Although I teach a japanese style of jujitsu I would welcome advice from practitioners of other styles as well. At our school we typically focus on a kata curriculum in a fairly low stress environment. There isn't usually a lot of adrenaline pumping though students as they repeat a known set of moves. Regardless, there are students that seem to get so focused on what they're doing that they forget there's a human partner on the other end of the technique.

Even after years of training with some students I can't seem to shake them of the tendency to forget they're supposed to go slow and not rely on muscle to make a technique work. A simple leg sweep to the rear has resulted in a few students getting blasted into the mat on the backs of their heads. I've spoken to these students and they're very apologetic and I don't have any impression that they're just the macho type trying to show off; they do want to get more relaxed and controlled but can't seem to will their bodies to do it.

I'm wary of having these students practice anything other than kata because I suspect adding the adrenaline of a sparring situation would be dangerous. I've had some limited success with an extended warm-up that makes them too tired to be tense, but this always seems a temporary fix. What are some things I can have them practice to help them learn to relax "under fire"?


3 Answers 3


I have the most experience in Judo, but know Ju-Jutsu and Okinawan Karate as well.

From this perspective, I want to add points not necessarily covered yet, especially from the perspective of an instructor confronted with the problem as a technical one.

Regarding throws

Obviously, ukemi is very important. When I hear of people getting injured when thrown, in 99% of the cases it is a problem with breakfalls, not with throws that are too strong or tensed. Here, the intensity (speed AND hight) of breakfalls should of course be increased with experience. When you train nice and slow solo breakfalls, you will get hurt when thrown in alive situations. Because you simply have not trained for them.

Then, a classical method of training is, coming from static situations, first increasing the speed in static situations gradually. A trick my trainer used to do is the instruction of only using the thumb and one finger for your grip. You cannot excert strength through the upper body, have to relax your lower body in order to being able to execute the technique at all.

As an instructor, I often show the difference of a tensed, stiff execution of the throw and a relaxed version. I get more contact, more control, because I enable myself to get deep enough into the partner to properly build this contact needed for control. This is virtually impossible when tensed.

Therefore, the goal I give them is building certain contact points, not throwing. The throw is a trivial result of having the right contact points and breaking of balance. But arriving there only is possible through relaxation within tsukuri (the movement into the partner).

In short: It can simply depend on the way you present the goal of the exercise.

Regarding kata (or - more general - tangoku renshu)

I myself encountered the problem of being quite tensed/stiff in Kata. In hindsight, I think it was a combination of two factors: lack of flexibility and lack of (the feeling of!) stability.

For me, personally, more training of low stances/movement, flexibility, and balance, enabled to relax my muscles. The tension was a coping mechanism for not feeling comfortable and having to compensate for a lack of strength and stability in certain positions and postures.

And the only way to overcome this is training it more, especially in slow movements or even statically. In my understanding, it is for this reason that historically, e.g. standing in low horse-stance for considerable time used to be a standard training method for beginners.

This problem is of course applicable to throws as well.

  • I think your comment about balance is definitely on point here, and I like the "contact points" as another way of thinking about tsukuri. +1 Apr 25, 2017 at 15:33
  • The two-finger grip exercise is also exactly the kind of tip I'm looking for. In this case it is something we've tried. I think it has been useful for some students. Apr 25, 2017 at 16:24
  • @JasonSpake Also, especially with older beginners, my experience is that they try to achieve too much too fast. I followed the strategy of giving them small goals and steps of improvement as they will not stiffen up and tense by trying to achieve something they - at the point - do not have the strength and technique for. Lower the standards, so to say, to an appropriate level for their experience, not their age and cognitive capabilities. This was one of my mistakes when teaching until recently. Apr 27, 2017 at 14:47

Tiered is better… Nope.

[…] makes them too tired to be tense.

I find this to be counter productive in the long run. Practice makes permanent, not perfect. Training hard makes you revert to what you are used to do: in their case, use strength.

Instead I suggest a few things: first, go slow; second, breathe; and finally even more ukemi.

Go Slow

It takes your mind time to adjust to new things. One must do the new things slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully before one can use it in anger. So, slow things down to half speed, a third speed, or even a fifth speed. If both partners help each other, it should be apparent when one uses strength vs good technique.


It is much harder to be tense if one breathes. So, remind everyone to breathe. All the time. you can even use kiai if you feel like it. You can tell who is breathing because after five minutes, they are the unshattered ones not sweating buckets!

Even more ukemi

Ukemi is the art of escape. It is the corner stone of self defence. With good ukemi, I do not fear any partner be they The Mountain because I know that I can survive any techniques thrown at me. I really cannot stress how important this is.

One exercise I teach is to do a set of kata against an invisible opponent as uke. So, you are taking ukemi as if someone was throwing you. It teaches you the correct posture to be in, how it should feel, and makes your breakfalling better.

  • While all very good suggestions they're also the first things I tried and have been drilling into students for years. The approach works for most. For others though as soon as the speed increases there's still a mental switch that flips and all that training goes out the window. Apr 25, 2017 at 16:36
  • @JasonSpake You cannot (should not?) hack people's brains. If the stumbling block is in their head, they have to work out how to get out it: it is just a willpower problem solved by repeating "relax!" a lot. Apr 25, 2017 at 19:42

Have special training days (or maybe you do some of this a lot?) at your dojo that:

  1. You play slow, classical music. Here's a few I randomly chose searching for "koto":



Don't play gagaku, that will split the ears, and you end up with the opposite problem. Taiko drummers are nice to hear, but they, too, will incur the opposite effect.

  1. Practice in candle light (perhaps with the music)

  2. Burn incense

  3. Invite children to the adults classes. Everyone goes easy on children, and they, in turn, get to see how the adults train. Choose your children wisely, tens to tweens are your best bet.

As an overall strategy, have your students partner up with less experienced students in addition to those of similar or higher skill levels. When they get a well-rounded mix of partners, they are forced to alternate between being a mentor to being the mentored.

Introduce concepts from other styles - sticky hands, for instance, or pushing hands. So then some of their practice is blindfolded or deliberately slow motion.

Always remind them about breathing.

Sometimes, you need to give them a taste of their medicine: a student who is overly active needs to know what his partner feels - you show him. I understand from your details you don't have hotheads. But still, people who don't look after their partners - who are lending their bodies so someone else can practice getting better - won't want to train with them anymore.

  • I haven't tried the music and incense bit so +1 for some outside the box answers. We do have some occasional younger students that mix in and that does tone down the arts, but unfortunately hasn't had any lasting effects. Apr 25, 2017 at 16:23
  • Agreed, there's no one thing that will work. You'll probably have to make a life change - a permanent change. Constantly repeat the need for control, constantly have breathing exercises, and try to be a role model and exaggerate the attention to detail and the partner. Have you tried beginning your classes with slow breathing exercises and activities? That can set the tone for the class. Turn down the lights, and use soft lighting: angry lighting can cause angry or energetic moods.
    – Andrew Jay
    Apr 25, 2017 at 19:53

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