Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Forget about Kuzushi

Chaps, I have news.

Kuzushi isn’t important as a beginner you’re better off forgetting about kuzushi. It will improve your Judo if you don’t worry about kuzushi and stop thinking about it.

Probably quite a few confused and or shocked faces on people after having read that. After all kuzushi is one of the sacred cows of Judo, people spend hours working on their kuzushi and all Judo coaches stress its importance. And as regular readers will know I’m a strong advocate of the basics and practicing simple, fundamental Judo skills, so how can I justify saying kuzushi isn’t important and why would I advocate forgetting about kuzushi?

Having spent quite a lot of time observing and working with beginners and, of course, struggling with Judo myself I have consistently seen ‘kuzushi’ being touted as the mythical cure to all beginner problems. If I had a pound for everytime I’d heard a coach say ‘you need more kuzushi’ or during randori ‘you need to break his balance’ I would be able to pay off my student loan... well probably not, but I could at least get in a few rounds in the pub.

The thing is that a beginner’s problems are actually rarely down to a lack of kuzushi. Of course that is not to say that when first introducing a throw that you shouldn’t teach and instil a correct kuzushi action for the throw. That is of course vital and use of the hands and body to create kuzushi for throws in uchikomi, moving and static, is crucial.

However, we need to rethink the importance we place on kuzushi when explaining and teaching the throwing process to beginners.

Under the current model throws are introduced in 3 stages:

As instructors we pay lots of attention to the kuzushi phase, less to the tsukuri and even less to the kake.
The effect of this emphasis on the kuzushi phase is a distortion of priorities and a flawed understanding of the throwing process by the beginner and often by coaches.

This manifests itself in two main ways –
Compartmentalisation of the throw
Lack of awareness of moments of opportunity for the throw

Compartmentalisation of the throw

A consequence of the way we break down throws into the three stages outlined above and the over emphasis placed on kuzushi it is very common to see beginners doing what I call ‘compartmentalizing’ the throw.
That is to say that they do a big jerk/ tsurikomi action and then, just, sort of, stop. Then they try and go to tsukuri etc... Obviously this fails pretty much every time.

I believe that the way in which we hive off the various parts of the throw, which is of course a legitimate and valuable method of teaching. Does, if left un-contextualised, cause conceptual problems for beginners when they attempt to throw in a live resisting situation such as a randori.

I’m not advocating full abolition of the kuzushi-tsukuri-kake metric of throwing
Rather that it is full contextualized so that beginners understand that the three phases aren’t firewalled from each other and that the line between kuzushi and tsukuri and thus kake is quite fluid, malleable and often indiscernible.

A good example of how this compartmentalisation of throwing leads to what I call ‘compartmentalisation-itis’ is when drilling uchikomi or nagekomi.

The beginner will stand opposite their partner and apply kuzushi, usually tsurikomi in the position.

Tugging uke off balance and then when uke is tilted forwards onto their toes stepping to the point of the triangle and commencing their tsukuri.

This usually causes problems because tori off balances uke and then steps in. It is very hard to preserve the tension in the arms to keep uke off balance whilst stepping in so tori almost always undoes all the kuzushi work they have done and return uke to balance as they step in.

The result is almost always having to force the throw under sub-optimal conditions and of course enforcing sloppy and incorrect technique.

This issue becomes even more acute when it comes to randori because tori has not programmed his body to associate kuzushi with tsukuri. Rather, to separate the two as distinct and compartmentalised actions. Tori is unable to apply kuzushi properly in conjunction with tsukuri and so defaults to attacking an on balance uke with the inevitable result – throw failure.

You can observe from competition footage and from footage of quality nagekomi that no one ever starts square on to their uke off balances them, then fits in, then completes the throw. Kuzushi and tsukuri are always indistinguishable and drawing a marker between tsukuri and kake practically impossible.
This is because in a realistic throwing situation all three happen basically simultaneously.

However, for teaching purposes its necessary to break the three down so people can understand the principles and not get overwhelmed by the complexity of the complete throwing action.

Think about the three step metric of – kuzushi, tsukuri and kake as like the stabilisers on a bike. Only necessary for absolute beginners and learning the basics. However, being stable and not falling off the bike remains vital no matter how high you progress...

So when approaching throwing in uchikomi, nagekomi and randori remember that if you crudely partition kuzushi, tsukuri and kake you will be on route to throw failure and a much shallower learning curve.
Another issue arising from compartmentalisation-itis is that we fail to contextualise the kuzushi-tsukuri-kake sequence within the wider throwing sequence. Therefore failing to ensure that beginners understand where they fit in, in relation to kumikata, dodome, zanshin and most importantly debana.

This causes a lack of awareness of moments of opportunity and often causes beginners to go down the wrong route when they try and reverse engineer their way to debana from a total throwing action encased with a dynamic situation  - randori.

Lack of awareness of moments of opportunity

When I was even more of a beginner than I am now I was constantly searching for that secret, the key that separated people who could throw, seemingly at will, from me who couldn’t throw a tantrum if he tried.

Like most beginners I focused my search in two areas-
Set ups

Set ups

The issue with set-ups can be largely semantic.

