I’m a verbal learner. That means that I often learn best when I have to explain something to someone else. One of the reasons why I think I do well as a technical writer (my day job) is because I am constantly paraphrasing what developers and other SMEs (subject matter experts) are telling me. By trying to repeat what they say, I understand things better. (Another reason: I’m completely unafraid to look like a complete idiot. This may also have something to do with aikido, but we’ll get to that another time.)
Given this learning pattern, it should come as no surprise that one of the best parts about teaching aikido is the explaining. I love getting up in front of others, talking through the technique, explaining what’s happening and why it works. I can tell (and have heard firsthand) that the dojo appreciates this, because it helps them figure out how to analyze techniques for themselves. The process of teaching then becomes a collective effort to take a self-defense movement and understand it not only from a physical perspective, but a mental one as well. This pattern of teaching and learning has worked well for me–more than one senior instructor has told me that my own aikido improved dramatically once I started teaching it.
Then, one day, I’m on the mat teaching tsuki kotegaeshi. For those unfamiliar with the technique, tsuki kotegaeshi involves your attacker coming at you with a solid punch. Not a jab, not a feint–a solid, I-am-going-to-take-you-down punch. The response is to step off the line, grip the wrist, and twist the wrist out and away from the attacker–that’s the kotegaeshi. It’s a basic technique–not because it is easy, but because it takes a long time to really understand and forms a foundation on which many other techniques are based.
During this class, we’re focusing on one of the common challenges of tsuki kotegaeshi. You see, there are frequently two interpretations of the technique:
Crank on the wrist hard. The attacker will fall down.
Catch the attackers timing. The attacker will fall down.
The first interpretation is the easiest to understand, and is often what newer students do when trying the technique. The problem is, sooner or later you’ll come across someone who has what I call Wrists of Rebar which, in addition to being a nice alliteration, is also an accurate description of how strong these people are. You could crank on their wrists all day long and they’re not going to budge. Worse, they’re probably going to turn and start pummelling you for trying. When you meet a member of the Wrists of Rebar, the second option for the techinque suddenly looks a whole lot more interesting. But catching the timing of this technique, especially if the attacker is fast, can be very difficult and definitely takes practice.
Continuing on: I’m in front of my students discussing how we can use timing to make tsuki kotegaeshi more effective. But it isn’t working–at least not well. My timing is off, and I’m not sure why. The students watching probably couldn’t see it, but my uke certainly could. Confused and a little frustrated, I close the demonstration and start the class on the technique. As everyone partners up, I take my uke aside.
“Let’s try this again,” I say.
My uke takes a step back, and comes in with a good, solid punch. Bam! He’s on the ground.
“Well, that worked better,” he says to me.
“Yeah, but I’m not sure why,” I answer. As he attacks again, I start explaining what I’m trying to do. As I explain, I feel the technique slipping away. This time, without an audience, my uke stops moving altogether.
“I’m not sure I understand,” I say aloud.
Now here’s where I point out that this uke is about 19. He’s been training for about 5 years, and he has no problem trying to take me down any chance he gets. I appreciate this. He’s also blunt and to the point. (At one seminar, he told the instructor teaching that his throw felt “stiff and robotic.” It might have been true, but you don’t just say things like that!) After we disengage, he looks at me.
“Maybe you shouldn’t talk when you do the technique,” he offers.
My eyes narrow. I study him carefully. Nope–he’s not being funny. He’s genuinely trying to help. I have him attack again, keep my mouth shut, and focus on the technique. Bam! He’s on the ground. He looks up at me, grinning.
“Good advice,” I say, smiling.
From then on, I’ve done my best to keep my explanations and my demonstrations separate.