During my first few years practicing Aikido, I was considered a difficult uke. When being uke for gedan-ate I would step back if the initial kuzushi wasn’t to my standards. When being uke for tenkai-kote-hineri, I would wait until the wrist lock was correct (and often painful) before falling. When being uke for mae-otoshi, I would wait until the tori made me roll (a mistake I did not make for very long).
The list goes on for many other techniques extending past the kata. Other than some of these decisions potentially leading to injury, which I did rectify, I didn’t see anything wrong with my actions. I saw myself as a ‘challenging’ uke, which the tori needed a ‘high level’ of skill to knock down.
In short, I saw the relationship between tori and uke to be competitive. If the Tori didn’t perform a technique well, I would not fall which would mean that they had ‘lost’. If I fell without providing the proper resistance and judgment of the Tore’s technique than I had ‘lost’.
Under this simplified definition, I was a great uke!
Sometimes I would dodge out of techniques done by upper belts, a few times even from black belts. I would even give advice and my thoughts as to what they did wrong as I dodged out of the techniques, or stubbornly tensed up to avoid falling when they didn’t ‘deserve’ it. It took an embarrassingly long time for me to break free from the mindset of winning and losing, but when I did I found understanding and working towards being a good uke made practicing aikido not only less painful but also a more fulfilling experience as a whole. In this essay, I will discuss my own experience as well as experiences I have had with different types of uke in a university club setting, analyze the mindset and technical flaws of uke and how we can work to fix these issues for more inexperienced Aikido practitioners. Since I’ve been practicing aikido for only four years, I wouldn’t consider myself ‘experienced’ in most facets of aikido; however, the one thing I can say I’m experienced in is working with lower belts, white to yellow belts especially.
The university club setting I have practiced in is notorious for gathering the short-term interest of students, who often only stay for a semester, if that. As such, I would say that I am in a fairly qualified position to discuss the techniques and mindset of lower belts. Looking back on my experiences, I can divide lower belt uke into two broad categories: the ‘soft’ uke and the ‘hard’ uke.
Imagine setting up a shomen-ate from standing still. You gently place your hand against your uke, and their arm collapses a few inches closer to them. When you do the technique, they drop their arm limply and fall quickly, sometimes even before you finish taking your step into them. This is a common experience with the first type of uke I will discuss, the ‘soft’ Uke.
At their worst, the ‘soft’ uke is defined by their absolute lack of any resistance. I have practiced with many who fall at the slightest amount of force before I’m even remotely close to finishing the technique. It is pretty easy to figure out why falling before the technique is complete is a negative trait for an uke, so I will focus on the majority of ‘soft’ uke, who are defined more by their mindset than being literally ‘soft’.
Most ‘soft’ uke give some resistance but go along with the tori too easily for the majority of the technique, often ending up in unnatural positions (i.e. leaning forward too much for the kuzushi in aigamae-ate) that interfere with the tori performing the technique. Even if they do react properly (i.e. lowering their arm after kuzushi in ude-gaeshi), they often do so without any weight behind their action and thus don’t provide enough energy for the Tori to work with. The underlying cause behind a lot of these negative traits, technique-wise, could be seen in their mindset.
The soft uke doesn’t understand the importance the uke holds in providing a realistic response to the Tore’s technique and providing advice in why the technique did or did not work. Especially in lower belts, the soft uke sees their role as just needing to fall, basically being the aikido equivalent to a punching bag. This mindset is expected for people just starting with aikido, as our concept of an uke is not universal, but I have seen these traits last far longer than they should in lower belts that stick around.
By continuing to express these traits, not only is the uke not furthering their own understanding of the technique through discussion with the tori, but the tori is also not receiving physical or cognitive feedback and will not improve the technique as a result.
Thankfully, this type of uke is relatively simple to work towards improving, as their negative traits arise more from lack of knowledge or awareness than purposeful action.
The obvious method to fix the mindset is to discuss it with the lower belts early on, however, the problem with this is the inexperience of the lower belts causes them to either misinterpret or not understand the message. I believe that the best way to work on good uke technique is to use exercises so the uke could physically feel for themselves what they need to fix and why they need to fix it.
One exercise I have used that works to improve the technical mistakes of the soft uke is to ask them to provide varying levels of resistance. A lot of the time, the uke is not aware that their responses are unnatural and having them provide more resistance than they are used to forces them to consider their actions more and often makes them keep their posture ‘natural’ with respect to the technique they are responding to.
