How to Do Better at Everything (including Math): The Art of Uchikomi

In Judo, it is possible to execute a technique so perfectly that a match can be won the instant it happens. 

This phenomenon is known as "ippon." To throw for ippon is the ultimate aim of any judo contest.  

*Some might argue that a win by submission (having your opponent tap out after securing a stranglehold or arm lock) is equally impressive.   

Ippon is called when one takes his opponent directly from his feet to his back. There are countless ways to earn ippon, and often there is some good "air time" involved in getting your opponent from a standing position to lying supine on the tatami.  In my many years as a competitive judoka and athlete, I can say that few things rival the exhilaration of throwing for ippon.   

The photo above shows Canada's greatest judoka, Nicholas Gill, a split second away from losing the Olympic gold medal to Japan's legendary Kosei Inoue.  Watch the throw in its entirety: 

Inoue defeats Gill with "Uchimata." Inoue was famous for using Uchimata to devastate many of his opponents. He refined his Uchimata through something called "uchikomi." Uchikomi is one of the most fundamental aspects of Judo training. Uchikomi  involves repeating the essential motions of a technique again and again and again until they become automatic. 
For throwing techniques, where it is not feasible to have a partner land on the ground hundreds of times in practice, we use uchikomi to perfect grip, and something called kuzushi (the art of breaking balance). It is not uncommon to perform hundreds or thousands of uchikomi to master a technique.  

Here is a great example of uchikomi: 

Those who know me will know I am an advocate of learning that is "inquiry" based and relevant. Our focus on developing competencies like critical thinking, creativity, and communication skills in our students is supremely important. Many of us in education today are excited by the journey ahead - one that seeks to better prepare our young people for  a dynamic, ever-shifting future.  In an uncertain world where change is constant, we all need to be learners. Hence, learning to learn is vital.  I believe this is something we are collectively doing better than ever before.

But as we recognize the shortcomings of school systems that emphasized memorization and rote learning at the cost of "higher order thinking and problem solving," we would be wise to remember the value of uchikomi.  

Uchikomi is how we learn the alphabet, our times tables, and how to spell beautiful correctly.  It's how we learn the steps to a dance, improve a golf swing, and bake a consistently good pie crust.  Uchikomi is why math teachers help you understand a math concept and still assign "all odd number questions on pages 13-15."  When the basketball coach has you take 50 free throws using good form, he is asking you to use uchikomi.  When the French teacher wants you to conjugate verbs again and again, or the English teacher requires you to rewrite for the third time, they are tapping into the power of uchikomi.

And to be clear, uchikomi is powerful. Sure, it is repetitive. Sure, it is hard.  But uchikomi allows that which you practice to become instinctual. Dare I say, it allows that which you practice to become part of you.  How many times do you think a concert cellist has played those notes?  How many times has Ronaldo practiced a penalty? How many patterns has a chess master already encountered?  Hemingway was a brilliant writer.  He won the Pulitzer.  Yet he still rewrote the ending to "A Farewell to Arms" thirty-nine times.  Only uchikomi helped him get it perfect.

Many of my judo lessons have turned out to be incredible life lessons. When to move forward, when to move back, when to apply force, and when to harness the force of that which attempts to throw you - figuratively speaking.  Amidst the myriad of wonderful teaching and learning strategies we employ in schools today, I will contend that there will always be a place for uchikomi.  It may well be the secret to getting better at, well, everything - including math.   

back in the day.........

*The importance of a sensei, or teacher, should not be overlooked.  Helpful feedback is paramount to uchikomi, or you may end up repeating the same mistakes over and over.


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