Working with difficult partners

When I say "difficult", at least in this post, I'm not referring to those people who are by nature obnoxious or stubborn, unwilling to listen, etc. That would make for an interesting post, for certain, but it's not what's on my mind today, anyway.

No, by "difficult" I mean partners who are, as far as their personality goes, perfectly reasonable and amiable. They can often be wonderful people, in fact. But something about the way they move and operate physically may be, well, less then ideal. They're not the young, spry type of brown belt who loves to fly and take ukemi all day (we all love to throw those guys). Maybe they're older, maybe a lot older, they move slower, their steps are smaller, they take more compensatory steps due to old injuries or just the general physical limitations that come with getting on in years.

When working with someone like this, suddenly, the spry young green or brown belt finds that none of his throws will work. His timing seems to go out the window. The broad, open window of opportunity to hit the mark with which he has been learning so far has shrunk dramatically. Heck, even black belts get frustrated! I watched just such a green belt get beside himself with frustration the other day in judo, and I could certainly sympathize.

It's a dicey situation, to be sure. Because these particular judoka are, again, fundamentally nice people, we have to remember that they're not trying to be a jerk about it and refusing to let us throw them. But how do we practice when we're still relatively "young" (both in age and in the art) and still end up feeling good about what we're doing, that we're making progress?

On one hand, there are little sneaky tips and tricks one can employ to create a bigger step, to pry open that window a little. Unfortunately, these tend to make the overall throw more dynamic, and consequently, the fall becomes a little more "dynamic." When our partner is older and especially when they have old injuries to account for, we just can't, in all good conscience, dump them on their heads! (I'll practice these little tricks once in a while on the spry, young guys who can take a good fall, who love falling even, just to practice them. It's nice to have in your back pocket.)

One should also bare in mind that, even if your first throw doesn't work because your partner doesn't walk very well, your second or third throw most likely will, simply because, well, they don't walk very well! Of course, that comes as little consolation when working on uchi komi where you have to repeat the same throw, or in hop randori when you're supposed to "trade" throws back and forth.

So what do you do to make the training time worth it? I have a few ideas, but I welcome anyone else's!

Rotate partners. This is, of course, primarily the responsibility of the person running the class. When I finally noticed how frustrated the green belt got, I immediately started rotating everyone around more. It's much more frustrating if you have to work with a "difficult" partner the whole class. If the frustrated judoka can see that his technique will actually work on other players, the situation hopefully won't seem so dire.

Focus on kazushi and tsukuri and don't worry so much about kake. Don't worry so much about throwing for the time being, but focus on your basics: are your feet are in the right place, is your posture straight, what are your hands doing, etc. Ingraining the off-balance and the fitting in are the biggest part of a successful throw anyway; if you get those well enough, the kake, or throw, almost happens by itself. It may not feel like you're accomplishing much without any throwing going on, but believe me, in the long run, you are.

Be the uke. A lot. You can learn a lot about a technique from the inside-out. Once your nervous system understands what's happening to your own body that makes it fall down, the easier it will become to do the same thing to others.

Any other ideas? I'll have to ask around, too, and see what kind of advice I get and follow up on this.

The bottom line is, don't get discouraged. Every partner is different and can offer unique challenges that will only help us grow if we face them with an attitude of "what can I learn from this?" and "how can I make the most of my training time?"


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