So I will explain exactly what I mean by going down the rabbit hole of ‘set-ups’, that beginners think that an action produces a pre-determined and immutable reaction which has its own pre-determined and immutable action. So to take an example of Ko uchi gari into Seoi nage, beginners need to remember and realise that the Seoi nage is only appropriate as an action if the reaction to the Ko uchi gari makes Seoi nage the appropriate action.

So just doing a Ko uchi doesn’t automatically create an opportunity for a Seoi nage.

This is where a searching for ‘the answer’ to throwing in set-ups leads people astray. The Ko uchi gari doesn’t produce the Seoi nage, however, it does create ‘moments of opportunity’/ debana one of which could be a Seoi nage or it could be a Tai otoshi etc...

It all depends on how exactly uke has moved relative to tori and tori relative to uke and a myriad of other complicated interrelated factors.

So beginners often incorrectly try to reduce Judo to simplistic algebraic euqtions of, for example, Ko uchi gari + Seoi nage = Ippon.

This isn’t incorrect, is a waste of the beginner’s time to pursue it and will stultify development.


Often beginners seek answers to the ‘throwing puzzle’ in geometry through a close study of recordings and videos of people doing Judo.

As a result they often contrive that the solutions to their problems throwing people lies in geometry. If they can get uke to step back with their left foot at a 45 degree angle and simultaneously advance their own foot 7.5 inches at 13 degrees then they will have the perfect set up to throw their partner.

As any experienced and knowledgeable Judoka will tell you going down this route is a hiding to nothing.
And although I often use concepts and ideas that could be called ‘Judo geometry’ in my posts, such as T-ing up and the triangle. The difference is that these geometrical shapes or examples are always presented as concepts and rough guides rather than die cast rules.

So if you’re beginner and you’re doing what I used to do which is watch Koga and Jeon dvds almost with a protractor out trying to calculate the angles of what they were doing. Please stop. Its not where the answer to your issues lies and you’re wasting your time.

So what then?

As usual I’ve waffled on a lot about what you shouldn’t do, but spent little time discussing what you should do.

Well the reality is that there is no one answer to throwing more people, there is no single key to kuzushi and no single solution to throwing more people more often.

However, what I would like anyone reading this to take away is that they get out of their heads the notion that ‘kuzushi’ is a mystical force or magical entity divorced from the rest of throw and separate from movement, gripping, positioning etc...

Often I read on forums and elsewhere beginners saying they will concentrate of ‘just trying to off balance’ their partners in randori.

This concept is fundamentally flawed you can’t just off balance people in a vacuum. Its dependent on your movement, your grip, your positioning and uke’s grip, movement and positioning. Nor can you divorce the off balancing from the throwing action.

Also if you do manage to off balance someone using your hands. Why in the hell would you waste that success by not throwing them?

You can’t divorce kuzushi from the entire dynamic process that is Judo. Nor can you divorce kuzushi from the rest of a throw – the moment of opportunity, fitting in, and execution.

Kuzushi isn’t the lone kid leaning against the wall at the school disco, its right there on the dance floor getting involved with everyone else.

So next time you step on the mat, please remember kuzushi is embedded in the throwing process which occurs as a result of movement and gripping.

As always critiques, comments and questions are welcome.



    ... but, nice write-up.

  2. Good post, I found this out the hard way.

  3. First, I really appreciate your blog and technical break-downs as a beginner in judo. Thank you for all the hard work you do.

    However, I'm a bit confused by your advice here. I totally understand that you cannot compartmentalize to throw, but how do you practically go about doing this?

    Is it a matter of continuous drilling of static and moving uchikomi/nagekomi, consciously making sure everything is smooth and not jerky and unnaturally choreographed?

  4. Excellent post and blog, I will be following your blog w/ great interest. Thank you!

  5. This post was just the confidence boost I needed to get out there and kick some ass! I'm just going to go, go, GO! ;D

  6. Hey, very nice post! Well i didn't just stumple upon this blog, but i HAD to do a search for it on google(that is "understanding kuzushi"). I've just begun practicing Judo and i have yellow belt graduation on monday. I'm very eager to learn to Judo the Judo way. But i've noticed that kuzushi is what i can't crasp. I've trying to work it in my mind that they're not a separate things: you come in, and kuzushi the hell out of uke and continue the movement until uke is on the ground. Usually in training sessions i do kuzushi, (tsukuri) come in and that's when my kuzushi has been undone(like you said in your post). I have it in my mind, but i can't take it to practice. Of course with strenght you can throw anyone without kuzushi, but that wouldn't be the Judo way right? Easy to understand, hard to adopt.

    Keep it up!

  7. I agree that Kuzuchi isn't the all mystic power that can turn ever amatuer into KU FU PANDA....but it can turn a true black belt ( being that ther are a a lot of people with black belts that I don't think deserve that rank) into a master. Kuzuchi isn't the act of sudden jerks to unbalance your opponent onto his toes or heels..but it's the knowledge as to how notice and react to the small small difference a person balances his weight. Kuzuchi is being able to very slightly take advange of a person's shift of pressure upon their feet. I think it's important for the beginnere to turn Kuzuchi as per the objective...without teaching him t play tug of war. As Vince Lombardi said "Good habits are learned, unfortunately so are bad ones."