Aikido for Children - Chapter 3

Fun Drilling and Motivational Ideas for Aikido for Children

This article was originally published online by John Sing on August 30, 2001. We are re-formatting and re-posting the article here for posterity.

ch3.jpg

This article is Chapter 3 in a 3 part series about Ken Ota Sensei's unique, successful, and innovative approach to teaching Aikido to children.  It is based on over 35 successful years of excellence in teaching Aikido, Judo, and Ballroom Dancing to both adults and children, using a complete physical / emotional / psychological approach.

In this series of articles, we'll examine Ota Sensei's successful methods and suggestions for increasing your fun and effectiveness in teaching Aikido to Children.  This article will focus on the Importance of  Teaching Aikido to Children, and Ota's Ukemi Teaching Methods for Children.

This three part series covers:

  • Fundamental ways to keep children's interest (Flow/Tempo suggestions)
  • Importance of teaching and focusing on great ukemi as first priority, including philosophy, tools and drills to teach great ukemi
  • Warm-up games and drills
  • Teaching children through their bodies with a minimum of talking (Backleading)
  • Backleading the basic 8 techniques
  • Discipline and safety guidelines, games, and suggestions
  • Movement drills
  • Safe randori for advanced children
  • Cool down games
  • Role of adults as models and instructors

Q:  Sensei, what ideas do you have for the children to have as much fun as possible while they are learning Aikido?

Ota Sensei:    We really have to remember that in a certain sense, we are in the entertainment business when we are teaching Aikido to Children.  Children will learn fastest when they are really involved,  really interested, really kept alert, when they are really having fun.

So here are some of our non-traditional ideas for keeping the children interested in Aikido!  We rely heavily on the use older students as primary helpers to help teach, and we do a large amount of drills as a primary teaching vehicle.  We tell the older students that "if they can't teach it to someone else, they don't know the technique yet".   We also make sure we arrange special 'older children only' drills or techniques during the class as a reward for the help these students give to the younger ones.

Here are some of the drills we use that are very fun for the Aikido children.   Many of the drills will be difficult to visualize without seeing them in person or in motion video, but I've described them briefly here to give you a rudimentary idea of what's possible for you:

andreas teaching lela ikkyo step 5 sequence.jpg
  • Practice each children's Basic 3/6/8 Aikido attack/defense, over and over, with two ukes alternating attacking per one nage,  until it's ingrained.  This keeps more children busy at the same time, keeps the pace and energy higher, children learn a rudimentary feeling of randori, and the older children in each group get to practice teaching and help move the class progress along.
  • We reward the older helper students in the form of additional drills that are only for them, such as 'Two-on-one randori' drills, more advanced techniques just for them (we use this as motivation tool also as the lower belts watch, rest, and get motivated by the higher belt's skill)
  • We have created a variety of kotaegaeshi, tai-otoshi drills, including one hand / one finger / no hands (because you sometimes have things in your hands or you for some reason cannot use both arms/hands)
  • 'T pad 3x drill' - useful for techniques that open with tenkan, such as kotaegeshi.  Basically, the idea is to do 3 attacks and 3 tenkans, on the 3d tenkan the student actually does the technique.  This teaches motion, movement, agility, practices the tenkan nicely.   This is an excellent drill also for tai-otoshi and even a rudimentary shihonage breakfall.  We recommend doing this drill with landing pads for the uke as the child nage's speed will get up there quickly.
  • Line drills for repetition
  • One finger throws for timing, very essential for developing true centrifugal force and power in Aikido throws.
  • Spacing drills off of ikkyo (three  iterations of the hopping/ma'ai, 3d hop is the throw) - this helps uke get the rhythm and timing
  • Push nage into back roll, followed by one of basic attacks, nage defends
  • Randori drills - we start slow, then build up; child only has to get out of the way and ukes take rolls for them as long as the child is moving properly.  This teaches children to make quick decisions about Aikido movement and then go with them.  As the children get older, being able to move properly makes the addition of the actual kokyunage and irimi throws very easy.

Q:  I understand that you spend a full 40% of the class time on Ukemi and Warmups/Body Conditioning Drills?

Ota Sensei:  True!  We purposely spend the first 20% of class on ukemi practice (for reasons outlined in chapter 1 of this series), and we spend the next 20% of the class on warmup drills.   The reason for such a large amount of ukemi and warmup drills is that we know we have a great deal of kid energy that we must channel and focus;  as well we need to build up their agility, body control, strength, and endurance.  By doing these first, we burn off the excess kid energy and they are then tired enough to be calm and relaxed, and then they can easily focus their minds on their bodies.  Amazing, isn't it?

The warmup and conditioning drills that we do are specifically designed to teach various Aikido and body strengthening skills.  Here are some of the many games that we give our children to do in this segment of the class:

Fun Aikido Warmup Drills for Children

A sampling of tools and Aikido techniques using the length of the mat for children to do:

  • Forward rolls
  • Backward rolls
  • Hopping and Skipping (both forward and backward)
  • Turning drills (ude-furi-choyaku-undo)
  • Stone crawls (very important to develop the skills and strength for children to extricate themselves if they're on the ground and another child jumps on top of them)
  • Lobster crawls (very important to develop the skills and strength for children to extricate themselves if they're on the ground and another child jumps on top of them)
  • Elephant walks (squats)
  • Frog hops (develops leg strength)
  • Samurai walks (shikko)

Fun Body Conditioning Drills for Children

A sampling of tools and conditioning exercises for children to do without moving on the mat:

  • Pushups
  • Situps
  • Leg-overs (preps them for backward rolls)
  • Frog hops (jumping squats, builds their legs for doing ukemi over high barriers)
  • Mountain climbers, bicycles, jumping jacks (for foot agility and coordination)
  • Grasshopper jumps (it's a jumping into a near handstand but not going over, builds upper body strength and sense of balance while inverted)
  • Double helicopters (like leg raises or leg splits but with arms going at same time.  For upper belt children, the arms' direction  must go perpendicular to the legs' direction, which really challenges their minds to develop new neural pathways in terms of body movement)
  • Dance steps:  That's right, dance steps.  Play a dance tune and at the far end, the child must do repetitions of a dance step. We recommend samba tunes because they are easiest to get and sufficiently fast to challenge the children.  We do this not only for fun variety, but because it teaches rhythm, timing, footwork, balance, speed, grace, etc.  Children get extra points for staying on beat.  The children love this challenge!

Fun Children Aikido Games

Good ukemi is really a prerequisite for playing many of these games at a level of speed

  • Simon Says (for ukemi) - when their ukemi skill is high enough and you can go fast, this is a wonderful motivating tool for both kids and parents alike.  Use front and back rolls, airfalls, side slap, full body, kickout, and roll sideways (this is essential to avoid gun attacks)
  • Follow the leader (for any footwork, ukemi, whatever you want)
  • Mirror games:  feet, tenkans, follow the feet,
  • Hara tag
  • Rolling tag
  • Back and Forth - a pair of students alternate attacking and defending (it gets interesting remembering who is who!)
  • Throw the Circle - form a circle.  First student starts around the circle throwing each of the others.  Can get multiple children going around the circle to maximize time efficiency.  Builds repetitions
  • First One To Eight - do relay races wherethe race is to see which team of students can complete 8 repetitions of one of the Aikido techniques the fastest.  This teaches repetition, rhythm, timing, relaxation, movement
  • How Many Can You Do in 1 Minute? - same as 'First One To Eight', except now we're counting to see who can get the highest number of smooth but quick repetitions.  Really requires lots of good ukes (who get tons of ukemi practice in the meantime!)
  • Advanced Ukemi Crossing Drill

 

Ota Sensei:  We also cool them down afterwards, here are some fun Children Cool down Games to complete their children's energy:

  • Four Corners Sumo Wrestling - object is to off-balance partner to the ground or move partner out of the 'four corners'
  • Back to Back - multiple small kids vs. one older kid - older child is responsible for their safety and to teach the smaller ones to work together to pin the older child

All these games give the children opportunity to interact with each other in positive way (they are going to interact with each other anyway), and gets the maximum drilling and conditioning done in the minimum amount of time.   This is the purpose of the warmup games. 

 

Q:  What do you mean by "Appointing the older children as Team Captains"?

Ota Sensei:   We always nominate older children (who are mature enough and ready) to be 'Team Captains' to monitor and teach and monitor two other younger children, the older children are the ones that 'qualify when ready' for the 'honor' of being the team captain.  We reward them with special drills and techniques just for them.  More importantly, for many older children it is the first time that they learn they are capable of responsibility and leadership, and they quickly find out how capable they are compared to their younger classmates.

The team captain is a title that is earned, so there will always be some older kids that are not ready;  but because they quickly will find out that they need to earn the right, they will push themselves to earn the right to be a team captain.  All the older children learn to be a role models for the younger childrer, in this way you have them as your helpers to keept the younger children in practice safely, staying in order, and become good students. 

Q:  What are these Fun Warmup Relay Race Games that you use for teaching Motivation, Teamwork, and Leadership?

Ota Sensei:   We use friendly, properly regulated, teach-you-about-competitive-realities-of-life warmup games in Aikido Children's classes after we finish ukemi practice.   These games serve as an excellent teaching tool for Aikido basics like rolling and hopping, and provide body conditioning for the children.  Most importantly, the warmup games burn off excess child energy so they can be present and calm enough to enjoy learning Aikido techniques.

The following benefits are derived from using warmup relay races:

  • Teach basic skills (ukemi), start low, slowly build up so your body / back / arms / etc. all  learn how / when to do it right
  • Develop their bodies and coordination (exercises)
  • Teach children to become a leaders, teach humility, being a model for the younger belts
  • Teach healthy motivation
  • Value of hard work
  • Value of Recognition
  • Value of Teamwork
  • Value of Leadership

It is unfortunate that competition has a bad name in our society, especially as it pertains to children's education.  For this reason, and also because O'Sensei clearly prohibited competition in Aikido, there is significant resistance to competition in any way within Aikido.  We understand this.

However, Ota Sensei suggests that in the specific case of warmup relay race games, the spirit of healthy fair competition is usable and invaluable in teaching life lessons to children.  To maintain fairness and accomplish these objectives, we use a very specific handicapping system in the warmup relay races. This handicapping system transforms the warmup relay race games into a superior tool for teaching healthy self-confidence and independence; it teaches the children to let go of ego.

Ota Sensei believes the relay race warmup games are in no way in conflict with the concept of non-competition for Aikido, because the games are not about competing with the Aikido techniques.

Q:  So you use a Handicapping System in Warmup Relay Race Games to eliminate the downsides of competition among the children?

Ota Sensei:   Absolutely.    Our 'handicapping system' in the warmup relay races are the essential key element that makes the relay races useful by continually equalizing the teams and their chances to win.

In this way, no child's ego hurt by too much losing, nor is anyone's ego inflated by overconfidence of winning.  Children learn that the warmup games are not about who is 'stronger, faster, weaker, slower'.  Rather, they  know that if they work really hard, they all have an equal chance to win a reward.  The best team doesn't always win (in some cases, by design of the instructors).   Strong, fast children need to learn that life is like this.  Small, less coordinated children sometimes win, IF they work really hard up to the level of their ability.

This promotes a healthy self-confidence and image in all.  The small  reward  is not the prize, of course, it is the recognition that motivates the children.  These important life lessons are the real gifts that we are trying to give our children, and we're just using Aikido as a tool.    For many children, this is a experience missing from the rest of their lives in school , elsewhere on the playground, or even in competing with their brothers and sisters for attention from their parents. 

