Hover around a group of students who are fast approaching their brown or black belt tests, and you’ll find that one topic routinely dominates the conversation: freestyle. And to be sure, there is something about sitting down, exhausted from the technique portion of your test, facing off against 3, 4 or 5 skilled ukes, each of whom presumably is there for one purpose: to take you down, that makes you think:
Am I crazy?
The truth is, however, that while freestyle might be intimidating, and it might be difficult, it is not impossible. As the students in my own dojo have had to deal with more and more freestyles, I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about freestyle as a test requirement and how to best prepare for it. So far, what I’ve learned falls into three categories: the scenario, the objective, and the strategy.
I think many people have a misconception regarding what freestyle is all about. I know I certainly did. When I was first coming up the ranks, I was under the impression that freestyle was, essentially, a full on fight between you and up to 5 other opponents. This is not really the case, for one simple reason: it has rules. I think this is worth repearting: real fights do not have rules; freestyle does have rules. Granted, there aren’t a lot of rules, mind you, but some of them are very much worth paying attention to. For example: you can’t run out of the room. I don’t know about you, but if I had the choice between fighting 5 people and NOT fighting 5 people, I’d pick the latter choice any day. (And yes, every time I bring up this fact, someone asks me what I would do if someone I cared about was in danger from those five people. And to them I always say: “Well, then I don’t have the choice anymore, do I?” It’s a little like saying that, given the choice between apples and oranges, you’d choose the apple, only to have someone then ask you “Yes, but what if I took the apple away?” But I digress.)
So we have now established that freestyle is a controlled environment in which 5 people are attempting to…do what? What are the uke’s objectives? We need to know what this is if we’re going to understand what our objective, as the nage, is supposed to be. Understanding the objectives of your opponent (when you can) is extremely important. I remember watching one of those fight shows on cable–the ones where someone studies a martial art for a few days and then tries to use it in a sparring match. In this particular episode, the participant was asked to walk through a park. At one point, one of his training partners came out and asked for some change, as if he were a panhandler. His response? To smack the guy’s hand away and start swinging. While it’s true that he knew that he was dealing with a training partner, the point was clear: the objective of his opponent was a couple of bucks, not some urban version of Mortal Kombat.
I do not have the definitive answer as to what is the uke’s objective during freestyle, but I can give you mine: when I get on the mat for freestyle, I have one goal: to reduce your ability to move to zero. I’m not interesting in hitting you–that’s temporary. I’m interested in locking you down so that you’re absolutely helpless. In black belt exams, this is usually accomplished with three, maybe four people. Since you have to deal with five, that means there’s at least one person who can feel free to swing away once the rest of us have you immobilized. But my goal is not to run at you blindly swinging my fists–that’s a recipe for hitting my teammates as much as anything. And, from what I’ve seen, immobilization seems to be the goal of most ukes who participant in freestyles.
Okay, so we have the uke’s objective mapped out. What about the nage? This is simple: the nage’s objective is to stay mobile. To not just keep moving, but to remain in control of each movement. This objective cannot be reached if you attempt to “fight” every person who comes your way. It’s also impossible if you attempt to run away. To stay mobile, you have to constantly be aware of where everyone is, what they’re doing (or, in some cases, what you predict they are doing, because you’ve thrown them behind you), and where you are. You have to, in essence, use the techniques and concepts you’ve learned at the dojo.
Now that we have established both the scenario and the objectives of freestyle, we can talk a little about strategy. I’ve had the opportunity to discuss and study freestyle with a variety of Kokikai instructors, and so far a common pattern has emerged:
- Don’t back up. This is a statement that makes plenty of sense on paper, but, on the mat, becomes much more difficult. You have FIVE people coming after you. Backing up is a common mistake, born from the idea that if you took a few steps backwards, you’d get more time to respond to your uke. This is, of course, incorrect. We have thousands of techniques that we can study on the mat–I cannot think of a single one where backing up more than a step is a viable option. And, as we’ve discovered in our training, backing up doesn’t do anything except give you less room. You can test this for yourself: have a friend stand a few feet in front of you. Then, have them walk towards you–as they do, you start walking backwards. What changes between you? Nothing–except that you’re moving backwards, which puts you at a great disadvantage. When we do this exercise slowly, the flaw in backing up is obvious–but it’s very difficult (and very human) to forget this fact at high speeds, with lots of people coming after you.
- Pick a target and aim for them. When dealing with multiple opponents in freestyle, I have found it easier to pick an uke and go after them (taking the throw to them, as it were). I may not reach them–someone else might get in the way. But the fact that I am trying to go after someone keeps me on the offensive, which is helpful at least from a mental state, but also very helpful from a strategic standpoint. Think of it this way: you have five people as your ukes. You pick one, and go towards them. That person will obviously see this, but now they are responding to you, as opposed to taking the initiative. That person now has far fewer choices in how they’re going to deal with you. Going after a target has an additional advantage: it keeps you from standing still, which in turn keeps that guy you chucked over your shoulder 10 seconds ago from grabbing you from behind.
- Touch and move. Often, the biggest mistake that a nage makes in freestyle (and one that we’re all guilty of) is trying to throw every single person who we come in contact with. Remember the objective? It’s to stay mobile–not to throw everyone. When we try to throw, we slow ourselves down. When a throw doesn’t work as expected, we get locked into trying to make it work. This costs us countless seconds that allow all the other ukes to pile onto you. At this past Fall Camp, I saw an excellent demonstration of this “touch and move” strategy. A woman was testing for her first brown belt. She had three ukes coming after her. This particular individual is pretty small in stature–had she opted to try and throw everyone she came in contact with, she would have found herself caught in very little time. Instead, she kept moving, and lightly shifted her uke’s off -balance before quickly moving on to somoene else. This is not to say she didn’t show technique–she just didn’t try to force a throw onto an uke. The result was a very impressive freestyle.
- Do the intelligently unexpected. The important word here is “intelligently.” I have seen (and have tried) numerous ways of doing the unexpected during freestyle, only to get caught or have the whole thing backfire. Perhaps the most common one of these is the “thread-the-needle” movement. This is the term I use to describe when the nage attempts to slip between two ukes instead of moving around them. When it works, it’s brilliant. But when it doesn’t? Well, I’ve seen people try to do that right off the bat as their freestyle started. They wound up caught by all of the ukes and nearly lifted off the ground. This move is also the one in which I fractured my wrist–but that’s another story. The point is, do the unexpected–change directions, keep your ukes guessing. But don’t do so blindly–pay attention to what’s going on and remember that what looks good on paper may not work out so well on the mat.
There is nothing like freestyle to really show you what you’re capable of! But an accurate assessment of the situation, objectives, and strategies of the event can go a long way from having a freestyle go from merely an ordeal, to a true demonstration of your knowledge and understanding of aikido.