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Taking Care of Each Other

When people first start training in the martial arts –  and when they are simply considering starting to train – they often are worried about getting injured. After all, if the training involves hitting and throwing and joint locks and chokes, it makes sense that one will find oneself being hit and thrown and joint locked and choked, and none of that sounds very safe. The truth is that injury is a possibility when one pursues any sort of sport or physical activity. One can get injured going for a morning run, in dance class, lifting weights, skiing, or playing pickleball, and activities that involve direct contact with others, such as soccer, football, roller derby, and, of course, martial arts training, have an increased risk of injury.However, there are ways to minimize the risk of serious injury in the dojo. Forty years ago, those of us training at the first Eizan Ryu dojo in Manhattan were frequently injured. We were trying to figure out how to train as “realistically” as possible, to be sure that the techniques actually worked, and we did each other a lot of unnecessary damage. There was no malice in it – we were just a bunch of beginner and intermediate level students who were very invested in training hard and who did not know how to keep ourselves, or others, safe.


Over time, there were fewer serious injuries. Yes, a finger could get bent the wrong way or an ankle sprained, and there were occasional black eyes and bloody noses, but with experience, we learned how to train smarter while still working in as realistic a way as possible within the bounds of safety.


One thing that made this possible was that we developed excellent ukemi (falling skills) and better and more gradual ways of teaching ukemi. When practitioners of jujitsu have high level falling skills, they are at much less risk of injury, and they can work more freely with each other, executing techniques with more speed and power. Because of the importance of ukemi, new students start learning how to fall and roll from their first class, and they progress at their own pace, but with the knowledge that ukemi is in itself a form of self defense, and that as their ukemi improves, they will be able to practice more advanced techniques.


Another strategy for reducing injuries in the dojo is instructing beginners not to resist each other when working together. We believe that if one is training in part for self-defense, it is important to train against powerful attacks and against resistant partners, as that is what one will encounter in a self-defense situation. However, jujitsu techniques are designed to cause injury if resisted by an untrained partner, either because resistance makes the lock more dangerous or the fall trickier, or because the practitioner has learned to switch up when they encounter resistance, and the switch up will be unexpected.Teaching beginners to work cooperatively with each other – not just falling for no reason, but instead, providing an attack and then letting their partner work – not only facilitates learning but also ensures that the person receiving the technique knows how it will go and is prepared to be taken down in a specific way.


As students acquire better falling skills and begin to understand how the techniques should feel, they can begin working against and giving stronger attacks and increasing resistance, as they will be prepared to keep themselves and their partners  safe. We provide opportunities for this sort of work once students begin approaching their first promotion test, and by the time they are approaching brown belt, they are accustomed to working against resistance when training with their peers and seniors. This teaches presence of mind and courage, and allows them to apply what they have been learning about how to immediately switch to another technique when their partner resists, and at that point in their training, they are prepared for the added risks.


It is challenging to balance safety with realistic self-defense training. If we were to encourage full power and full speed work too early, we would have an unacceptable rate of injury. On the other hand, if we do not eventually give our students the opportunity to work against more realistic attacks and resistance, we are not actually teaching them to defend themselves. It is a matter of each student being asked to take the risks that are appropriate to their level of training. But the most important element in maintaining this balance between safety and efficacy in our work is our dojo culture, which strongly emphasizes helping each other learn. Sometimes that help comes in the form of partners working in a relaxed and overtly cooperative manner, and other times, it comes in the form of giving one’s partner trouble. It all depends on where they are in their training and what they need to help them get to the next level. That could be patiently waiting and letting them work, or it could be hitting them -- with the best intentions -- to push them to improve their technique. Always, though, there is a spirit of cooperative learning, with everyone working together to improve their skills.


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Adi Zukerman
Adi Zukerman
Mar 15

I love that photo

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Aaron
Aaron
Mar 15

🙌🙌🥋

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