Q:  How would I run a Aikido Children's Warmup Relay Races using the Handicapping System?

Ota Sensei:  I realize the following discussion is going to be difficult to follow without seeing it in action.  Regardless, I document it here for you and future generations to know what it is that we do, how we do it, and how you could do it for yourself.    Here are the steps:

  • Count the number of children and divide 3.  3 is optimum number of children per team.  This will give you the number of teams and the number of 'team captains' that you need.
  • Select senior children as 'team captains', and call them to line up in the front of the dojo.
  • The team captains then select, one by one, the members of their team.   Children learn about selection processes, how it feels to choose and be chosen, learn about how others are perceiving them.
  • These senior children learn to be leaders, they are the model and are responsible for helping the younger children on their team, as well as keeping them well disciplined.
  • The teams then line up, and the instructor calls out the first race.   Example of the first race call:  "forward rolls to the end of the mat, then 20 pushups, then forward rolls back".
  • A scorekeeper (an adult or senior child who is not participating - assists the instructor using a notepad and pencil) writes down the name of each team captain and prepares to keep score.
  • Each team sends one of it's members to the opposite end of the mat, to hold each adjacent team accountable to the proper number of exercises at the far end,.  Everyone learns to play fair, and young children even learn to count.    The teams must stay alert, as the 'counter' must exchange places with other members of his / her team as the race progresses.
  • The instructor calls out, "On your mark, get set, Go!"    The relay races are on!
  • The 'relay race' naturally motivates the children in ways you would not believe!  They do more exercise in shorter time than you could ever imagine because they are competing in a healthy way.
  • As each team completes it's relay, they race up to the shomen to report in to the scorekeeper (a adult who is assisting the instructor using a notepad and pencil) who records who finished in what order.
  • The instructor then calls out the next relay race.  Example:  "back rolls, then 'xx' situps, then backward rolls back".  The 'xx' repetitions , however, is a different amount for each team, to assure equal ability for each team to compete.   The number of repetitions is computed as follows (it's the scorekeepers job to track it).
  • Let's take an example.  If there are 7 teams of 3, then whoever finished first in the previous race, needs to do 70 repetitions;  the 2nd place team needs to do 60; 3d place needs to do 50; 4th place does 40; etc.  As you can tell the last place team in previous race only needs to do 10 repetitions, so they'll finish much faster and thus everyone knows that everyone has an equal chance to compete.   Cool, eh?  Fairness, competing against yourself, .... so many positive lessons can come from this simple repetition modification.
  • Remember, the teams send one of their members to opposite end of mat to count for an adjacent team.  Since all 3 team members have to race, the team captains have to remind their team to switch the counters.  This added little complication also keeps the children on their toes and keeps them moving.
  • Depending on the exercise, sometimes you divide the repetitions in half because the exercise would be too difficult otherwise.
  • A team gets bonus points if they do a exercise really well, and loses points if they are talking or messing around when they're not racing
  • This process is repeated, usually we do 4 relays or so.
  • As the warmup races continue, the children get their blood moving, bodies loosened, and most importantly, their excess kid energy gets channeled into  positive body conditioning , self motivation and practice of fundamental Aikido or judo skills
  • We constantly remind all team members to support their other team members, this develops teamwork
  • Once the races are complete, the children move on to Aikido techniques.
  • We don't announce any results until the end of class, so there is nothing to brag about during the rest of class
  • Only at the end of class, at closing, do we announce the winning team and the losing team.  The winning team gets a Coke or other appropriate small reward, (it's only about the recognition and recognizing that in life, there is great value to challenging yourself to be the best you can be!).  The winning team also gets to tell the losing team what exercise they have to do around the room (it's not about punishment, it's about recognizing the realities of life and motivating children to do their best so they are less likely to be the last place team).
  • As a final kicker, a team member who brought another child guest gets 200 bonus points per guest.  That's a big amount, and really helps children encourage their friends to come to class.   (again, just teaching the children about real life)
 Here is a copy of the scoresheet, you can see how the games evolve:

Here is a copy of the scoresheet, you can see how the games evolve:

Q:  So the purpose of the warmup relay games is to develop the children's healthy self confidence, without ego?

Ota Sensei :   That's right.   All these games, including the healthy, regulated warmup games with fair competition, are vital to help the children experience and develop a healthy self confidence without ego;  to prepare them for the realities of life as an older child, a teenager, as an adult..

Because of the handicapping systems, the relay games become a primary tool to help the child learn to compete with the child's self.  The games encourage them to be the best that they can be.... and not to be better than someone else.   When children start to learn that they are the only ones that hurt their own chances... and that each of them are the responsible ones for helping their team........... then we have given them a powerful tool to determine their own destiny!  We have given them an experience of competing and winning in a fair and honest manner.

Properly done, these warmup games are especially beneficial to young females:  it helps them develop their independent spirits and be able to take care of themselves, to realize their own potential , develop their own self-confidence, to see that their gender does not in any way limit them from achieving their potential.

Children learn leadership, learn to support and interact with their teammates and their friendly competitors in a positive manner. Friendly competition, properly applied, results in children interacting with each other and highly motivating each other in natural ways that cannot be done sole by teachers.

Q:  Sensei, please tell me about your highly modified Children's Belt System used for further Motivation?

Ota Sensei:  The best motivation for children is when they see other children their own age doing things that are good.  In a healthy way, this subtle competition invokes their internal desire to improve.

  • One of the strongest motivator for children is accurate recognition. (false recognition is of course recognized by children as exactly that, they themselves know if they deserve the skill level that they're being awarded).    To achieve accurate recognition, and to make sure that every child gets recognition no matter how well he does on his tests,   we provide  many levels of  multi-color belts with many  levels, so that children always advance in true proportion to their skills, and instructors have many degrees of granularity to help give children accurate feedback on how they're progressing.
  • Children are thus always motivated and can see their own progress without ambiguity.

All of these principles could be adult-ized for your regular classes as appropriate.

Q:  Finally, what do you see is the true role of Adults and the older child students?

Ota Sensei :   We specifically trains adults and upper belts to be very effective as one-on-one teachers to the lower belts.  I believe that if you can't teach a technique quickly, kindly, and effectively to a lower belt, then you don't yet know it yourself.    Therefore, in all classes, the senior students are charged to go find a lower belt to teach.  This raises the overall skill of the dojo as quickly as possible.

If the technique is particularly new or difficult, sometimes I will have the upper belts practice with each other so that they get the technique down and have some good practice among themselves before teaching the lower belts.  Or, as a reward to the upper belts, after teaching the lower belts, I have  the lower belts sit and put the upper belts together practice between  themselves.  This is very motivational for all involved and a reward, recognition, and better hard practice for the upper belts.

So:

  • Emphasize upper belts finding a lower belt to teach one on one
  • This raises the overall level of the dojo's skill as quickly as possible
  • The upper belts really learn the techniques only when they can pass it on to someone else!
  • Upper belts gain confidence that they are capable, receive recognition for their skill, and are able to enjoy the responsibility of being a leader
  • Upper belts are rewarded with extra work, practice time, and this motivates the lower belts

Q:  Sensei, certainly some very interesting, entertaining, and unusual ideas.   What final thoughts would you like to leave us with concerning teaching Aikido to Children?

Ota Sensei:    In summary, I see the role of of all of us as Aikido children teachers and senior children students as being in the most beautiful role of human life:  giving back to the younger ones the same gifts and lessons that were given to us.  In this way we pass on and improve our human race in the most generous manner possible.

As teachers of Aikido Children, we should keep in mind these final thoughts:

  • Always set a lively, interesting, kind tone, pace, and variety for the class
  • Give interesting, parental 'lectures' as necessary to pass on the lessons that we ourselves have learned
  • Give the children the skills and experiences that Aikido can give them using the technology we've discussed in these articles
  • Lovingly, kindly, and with parental guidance, let the children's energy play and learn at the same time, giving them the proper balance between being stern, disciplined, and the fun and wonder of allowing them to be children
  • Give them enough safe repetitions, drills, and teachings to develop automatic 'fast twitch' muscle memory, rhythm, timing, relaxed Aikido power for real life

Summary: Aikido for Children

Aikido for Children, specifically tuned through advanced high technology methodology and innovative drilling, is a beautiful tool to teach life skills to children.  Children properly taught and highly motivated at this young age will naturally develop great Aikido at the same time.

We hope you have enjoyed this documentary three part series on the unique teaching philsophy and ideas of Ken Ota Sensei for teaching Aikido to Children. Be sure to see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series if you missed them.

We owe it to our children to not only give them Aikido philosophy, but also the true Aikido ability to be able to appropriately, wisely,  and powerfully use Aikido for real on the playground or in real life danger situations if they ever need to.

Some of the ideas in this article may seem quite a bit out of the ordinary.  However, we suggest that the world our children are growing up in has radically changed, but education and teaching methods haven't necessarily changed with it.  Therefore, as parents or as role models, we need to be open to new and bold, effective ideas.   In over 35 years of teaching, Ken Ota's methods have graduated over 30,000 students.  We offer those ideas and methods here for your enjoyment and use.

Aikido is a powerful tool for all of us is to develop the ATTITUDE of self-confidence with kindness, power with gentleness, speed with grace.  To give to our children the ability to see, learn, and do Aikido in both spirit and relationship will be a gift for their lifetimes.

 

Aikido for Children - Chapter 2

Dynamic Ma'ai for Aikido for Children, Importance of Backleading

This article was originally published online by John Sing on August 30, 2001. We are re-formatting and re-posting the article here for posterity.

ch2.jpg

This article is Chapter 2 in a 3 part series about Ken Ota Sensei's unique, successful, and innovative approach to teaching Aikido to children.  It is based on over 35 successful years of excellence in teaching Aikido, Judo, and Ballroom Dancing to both adults and children, using a complete physical / emotional / psychological approach.

In this series of articles, we'll examine Ota Sensei's successful methods and suggestions for increasing your fun and effectiveness in teaching Aikido to Children.  This article will focus on the Importance of  Teaching Aikido to Children, and Ota's Ukemi Teaching Methods for Children.

This three part series covers:

  • Fundamental ways to keep children's interest (Flow/Tempo suggestions)
  • Importance of teaching and focusing on great ukemi as first priority, including philosophy, tools and drills to teach great ukemi
  • Warm-up games and drills
  • Teaching children through their bodies with a minimum of talking (Backleading)
  • Backleading the basic 8 techniques
  • Discipline and safety guidelines, games, and suggestions
  • Movement drills
  • Safe randori for advanced children
  • Cool down games
  • Role of adults as models and instructors

Q: Ota Sensei, what is the major adjustment that we need to make to Aikido techniques for children to be effective, and for them to learn Aikido most quickly?

Ota Sensei:  After advanced ukemi, the next major essential element is to teach children proper ma'ai.

Aikido children need strong hopping, skipping, and movement skills so they can maintain ma'ai against much larger and stronger ukes.  We have specific drills to teach hopping and turning, in order that the children learn distance and ma'ai.   As their hopping skills grow they are able to maintain ma'ai naturally at all times, even at very dynamic, high speeds. The children then attain full effectiveness at realistic levels against adult ukes.  As you can imagine, this is a tremendous confidence boost and source of satisfaction.

