Recently, the parent of a student in my child class (6yrs to 8yrs) asked me the following question: “How do some of these techniques translate into effective self-defense?” He was referring to the technique Shomenuchi Aikiotoshi. If you’re not familiar with this technique (as we practice it in the children’s classes), it’s the one where the attacker does an overhead strike while the defender drops down right on the spot, leaving the attacker to roll over the defender. The technique finishes with the defender returning to a standing position just before the attacker has completed their roll. I completely understand why a parent would ask the above question after seeing their child practicing this technique. There is no apparent logic behind the attacker rolling over a crouched defender and even less logic in the defender dropping down on the spot as a defense.
I know it can be difficult, at times, for parents to make the connection between what they perceive as effective self-defense skills and some of the activities in our children’s classes. If parents look deeper however, they will always find something valuable. After more than 20 years of teaching aikido to kids, I’ve made a discovery. In order to teach them what they need to know, I need to keep them coming back to the dojo over a period that will span many years. Keeping students coming back month after month, year after year, means continuing to engage them and this is the aspect of teaching that demands most of my effort.
We increase the likelihood of students sticking with it by presenting some of the training with a shiny wrapper, so to speak. We are, in a sense, fooling students into learning. The skills we are developing are hidden in the drills, activities and sometimes techniques. Anyone who has watched a pair of young students practicing Shomenuchi Aikiotoshi knows this shiny wrapper is all about fun! For some reason kids find this technique really enjoyable, whether they’re the one ducking down or the one rolling over. When we add the element of trying to be the first one to stand, it’s even more enjoyable.
So, what are the skills hidden inside this shiny wrapper?
The defender is responsible for having a strong stance, hanmi, at the beginning of the technique. Not only does the defender have to return to a standing position quickly, before the attacker has completed their roll, but they need to be in proper hanmi too. Repeatedly moving in and out of hanmi is how we engrain it.
Timing is an integral part of aikido training. The effectiveness of any technique relies heavily on the timing with which it is applied. If a technique is applied too early it signals your intentions to the attacker, giving them enough time to adjust their attack. A technique that is delivered too late could end with the attack reaching its target. In the beginning, students will often drop down as soon as the attacker raises their arm to attack. Through dedicated training however, students will build enough patience to wait until the last possible moment.
At a yellow belt level (the level in which Shomenuchi Aikiotoshi is introduced) students have only a basic understanding of tumbling, ukemi. Their skills still have quite a ways to go before they will be at a level where they can safely fall from most techniques. Adding a partner as an obstacle to roll over is an excellent way of gently increasing the challenge and improving ukemi skills.
When polished, this technique (modified slightly) is very effective and many students use it on their black belt level exams. In addition to dropping down at the last possible moment, the defender will quickly move in toward the attacker, sweeping their legs. This leaves the attacker with nothing to attack. The defender has disappeared, in a manner of speaking.
I understand that parents will have questions from time to time about why we do certain things and I welcome those questions. I hope, at the end of the day, parents have faith in BigRock Aikikai's system.
Chief Instructor, BigRock Aikikai