Teaching Karate Students how to Fall

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Teaching Karate Students how to Fall

Postby HanshiClayton » Sun Dec 28, 2008 2:06 pm

Ukemi waza is the art of falling safely. It is the first thing that judo, aikido, aikijutsu, and jujutsu students learn to do. The techniques of teaching the various types of falls are well-known and are easily discovered in various video publications. For instance, Mike Swain's Basic Judo is excellent, as is George Kirby's Black Belt Budoshin Jujitsu, Volume 1.

In my dojo (Claw of the Dragon) we have abandoned the traditional karate warm-up exercises in favor of energetic tumbling and falling as a way to get the class limbered up and the blood circulating. The falls are not only a good way to warm up, but they are practical self-defense techniques in their own right. My jujutsu falling skills once saved me from a career-ending injury when I fell from a height on to a concrete floor, so I stress this point. Ukemi waza is also enormous fun; the students love it.

A special problem arises when we karate-jutsu artists conduct a seminar with open enrollment. Some of the participants in these seminars do not know how to fall. I approach this in a special way.

  • You must have mats, the thicker and fluffier the better. Experts can fall on hardwood or linoleum, but they won't thank you for the opportunity. I try to get at least an inch of padding under my students, and two inches is better. For middle-aged bones, a five-inch-thick tumbling mat is an excellent tool.

  • I begin by asking everyone to do a somersault. I make it clear that anyone with a history of head, neck or spine injuries should just stand aside. The people who know how to fall will immediately line up and show off their shoulder rolls. The people who shuffle toward the end of the line and show apprehensive body language are the ones who fear the floor. Those are the guys we have to watch.

  • Most of the apprehensive students can be defused by making them roll around on the mat for a few minutes. There are many ways to do this. One is to teach the side fall by having them lie on their backs. Roll to the right and slap the mat; roll to the left and slap the mat. Sit up and roll backwards, slapping with both hands. Their fear of the floor melts away in just a few minutes.

  • The remaining apprehensive people attempt to catch themselves by straight-arming the floor. This puts enormous pressure on the collarbone. Snap. We have to teach them to keep the arm out of the way as they roll into a landing on the padded parts of the body. This is why formal ukemi waza emphasizes slapping the ground. It gives that hand something to do.

    I teach the seminar people a very gentle side fall. From a standing position, just sit down with your butt right behind your heels. You can't help rolling back on your back. It takes a few tries but they quickly learn to transition from a standing position to a supine (belly up) position without any impact on the floor. You just roll down to the ground. There should not be any thuds, smacks or grunts. The technqiue can be done silently.

  • Then, to complete the picture, I usually teach variations on kanoha gaeshi (te nage) at the beginning of the seminar. This helps the students learn their sit-and-roll transition by the simple expedient of having the partner hang onto the arm as the new student rolls down to the floor. The student never goes into free-fall, and quickly overcomes his/her fear of the floor. You can't straight-arm the ground when somebody has hold of your arm.

  • Of course, there's one panicky person in every crowd. You and your assistants have to identify this person and take him aside for expert instruction. He can participate in the seminar, but not with another newby. Give him a black-belt instructor as a partner, and re-emphasize safety to them both before proceeding.
Bruce D. Clayton, Ph.D.
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