Ma'ai removes the need for Aikido Children to have to fuss much with the technical aspects of Aikido locks until they are much older and bigger.  Small children especially benefit from our suggested emphasis on Aikido dynamic movement with the whole body:

  • Because of children's smaller size, in order to be effective, they must really be able to move large distances, fluidly and easily.
  • Use these ma'ai games or fun drills as the main teaching methodology, especially with young children less than 10

Bringing Adults down to Kid's Size

Because of kid's shorter height, whenever working with children, adults or older children should help young students learn ma'ai at their own level by coming down to the younger's ones height level by doing things on your knees (it will also improve your suwariwaza!):

  • Take ukemi on your knees
  • Attack or defend from your knees
  • To equalize: be on knees, one foot,  hand behind back, no hands, etc. to get you to kids level
  • Teach by backleading
  • Lead by example

Q:  Is it possible for young children to truly be effective against larger adult sized ukes?

Ota Sensei:  Absolutely!  We know it is fully possible for Kid's Aikido is to be effective in reality against large real life adult's size and weight because our children are able to do it.  The key is that the children have full ability to move large distances quickly with spontaneous, powerful Aikido movement. It is this ability to keep smoothly keep ma'ai at high speed against large adult ukes that generates off balance and allows children to actually perform effective powerful technique.

The added advantage of good ma'ai is there is no need (especially with young children) to be overly fussy about the technique, what is most important with children is teaching a DYNAMIC aikido movement in which fluid, powerful ma'ai generates the power at full realistic speeds.

Hopping basics:

  • Essential to draw the foot back to maintain best balance and one point
  • Lead with foot closest to where nage is moving to
  • Teach hopping as a primary tool to keep smoothly moving, constantly causing ukes to have to alter their course of attack. In this way the small child gains nearly complete control over the uke's direction, speed, and angle of attack - pretty cool!

Turning basics (ude-furi-choyaku-undo):

  • First step in choyaku is the essential one, to gain proper distance against large ukes and create centrifugal force
  • Teach choyaku is the primary element of iriminage for children


Q:  What are the specific child modifications to Aikido Techniques to bring out Full Effectiveness against adult sized ukes?

Ota Sensei:  Below are my specific suggested modifications to aikido techniques that allow children (or for that matter, small nages!) to do truly effective Aikido in every way against much bigger ukes.  As you can see, large distance hopping and turning  is the vital and essential modification and skill for most of the techniques for children:

  • Katedori Ikkyo, omote: Hopping to maintain ma'ai, using vertical uke hand 'bouncing' to off balance uke, hopping to gain enough forward movement
  • Katedori Ikkyo, ura (tenkan):  nage must cross step to gain needed distance to get behind uke
  • Katedori Nikyo, omote: uke forward and back, up and down, to allow nikyo to work
  • Katedori Nikyo, ura: nage must cross-step to gain needed distance to get behind uke, use bounce motion
  • Yokomenuchi Shihonage, irimi (with pin), and tenkan:  effective hopping to gain required initial distance and keep ma'ai
  • Shomenuchi Iriminage: very large distance ude-furi-choyaku-undo will make this truly effective.  This turning drill teaches the required deep distance that makes this work against large ukes
  • Munetski Kotaegaeshi, with pin: very large distance hopping tenkan, big bouncing of uke's hand.  Use the 'T pad 3x' drill, which teaches the timing and rhythm for this technique.
  • Ushiro (grab) Kokyunage
  • Ushiro (choke and hand) Sankyo: make sure the sankyo comes down low to touch floor, use the forward throw finish

At the level of Aikido for children,  remember that we must not be fussy with their techniques;  we must allow the children to be children.   Proper movement, hopping, turning, and ma'ai is much more important at their young level.

As they grow older, they will naturally modify and refine their techniques to the proper level in beautiful ways you would never imagine.  Why?  Because their minds and their teachers told them at they were doing it well at every stage of their young lives from the very beginning; and armed with natural quick Aikido movement and ma'ai, they refine their own technique very easily.

Q:  So, how do we teach these specific techniques and modifications to children?

Ota Sensei:   Here, we introduce one of our fundamental innovations:  use Backleading to Teach Aikido to Children

First, let me explain why is backleading is important before I even explain what it is.

Have you ever noticed how verbal explanations can never do the complete job in teaching Aikido?  Aikido is a visceral feeling in the body, and therefore, Ota Sensei suggests adopting the technique of backleading to show children (and adults) the movements that will be the foundation of their Aikido.

Why is backleading important?  Because young children, by their very nature, must learn first and foremost through their bodies (their minds have not matured yet).  (Adults basically learn through their bodies too, by the way).  Children of 6, 7, 8 years old (at the exact age that we most wish to mold them in a positive way) can't even be spoken to in  adult terms.   Yet at that young impressionable age, the attitudes that the children will carry for the rest of their lives are being created and imbedded in stone within their characters.

The challenge (and the opportunity) for us all becomes to teach them Aikido at this early age, and through Aikido, all of fundamental  philosophies of life.  All without any ability to do much talking to them.   So how do we accomplish this?

The solution is Backleading.  We can teach them everything they need to know through their bodies.

By using Backleading, children as young as 7 and 8 years old have been able to learn eight basic Aikido techniques, and to be able to apply them at realistic speeds.

Q:  OK, you've got me very interested.  What exactly is Backleading?

Ota Sensei:  Adopted from ballroom dancing, backleading involves moving the student through the positions without talking, with the 'uke' doing the leading.  Uke (who already knows the technique well) moves the nage through the various positions.   Especially for young children who are not even yet capable of much conversation, this method teaches them Aikido techniques magically!

  • Backleading is where the uke, acting in the role of teacher, leads the student nage's body through the body movement motions for any particular technique
  • Backleading leads to participation even by "unwilling" first time students
  • Backleading eliminates the need for very much talking at all (very useful for children of all ages, but especially the youngest ones).

To see what backleading looks like, watch carefully the following photographs and especially the hands.  In these photos, the uke is actually leading the nage through the throw by moving nage's body through the proper positions!:

 
 

Backleading is our primary teaching methodology, especially with young children.  The effect that backleading has on the overall class is magical.  Using the backleading teaching and helping ability of the more experienced students in place, dramatic increases the learning pace of the entire class organically occur.  Backleading skills in place gives you  at least ½ a class worth of instructor assistants.

We further make backleading teaching skill a requirement for belt advancement.  Students become excellent teachers of lower belts in this way, and they also learn their own techniques in powerful ways that they wouldn't otherwise.   More experienced students quickly learn that if they can't teach and backlead a technique to someone else, they themselves don't understand the technique that well.  It is also a very interesting mental exercise to figure out how each backlead could be done, communicating by placing nage's body, arms, legs, and hands in proper places, without talking.

Objectives of Backleading are:

  • We do not confuse the mind but teach the body (which learns quickly)
  • Backleading directly addresses the subconscious mind (which is fast), conscious mind is too slow - if you have to think about it, it's already too late.  By backleading, we teach through the body, and the mind catches up in plenty of time later
  • Backleading gives student feel for rhythm and timing of the technique
  • After the young student becomes familiar with the movement, then more precision can be added as they get older (they then understand and are motivated to learn the precision because they already understand the 'why' and the overall feeling of the technique)

I suggest that the older children students learn to backlead and teach the younger students as part of daily training.  From their very first yellow belt test, every child student in Ken Ota's school is testing not only on their Aikido but also on their backleading ability.   This translates into all students being able to help each other progress at very very fast rates, which dramatically raises the skill level of the children's class as a whole.

After Backleading is established in the older students, when introducing a new technique, the older student then simply tells the younger student:

"Let's learn this without talking, I lead you through it and you'll learn it very quickly!  Let's just do it"

Q:  How would I go about incorporating backleading into my children's teaching?

Ota Sensei:  First, we must set up a systematic set of children's techniques so that we can successfully train uke backleaders in a known set of proper backleads.  Therefore, below you can see what that we have created three Basic Sets of Aikido Children techniques, depending on the level of student. They build on one another, yet they are straightforward enough that in a short period of time it is possible to train the older students as skilled backleaders.

3 different sets of techniques:

  • The Basic 3
  • The Basic 6
  • The Basic 8

The Basic 3:

The Basic 6:

The Basic 8:

Q:  Can you describe the backleads in detail?

Ota Sensei:  Describing backlead in print is somewhat difficult to do well, I will do my best below.  If you have access to the Goleta Aikido with Ki Web Site, you can then watch the Quicktime movies and observe how uke is leading nage through the backlead.  In a future edition of this web page we'll have much more detailed movies of each backlead.

  • Katedori Ikkyo, omote, with pin: hold ryote-dori, hop nage forward, hop nage back, place nage's hand properly on your wrist, hop nage forward to 'take uke down'
  • Katedori Nikyo, omote and ura, with pin: same as Ikkyo, but backlead the nikyo
  • Yokomenuchi Shihonage, irimi, tenkan - hold ryote-dori, hop nage forward, hop nage back circular back, place nage's hand properly in shihonage grip, spin nage in proper direction, take the fall.
  • Shomenuchi Iriminage: cross the hands in front of you.  Whichever hand is on top, that is the side you pull nage into choyaku (turning drill) on that side.  Using choyaku movement, move them behind you, and place their hand behind your own neck.  Rotate yourself around nage in the proper direction.  Show nage how to raise arm for the iriminage.
  • Munetski Kotaegaeshi: cross the hands in front of you.  Whichever hand is on top, that is the side you pull nage into tenkan on that side.  Move them deep behind you with their tenkan.  Place their hand on your wrist for kotaegeshi.  Show them how to turn and move as you fall.
  • Ushiro (grab) Kokyunage
  • Ushiro (choke and hand) Sankyo

Following is a sampling of what backleading iriminage looks like, watch carefully the following pictures and especially the hands.  In these photos, the uke is actually leading the nage through the throw!

 
 

Summary

By backleading, young children in Ota's school learn basic 8 techniques before they are barely old enough to hold an adult conversation (a real feat!).

We recommend to really use teaching by Backleading.  It is useful, effective, and you'd be amazed at what children can learn THRU THEIR BODIES without talking at a young age!

Summary: Aikido for Children Part 2

Aikido for Children, specifically tuned through advanced high technology methodology and innovative drilling, is a beautiful tool to teach life skills to children.  Children properly taught and highly motivated at this young age will naturally develop great Aikido at the same time.

We hope you like what you learned here in Chapter 2 about Ma'ai and Backleading, and hope you'll return with us for Chapter 3:  Fun Aikido Children Drilling and Motivational Ideas .

We owe it to our children to not only give them Aikido philosophy, but also the true Aikido ability to be able to appropriately, wisely,  and powerfully use Aikido for real on the playground or in real life danger situations if they ever need to.

Some of the ideas in this article may seem quite a bit out of the ordinary.  However, we suggest that the world our children are growing up in has radically changed, but education and teaching methods haven't necessarily changed with it.  Therefore, as parents or as role models, we need to be open to new and bold, effective ideas.   In over 35 years of teaching, Ken Ota's methods have graduated over 30,000 students.  We offer those ideas and methods here for your enjoyment and use.

Aikido is a powerful tool for all of us is to develop the ATTITUDE of self-confidence with kindness, power with gentleness, speed with grace.  To give to our children the ability to see, learn, and do Aikido in both spirit and relationship will be a gift for their lifetimes.