While this will not fix the mindset of the uke, this may steer them in the right direction of putting more thought into being an uke. Beyond this, using exercises where the Tori repeatedly only takes kuzushi from the uke could also be useful for the uke (i.e. repeating the balance break of the first step of Aigamae-ate). By breaking techniques into parts, the tori and uke can discuss or practice slight variations on the kuzushi-breaking action and notice/critique the different responses of the uke. Of course, the most important factors for fixing bad uke technique/mindset is practice and experience, but by focusing on exercises early on that critique uke behavior/technique, we may be able to prevent the soft uke (and people who start off working with soft uke) from losing interest due to their lack of improvement, as I have seen happen a number of times.
Imagine you are a yellow belt practicing Shiho-nage with an uke of your skill level. You’re getting frustrated because every time you try to throw your uke, your uke purposely turns with you and doesn’t fall. When you ask them to stop turning, they say that you aren’t preventing them from turning so you’re at fault. In this situation, the tori would eventually learn how to prevent the uke from turning, but the process takes longer due to the uke not accurately reflecting the tori’s actions and the rising frustration that comes with continuously failing to throw the uke. This is a common experience with a ‘hard’ Uke and, as you may have guessed, describes the kind of uke I was in my first few years of practicing.
At their worst, hard uke are stiff and give full resistance to kata techniques, however, not all hard uke resist through excessive force. Hard uke utilize any means at their disposal (i.e. flexibility, height/weight advantage, moving with tori, etc.) to resist techniques that they don’t want to fall for. While upper level belts know how to deal with this resistance and may benefit from practicing under less ideal situations, less experienced practitioners don’t know how to respond and their ability to learn techniques while practicing with these uke decreases significantly. The actions of hard uke are dictated by their ‘winning’ versus ‘losing’ mindset, which is harmful for learning kata and techniques in general and turns away inexperienced practitioners who fail to grasp why it’s harmful.
Working on fixing the mistakes of hard uke is more challenging than with soft uke because, unlike soft uke, the hard uke’s flaws often arise from a conscious decision. Even after being made aware of their uke style, the hard uke is likely not as amenable to change as soft uke are.
As a former hard uke myself, there were two defining events that changed the way I think of being an uke. The first was when I went to my first seminar. Working with unfamiliar black belts who didn’t pull their figurative punches as much as I was used to, I was told to take the fall after I tried to resist a kote-gaeshi that I didn’t ‘approve’ of (the pain in my wrist immediately after the fact was very convincing). It was a moment that stuck with me because (A) it was embarrassing and (B) it made me stop and think about why it was embarrassing. While it is uke’s job to give critique and comments about tori’s technique, trying to stop the technique midway is arrogant, unnecessary and potentially dangerous. All of these things are especially true when an inexperienced yellow belt tries to stop a black belt mid-technique.
The second event that influenced my mindset was training to be uke for the 2017 international tournament in Great Britain. At first, I was disappointed by my, presumed, subservient position in the tournament; however, in the months we trained for the tournament, I quickly saw the true challenge and responsibility of the Uke in the Tore/Uke relationship. The uke has the primary responsibility for refining the tori’s technique, especially when trying to refine techniques for tournament level competition.
I learned how to work with the tori even when the kuzushi was off and, instead of immediately jumping in to say that it was off, I had to think how and why it was off and how to improve it. I learned to refine my reactions and movements so they’re predictable and emphasize the tori’s technique, I learned to notice the tori’s small mistakes and respond in a way where the Tori could recover and continue the technique. In noticing and acting on all the intricacies of the kata, I gained a better appreciation and understanding of the techniques even if I wasn’t the one performing them. In this way, being an uke is far more complex and meaningful than I had ever considered early in my aikido career.
As an uke, the only time you ‘lose’ is when you cannot properly convey to your tori why a technique succeeds or fails (or if you injure yourself). While I wish I could go back and tell my past self this, I know that the message would go largely un-received; the way I learned to be a good (or at the very least adequate) Uke was through time, experience and practice. You can’t create a ‘good’ uke from exercises and discussion alone, but you can prevent bad uke.
One of the first things I look for in new students at my dojo is their uke technique and mindset. Often times, you could tell the ones who leave within a semester and the ones who stay by whether their uke technique falls in the two categories I have described, and how open they are to improving. I believe that one of the big reasons why people lose interest is due to poor uke technique and understanding in lower belts. When working with either of the uke categories I have described, lower belts tend to become either frustrated, bored or a combination of the two. Engaging in exercises and discussion that focus on the mindset of being an uke would have a beneficial effect on maintaining membership in lower belts as well as enriching the experience of higher level belts who may be engaging in negative uke behaviors without realizing it.