Dojo: Aikido Mugenjuku in Kyoto
Reg. number: K-SB-16178
Name: Peter Andersen
Number of characters: 13.670
As one learns to stand on two legs, the head and vital organs are lifted further from the ground, making it more dangerous to fall. At the same time the base of support is reduced from four wide points to two narrow ones. All of this combines into the human preferred way of transportation, with a small base that is easy to move around, but has very little static balance, making falling one of the leading causes of nonlethal trauma in children (Nagesh et al., 2008). That is why I think ukemi, or the art of falling safely, is one of the most important skills that we can teach our children from an early age.
Through almost five years of assisting and teaching Aikido to kids multiple times a week, I have had a lot of time to experience teaching kids how to fall, and seen how they develop physically and mentally through the practice of Yoshinkan Aikido. My wish through this case is to, take a look at how one small boy learned how to do the basic back breakfall, what stood in the way of him learning it and how we got around it, from there I would also like to point to some of the positive effect this has had on him physically and mentally.
I will base my analysis and conclusion on the knowledge of the development of children that I have acquired through the study of psychomotor therapy, as well as my basic understanding of Aikido as a 3 degree black belt holder and assistant instructor at a Yoshinkan Aikido Dojo.
The example I have chosen for this case is not unique in that it is a child learning to do a back breakfall, as I have taught hundreds of kids how to do this by now. I have chosen this case because I think it illustrates some of the challenges we as Aikido instructors can encounter when teaching kids how to fall.
The experiences described are all things that I have experienced in classes that I have taught or have assisted in teaching. I will not describe any social interactions or take into account any other people present in the local at the time of teaching. This choice is made for the sake of simplicity, as this is not meant to be an in depth discussion about all of the things that can have an effect on learning.
As I am actively teaching in the classes, I cannot claim to be a neutral observer, nor can I claim to be free of bias, as I must trust the material that I am teaching, as well as constantly react to the circumstances of the situation to get the most out of the class. There is also the fact that I do not see the entirety of the children’s lives, only a small glimpse once or twice a week. This means that the development I see could be a result of other influences in the child’s life and/or simply the result of maturation of the child’s nervous system.
That being said I still think that this case has merits in its singularity, as it is a look into the world of developing a child’s motor and cognitive skills through the use of the body, taught in a class setting based on the Yoshinkan system.
The case I am going to present is of an adolescent boy about 4 years old, who has been practicing Aikido for about 6 months. For the sake of privacy I will not refer to the subject by name. He is a very lively boy and likes to play, but is also a little shy. All in all his development is normal, he can stand, walk and run, though his balance is still a little unstable from time to time. This boy along with many of his fellow students in the same class practice Aikido about once a week, for about an hour focusing on Ukemi and basic movements.
The class is generally divided up into four parts: warm up, Ukemi, basic movements and games, the last part can be included in the other elements in case the mood of the class gets too low. With small breaks in between to get something to drink.
To warm up the body and to prepare the mind, we do a generic warm up consisting of some basic drills mixed with running and doing commands. In this part the boy is always very active and seems to enjoy moving his body, as well as running and completing different tasks, such as touching either the left or right hand to the mats.
For the Ukemi part we always work on the basic backfall and work our way up to either forward rolling or backwards rolling breakfall. In this part of the class it is clear that he is a little more uncomfortable and he sometimes runs off the mats when it gets too much for him. He usually joins back in the class after a short break, sometimes with the help of his mother.
The usual way of standing feet next to each other, bending down in the legs until the butt touches the floor and rolling back, seems to be causing him trouble and it takes him a long time to prepare before doing his first repetition. Most of the time the motion is not done to completion, as he only gets his butt on the floor before putting out his hands or elbows behind him stopping the rolling back motion.
As a full back breakfall is a rather complex sequence of movements for a small child, we usually build up slowly towards the full exercise. In this case the way we graduate the exercise is, first to start sitting on the ground, back straight, feet stretched in front, rolling back slowly and touching the mats with both hands at the moment the body is horizontal, making sure the head is off the mat, by quing the children to look at their belly buttons.
In the first few classes, this preliminary exercise is difficult for the boy, and as he rolls back he puts out his elbows behind himself to stop the motion, causing the head to tilts back and the shoulders to rise, as he is putting a lot of pressure on his arms, trying to stop his body from falling backwards.
With some help, by way of holding his hands as he rolls back, he gets the idea of not bringing his elbows back and he can come to a complete rest on the floor. Practicing this for a few minutes the boy gets the idea of how to do the exercise and wants to try to do it by himself, and after a few tries he completes the exercise by himself, without putting his hands back.
The reverse part of the motion seems to be very hard for him, as he tries to reverse the motion from laying on the
ground, he is not able to lift his head straight off the ground, but has to roll to the side and use his hands to come
back up into a sitting position.
As he slowly gets better at the motion and starts getting bored with it, we step up the difficulty by sitting in a low squatting position, before putting the hips down on the mat and rolling back to lay on the floor. Again his arms come back first and he stops the motion halfway through. This time a simple verbal reminder, not to use the hands, is enough for him to understand the concept, and he completes the roll to lying without using his hands.