Aikido for Children - Chapter 1

Importance of Advanced Ukemi;  Fundamental Philosophies for Effective Teaching Aikido to Children

This article was originally published online by John Sing on August 30, 2001. We are re-formatting and re-posting the article here for posterity.

ch1.jpg

This article is Chapter 1 in a 3 part series about Ken Ota Sensei's unique, successful, and innovative approach to teaching Aikido to children.  It is based on over 35 successful years of excellence in teaching Aikido, Judo, and Ballroom Dancing to both adults and children, using a complete physical / emotional / psychological approach.

In this series of articles, we'll examine Ota Sensei's successful methods and suggestions for increasing your fun and effectiveness in teaching Aikido to Children.  This article will focus on the Importance of  Teaching Aikido to Children, and Ota's Ukemi Teaching Methods for Children.

This three part series covers:

  • Fundamental ways to keep children's interest (Flow/Tempo suggestions)
  • Importance of teaching and focusing on great ukemi as first priority, including philosophy, tools and drills to teach great ukemi
  • Warm-up games and drills
  • Teaching children through their bodies with a minimum of talking (Backleading)
  • Backleading the basic 8 techniques
  • Discipline and safety guidelines, games, and suggestions
  • Movement drills
  • Safe randori for advanced children
  • Cool down games
  • Role of adults as models and instructors

Q:  Sensei, what is the importance of teaching Aikido to Children?

Ota Sensei:    In today's incredibly fast paced world, a child's path to growing up represents vast challenges to:

  • Become confident
  • Become capable
  • Build a healthy sense of self-esteem, community
  • Develop willingness and ability to help, lead, and teach others
  • Appreciation of value of discipline and ability to focus and achieve
  • Ability and willingness to work hard to achieve worthy goals

Young minds are like gelatin.  We want to put in good things before their minds firm up and harden for adulthood; we must put good principles in their mind before that mind becomes set.  Aikido for Children offers a powerful tool to teach these life lessons to our children.   Giving them an experience of Aikido blesses them with profound gifts for the future and all the people they will touch...... in ways we'll never know.

Q:   What are your goals for Aikido Children classes?

Ota Sensei:  The vital, effective skills that we want to teach our Aikido children is not the techniques themselves;  it  is what to do BETWEEN the techniques (whether on the mat or off).  The techniques are not as important as what happens in the time in between the techniques, just before them, or just after them. On the mat, these between-the-technique skills are

  • The ability to move, and lead, and always stay just out of reach of their attackers (this produces real skill and effectiveness regardless of size differences) 
  • Constantly sense their surroundings accurately and easily be able to naturally perform quick, effective, spontaneous Aikido movement
  • Naturally and spontaneously perform Aikido techniques with grace, power, and speed
  • Do everything in a kind, gentle, yet powerful way

Q:  What is in it for the adults that teach the classes?

Ota Sensei:  In order to complete your Aikido training, you must be able to powerfully transfer your Aikido skills to children.   Teaching Aikido to children  is not really about teaching Aikido techniques (although you do that and learn more than you ever dreamed possible about your own technique in the process), it is about you learning about how you appear and who you are as a person and a human being to the most honest people on the planet:  young children.

The children will be your ultimate teachers about yourself as a human being.   The children will test and prove your knowledge and effectiveness of your Aikido teaching skills and your ability to apply Aikido principles and philosophy to life.   Children are honest, they don't lie; if they like you, if they learn quickly from you.   If they don't, they don't come back.   Koichi Tohei Sensei has said, "Doing 10-man randori is not impressive if no one in your life likes you.  When everyone in your life loves you, when you create Loving Harmony everywhere in your life, when children always like you, THAT'S Aikido".

The children tell it best as to the value, here's what they have to say:

leyla kids aikido testimonial.jpg
jeanette kids aikido testimonal.jpg

To complete your own Aikido training, you must give back to others.  Someone helped you when you first started.  When you start to help others, and especially children,  you yourself will then know how well you have learned the lessons that were passed on to you.   You will find infinitely pleasurable ways for further refinement."

Q: Is teaching children fundamentally different than teaching adults?

Ota Sensei:  There are really very few fundamental differences between teaching children and adults.  Adults are grown-up versions of children, and the blocks to an adult learning Aikido,  are most often simply some subtle adult version of  a child's attention and interest span.   So, teaching effective children's classes is really experimentation to see what adult-ized versions could be done in adult class.

  • We discuss today ways that you can teach children quickly, using very little talking.  Your effectiveness teaching and practicing with adults will be vastly improved by the same methods.   In fact, almost all of the adult class drills that Ota Sensei has developed originated in children's class; the children have been our best innovators and creators.
  • In Aikido Children's class, we suggest focus is on teaching their bodies, using backleading.  This will work equally well for adults.  Properly done, backleading their bodies will then allow each student to teach their own minds in good time, far more effectively than you ever could.  By teaching primarily through the body, using backleading, high technology drills and games, the Aikido progresses at a much faster rate.
  • We'll cover backleading in more detail in Chapter 2 of this series.

Compared to adult classes, here are the specifics unique to children's class:

  • Kid's attention span, ability to learn, and physical ability / weigh is different, hence, shorter attention span means a faster , more varied class pace than adults.
  • Always remember you are really in the entertainment business, so don't let them pause to let them think too much.   Their fastest learning will occur when the flow and tempo of the class captivates their desire via interest, wonder, and excitement.  Use drilling that keeps their attention and their bodies moving most of the time.  If the drills are good, they work as good or better in adults!!!!!)
  • We have adapted the Aikido techniques for the children, to accomodate the much smaller size of the child compared to many of their ukes.  However, these modifications are extremely good for adults to use!

Q:  What do you mean by 'keep an entertainment or experience pace' for Aikido Children's classes?

Ota Sensei :  Truly effective Aikido teaching to children cannot be attained through slow pace talking, lecture, or slow pace drills. Ki is very dynamic, you must be at realistic speeds to truly appreciate its flowing power  So, I suggest it is important to create very entertaining classes that cater to children's shorter attention span, keep their minds and their bodies busy continuously.  Therefore, I suggest we make heavy use of fun drills and games in teaching children the actual Aikido techniques.

Using this approach, all Aikido for Children teaching methods and drills should be truly dynamic and full of movement - aimed at giving the children the  experience of Aikido movement at a safe (but effectively fast) speed.   Rather than using conversation as a teaching tool (especially for younger children who do not yet have adult conversations),  instead focus on building a collection of drills to help the children experience their bodies, learn to move and use their bodies, in productive, dynamic Aikido ways.

We aim for the child Aikido student to gain true, usable skill that can be delivered at any time under pressure, with accuracy and effectiveness.  These skills are experiences that  cannot be just talked about.  After all, life itself does not teach us by lecture or in classrooms.  Life just sort of pushes our minds and bodies around through experiences. Real skill in Aikido, or in living life, are best birthed in the interactions, experiences, and relationships that we can give our Aikido children through the drills, games, and practice. 
 

Q:  You suggest an interesting agenda for your classes, what do you do?

Ota Sensei: Our normal time duration percentages are as follows:

  1. Ukemi Warmup (20% of class time)
  2. Warmup/Conditioning Relay Race Games and Drills ( 20% of class time)
  3. Aikido Techniques and Aikido drills (including time for randori, older kids, etc.) (25% of class time)
  4. Judo techniques as appropriate ( 25% of class time)
  5. Cool down games (remaining 10% of class time):  4-corners (takes 15 minutes)  or  Back-To-Back (takes 10 minutes)
  6. Close

We spend more time teaching ukemi and warming up than most people spend teaching Aikido.  This is how important we suggest advanced ukemi and the warmup/conditioning drills are. 
 

Q:  What do you suggest are the ingredients for a good Aikido Children's class?

Ota Sensei:

  • The flow of the class moves at a fast and varied pace,  so that the children never have too much pause to think.  The class only slows when children need to catch their breath, then we rev it up again.  Keeping the children's class moving, keep the children entertained by the pace and experience of Aikido.
  • Teach great ukemi from the beginning to allow the speed to come up using ukemi pads.
  • Given good ukemi skills, make heavy use of fun drills as the primary teaching tool to get the repetitions required to accelerate the learning and speed of the children students
  • Keeping children safely moving is especially important to remove the time for the mind to create fears about falling or not being good enough. Rather, by moving the class along at a good pace, and specifically having the younger ones intently watching and being coached by the senior children , the fast class pace raises all children's pace and learning.
  • Choose the training partners for the children,  so that you match the appropriate older children with younger ones for best results from both.  Older more advanced children get to be 'on stage' to give them extra work, and to give them recognition!
  • Run the class with 'rules' that help the children learn discipline and the value of promptness in their lives. Our suggestion:   use the philosophy of Vince Lombardi Time for everything (i.e. always be early for everything).  Specifically in class, use a '5,4,3,2,1' countdown to motivate the children to line up quickly - you'll be amazed how quickly they learn to be alert and move fast.   Failure to do so means a small number of pushups or sit-ups.  This teaches children and adults the value of being alert and being early.   Vince Lombardi , the famous Green Bay Packer NFL Football coach, used to talk about how in  today's society, we arrive at work, take coffee, talk, we take our time (and that of others) far too casually.  The problem is, however,  in Aikido randori and in life, that being outstanding means being on or ahead of time in everything.  So we train the children from the start (smile!)
  • Remember that you are really in the entertainment business when teaching Aikido to children
  • Adult instructors have the primary responsibility to watch for the children's safety at all times.  We always watch the children very carefully, never letting them feel fear.
  • We teach the older child students to act as role models for the younger students.
  • Always allow the children to be children.  While keeping good discipline, we must always be non-fussy and kind with their techniques.  As they grow older, they will naturally modify and refine their techniques to the proper level in beautiful ways you would never imagine.  Why?  Because their minds and their teachers told them they were doing it well at every stage of their young lives.  They learn they can always improve, but that to try and start is always met with kindness and encouragement.

Q:  Sensei, you strongly recommend a strong, primary focus on Ukemi.  Why?

Ota Sensei: I suggest starting all Kid's Aikido classes with safe, fun ukemi drills.    Ukemi warm-ups allows children to burn off excess energy and makes their young minds open and present to learning the Aikido movements and techniques that will follow in the class.

More importantly, ukemi is the major determinant on how much you can accomplish in the rest of the class, how quickly the children can progress, and how safe the class can be. Therefore, the primary skill we suggest focusing and teaching children is ukemi.

Did you know that the #1 reason for injury for children / young people getting hurt or dying  is falling?  And of that, falling and hitting one's head?    Hitting one's head is on the playground, falling of bicycle, etc.......... ukemi skills will save children's lives. Excellent ukemi at high realistic speeds is giving the children an agility level and and survivability skill that far exceeds that of almost any other children's activity (except probably for gymnastics).

We teach them advanced ukemi from the beginning , using warm-up and practice with ukemi on PADS adapted from gymnastics.  Inexpensive futons or discarded mattresses can also be used.  You'll find that with these pads, the kids will LOVE ukemi.  With the pads, we remove fear from their minds (and fear of injury from OUR minds).  Everyone is born with a fear of falling.  But, children also don't know what they "can" and "can't" do.  So, the landing crash pads are the crucial element to start the children on a path to learning good ukemi.   The pads give them the confidence that they can do it, and they do. 
 

Q:  How should I teach Ukemi to Children using Pads/Barriers/Drills?

Ota Sensei:  The key to our ukemi success is teaching using gymnastics landing pads and gymnastics barriers and at a very safe but eventually high speed.  If the child practices too slowly, they will always have time to develop fear.  Rather, we lovingly coax them into having fun on the pads (safely), and the children discover they can do it dynamically.

