Effective training is all about parameters. Guidelines. All right, all right… rules.
Rick Berry, a Kokikai Aikido instructor that I deeply respect, once told me that the dojo is a laboratory. You’re there not just to train, but to experiment, test, and prove certain ideas and techniques. But just like your high school chemistry class, a given experiment has to have rules. You would never (no matter how much you want to) take two chemicals and throw them together haphazardly. The result might be harmless… but it also might be explosive. This is common sense. Also, without having some sort of underlying methodology behind your experiments, you’ll have no real confidence that your results were because your hypotheses were correct, or if it was just random chance.
These same ideas also apply to aikido practice. Often, on the mat, we have to limit what we can and can’t do. When we study tsuki kotegaeshi, for example, we do not simply start flailing widely at each other. In fact, it is called tsuki kotegaeshi for a reason. The attack is a straight punch (either to the face or the gut–this is usually specified at the time of practice). The response is kotegaeshi. In other words, calling out “tsuki kotegaeshi” as the technique to practice shorthand for saying: “Practice Kotegaeshi against a straight punch.”
The preceding paragraph might seem like I’m overstating the obvious, but it’s important to remember because those of us who are truly dedicated to studying our art are very likely to try to push the boundaries when we practice. This can manifest itself by stiffening up after the punch (in “preparation” for kotegaeshi), or by deliberately going limp after the punch so that you can regain your center. Neither response is necessarily wrong in a freestyle or combat situation; however, it is wrong in one very real sense: it prevents the nage from studying kotegaeshi. By stiffening up, for example, the uke might prevent the kotegaeshi, but leaves themselves open to a counterstrike or another technique. An uke who over-relaxes after a punch has basically bailed out on the attack. In either situation, is very likely that kotegaeshi is no longer the best response. In fact, it may be impossible!
The problem is that the task at hand was not to figure out how throw someone by any means necessary–it was to practice kotegaeshi. By changing the parameters too much, the uke has negated the point of the practice. They may have done so with no ill-intentions, but they have done so nonetheless.
It would be easy, at this point, to assume that the correct role of the uke is to allow the nage to apply kotegaeshi no matter what. But this goes too far in the other direction. An opponent’s balance is rarely given to you–it must be earned. Ideally it is earned effortlessly, natuarlly–but it is earned nonetheless. If you allow your partner to think kotegaeshi works no matter what, then you are doing them a disservice. Worse, you might be giving them the false impression that they know how to apply the technique when in fact they do not. And should they find out their mistake when they most need to defend themselves…the consequences could be dire, indeed.
The answer then is to pay attention to the parameters, but work within them. To realize that, as ukes, we must challenge our partners with the best techniques at our disposal, but do so recognizing that if we push it too far, we invalidate the need for kotegaeshi, or any other technique that you are practicing. This requires that we pay attention to our partner–noting their rank, experience level, and capability, and strive to provide them the best challenge possible, while still providing them the opportunity to practice correctly.
As you can imagine, this makes the art of ukemi truly an all-encompassing effort. But the benefits–for both yourself and for those you train with–are beyond measure and, in fact, are what make the pursuit of aikido so very worthwhile.