For centuries, being the uke of a skilled instructor has caused cold sweat and second thoughts in students. There’s something about bowing and walking toward your impending doom that seems like a bad idea.
Times have changed somewhat, and with the increase in school sizes and seminars students are more likely to watch techniques from an expert rather than experience them. In fact, a lot of students get good at melding into the background when the instructor gazes around the room for viable volunteers.
This begs the question – what do you get out of watching a technique vs experiencing it?
Back in the ‘ooool days, teachers didn’t do a lot of active discussion. They mostly demanded repetition from students and then tossed them around to demonstrate technique. There’s something intangibly effective about this method (just watch the old masters for proof).
However, we’ve learned a lot more about pedagogy since then and the ways in which we can maximize human learning.
It’s silly to ignore the value of discussion, explanation, and cognitive science. That’s why western style teaching has ultimately influenced martial arts all over the world. A dominant part of the western teaching philosophy is watching and listening (just imagine any given classroom).
When you watch a martial art technique performed, you get a big picture sense of what’s happening. You can observe the distance between the two opponents, the way the engagement occurs, and the way it concludes.
A detail-oriented teacher can explain the ways in which he/she is using physics to maximize force or leverage. They can show how and why they are disrupting their opponent’s timing or balance.
This is all very valuable input, but not a complete learning experience. Think of it this way: You could watch Xgames skateboarders every day for ten years, including every instructional video made. Armed with all that knowledge, what do you think is STILL going to happen the first time you step onto a skateboard?
You might think to yourself…well yea Matt, your point is obvious – a student has to train to get better. That’s why we do partner drills after an explanation, so that we can try the technique!
Not so fast.
Two people that don’t know the technique can help each other improve…but are either truly doing what the instructor is doing? Is it as good? How do you know?
Being the uke for an experienced instructor, while often regrettably painful, offers a unique learning experience. You get to feel exactly where the pain is supposed to focus, how the body’s balance is broken, where the points of relaxation and emphasis are placed, and what rhythm is needed to optimize effectiveness.
In addition, you get to feel the energy and spirit pressure placed upon you by someone at a higher skill level.
Of course, there’s a flipside. When acting as uke during intense techniques, your mind is often narrowed and sometimes blanked by the intensity of the event. You can certainly feel things, but recalling exactly how it happened (and why) is another story. There have been many occasions where I’ve been uke for an instructor and shortly after their demonstration I’ve walked back to my training partner in order to ask what happened.
Receiving high level technique is critically important…but not independently ideal.
The Best of Both Worlds
Maximizing your learning potential requires a little bravery. First, you have to take your best blending-in-with-the-crowd tactics and stuff them in a box under your bed. Get up there and experience the real thing. On top of that, you can’t be afraid to ask questions, even if it means going through another round of demonstration.
On the other hand, you don’t want to get too caught up in the action. Give yourself a chance to slow down and really look at what’s going on. Analyze the science in order to get to the art.
Remember: technique speed and physical strength are the go-to methods of students who are trying to breeze over the finer details of a technique. Do things slow and relaxed until you get it right. Pay attention to the small things like foot placement, body movement, angle, timing, etc.
If you have a teacher who tends to discuss technique while relying on partner pairing, politely wait for him or her to become available and ask to see the technique a bit closer. Every teacher I know is happy to oblige such requests.
There’s no question that caution and common sense should always guide your training, and I’m not suggesting you throw yourself headlong at every teacher you see (that would be impolite, and some teachers should genuinely be avoided because they lack control). But if you are with a good, kind teacher that also happens to be very skilled…it’s in your best interest to experience what they can do first hand.