The key point about teaching ukemi is always SAFETY, both on and later off the mat.  Safety is mostly in the attitude of the class and teachers, supplemented by proven safety high technology training methods adapted from gymnastics.

To achieve advanced ukemi for children:

  • Constant supervision by adults
  • High technology soft landing pads and barriers using proper drilling
  • Use soft barriers to teach high rolling skills.  Soft barriers provide motivation
  • Use various kokyunage timing throws to teach leading, blending
  • Always insure proper weaning of children onto the regular mat, no child does fall before he/she is ready

Using the methods touched on below, we have been able to teach our children to do the following SEVEN different types of ukemi:

  • Forward and Backward rolls
 
 
  •  Forward Rolls (high)
 
 
  • Roll and slap
  • Airfalls
 
 
  • Side Slap
  • Kickout
 
kickout1.jpg
 
  • Full-body
 
 

The instructors are constantly saying, "when you reach the right level, then you can go do that fall".    Go step by step, we must never let the children get ahead of their own ukemi skill level!

In addition to the adult instructors teaching the ukemi, young children watch the advanced older children and learn by imitation.  The speed and skill of older children's ukemi determines the pace of the ukemi and of the class. When good ukemi skills are present, the pace is good and sufficiently fast;  then, the younger children never have a chance to pause too much.  This is important, because when children stop, they develop fear of injury they never had before).  By seeing what other older children can do in ukemi, this reverses the situation; young children don't know they "can't" do it, and instead they do learn to do it by watching and imitating.

The following sections give suggestions of ukemi drilling and teaching:

Step 1: Teaching Basic Ukemi

 
caitlin helping lela roll.jpg
 

 We start by rolling on pads, assisted at every step by older children and adult instructors.

As necessary, the very new beginners are segmented to their own pad with their own instructor to learn the basics.  Safety is always first and never compromised in the search for energetic pace.

Step 2: Teaching High Roll Ukemi

We then proceed to build high falls, one step at a time: 

  • Start by low barrier, to get child to go over straight and gain height.
  • Once they are going over properly, we introduce 'roll and slap' without a lot of barrier height.
  • After that, we slowly start to raise the barrier in gradual steps (we have several increments of barriers).
  • IMPORTANT: any time that we raise the barrier , we raise the landing pad (i.e. doubling the landing pads).  This is critical to assure we remove fear as the young student knows that there is no 'drop' to the pad.  If the student never develops fear (and we watch and wean them like a hawk every step of the way), they will learn to do advanced ukemi in a matter of months.  Most of our orange belt children can do most of the advanced ukemi, and certainly by the green belt level they all can.  We have found all children of all body types are wonderfully flexible and acrobatic, given the right safety training and encouragement.
 
caitlin high fall over barrier.jpg
 
  • Only the advanced upper belts get to go over the very high barrier, the white belts need to "go around".  This is a very motivational goal for the lower belts, as we tell them, "when you earn your higher belt you'll get to do this too!"
 
 

In this way students get used to being in the air; they get the expertise to start combining 'roll and slap' with height.

Step 3: Teaching Advanced Ukemi

After basic ukemi, we specifically have drills to teach children airfalls (breakfalls), side slaps, full body, and kick-outs.

Only when the student has proven expertise in going over high barriers straight and true, only then do we slowing allow them to start doing airfalls on the pads

Instructors very specifically monitor the progress of the students - no student is allowed to go past his or her skill level in ukemi before their time.

Learning the other six falls follows the same progression:

With those drills in place, we slowly work up to the following higher speed advanced ukemi drills, only as the children are ready.  You'll like what you see:


Essential Importance of Ukemi to Aikido Children's classes

Q:  At what age can we start airfalls (breakfalls)?

Ota Sensei:

  • Anytime after the basic rolls and roll and slap
  • As long as the child is taught properly and safely, their young bodies and young minds will quickly take to doing these fall

Q:  Why teach breakfalls (and other advanced ukemi)?

Ota Sensei:

  •  To save their lives!

Q:  Why do we advocate the teaching of these advanced ukemi?

Ota Sensei:

  • With the landing pads, barriers and other teaching tools, everyone can learn advanced ukemi very safely
  • Advanced ukemi will greatly boost the class's progress and what is possible to be done 
 
 
  • It instills great confidence in the children when done properly and safely
  • Most importantly, advanced ukemi may save their life someday!

The methodology and reasoning behind Advanced Ukemi is discussed in more detail in the Ken Ota interview "Ukemi, Rhythm,  and Timing in Aikido", Aikido Today Magazine,  March/April 2000.  We believe advanced ukemi to be a real requirement to create advanced Aikido rhythm and timing for effortless power.  Advanced Ukemi is the essential element to allow safely teaching Aikido skills at realistic speeds, movement, and pace;  and allows our children to experience realistic drills.

We owe it to our children to give them with an ability to perform Aikido at realistic speeds on the playground.  Otherwise, at some point the child will self-discover that his Aikido activity hasn't given him real life skills.  More importantly, at realistic speeds, children also learn realistic wisdom and maturity to use Aikido wisely, including not using it at all if necessary.   We very strongly feel we have responsibility to the children and parents to instill this level of skill.  Ukemi is the essential foundation element to achieving this.

Start class by teaching the children Excellent Ukemi.  They will just love it and keep coming back for more..

In the next chapter in this series we will examine the topic of teaching Dynamic Ma'ai to Children and Backleading.

Summary: Aikido for Children Part 1

Aikido for Children, specifically tuned through advanced high technology methodology and innovative drilling, is a beautiful tool to teach life skills to children.  Children properly taught and highly motivated at this young age will naturally develop great Aikido at the same time.

We hope you enjoyed Chapter 1 and are looking forward to "Chapter 2: Dynamic Ma'ai for Children and Backleading"

We owe it to our children to not only give them Aikido philosophy, but also the true Aikido ability to be able to appropriately, wisely,  and powerfully use Aikido for real on the playground or in real life danger situations if they ever need to.

Some of the ideas in this article may seem quite a bit out of the ordinary.  However, we suggest that the world our children are growing up in has radically changed, but education and teaching methods haven't necessarily changed with it.  Therefore, as parents or as role models, we need to be open to new and bold, effective ideas.   In over 35 years of teaching, Ken Ota's methods have graduated over 30,000 students.  We offer those ideas and methods here for your enjoyment and use.

Aikido is a powerful tool for all of us is to develop the ATTITUDE of self-confidence with kindness, power with gentleness, speed with grace.  To give to our children the ability to see, learn, and do Aikido in both spirit and relationship will be a gift for their lifetimes.

The Importance of Ukemi, Rhythm, and Timing in Aikido

How Aikido is Taught at Goleta Aikido with Ki

This online article was originally published in print form in Aikido Today Magazine, March/April 2000 edition. We are re-formatting and re-posting the article here for posterity.

Author's foreword:  This summer, I am fulfilling a dream I've had for five years - to do the special 5-day-per-week June to August summer sessions at Kenji Ota's Aikido with Ki Dojo in Goleta, California.  Ota's unique teaching environment has produced remarkable success with advanced ukemi for children and adults.  I first met Ken Ota and his students at their summer weekend seminar in July of 1992.  When I saw 8 and 9 year old boys and girls doing ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, shihonage, iriminage, kotaegeshi, and kokyunage on each other - at real life speeds, safely, and smiling - when I saw 12 and 13 year old girls doing full randori - I knew something special was happening in Goleta. --John Sing

sensei_ken_ota.png

Kenji Ota Sensei and his son Steve Ota Sensei are the authors of the well known Panther Productions "Aikido Training Videos".  Today we talk with Kenji Ota Sensei about his unique suggestion for raising our level of Aikido practice through emphasizing Ukemi, Rhythm, and Timing.

Kenji Ota Sensei was taught Aikido in the 1960's by Koichi Tohei Sensei and Isao Takahashi Sensei.  Ota Sensei was born in Lompoc, California, and started practicing Judo in 1938;  he started ballroom dancing at about the same time.  Ota Sensei has been teaching Aikido, Judo, and Ballroom Dancing in Goleta, California (near Santa Barbara) for over 35 years.  He is probably the only Aikido/Judo teacher in the USA who is at the same time a Arthur Murray Dance Triple Gold Star Medalist, the highest possible Arthur Murray Dancing rank possible.

Due to this unique background, Ota Sensei's Aikido teaching style emphasizes advanced Ukemi and extremely powerful Rhythm and Timing.  Let's investigate what he has to offer.


Q:  Sensei, you feel extremely high emphasis on advanced Ukemi as the first and most important ingredient for good Aikido.  Why do you feel so strongly about this?

Ota Sensei:  My experience has been that advanced Ukemi (breakfalls, high falls, kickouts, 'body-only-slap', etc.) is the most important, essential skill necessary to allow Aikidoka to progress as quickly and proficiently as possible.  But for surprising reasons in addition to the traditional reasons you might expect.

We discovered in Goleta that with advanced Ukemi speeds, students would naturally begin to develop the speed, rhythm, timing, and endurance necessary to do Aikido at real-life speeds.  I am responsible to see that all my students can express O'Sensei's "Way of Loving Harmony" not only in the dojo but outside in real-life situations.  In order to do that, long ago aI started to develop ways to teach each of them to be able to do Aikido at real-life speeds, both physically as well as mentally:  and to do it smoothly, relaxed, enjoyably, accurately, and subconsciously.

Now, I am well aware that high speed Aikido training, improperly done, will surely cause serious injuries.  Yet, no one could ever do good Aikido at real-life speeds unless you've specifically trained at those speeds and levels.  We have successfully developed training methods and tools that can safely and reliably create this kind of high level Aikido training for everyone.  The foundation that makes it all possible is high technology advanced ukemi.

The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of the profound possibilities for Aikido teaching and skill development exploiting advanced high technology training methods for teaching ukemi. 

Q:  What is the value of advanced ukemi, both to students and the dojo?

Ota Sensei:  The story of my women students explains it best.  I started teaching Aikido and Judo to women students at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) over 35 years ago.  Unlike the men, I knew the women wouldn't tolerate 'toughing it out' - they would have to know how to do ukemi technique properly and safely.  We brought a direct student of Jigoro Kano (the founder of Judo), Ms. Keiko Fukuda (that that time she was the highest ranking woman judoka in the US, she was the US Judo Federation's Women's Technical Advisor) to come and teach us proper advanced ukemi, all the fine points.  Ms. Fukuda was a perfectionist, everything had to be perfect, or she wasn't satisfied.  So we learned all the advanced ukemi from her.

The result was, my women students immediately started to progress faster, have more fun, come back more often, and could throw the men harder than the men could throw them.  We started with 100 women per quarter.  We were told by the end of the quarter, we'd be lucky to retain 25 students.  Instead, next quarter we had 200.  Within a year we had to turn students away because the classes were so full.

Why?   We discovered that as the women's UKEMI technique became advanced, they enjoyed being thrown harder, faster, for longer periods of time, at real life speeds, AND they were more relaxed (no fear of injury), and had much more FUN.  Nage's techniques also took a quantum leap forward - because there was enough repetition and speed to imbed 'subconscious' muscle memory - and it was happening in very short periods of time.  Yet we were able to do this with speed, relaxation, and grace.  So, using this technology, we started to place high emphasis on advancement in Ukemi skills, breakfalls, airfalls, proper slapping with both the hands and the feet.

