Building a Better Uke: Grips

Over the years, I've seen countless students, both senior and junior, become frustrated with a technique failing to work. The vast majority of the time, the problem lies with uke.

Most of the time, uke is not truly committed and is just walking through the motions, in which case, tori rarely gets the off balance or throw he's looking for—which in turn lead tori to think he's not doing something, and uke (particularly new students) think, "Well, this stuff doesn't work."

Not to be hard on uke—it's a tough job.

I first talked about "commitment" in an earlier post. But commitment is, admittedly, a fairly broad topic. So I started with a simple drill to help students practice the initial shomen ate attack with genuine commitment to the point where we actually knock the other guy down.

That is, of course, only one way of attacking. Uke can also begin his attack with a grip.

I tend to see two basic sources of frustration when it comes to grips. The first, and by far most common, is  a grip that's

Too weak
We have to think back and remember what it was like to be the new guy. You don't know anyone, you have no idea what to expect, what you're in for; you're just following along as best you can. And it can be very intimidating to be asked to grab (to touch, in other words) a relative stranger.

We all have certain built-in "rules" when it comes to social interaction, especially with personal boundaries. Think about how many people you've know for a long time, co-workers, professors or students, etc. How often do they get to touch you? Rarely if ever, certainly among men. For guys, you'd have to be either our mother, our wife or girlfriend, or our kids (young ones) to be allowed that kind of closeness.

I wonder sometimes sensitive enough of that. We've been doing this a while now, so we don't think anything of just reaching out and grabbing a guy, such as with judo grips which are even further inside the new guy's personal space.

Consequently, the new guy's grip in the role of uke in aikido is probably going to light and tentative. And that means you probably won't get quite the right reaction you're looking for, the kuzushi you know should be there. Be patient and understanding. Know that his comfort level with gripping and this kind of unconventional contact will come in time.

And if he seems skeptical of the efficacy of what you're practicing, kindly explain that for now, you're just concerned with learning the proper movements, of introducing the principles, and not with "making it work."

I've known senior ranks to remain frustrated by that idea. I guess they just really want to do a successful technique, that they've assumed there is one singular outcome and purpose for what they're doing and when they don't get it, they feel they've somehow failed, or at least aren't doing "proper aikido." Or maybe they've fallen in love with the seemingly "magical" ability they have of making someone fall down, and it's become something of an ego trip.

Please don't be deluded into believing either.

As the senior student, now is the time to think about your movements, about your principles, and let go of the big, spectacular "finish." Maintain ma'ai, keep moving, notice what you're spare hand is doing, are you feeling uke with your hands or are you relying solely on what you see with your eyes? There's plenty for you to learn, even if what you practice won't exactly make the "highlight reel."

All that being said, the flip side of the gripping coin can also cause it's fair share of consternation, a grip that's

Too strong
Occasionally, I'll see a student come in whose grasp is startlingly strong. Big guys, guys that work with their hands all day, tough-as-nails military guys, whatever. Oddly enough, they have no qualms about touching a total stranger. They'll reach out and snatch your wrist in their iron grasp without hesitation.

Now, aikido still works when that happens. But it still takes many folks by surprise, even higher ranking guys. Why? I suspect because we've become used to grips that are too weak, even among higher ranks.

Even after we've been practicing aikido for a while and we're no longer the new guy, we continue to work with a grip that's actually too weak, largely I think because we've been told over and over and over again to "be light." While I understand the intention in saying so, I'm afraid there are occasional downsides. One being the idea that I should barely touch tori when I grip him (or when gripping as tori).

But that's not helping anyone. Uke's not truly able to deliver energy that way, and tori is practicing a technique under false pretenses. So when someone really grabs him, suddenly his release won't work.

All of that being said, what grip is "just right"?

To answer that, I'll direct you to the following video, which explains what we're after better than I could here.