By Joshua Hagen
As a teaching tool, I believe that uchikomi is valuable to the coach showing a new technique or even a new variation of a technique. Nagewaza, or throwing techniques, are incredibly complicated and difficult tasks to complete. Breaking such tasks into smaller, easier to digest segments makes learning them much easier. Teaching a technique in its three phases, kuzushi (breaking balance), tsukuri (entry) and kake (finish of throw) makes a lot of sense. I cannot imagine trying to teach a judoka uchi mata for the first time without breaking it into pieces, for example.
However, once an athlete feels comfortable with a technique, I believe that having them perform dramatically more kuzushi and tsukuri, without completing the throws, can be harmful to their development.
I acknowledge that when judo first started to be practiced, and in the many years following, crash pads were not readily available. This would mean that to perform upwards of 100 nagekomi a day could be rather brutal on the body and would probably lead to too many injuries among the athletes. In dojos where they do not have the means to keep crash pads, or the funds to procure them, I fully understand why there would be an imbalance of uchikomi compared to nagekomi.
One issue I have is that as athletes get better at a technique, even without prompting, they will increase the speed and often the power with which they enter, which is great, and is in fact the goal. The problem is that as the athlete speeds up, he has to work harder and harder to actually stop in the middle of the technique or sequence. That means he is literally building muscles to build a physiological barrier to prevent the kake phase of the technique, not to mention a psychological barrier as well. If the vast majority of the time that I perform a technique I am telling myself to stop in the middle of it, I am constantly reminding myself that the goal is to enter the throw rather than to fully complete it.
Success in high performance requires a high level of confidence in one’s throws, and while there is more to Olympic judo than just throwing, it is clearly an essential part of it. Practicing uchikomi is not equivalent to a complete throw, but nagekomi is. To use use my own personal experience as an example, imagine that you train 5 nights a week at a very competitive dojo or national training centre. The list of your regular training partners consists of athletes like Nick Tritton, Sasha Mehmedovic and Frazer Will. Now let's pretend you had a great practice, and that you were able to throw each one of these guys twice during randori, after having had 2 rounds of randori with each athlete. You performed a typical dojo warm up with somersaults, etc, followed by a few hundred uchikomi, and finally, rounds of randori. This means that, on a great night, you managed 6 clean throws during an entire 2-hour practice: not a confidence-building exercise. Getting athletes to unsuccessfully perform 200 throws and successfully perform 6? No wonder the success rate of the average attack at the Worlds or Olympics is only 15%!
Practice Makes PERMANENT. If we continue to stop in the middle of the throw in practice, it is what we are more likely to do when it matters. Doing the same thing over and over creates habits, we want our habits to be finishing techniques, not giving up halfway. How many times have we seen in tournament an athlete who doesn’t “commit” to his attack, who false attacks, or seems incapable of finishing a throw. Now, I am not saying that uchikomi is entirely at fault for this phenomenon, but I believe the overuse of it does shoulder some blame.
Finally the question is, “Well, is it at least a good way to get warm, is it a decent warm up?” As I have written before, there are huge benefits to foam rolling. Pairing it with stretching at the start of class will increase recovery significantly and will also increase flexibility. At my dojo, we set aside approximately 15 min every day to foam roll our muscles and stretch. When that is completed, athletes are ready for any drill or set of nagekomi or randori that you would like to perform. My main objective as a coach is the BEST use of the time I have with the athletes. In performing a relatively short, but very functional warm-up, followed by nagekomi over uchikomi, I am getting a much better use of my time in trying to create the best judoka that I can, as there is more value in a smaller number of high-quality throws than in any number of low-quality, incomplete throws.
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