What happened next was unexpected.  We found that these advanced, high speed safe ukemi opened new doorways of Aikido training ideas and exploitation of new scientific discoveries and technologies.  We've been able to teach certain Aikido skills in 3 months that would normally take 3 years using traditional methods.  Advanced high technology ukemi was the reason.  I strongly wish to raise awareness within the Aikido community of these kinds of possibilities. 

Q:  What profound Aikido possibilities are you talking about?

Ota Sensei:  Because of this use of new technologies (many adapted from gymnastics) to augment traditional Aikido training methods, we have proven it possible to train very advanced, very "dangerous" throws, very HARD and FAST, over and over again, safely, night after night.  Beginning students at our school can safely learn breakfalls within 1 or 2 months, and they like it.  We actually have to hold back the eager students from doing full speed breakfalls on the regular mat until they're really ready.  With all of these advanced ukemi skills and experience, we have been able to safely implement training in Randori on a nightly basis.  Advanced students can be doing full speed Randori, safely every night for years.  As you can imagine, they become good.  Because of this training, my students have sufficient Randori training time to be effective in real life situations.  Again, without superb ukemi, you couldn't even begin to approach this level of training. 

The benefits and value of this high technology approach has proven itself in very realistic situation:  One of our black belt students was jumped by eight gang members one night as he was walking through a dark street on his way home - and he went into automatic pilot Randori mode.  30 seconds later, 3 attackers were on the ground with immobilizing injuries from hitting the ground, the others scattered and ran.  The police couldn't understand how this could happen, the gang was notorious for excessive violence on their victims.  Our student said, "I didn't have any time to think, I never even hit anybody, I just did Randori like I'd done in every class for 4 years".  Thanks to Randori training, this student is alive, because no man could hit as hard as the ground hit those criminals.

These are startling developments in Aikido learning and teaching capabilities.  And they can be done by anybody, if you have the right technology, drills, and know how to use them.  That's what we've spent the last 35 years developing - the knowledge on how to use these technologies safely and effectively.  We wish to share this knowledge with the Aikido community at large, to whatever extent any of you are interested. 

Q:  You talk about knowledge to implement new teaching discoveries and technologies to augment traditional methods.  Can you give some examples?  What do you mean by "Crossing the 10,000 barrier"  and why do you feel it is so important?

Ota Sensei:  Let me explain the reasoning behind our approach.  We can see in today's athletes that new high technology training methods and equipment are required to compete at an international level.  There are good reasons that Aikido training should improve along the same lines, while still preserving the time proven essence of traditional methods.  So what have we learned?

Recent sports research has scientifically discovered that 10,000 to 20,000 proper, accurate repetitions of any individual technique (in any sport) must be performed before the student is able to accurately reproduce the movement smoothly, accurately, at speed, with precision and control, under pressure.  That's for each technique.  Do a little simple math, and it's obvious that even 50 repetitions per day, five days a week, it will still take you 9 months before you cross the 10,000 repetition mark.  Now repeat that for each additional Aikido technique or ukemi.

steve_ota.jpg

Sports science, as well as the military, has well proven over the years that in order to create usable, accurate, powerful skill, you must train for the specific circumstances and situation that you will use that skill.  To perform Aikido at real life speeds, both nage and uke absolutely have to be able to train the 'fast twitch' muscles - the ones you must use to perform Aikido at real life speeds.  To train 'slow twitch' muscles, and then wait for the cross-over to speed (i.e. traditional Tai Chi training) takes years and years.  And, the fast speed training is never complete until the student has sufficient mat time and endurance and experience at the actual fast speed.

It's no wonder that people hurt themselves trying to do ukemi!  Slow speed, "safe" ukemi, does not prepare one adequately for high speed Aikido training or advanced high speed ukemi.  Without enough accurate, correct repetitions at speed, all it takes is one bad fall by an untrained student.... it is easy to see why so often ukemi training stops at this point.  Understandably, no teacher wishes to have injured students.  The end result in Aikido today is that with traditional ukemi training methods, very few students will ever train often enough to "cross the 10,000 barrier" and gain the requisite skill for advanced ukemi.  And that condemns the entire dojo to having to remove high speed, real life training for everyone, with the exception of a very select few.  And it doesn't have to be this way.

I am saying that with new technology, combined with new drilling methodology, we are all now capable of addressing these challenges successfully.  The benefits and possibilities to Aikido practice are profound. 

Q:  What are some specific examples of the Aikido training methods and tools you are talking about?

Ota Sensei:  Let me give you as many examples as space permits.  Let me emphasize, I am talking about much more than gymnastics landing pads and jumping barriers for ukemi.  I am talking about an integrated high technology knowledge approach using innovative drills we've specifically developed over the years to address the physical and mental requirements of ukemi.

The tools are not rocket science - adapted from gymnastics: specialized crashing/landing pads, foam barriers, specific mat types.  The key is the psychological ways that we drill;  the rhythm, timing, and duration of the drills, and which drill is selected and when.

jeffjulian.gif

The main problem in teaching advanced ukemi is the fear in the student's mind about landing.  We've developed a large portfolio of drills, specific to each type of ukemi.  Then we start the students on their 'journey of 10,000 repetitions' using these drills which allow the student to learn rolls, slap rolls, airfalls, full body slaps, kickouts, etc. repetitively without injury for the inevitable mistakes in the early going.  Fear of doing ukemi over high barriers is instantly solved by raising the landing pad on the far side of the barrier.  When the mind is free of fear of injury and pain, the student is free to learn.  We 'trick' students into believing they can do it - and of course, they end up doing it safely and enjoyably.  Finally, of course, we wean the students onto the real mat as they become ready.

Tradition claims that 'hard mats' cause students to refine their technique more quickly.  I disagree, because of the scientific findings that it takes a minimum of 10,000 accurate repetitions before a skill is learned well.  Especially for today's American, it simply takes too long to do 10,000 repetitions when each 'mistake' means long delays until the next repetition!

Furthermore, no matter how good the ukemi, on even a normal mat, no uke can take full speed ukemi falls in the hundreds of repetitions, night after night.  With the right drills and equipment, we can, and you could too.  With this and a whole lot more thinking along the same lines, the end result has been that in 6 months, we can move a student from near beginner to good proficiency, because we've been able to reproduce the required 10,000-20,000 repetitions, safely, for the 'fast twitch' muscles to get trained, for each technique, all without injury. 

Q:  Is it true that the teaching of Aikido/Judo to young children played a major role in developing this technology?  How did you develop all these drills?  And what role did the children play?

Ota Sensei:  My goals for Children's Classes are the same as for adults.  If the child doesn't develop the skill to safely do Aikido techniques on the playground for real, AND the wisdom and humility to know when and how to use it kindly, and when not to use it, then I have failed the children and their parents. 

andreas teaching lela ikkyo step 4 smaller.jpg

Our Children's Classes have been our best teachers.  We teach classes of up to forty 7-10 year old children, 4 times a week, two hours per class.  If you want to know if your teaching methodology is good or not, try doing it the same way with children.  Children don't lie.  They're more honest than adults.  If it's interesting, if it's good, they'll learn it quickly and accurately.  If not, they don't come back.  You can't talk to them, you have to show them.  I believe everyone should teach children; they will teach you vast amounts about humility, your own personality, how to give positive reinforcement, and teaching kindly.  The children will teach you far more than you will ever teach them.  This is a whole separate area in itself that I am willing to share knowledge and experience (see the Aikido for Children Ota Web Page).

And you know what our beginning children or adults like the best?  UKEMI.  They LOVE bouncing on the crash pads.  They love trying to jump over foam barriers.  They love even more learning how to do it safely so they can jump up and do it again.  Our children sometimes arrive for class 15 minutes early, because they know if they're early, the adults will be there to supervise them practicing jumping and bouncing and doing all their advanced ukemi.

This is how we figured out ways to teach 7 year old children how to do ukemi, as well as make it fun.  We also created similar methods to teach them ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, shihonage, iriminage, kokyunage, all with a bare minimum of talking.  Our intermediate children all know the eight basic Aikido techniques well enough to teach it to their classmates, without talking, by showing it to them.  This is where the real learning takes place, as I tell them, "if you can't teach it to someone else, you yourself don't know how to do it yet".   This foundation is what produces the efficiency in our children's classes.

We successfully learned many other things that all have to be combined together to produce the results we were after.  One is, never be too fussy with the child's technique.  Show them what to do, in a fun but non-fussy way.  As they get older, they will automatically refine their own technique in beautiful ways you could never imagine. Backlead their bodies kindly, don't talk about it, their minds (just like adult's minds) will wander in an instant.  Give them enough repetitions.   Give them your spirit, kindness, and be an example that they will respect.  And keep their minds off balance, keep them always wondering what's going to happen next .... the RHYTHM and TIMING of the class must keep them as interested as possible every second.

When your children students love and respect you, when they are interested in what you are doing, when they quickly learn Aikido from you, THAT is when you really know what you are doing.  That is when you will have developed the rhythm and pace in your classes that will attract adults and retain them.  We learned that adults really weren't acquiring Aikido skills properly and quickly enough until we started using 'adultized' versions of children's drills - FUN drills, over and over again.  That is how we developed the vast majority of our large portfolio of drills and knowledge - thanks to the children.

Q:  Do you have any final suggestions that you can give us about advanced ukemi?

caitlin high fall over barrier smaller.jpg

Ota Sensei:  Using new technologies properly applied, any dojo could teach advanced ukemi very early on.  By properly applying these teaching technologies, tools, and ideas, Aikido students could all learn to properly do at least 5 different basic ukemi, including the airfalls, side slap, kickout, full-body, and the 'no-arm-slap'.  The main gymnastic technology is safety designed crash pads and foam barriers.  The drilling methodology we've developed intelligently integrates these advanced ukemi skills into innovative Aikido drills specifically designed to cross the '10,000' repetition barrier in performing Aikido techniques.  These high technology training methods and tolls can easily be adapted to accommodate all students at different levels of age and health.  Young, vigorous students can reach startling levels of skill much more safely and quickly.  Advanced ukemi, and high speed with safety, is within reach of far more Aikidoka than you could ever have imagined. 

Q:  Thank you, Sensei, for a very different and interesting perspective on Ukemi and Aikido possibilities.  Now, can you elaborate more on rhythm and timing?  What do you mean by rhythm and timing in Aikido techniques?

Ota Sensei:  Obviously, Aikido is much more than being able to do fast, good ukemi.  Here I would like to address rhythm and timing in Aikido technique - these factors I also feel are insufficiently stressed in today's Aikido.  Again, this is through no fault of current instructors,  You cannot teach what you've not experienced yourself.

Have you ever wondered why elegant, skillful practitioners of any sport or skill look so good?  Because they have an elegant, rhythmic timing specific to themselves and whatever skill they're performing.  Watch any very high level Aikido sensei perform elegant technique, for example, O'Sensei, Koichi Tohei in his prime, Kenji Shimizu, and many others.  You can clearly see intangible, classical rhythm and timing in their movements.  The question is, can this rhythm and timing be taught?

I assert the answer is clearly YES.  Furthermore, I also assert that there is a specific, optimum rhythm and timing for proper, efficient, graceful performance of each Aikido technique.  In Goleta, because we have practiced high speed real life Aikido training speeds night after night, safely, we have over 35 years experience in what exactly is that proper full speed Aikido rhythm and timing to bring the unique centrifugal force characteristics of each Aikido technique to full bloom.  Very few other schools have this kind of experience, and we are willing to share it.  We have discovered by trial and error, what is the optimum rhythm and timing for each attack and technique, thanks to our nightly 2/3/4 attacker full speed randori sessions.

