There is something that most aikidoka hate to do. It can’t be avoided but most people do try to get out of it. Training with a stiff uke. A large number of people just do not like to do it. Understanding why is not difficult at all either. In contrast to a flowing uke, training with stiff ukes is never really fun. It’s hard to make them move, techniques don’t flow, everything becomes gummed up and clunky. Training with a stiff uke is the worst.
The problem with this view on stiff ukes is that nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, everything about how hard it is to train with a stiff uke is accurate, but training with them is not the worst. It’s an excellent learning opportunity that should be heartily embraced by all aikidoka. When a new student walks onto the mats you should rejoice at the opportunity to train with them.
It’s Not A Bad Thing
The benefits of training with a stiff uke are numerous and they come from a concept known as Deliberate Practice. Anybody can practice, that’s easy, all you have to do is show up and go through the motions. To achieve the heights of greatness though you need a different approach. To reach the highest potential available to you, requires deliberate practice.
Very briefly, deliberate practice is training in an uncomfortable way. It’s focusing intently on the parts that you find difficult. You identify the aspects that are your weak points and systematically work on them. It takes complacency and tosses it out the window. It requires mental focus, determination, and patience.
You may not realise this but training with stiff ukes promotes deliberate practice. When training with an uke that flows, all the little niggles and flaws in your technique just vanish into their movement. Didn’t blend perfectly? No big deal, that’s absorbed by the flow in the uke. Missed the centre line? No problem really, uke has kindly moved onto it for you. Lost your extension? Never mind, you can get that back as the uke moves around you.
Training with a flowing uke is the ultimate expression of, ‘It’ll be alright on the night’. It is the perfect breeding ground for complacency and poor technique. A flowing uke makes you feel like your technique is amazing. It’s a good feeling. There is nothing quite like watching an uke fly gracefully through the air after a beautiful flowing technique. The catch is that it doesn’t help you improve.
Training with a stiff uke has many benefits, most of which are invisible at the time. The first and most obvious of these is alluded to above. Training with stiff ukes will make you better than any amount of training with a flowing uke will. The stiff uke does not let you away with mistakes in your technique, because errors stop them dead. As nage you have to work extremely hard to keep them moving. Although hard is not the right word. A better way to phrase this would be that you have to work extremely well. Every time you train with a stiff uke is an opportunity to lift your technique to the next level. More so than with a flowing uke.
The primary difference between a flowing and a stiff uke is the level of resistance. In general, flowing ukes do not provide any real resistance to your technique whereas stiff ones do. Lack of flow is often seen as a bad thing by aikidoka. Aikido requires movement and part of uke’s role is to simulate that by assuming the role of aggressor. Aggressor’s don’t just stand there and do nothing. There is something else that a real attacker doesn’t do though. They don’t blindly run around the person they’re trying to hit. Nor do they deliberately over-commit to a strike. They do resist, they do struggle, and they do try to hit you more than once.
A genuine attacker is far more difficult to deal with than a flowing one. This is where training with a stiff uke will help you to excel. To make progress with a stiff uke the nage must:
- Overcome an unusually high level of resistance
- Provide the energy to make the technique work
- Deliberately take ukes balance and keep it
- Make a good initial entry
These are just some of the problems provided by a stiff uke that a flowing one doesn’t present. Each and every one of those things are vital to making progress as an aikidoka. Especially once you progress beyond the level of shodan.
You Will Be Stunned At Courses
Training with a stiff uke also has a hidden benefit that people do not realise for a very long time. The struggles of working with ukes that do not flow will drive your ego down and help you remain humble. This is a natural consequence of having techniques that don’t seem to work very well. Every technique that you perform on a stiff uke will make you question your ability to do that technique. The effort required will have you doubting your skill constantly.
If you predominantly train with stiff ukes then when you head to a seminar you will be blown away by just how good you have really become. Seminars tend to have a high number of dedicated dan grades. People that flow really well. The first time you get your hands on them after training with stiff ukes will be an astonishing experience.
Training with a flowing uke after predominantly stiff ones will show you just how much you have learned. You’ll discover that your technique has come on in leaps and bounds. In fact, the biggest difficulty you will have is keeping the smile off your face as you realise how much better you have become.
Flowing Ukes Are Not Bad
None of this means that training with a flowing uke is a bad thing. That’s not the point here. The important aspect is that training with stiff ukes is not the chore that it seems. While there is no denying that it is arduous it is also one of the greatest learning opportunities available in the dojo. It is something to be embraced rather than lamented. A stiff uke will make your technique far better than a flowing uke will.
If your dojo has a stiff uke in it, stop avoiding training with them. Grab them, embrace that difficulty. Discover what it means to engage in Deliberate Practice and let your techniques soar to new heights.
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I am now a rather stiff uke being 74 a d having a number of joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis. I find that what others can learn from training with me is being very precise about taking joints through a full range of movement to understand how a technique works, also the principal of using ‘next available joint’! As wrists don’t bend any longer, kotegaeshi works just as well in an elbow!!
Awesome that you’re still training. That is so inspiring!
Precision is really important, your partners are lucky to have you as most people just don’t get that.