The point of this article will be to go over the principles of ukemi or breakfalls. This article is not necessarily a “how to” guide, but I’ll do my best to not leave out anything important. Having said that, like most everything in martial arts, learning is very hands on. Your Sensei and your fellow Judoka will be there to help you along with pointers and to help you with your form and use of proper technique.
Judo, It’s As Easy As Falling Down
Welcome to what could be the most important lesson you as a beginner will need to learn to do and do well in Judo; Breakfalls, or what we in Judo call Ukemi.
From the moment you step into my Dojo, I go over some basic etiquette; no shoes on the tatami, bow on and off the tatami, and so forth. Then, I get you going on to your very first Judo lesson; Breakfalls.
What Does “Ukemi” Mean?
In Judo terms, ukemi is meant to mean a Breakfall. To go into a little more detail, the prefix “Uke”, which we use to represent the person receiving a technique (as opposed to Tori or the person doing the technique), actually means “Receiver”. The suffix “Mi”, means body or self. So a literal translation would be “Receiving self”. As I am not a specialist in the Japanese language, I’ll leave it up to the linguists to go over where that all comes from and why.
Importance Of Knowing Proper Ukemi Or Breakfalls
In the sport of judo, the object of the match is to throw your opponent to their back, using a judo technique, while maintaining control throughout the entire throw, utilizing both force and speed. The thing is, while you’re attempting to do all of that, so is your opponent. Someone is going to hit the tatami (the mats we practice on). It very well may be with their back. It’s probably going to be because of a Judo technique. It may be done with considerable force, and it may be fast. Whoever is on the receiving end of this throw will need to know how to take that fall safely.
As long as you are practicing either the martial art or the sport of Judo, you’re going to take a fall; or should I say, many falls. It doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or a seasoned veteran, being able to take a fall safely is something you need to know how to do, and do well. In the beginning, it’s about getting use to the idea. After all, this whole “Falling” thing? It’s not normal. You spent at least the first year or so of your life learning how not to do that. After a whole lot of practice, there you are, not falling like a real pro. Kudos to you and your not falling.
Now, welcome to Judo. Everything you just spent a lifetime trying not to do is going to become a routine that will happen every time you practice. You’re going to fall because someone threw you. Then, you’re going to fall because you didn’t do your technique quite right. You’re also going to fall because you’re practicing ukemi.
See what I mean?
The 4 Basic Breakfalls Of Judo
There are 4 basic breakfalls you will need to learn:
The Ushiro Ukemi is most likely going to be your first breakfall lesson. Ushiro Ukemi is a fall you use mainly to build up your confidence and coordination. The Ushiro Ukemi will help you overcome the trepidation of hitting the ground with your body while also learning the most basic elements of how to take a fall safely.
Yoko Ukemi is also a fall that builds your confidence and coordination, but is also the breakfall that mimics one of the more realistic falling actions you will take when someone successfully throws you.
Mae Ukemi, Or Front Fall
The Mae Ukemi isn’t just about keeping you safe in a breakfall situation. The Mae Ukemi is also used to teach you to land safely when you are trying to avoid giving your opponent a score, or whose throw attempt goes badly.
Zenpo Kaiten Ukemi, Or Forward Rolling Fall
Zenpo Kaiten Ukemi is the breakfall that is the most disorienting. It is also the one you will take most often in a live Judo situation.
“An amateur practices until he gets it right; a professional practices until he can’t get it wrong” – Adjudicator Kenneth van Barthold
As you start out, the goal of teaching you to take a proper fall is to acclimate you to not just the technique, but the idea of falling. Something you know isn’t suppose to be normal, now is. As you progress, practicing your ukemi goes from learning how to do it, to doing it without thought. When in a falling situation you need to react with an automatic response. If you cannot, you open yourself up to, at the least, aches and pains you aren’t accustomed to or, at most, injuries that will keep you down and out for weeks- maybe even worse. You as a beginning Judoka need to know how to take a fall properly, and more importantly, how to react without thinking when it happens.
Not to worry, it’s actually a fairly quick process. I have yet to have anyone who I’ve shown how to fall not be able to do it by the end of the first class. It may take a few more sessions to be able to do it with little to no more coaching, but once shown what to do most people can do an ukemi properly before day one is over.
What You’ll Need To Know, Why You Need To Know It
The following ukemi techniques in this article are the ones that even I as an almost 2 decade Judoka practice every single time I step on the tatami. I get tripped, I know what to do. I go head over heals, I know what to do. Just as important, I expect my Uke to be able to do the same, and reasonably so. After all, the last thing anyone wants is for someone to injure them self or someone else because they lack the proper training on what to do in a given situation.
You too will learn and develop these Ukemi techniques so that every time you step out onto the tatami, you will be able to take a fall safely. Like anything else, the best place to start is the beginning.
We will start with Ushiro Ukemi, or the Back Breakfall