Rhythm and timing is especially important to Randori.  Aikido's roots is based on multiple person defense - at the same time, wanting to resolve with Harmony and without violence.  It is only with proper rhythm and timing can you truly survive and thrive in one of our 3 minute randori drills.  In fact, in a 3 minute randori drill at real life speeds, doing a technique with physical strength is a deadly liability, not an advantage.  You'll tire out after only 30 seconds.  Rhythm and timing removes the need for physical strength and allows you to relax and actually thrive in a 3 minute randori.  Rhythm and timing at real life speeds of attack spontaneously births powerful centrifugal force Aikido techniques.  The flow of Ki becomes like a rushing river.  And need I say, advance ukemi is the foundation key to creating this essential Aikido practice experience. 

Q:  How can we teach and learn rhythm and timing in Aikido techniques?

Ota Sensei:  By it's very definition, rhythm and timing cannot be practiced at a slower speed than you will actually perform.  Rhythm and timing changes as the speed changes, just like a waltz has a different beat than a tango.  Therefore, ANY effective, real life, real speed Aikido rhythm and timing, along with associate proper technique, mental attitude, and relaxation, cannot and does not appear below the high speed of advanced ukemi!

Therefore, to create this skill of rhythm and timing at the high speed of real life Aikido, in the shortest time possible, one must specifically drill, practice, and train at that high speed often enough to be able to develop and feel the proper rhythm and timing for each technique at that speed.  Backleading is the primary methodology to teach the proper rhythm and timing from an advanced student to the learning student.  By learning the basic rhythm and timing through backleading, and then drilling the Aikido technique often enough at high speed, natural rhythm and timing will appear simply because you'll be too tired to do anything else!!  Such is the beauty of high speed safe 3 minute randori Aikido training.  You can and should, of course, start out slowly enough and build speed over time, but the true high speed rhythm and timing only appears by practicing at the high speed of advanced ukemi. 

Q:  Now, that sounds like a big challenge!

Ota Sensei:  I say it is easy to address using the methods outlined above, and I'm willing to share how we do it.  Again, the secret is in the types of drilling you use (including backleading), drilling which exploits the high technology training equipment and using advanced ukemi.  In over 35 years of performing and teaching ballroom dancing and Aikido, I know that rhythm and timing can be taught, and it can be taught easily, IF you have the experience in knowing how to do it.  Using backleading, the proper repetition drills, and requisite advanced ukemi speeds, you will naturally pick up the rhythm and timing and imbed it in the 'fast twitch' muscle memory of the student, safely, easily, and with a great deal of fun.

Q:  Is it possible to learn rhythm and timing from Aikido alone?  How do you improve rhythm and timing in Aikido if you don't know it already?

Ota Sensei:  I know that all of my Aikido students over the years, the good ones all had rhythm and timing - but they made rapid progress through a very unexpected (but logical) channel:  ballroom dancing.  Any Tai Chi / Aikido / Judo teacher will tell you of the required skills of sensitivity, leading, following, footwork, balance, and that indefinable 'style' that is required for truly elegant technique.  I know from my experience, my students couldn't learn rhythm and timing completely from Aikido.  The good ones all became really good immediately after they started to become good ballroom dancers; and then, their footwork, timing, and rhythm all spontaneously started to appear in their Aikido.  (see the picture of Ken Ota Sensei and his wife Miye dancing!)

Ken_and_Miye_Ota_ballroom.jpg

The very definition of rhythm and timing implies a harmonious relationship between nage and uke(s), just like dance partners.  For years we've known that dancing and Aikido have a lot in common; the power, grace, and rhythm from both comes from a beautiful sense of timing, rhythm, motion, movement, leading, and body awareness and control.  So, I suggest, to truly develop your powerful ability to use proper rhythm and timing and to truly remove the need for physical strength in Aikido, do yourself a social favor and become a great ballroom dancer.

Most of you don't know that Bruce Lee was also a champion cha-cha dancer.  Koichi Tohei was a great dancer.  And after all, what good is great Aikido if no one likes you?   Koichi Tohei said, "10-man randori is not impressive if no one in your life likes you.  If everyone in your life and family likes you, if children always like you, then that's Aikido.  Loving Harmony in life, THAT'S impressive". 

 

Q:  Your reputation is based not just on your innovations in teaching philosophy, but on your total approach to teaching "The Way of Loving Harmony" as an approach to life.  What general suggestions would you like to close with for all us as teachers and students?

Ota Sensei:  Rhythm and timing applies not only to the performance of Aikido techniques.  I believe you must also combine the elements of rhythm and timing into the Dojo class atmosphere, the Aikido teaching style, along with the Aikido practice itself.

I suggest we want to teach these three kinds of skills (advanced ukemi, rhythm, and timing) to Aikido students from the very beginning.  I am very happy to share 35 years of experience in developing technology, innovation, and specific drills to safely teach ukemi, rhythm, and timing at the higher speeds required to rapidly teach children and adults proper blend of rhythm, timing, movement, smoothness, subconscious muscle memory, and relaxation required for them to spontaneously perform powerful Aikido techniques and "Loving Harmony" attitude, both on the mat and in life.

Each of these factors are interlocked, and must be blended in an appropriate manner.  By adding advance ukemi to our practice of Aikido techniques, and thus releasing the beautiful flow of rhythm and timing at higher speeds - we will then dramatically increase our ability to relax and let go of need for physical strength; off balancing uke very easily, and peaceful resolution naturally begins to occur.

Aikido is a beautiful art, composed of many interrelated pieces - non can be separated from another.  I hope I have piqued your interest in these three important areas, and I invite you to dialogue with me for further information.  My aim is to spread these possibilities and knowledge to the greatest extent possible - and to allow each of you a chance to use whatever experience we've created here in Goleta to further your own practice of Aikido.

Thank you.

Kenji Ota: 1923 - 2015

Martial Arts and Ballroom Dance Sensei

Sensei Ken Ota lived through WWII's Japanese internment era and became a widely loved teacher of manners and movement in the disciplines of ballroom dance and aikido. He would tell his students, “Don’t try. Do.”

Fundamental to both judo and aikido is the art of the fall. During Kenji Ota’s 52 years as Goleta’s premier sensei in both martial arts, he taught more than 10,000 students how to fall gently, safely, and, above all, confidently. Or, as his wife, Miye Ota, described it, “to land as a cat.” Ken Ota, who died in November at age 92, operated out of a dojo he and his wife built — cinderblock by cinderblock — on Magnolia Avenue in the heart of Old Town Goleta. The structure was joined at the hip to Miye’s thriving beauty salon, where she made matrons of Goleta’s pioneering families look like the movie stars found in her waiting room’s glamor magazines.

When the Otas opened the studio in the early 1960s, large cornfields and tomato patches lay within easy spitting distance. Over time the area morphed from rustic-rural to aggressively unpretentious urban-utilitarian. Across from the dojo stands a self-serve car wash. Down the street, a Mexican evangelical church thumps out God-fearing rock music, a no-frills gym caters to the hard-core muscle crowd, and a hip-n-healthy restaurant seeks a toehold with the young millennial market.

The Otas were not content merely to open a dojo for martial arts; they opened their Cultural School, too, for ballroom dance, cotillion, manners, and etiquette. Drooping from the ceiling directly above the training mats is the dojo’s famously incongruous chandelier. A sign on the wall ticks off five basic rules of conduct. “Respect your parents, instructor and the law,” reads the first. The last commands, “Always be a gentleman.”

Ken Ota trained in ballroom dance with Sheila Webber-Sloan, a U.S. Dance Champion, winning awards and making television appearances.

The Magnolia Avenue school is where Kenji Ota — an award-winning ballroom dancer — started, but he expanded to Cal Poly, the YMCA, Montecito Country Club, and UCSB. At the latter, he was hired to teach judo in the early 1970s. The program was expected to fold, but it thrived under Ota’s direction. It grew to include a groundbreaking program for women, bringing some of the foremost women judo stars as teachers. He did the same for the university’s moribund ballroom dance program, also still going strong. Both are now taught by his 67-year-old son, Steven Ota. It wasn’t until two years ago that old age forced Ken Ota to give up any pretense at teaching.

None of this did Ota ever intentionally set out to do. Events conspired. One step begat another. Opportunity presented. And Ota responded as one would expect of someone masterful in the art of falling. “Sensei never went after things,” his wife explained. “He just fell into them.” In so doing, Kenji Ota — gruff, warm, commanding, and relentlessly generous — would become second father to countless students, his dojo a second home to many more. At a standing-room only memorial service held in the Cultural School in January, Steve Ota would say, “He was a guy from Lompoc. He taught a bit of dancing. He taught a little bit of judo. But he had this ability to look inside people and see the good and the potential.”

Kenji Ota was born in Lompoc, one of four kids and the son of Japanese immigrant farmers. That made Ota a nisei, or second-generation Japanese American. Lompoc held about 100 such families, who had their own agricultural co-op, church, general store, gas station, and judo dojo.

As a child, he’d suffered rheumatic fever, and, at one point a doctor told him the disease so weakened his heart he’d never be able to exercise. “He said, ‘The heck with the doctor,’ and went out and got barbells and became very muscular,” said Miye. By high school, Ota was avidly pursuing judo and body-building. The chief photograph at his memorial service was of a radiant young man in blue swim trunks — glorying at the beach in his strength and beauty.

As a teenager, Ota played football. He hung out with the team and hit as many barbecues as possible. On occasion, his wife said, Ota and his friends would raid watermelons from his own father’s farm. “His father would have given them the melons,“ she said, “but [Ken] thought it was more fun to steal them.” His father, Yasuke Ota, Miye recalled, took full advantage of the steelhead trout then coursing up the lower reaches of the Santa Ynez River; they swam in such abundance he could spear them out of the water with a pitchfork, a technique known as “Portuguese fly-fishing.”

In 1941, the Lompoc High School football team on which Ota played did something no other Lompoc team had ever done; they beat Santa Maria High School. “This was a big deal,” declared Lompoc journalist, sports writer, and historian John McReynolds, who wrote the book Vanished: Lompoc’s Japanese. “To avoid violence after the game, the Lompoc players had to get into cars and hurry home,” said McReynolds.

But as of December 7, no one cared who won that game. That was the day Japanese bombers wiped out Pearl Harbor, triggering America’s entry into World War II. At that point Ota became simply a Jap. Ota told McReynolds that he was working at a gas station at J and Ocean streets, pumping gas, when word of the attack hit. “A bunch of cars started honking their horns. They’d pull into the station, see him, and then hit the gas,” McReynolds said.

On February 23, 1942, a Japanese sub launched a few shells at Ellwood Beach. Only an oil company tool shed was destroyed, but the attack had broader ramifications. The process of rounding up issei (first-generation Japanese in America) and nisei families had already begun, throughout Lompoc and the entire Pacific Coast. After the Ellwood incident, it took off with a vengeance. By April, the Ota family — like most of Lompoc’s Japanese — were packed onto buses and hauled off to Santa Anita Race Track, where each family was assigned a horse stall. Soon after, they were taken to the Gila River internment camp in Arizona. Gila River had barbed-wire fences, a guard tower, and next to no privacy. It was also where Ota would meet his future wife, who grew up just outside Guadalupe near Oso Flaco.

