Dealing with difficult partners

Recently Julia, a visitor to our dojo, asked for my advice about dealing with difficult partners. At her usual dojo a couple of new starters were apparently actively blocking attempts to perform the techniques the class was practising. The two men were ex karateka who seemed to have something to prove, and Julia was at a loss as to how to deal with the situation.
My advice to her went something like this:
My first thought was that the two men, both aikido beginners, should be made aware that aikido is a cooperative activity, particularly in the initial stages. Partners help each other to become familiar with the basic form of techniques; refinements that make the techniques effective, including when dealing with uncooperative partners, come later. So for beginners, obstructive practice, blocking partners’ attempts to rehearse techniques, serves no useful purpose. I always try to make this point very clear when people first start practising at Koteikan.
However, obstructive partners can teach us valuable lessons. They give us problems that, if resolved, can significantly improve our level of practice. In Julia’s case, learning how to deal with partners who are stronger than herself would be a big step forward for her. She needed to learn how to avoid trying to match her strength with stronger partners and replace it with a much more effective response involving a unified combination of ki contact, relaxation, transmission, hand/arm shape and timing.Ki contact. Taking gyaku-hanmi katate-dori as the starting point, ki contact requires that you connect your centre with your partner’s. It is a feeling rather like pushing two strong magnets together. If the same poles face each other, the closer they become, the more resistance is created and the more likely they are to deflect each other. This springy type of contact occurs at the instant your wrist is grasped by uke, and it immediately establishes a means of unbalancing him before performing a defensive technique.

Relaxation. Holding unnecessary tension in your body, particularly in your wrists, arms and shoulders, actually helps uke to control you. Tension gives uke too much information about your intention, allowing him to respond obstructively to your movements. Wrists, arms and shoulders should be in a relaxed but non-collapsible state, allowing full transmission of your energy through the point of contact (your wrist if that is where you are being held by uke). If you are in a state of optimal relaxation, uke will have nothing concrete over which to exert control.

Transmission. This is a combination of aligning your body so that your defensive movement is as efficient as possible, and directing your mental intention beyond the point of contact as you move. When uke grabs your wrist, your mental focus is likely to be directed to that point; you must move your mind well beyond that point so that you move through it rather than attempting to change its position by, for example, lifting your arm or forcing it to one side or the other. It is sometimes helpful to imagine that the index finger of your held wrist is directing a light beam onto whatever it is pointing at and continues to do so as you perform the technique. This directs your mental focus beyond your wrist and facilitates efficient transmission of your energy.

Hand and arm shape. The shape of your hand can significantly affect the muscular state of your arm. Having an outside angle between your forearm and hand at the wrist crease (that is, when your fingers are directed to the outside of your body) does two things: firstly it creates unnecessary tension in your arm, and secondly it directs your attention to the wrist which, as explained earlier, prevents efficient energy transmission.

Timing. Body first, then arm(s) is the most effective sequence for body movement. You move your body towards the appropriate position momentarily before any arm movement occurs. In making a tenkan turn, for example, you move your body forward slightly before swinging your arm and turning to uke’s side.

When these five principles become correctly integrated, uke has nothing tangible to control and consequently his strength becomes almost irrelevant. Mastery of these principles requires slow, considered practice so that you become consciously aware of your body state. Uke must help in this process by providing gradually increasing resistance to tori’s actions, until finally uke is completely unable to control tori.