Where’s the Tai Sabaki?

I’ve known this for many years, but it really hit me hard during the Winter Nationals Coach Education Course as I watched coaches running through Kelly’s Capers: we lack a basic understanding of tai sabaki (body movement) and the ability to perform it fluidly. When I say we, I mean coaches. Since coaches are supposed to be role models for their students, this presents a problem that needs to be addressed. If coaches can’t do proper tai sabaki or have no knowledge of it, how are their students supposed to learn these skills?

I know what some of you are thinking. Coaches can’t do this tai sabaki stuff because they are old, injured, and/or haven’t trained in years. These are just excuses! It is true that a few coaches no longer have working knees or hips, which makes movement difficult. And it is equally true that many coaches are older and haven’t trained in years. So what?  I can easily differentiate between not being able to perform something because of injuries and age, and not being able to perform because you never learned the skill when you were actively training.

The truth is that most coaches never learned tai sabaki in the first place. It’s not hard to understand why. The typical Judo curriculum and rank requirements don’t emphasize the type of movement that Kelly’s Capers and higher Judo demand: jump arounds, and twists and cuts, the core of tai sabaki. Watch Mifune perform Judo, and you’ll know what I mean. These skills are not incorporated in warm-ups, standard uchi komi, or kata. Some players stumble upon them in randori, but, by and large, one is hard pressed to find them in the prevalent static and linear Judo that is performed day in and day out in an average Judo club. If jump arounds and twist and cuts had not been given their names and required by the U.S. Judo Association, I too may have never known about these skills.

While tai sabaki skills are included in modern drill training, this type of training is still not a common modality in our Judo clubs. With drill training, movement and agility are first developed during warm-ups. From there, they evolve into defensive/offensive tai sabaki skills when incorporated with throws, defenses against throws, and counters to throws.

Jumping around an attack at Mifune Judan Judo Club.

If you haven’t yet embraced the concept of modern drill training, but you want to improve your curriculum, Kelly’s Capers does a great job at linking throws and tai sabaki to create sequences of throws, combinations, and counters.

As for coaches, I have a plea for you. Get in shape! We have too many overweight, out-of-shape coaches, which is not good for Judo’s reputation. Don’t use age and injuries as excuses for not developing a modicum of physical vigor and athletic ability. Embrace movement for yourself and your students. Develop the athlete as well as the judoplayer. We may not all look as good as Mifune did when he was in his seventies, but we do need to present a better image of ourselves than we currently do. Start early in your career because the older you get, the harder it becomes to change habits and to make up for lost time. Adopt a healthier lifestyle, and become a better role model for your students.

11 thoughts on “Where’s the Tai Sabaki?

  1. Gerald,

    I think this is a very good post. Unfortunately I also have to say that I’m getting fairly miffed about hearing about how good Kelly’s Capers are (for at least two years now) and seeing nothing but writing saying how good it is!

    I’ve talked with Joan and can’t get anything but “go to a clinic” or “host a clinic.” Neither of these are options for me!

    Sorry to rant. I really think you’re right on the money with this one, especially coaches getting fit!

  2. I think the way Kelly’s Capers is being distributed (via clinics) is not the most efficient way. I have suggested to the coaching committee that creating a DVD of the system is by far a better way to get this program out to those who need it. Conduct clinics also, but for heaven’s sake, get the product out to the most people in the quickest way.

  3. I don’t know how difficult it would be to upload video to the USJA Coach site…but that might be a good way to distribute it to USJA coaches…

  4. So that’s what sensei had us doing. We would move across the mat, jumping over attempted throws. Also cartwheeling out of throws as well. Definitaly not static and linear. Thanks.

  5. While a good instructor can probably gain a lot of knowledge from watching a video of it, I’m always in favor of a clinic as the first answer.

  6. I have been reading a lot about Kelly’s Capers and I found something quite interesting. What I have read is nothing new at all. If you read “Judo For the West” by G.R. Gleeson, 1967, A.S. Barnes & Co. Inc., Chapter 3 “Elementary Judo”, Mr. Gleeson describes a process of training new students to Judo that sounds an awful lot like what you are doing with Kelly’s Capers. And, this was back in 1967! I applaud the fact that you are looking for an alternative way to train people, but to claim that this is somehow new is unfortunate to those that have known about this method long before it carried anyone’s name. Kinda like BJJ people thinking that the Gracie’s invented the triangle (sangaku jime) choke.

  7. Syd Kelly trained with Gleeson, so there is no surprise there. While Kelly borrows concepts from Gleeson, the contents (skills, sequencing, tai sabaki, transitions, etc.) are Kelly’s. So, Kelly’s Capers is a new program.

  8. I know Sid Kelly through our mutual friends in the Uk. Gary Gillot and John O’ Brien but I have never had the pleasure of practicing with him. Geof Gleeson was a personal friend and his coaching methods were inspirational. He would not have expected things to stand still. It seems that Sid has further developed Geof’s original concept and that is splendid. I would like to think that had Geof been alive, he would approve of Shinjido, a product of my experience and imagination. His son Finn Gleeson is a professional coach in UK and he incororates Shinjido principles and skills in his classes. Whilst we should study and respect past methods we should also applaud new initiatives.

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