 Miye Tachihara and Ken Ota in Arizona

Miye Tachihara and Ken Ota in Arizona

The story goes that Ota was first drawn to Miye because of “her well-developed musculature.” In high school, Miye played many sports and edited the high school yearbook. She was a demon at field hockey, so fast she could steal the puck from opposing players at will. By any reckoning, Miye Tachihara was a firecracker. For Ota, she was the Fourth of July. But she was also five years his senior.

Miye initially rebuffed him. “I’d say, ‘Go away, you’re too young,’” she remembered. But Ota didn’t go. There were other issues, too. Ota had bad hair, Miye recalled, bad table manners, and spoke English with a thick Mexican accent he’d picked up from his friends. It’s a wonder, she acknowledged, they ever got together. “He was kind. That’s what won me over,” Miye explained. “Not everyone’s that way.”

Construction was still underway at Gila River when Ken and Miye were sent there, with long deep ditches everywhere. As they walked together one night, Miye recalled, she fell into one. Before she hit bottom, Ota “swooped me up,” she said. Even so, the age difference — he was 19, she was 24 — had to be addressed. In a dramatic role reversal, Miye said, “I had to get his father’s permission to marry.”

Nisei were allowed to leave the internment camps if they relocated away from the West Coast. In 1944, Ota moved to Philadelphia to work in a factory. He tried to enlist — the all-Japanese 442nd Regiment had established a reputation for bravery — but was turned down, physically unfit from the rheumatic fever that had left lasting damage to his heart. Miye followed Ota to Philadelphia not long after, and there they tied the knot. She opened a hairdressing business, and even with the war still raging, she built up a loyal clientele.

The Otas moved back to California at the invitation of Miye’s Santa Barbara beauty-school teacher. Matilda Green had stayed in touch during the internment, sending Miye cards at Gila River, writing words of encouragement and such pearls of advice as “be nice but not too nice.” Of the 100 Japanese families moved out of Lompoc, only two returned. What equipment they stored while in the camps was gone upon their return, their lands taken over. One farmer, Robert Hibbits, who’d opposed the Japanese internment hired Victor Inouye — a friend of Ota’s and an accomplished martial artist — immediately after the war; he got threats his barn would be burned down. Well after the war ended, one Lompoc gas station posted a “No Japs, No Germans Allowed” sign. Though Ota would return to Lompoc to visit and train with Inouye, he would not move back.

Steve Ota recalled his father never discussed the Gila River camp — “It’s not something he talked about” — but historian John McReynolds had a different experience. Most of the 80 issei and nisei he interviewed for his book avoided any such discussion. By contrast, he said, Ota was relatively forthcoming. “He remembered it wasn’t fair, and it pissed him off,” said McReynolds.

Upon moving to Goleta, Ota worked briefly on Dos Pueblos Ranch, then as a machinist for Western Welding. He attended beauty school briefly but was moved to start teaching judo in the early ‘60s when his son got picked on in junior high school. He dug a big hole in the ground, filled it with sawdust, and covered it with a tarp — his first training area. There Ota taught Steve how to roll, fall, and to throw an opponent. Clearly, the lessons paid off. The bullies stopped bothering Steve, and soon other parents were asking Ota to teach their kids judo, too.

Ken and Miye Ota began dancing through the Arthur Murray school.

He “fell” into teen dance lessons almost the same way. He was shocked at the “pre-sexual” contact he observed when picking his son up from a junior high school dance. That would not be tolerated. In 1964 the Otas opened the dojo and cultural school, teaching boys and girls judo and how to dance. Some boys went reluctantly. When one refused to participate at all, Ota quickly changed his mind, throwing the adolescent “gently” to the ground. “That got everybody’s attention,” Miye said. Later, at UCSB, he would encounter the occasional arrogant ballroom student. Ota would observe with wry understatement how certain individuals were afflicted with “the disease of cranial-rectal inversion.” The problem quickly resolved itself.

Ota added aikido to his bag of tricks in 1963. It was first introduced to the United States in 1955, and Ota was intrigued by an article he saw in Black Belt magazine, which — as Steve remembered — “showed people throwing each other all over the place and smiling.”

Sensei demonstrates a throw with the help of four black belts under the famous chandelier.

As a martial arts instructor, Ota emphasized speed, timing, and rhythm. He went to elaborate lengths to help students overcome their natural fear of gravitational inevitability, setting up cushioned crash pads and ever-taller barriers. Then he’d hold a stick horizontally aloft even higher still. They learned to throw themselves further and faster, developing confidence in their ability to land without damage.

Sometimes he made students practice their routines blindfolded “to better feel the other person’s movement,” said Steve. Often he’d teach a sequence backward and forward. “He wanted to develop technique not just beat each other up,” Steve said. “Gentleness is stronger than strength.” But Ota could explode in a hurry when the need arose. About 10 years ago, four young men made the mistake of trying to mug Ota. They quickly found themselves airborne. “He taught people to be fast, fast, fast,” his son said. “On the street you have only a few seconds.”

On occasion, a street drunk or two would stumble into the dojo, most of whom Ota respectfully escorted out. Some were more insistent. A former student recalled how about 20 years ago one intruder came in and threatened to “Kung fu you and kick your butt.” Ota, in his seventies at the time, was in a back room. As the student attempted to respond, he recalled hearing “the shuffle of flip flops.” The intruder raised his fist at the student, and Ota inserted himself between the two, holding a Coke in one hand. Then Ota silently walked toward the man, backing him out of the building and to the curb. Not a word was spoken. Not a punch thrown.

The same student — who started taking lessons after winding up in the custody of county sheriff’s deputies — recounted how he called Ota one evening after his car broke down somewhere near Camarillo. Ota’s response? “Oh, I remember those strawberry fields.” Ota picked his student up, had the disabled car towed, and grabbed a quick meal at McDonalds.

At Ota’s memorial service, countless such stories were told. “Don’t try,” he would press his students. “Do.” One remembered lifting weights early in the morning with Ota, who was decidedly unimpressed by the student’s number of reps. “Fifteen is not a number,” Ota barked. “’Ow’ is a number.” Another student remembered Ota giving him a pencil with erasers on both ends, the point being, “It’s okay to make mistakes.”

The most repeated of all Ota’s many aphorisms, however, was, “If you can’t teach, you don’t really know it.” As a teacher, Ota could be demanding. On occasion, he’d softly whack students with his staff to correct their form. But he was forbearing of mistakes if effort was made. Ota taught by expectation. Based on the outpouring of stories told at his memorial service, it clearly worked. “He trusted us,” said one speaker. “He left us alone to become the people we needed to be and gave us the tools to do it.”

Not bad for someone who just fell into teaching.

Why children should practice Martial Arts

More than 6 million children in the United States participate in martial arts. Martial arts are known to improve social skills, discipline, and respect in children. Children can also improve their abilities to concentrate and focus on activities, as well as bettering their motor skills and self-confidence. Martial arts can be fun and beneficial at any age.

 
aikido-belt-test-line-up.jpg
 

Skills like empathy, responsibility, and self-discipline are not innate, they need to be taught.

For children whose brains are still maturing, it can be hard to learn and develop these behaviors, so they come with practice and age. Martial art is a useful way to train children in how to have self-discipline, as well as many other behavioral skills that will serve them well in life.

Martial arts are more than a way to attack someone or defend yourself, they teach you about the consequences of your actions.

Even for kids whose brains are still growing, an aikido, judo, or other martial arts class provides an excellent environment for them to learn self-respect, respect for others, and self-discipline. Students have to respect their instructor, or they won’t be able to learn from him or her. They have to respect themselves in order to have the confidence to train properly.

Lastly, they have to develop self-discipline to practice and repeat their training until the movements are second nature. Martial arts, like many other things in life, teaches children by training them, forcing them to practice, letting them make mistakes they can learn from, and forcing them to practice some more. The different degrees that people can attain in martial arts disciplines give them goals to strive for, but it’s only after long hours of training and repetition that they are able to do so. Getting another belt is something any kid interested in it wants, and the nature of the sport requires them to discipline themselves to do it. Exactly how self-discipline is learned is not something that’s easy to explain, since it’s the product of a combination of training, repetition, and the desire for improvement.

Self-discipline is a skill that translates well into every area in life, and school is no exception. In one study, kids who studied martial arts were found to perform better in math, be more attentive, have better social skills, and have an easier time focusing in class than those that didn’t.

Taking up some form of martial art was even found to help children mitigate the symptoms of ADD/ADHD, and allow them to perform and behave better at school and at home. Some parents are concerned that teaching kids martial arts may make them violent, but the reverse is actually true- studies on disadvantaged children from violent homes found that some form of training actually made them less violent than their peers from similar circumstances.

Much like disciplines like yoga, martial arts can help calm and focus young minds while teaching them important skills. Practices like aikido are much more than a means of teaching kids to protect themselves from bullies, they are a way to show them how to respect themselves, each other, and learn the kind of discipline skills that will help them in school, work, and beyond.

Excerpts from familyvaluesclub.com

Something to think about…

 
  Aikido with Ki

Aikido with Ki

 

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

– Marianne Williamson

Aikido Turns Conflict on its Head

For 60 years, American practitioners have given up the fight.

Growing up in a tough neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, Andrew LeBar learned from an early age to hold his own. When someone pushed him, he pushed back.

“I had hard eyes,” recalls LeBar, who still carries the stance of a bulldog and has the square jaw to match. “If you look like a victim, you’re going to be taken advantage of.”

Heading back to school at the University of Kansas in his 30s, LeBar decided to try aikido, a Japanese martial art, thinking he might pick up some self-defense techniques. At first he was intrigued by the group’s teacher—a “little old Japanese man.” LeBar had never seen anyone move with such grace or agility.

Then the sensei began to speak, and LeBar felt his foundation shift.

“It was about dealing with someone’s direction or force in a peaceful way—taking that energy and changing it.”

While other martial arts might involve punching, kicking, or grappling, aikido teaches students not to resist or confront an attacker, but to unite with their opponent and move together, leading the other person’s energy in a new direction.

It didn’t take long for LeBar to realize aikido would teach him something much bigger than how to handle a punch. “Relationships are what it’s about,” he says—“how we deal with people, how we deal with ourselves.”

ART OF PEACE
Introduced to the United States via Hawaii 60 years ago this spring, aikido can trace its origins to early 20th-century Japan, where it was developed by Morihei Ueshiba, first as a modified form of jujitsu, then as its own art. The techniques evolved further under Ueshiba’s top instructor, Koichi Tohei, who had also studied Zen and who had developed an interest in breathing and meditation practice while serving as a soldier in Manchuria during World War II. After his master’s death, Tohei went on to form his own branch of aikido, with a greater emphasis on meditation and spiritual development.

In Tohei’s “ki-aikido” practice ( ki, loosely translated, means “energy” or life force), students don’t spar but instead practice dozens of intricately choreographed attacks and defenses, moving together with their partner almost like a dance. Students advance toward a black belt as they master more and more challenging techniques, but they also progress on a parallel track of ki development, with solo exercises that test their ability to remain calm and stable when challenged.

The partnered techniques, or “arts,” can be physically effective, but they actually have a more symbolic purpose, says Christopher Curtis, an eighth-degree black belt and the Hawaii Ki Federation’s chief instructor. “They represent the conflict in the relative world,” he says. “Really the purpose of aikido is to learn to be calm and clear and effective in the midst of conflict.”

Meditation is an essential part of the practice, to strengthen a student’s capacity to find and maintain a sense of calm and awareness. But the study and use of martial arts techniques deepens that training, Curtis says.

“You can’t really have one without the other – it’s a package…”

Read more at: spiritualityhealth.com