After a few weeks of this training, there is no longer any running away associated with the exercise and he seems to enjoy the training. He is still working on perfecting the back breakfall from standing. He still puts out his hands sometimes, especially if he gets distracted by something, and he still has to roll to the side to get back up, but seeing the change from fear to joy is a big change. His balance also seems to have gotten better, as he is standing up taller and his legs are closer together. His confidence in himself when moving has also improved. For example in the running exercises we do as a warm up, he used to be very slow and would fall over at least three times, but he is now as fast as the other students and falls over only about once per class, and even when he does he gets back up right away and keeps running.
We will now look into some of the reasons that are holding back the boy from learning the back breakfall, and what we did to help him overcome these hurdles in his path to learning how to fall. The backwards breakfall is a highly complex sequence of motions. Starting from full standing, it consists of triple flexion of the lower body, full flexion of the upper body, as you roll back, followed by an instant full body extension to slow down the momentum of the body when rolling back unto the upper back. At the same time there is a total change of orientation of the body going from vertical to past horizontal, as the feet raise above the head and shoulders in the extension case.
The first thing we see the boy do as he rolls back, is that he puts out his hands to stop the motion. I believe that what we are seeing is what is called the startle reflex, this is based on the fact that it is an involuntary reaction that consists of raising the hands and arms to protect the head or vital organs, when the body senses that it is in any form of danger (Bentsen, 2010).
Based on this premise we must also accept that his reaction is based on a feeling of fear, but why is that important? Let’s start by taking a look at what fear does to our body. Our natural reaction to any sudden danger is what is called the fight or flight response. This reaction starts when our brain realizes that we are in danger and needs to protect the body and vital organs quickly. The brain sends a signal to the Hypothalamus, the center of control for the Autonomic nervous system, that the body is in danger. The hypothalamus reacts by upregulating the sympathetic nervous system and sending a signal to the adrenal glands to release more of the hormones adrenalin and noradrenalin. This has the effect of making our heart beat faster, opening up the lungs and increasing the blood flow to vital areas in the brain and muscles, basically making our body ready for fight or flight. The other effect of this response is that the blood flow to other areas of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex, our thinking and reasoning mind, and our Hippocampus, which helps in the formation of new memories, is decreased, meaning we will have a harder time thinking logically about the situation and learning new skills (Wise, 2009).
From this we can see that the boy is undergoing stress which is deductive to learning any new skill, so what can we do in order to help this boy learn a skill that is making him scared. To answer this question I believe we have to take a look at what is causing the fear, which is the feeling of losing his balance.
Information about our balance is gathered from our eyes, from our joints and muscles, by our proprioceptive sense and by the vestibular sense, also called the balance sense, that is placed in the inner ear. It consists of three semicircular canals filled with a fluid that moves around when we change the orientation of our head. This information is then decoded in the brain where an appropriate response is decided, whereupon it is carried out as micro correction to our posture in order to keep our balance (Schibye & Klausen, 2011).
In the case of the roll back in the back breakfall, as the position of our head is changed, the fluid inside the vestibule canals move, exiting the nerves, sending a signal to the balance center of the brain placed in the brain stem. Our brain will, if not trained to do otherwise, try to stop this motion, it does this by sending a signal to the hip flexors and abs to tense up and get us back up in a sitting position. If gravity is stronger than our muscle we will continue to fall, continuing the circle of sensing, judging and reacting, until we hit the ground, or as in the case of the boy is scared into protecting himself using his hands.
Now that we know a little more of what is going on inside the body and mind of the boy, let’s take a look at how
we can use this knowledge to help the boy overcome this hurdle and learn how to do a breakfall. The first intervention that was chosen to help the boy to get a feel for the movement, is a regression of the original breakfall where we start from sitting on the floor. This makes the exercise less challenging, as it removes part of the movement, as well as making it a more manageable challenge mentally by starting closer to the floor. This unfortunately was not successful.
When we changed the exercise to him holding onto my hands as he rolls back, we started having some success, and he could complete the motion. This is because he no longer goes off balance as he can use the muscles of his arms, and in that way the proprioceptive sense can tell the brain that, even though the vestibular sense is saying that he is changing his orientation, he is still in control of his balance, meaning that there is no fight or flight response.
This means that his brain is not overflowing with adrenalin and that there is adequate blood flow to the regions of the brain in charge of learning new skills. I believe this is why after only a few minutes of the intervention, he was able to do the roll back from sitting by himself.
What is truly remarkable is how fast this progression worked, we had tried teaching him verbally, visually, and by graduating the exercise but nothing helped. It was only when we gave him a chance to experience the movement without the fear of falling that he started to show any progress.
Learning how to fall safely backwards is a skill that requires us to reprogram our brain, not only must we be aware of the reflexes that we have associated with losing our balance, we must also take into account how our balance works, in order to understand what is going on inside our students, when they are having a hard time learning how to fall.
Through this case I hope to have shown that teaching a small child how to do a back breakfall can be a challenge, but that it is achievable, if we understand the body and mind, and that even just a small step in the right direction can make a huge difference in the way a small boy expresses himself in the world.
Bentsen, Birte Servais (2010): Bevægeomsorg: Børnemotorik i teori og praksis, 1. udgave, Frydenlund,
Nagesh N. Borse et al. (2008): CDC Childhood Injury Report: Patterns of Unintentional Injuries among 0-19 Year
Olds in the United States, U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Atlanta
Schibye, Bente & Klausen, Klaus (2011): Menneskets fysiologi: Hvile og arbejde, 3. udgave, FADL’s forlag A/S,
Wise, Jeff (2009): Extreme Fear: The science of your mind in danger, Palgrave Macmillan, New York