Social Aspects and Biomechanical Principles (2000) he states:

I have often observed that ukemi-waza is being taught as an independent technique…I personally don’t pay much attention to the falling techniques. By this I mean to say that ukemi-waza is not an important part of judo. It is, but the training of ukemi-waza needs to be functional. For me it is impossible to train ukemi-waza in a solo way. If I am in charge, the falling is only trained as a logical conclusion off a throw.

Even when the more functional approach is explained, it’s still very hard to accept a different methodology when it clashes with the expected, traditional model.  I bring grandpa up because throughout my coaching clinics I run up against the same inability to see beyond the “accepted” models of instruction.  Too many of us are missing the forest for the trees.

2 thoughts on “Missing the Forest for the Trees

  1. Ah, once again the “ukemi” vs. “mat-bashing” debate rears its head. Gerald, I am fascinated by your various mentions of ukemi as something other than mat-bashing, and would love to learn more. I understand that “ukemi” means, basically, “receiving”, and that there are thus various ways to be on the receiving end of a throw that might not involve mat-bashing. But what those ways might be, I’d love to see!

    Wish I could attend a class or clinic at your dojo, but I live in Tokyo and won’t likely be in California anytime soon. Are there any resources, paid or otherwise, in which you discuss or show ukemi in greater detail and to which you could point me? Would be very interested and grateful. Thanks.


  2. Whoops –after posting my above comment, I just found your fine article on ukemi elsewhere on this site. Very helpful — but it also piques the interest even more for some visuals. Have you put any of this on DVD or posted on the web, to be downloaded for a charge, perhaps?

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