Recently, some of the junior instructors were talking to Steve Sensei after class about how different the teaching system was back when they were starting Aikido. One of these instructors found a video of her yellow belt test from 2012 and shared it with the group. “How cute!” and “You look so little!” were exclaimed several times, but the most insightful comment was: “Wow you really sucked.” The forward rolls were hilarious, the hanmi stances were all wrong, and the backwards roll looked more like a little kid flopping helplessly onto their side. It was all very adorable, making us laugh and reminisce, but we also knew a test like that would never have happened today. Instead, Sensei and the ITP would have solved these mistakes long before the test. These instructors may know how to take proper ukemi now, from being flipped by black belts to rolling softly from a hip flip, but when they were little, it was a different story.
After watching the yellow belt test video, Sensei surprised the ITP by laughing a bit more and saying an apology of sorts, telling them how back in 2012, he didn’t really know what he was doing when it came to teaching, but that he was so happy the ways of teaching white belts had improved, in part with his own growth and the growth of our young instructors program.
This topic came up again when one of the instructors shared a story about our child class student Alex Thompson. Alex is 5 and a half years old and has been reviewing for his orange belt for a little while. During his review, the instructor noticed that whenever Alex encountered a difficulty, his persistence never faltered, no matter how hard the obstacle was to get past. The most prominent challenge was the forwards rolling, known as Mae Ukemi. Like many beginners, Alex’s rolls were what we call ‘barrel rolls’, meaning that he collapsed onto his side into a log roll instead of going over his shoulder.
It took a couple of weeks of barrel rolling across the mat to pinpoint what part of the roll Alex was having a hard time with. The instructor discovered it was actually the starting position of the Mae Ukemi throwing off the roll. His kneeling position had his hands too close to his feet, so when he tried to tuck in his head and spring, his body was in the way of his shoulder, sending the Mae Ukemi off course and transforming it into a barrel roll. One problem was solved: the reason Alex was barrel rolling in the first place. Now the question was: how does one fix it?
The instructor decided to start fresh by giving Alex an entirely new body arrangement for the roll. Alex dubbed this position ‘froggy’, because of its similarity to the frog hop we practise during drills. ‘Froggy rolls’ had 6 steps the instructor made for Alex to follow, and with help from the instructor, Alex did a flawless Mae Ukemi! The first step was, of course, to squat down in the ‘froggy’ position, with your heels side by side and knees wide apart. Step two: choose which shoulder you’ll roll over and rotate your body so that the chosen side is facing the front. Step three: place your hands in a triangle on the opposite side of the chosen shoulder. Step four: lower the elbow of the chosen side to the mat. Step five: tuck in your head. Step six: thrust your hips up and spring into the roll! It took some directions and gestures to do it, but after the many classes of barrel rolls, Alex performed the Mae Ukemi perfectly.
Now, all that was left was to ingrain the steps into his memory, so he could do it without the help of the instructor. His progress never slowed down. Every class, Alex would need directions to start, but he was soon able to do it by himself with less and less review. In one of his early pretests, when the instructor asked to see his Mae Ukemi in front of the class, Alex was momentarily confused, but after the instructor said,“Froggy! Froggy!”, Alex did a spectacular roll without help on one side.
After a couple weeks passed by, forward rolls seemed to click in Alex’s head on the evening of one Wednesday class. The instructor started the review with the white belt skills as usual, but when they got to the Mae Ukemi, Alex jumped into froggy, rotated his body, tapped the shoulder he would roll over, placed his hands in a triangle, lowered his elbow, tucked in his head, and sprang into a perfect roll on his first try. The instructor was so excited, Alex was sure she was on the verge of hysteria when he then asked, “Why are you about to cry?” Alex turned around, did a roll on his other shoulder, and sure enough, it was another perfect Mae Ukemi.
Since that very class, Alex’s rolls have always been shoulder rolls, or froggy rolls as he calls them. Forwards rolling is his favourite skill of all the Orange Belt Testing Requirements, and the review sessions are filled with great enthusiasm whenever we practise ukemi. In fact, he often requests to do more than just one roll on each side, challenging himself to do five or ten perfect froggy rolls in a row. Alex has even taken it upon himself to teach one of his fellow yellow belt students the ways of the froggy rolls in an attempt to spread his vast Mae Ukemi knowledge.
Alex’s success is one of our most heartwarming examples of how BigRock Aikikai’s teaching system has improved. The instructors will work tirelessly to let each student explore their full potential, starting with teaching proper shoulder rolls and helping them develop resilience, persistence, and an ‘I-CAN’ mindset. The dojo wants to recognize the perseverance Alex showed through his amazing Mae Ukemi triumph. He is a funny, keen, and remarkable five-year-old student, whose determination demonstrates that of a true role model.
Needless to say, there will always be other obstacles for our students, including Alex, to overcome. Our Quote of the Month is from Alex, just after he conquered his barrel rolls.
“Belt tying is the hardest thing in history… except for lifting a house.” - Alex Thompson, Yellow Belt, 5 years old.
- Cassie Chan, Junior Black Belt, Seishidosha Candidate