Getting the most from being the attacker
Updated: Feb 19, 2019
The term uke is derived from the verb “ukeru” to receive and refers to the partner in a practice pair who traditionally provides the attack and thereby receives the technique. There are thus two elements to being a good uke, the attacking element and the receiving element (otherwise known as ukemi).
ELEMENTS OF A GOOD ATTACK
People in aikido often refer to an “honest” attack. What does this mean and how should it be achieved? The simple bits of providing an honest attack are:
making sure the attack is on target. This is most obvious in striking attacks. For example shomen uchi the straight overhead strike to the opponent’s head must be aimed at the centre of the opponent’s head
making sure the attack is “real”. A shomen uchi attack must be completed as though the strike had cut through the opponent’s head. In other words the strike must not finish simply in contact with the surface of the opponent’s head – or worse some distance away from the target
Even though I have described these as the simple elements of providing an attack it is surprising how many people fail on both points, especially with beginners who are unused to striking and may be worried about damaging their training partner. Note that an honest attack does not necessarily have to be fast or strong. The attack should be adapted to the level of the person receiving it and strikes should always be delivered with a relaxed arm which both assists in speed (when required) but also in controllability – so that if a training partner becomes confused or frozen when receiving an attack it can be easily aborted. Relaxation in striking is also an important element in being able to accommodate and respond safely to any technique being applied to the attacker, about which later.
ELEMENTS OF A DISHONEST ATTACK
Resisting a technique by pre-emption. For example if you know that after you make a wrist grab the training partner will attempt an ikkyo movement which requires them to raise their arm, so you exert an immediate downward force to prevent them from raising their arm, this is a dishonest attack because:
you are using prior knowledge of what they are going to do, which would not be the case in a real situation. You are therefore adding a further level of artificiality to an already artificial attack
you are preventing your partner from training, which, after all, is the whole reason you are working together
surprisingly, you are not demonstrating martial awareness – by pushing downward on your partner’s arm you are providing them with an opening for an alternative technique, or an atemi (strike), which an advanced practitioner could take quick advantage of
Anticipating a technique and taking a fall prior to your training partner completing their technique. Your fall should be the result of your partner’s action. At high levels of training when techniques can be applied very quickly by experienced aikidoka it is appropriate to anticipate and start an ukemi early in order to keep yourself safe. However for general practice and especially among junior grades you should yield to a technique rather than anticipate it.
Simply freezing all movement – effectively you are no longer attacking so your partner has nothing to work with and indeed the rationale for defensive action has disappeared
Preventing your partner taking your balance by simply moving your body to accommodate their movement. Similarly you are no longer attacking so the rationale for a defensive technique has disappeared.
Waiting passively for a technique to be applied. An honest attack does not finish with the initial strike, especially if it has been rendered ineffective. A live attacker will try to regain their posture and strike again, thereby providing some energy that tori can use in completing the technique. Aikido depends upon movement and if uke has stopped moving tori has no need to do anything (unless they want to create some movement by a well placed atemi).
KEY ELEMENTS OF RECEIVING TECHNIQUE (UKEMI)
Having dealt with the attack element of being an uke we now move onto the receiving element. Part of this has been covered above in respect of being a “live” attacker and not merely waiting for a technique to be applied. Obviously there is an element of judgment involved here as when training with an inexperienced partner who may need some time to organise their thoughts. Similarly it is sometimes important to test tori’s skill by resisting a technique which is being applied wrongly (for example in the wrong direction or with a lot of strength). Again when to do this is a matter of judgment. Beginners constantly being advised their technique is wrong are likely to become disillusioned and disheartened.
Maintaining martial awareness. Uke should always be ready to expect an atemi and to use both a flinch response and a protective hand if available. Just as tori may fail to deliver an effective atemi, for fear of hitting their partner so it is also easy for uke not to respond to an atemi simply because in the dojo they do not expect their partner to actually hit them. This lack of response means that their equilibrium will not be upset – which will make it more difficult for tori to apply the technique. IF we want to train for real situations, martial awareness is a key practice.
Self protection. I often see, especially with beginners, uke turning their back on tori. This particularly happens when tori is applying a pin, for example via sankyo. Turning one’s back on an opponent is rarely a good idea in martial arts as it leaves you exposed and out of visual contact with your partner. Additionally in pinning techniques it can result in uke taking the fall against the natural direction of a lock which increases the risk of a joint injury and/or an uncontrolled fall. In particular any technique that takes uke to the ground in a forward pinning movement should be managed by uke to produce a safe, forward and controlled descent, for example by dropping to one knee and using the free hand to support oneself as one adopts the prone position. Managing the receipt of technique is known as ukemi and this usually refers to the ability to take falls
Naturally an ability to roll or break-fall both forwards and backwards is a pre-requisite for progress in aikido. It is often said that a good aikidoka can be judged by the quality of their ukemi. This requires constant practice and a high level of awareness both of what tori is applying and of the need to keep oneself safe. Blending is a key element in aikido and any pair practice provides plenty of opportunity to practice this skill, both by tori as they blend with uke’s attack and by uke as they blend with tori’s technique. Blending with the technique being applied while safely taking a fall is perhaps the best sign of a good uke and requires uke to be aware , relaxed and confident in their ability. In cases where a somersaulting top ukemi is required, tori needs to provide the appropriate line of fall for uke and in some cases provide the necessary support for the fall to be taken. Awareness by tori of this essential role in assisting uke to take this type of fall is a pre-requisite for safe practice.
Both judgment and skill is required in adapting uke’s response in an appropriate way to the level of tori in order to give them the ability to practice freely without fear of injuring their training partner. This makes ukemi much more an art than simply a set of techniques.