Strike Deflections

“Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face.” Mike Tyson

We’ve noticed great interest in the aikido based strike deflections and hand movements developed at Tenshin Dojo in Osaka Japan and later popularized in a series of major motion pictures.

With Haruo Matsuoka Sensei as our Chief Instructor, we have unique insight into these movements and thought we’d share some of our thoughts on the technical details of these deflections and covers.

Origin

Seagal Hand Movement

Steven Seagal executes an irimi hand movement during randori practice with Matsuoka Sensei.

In the 1970’s Seagal Sensei transitioned from Ki Society style movements to a radically different style of aikido. Matsuoka Sensei was an integral part of this technical transformation in the early days of his aikido training. To the best of our knowledge, these signature hand movements were developed at this time and inspired by sword-based deflections.

Over the last 40 years, these hand movements have been subtlety but importantly refined to increase their effectiveness and efficiency through use of proper body structure.

Purpose

At Ikazuchi Dojo, we view these deflections as a practical and reliable way to clear strikes or grabs launched from a well-balanced attacker. They provide an alternative and complementary response to traditional aikido strike defenses.

Here, we’ll take a look at one of the most common hand movements used in this system of deflections. This movement is generally used to protect against a strike or grab targeting the upper part of the body (mid-chest to top of head).

Matsuoka Sensei showing a strike deflection detail to Sven Thilo, a dojo instructor.

Advantages

This hand movement provides a distinct set of advantages when faced with a direct, dynamic attack:

  • Flexible: Reliably fields any overhead or forward-projecting attack. If you see a hand flying towards your face and execute this cover, you’re likely to clear the attack. The movement also requires little to no modification to work against a blunt weapon attack (tire iron, beer bottle, etc.)
  • Positional Dominance: Moves the nage (defender) into position to enter the attacker’s blind spot / flank, safely outside of the range of a kick or strike from the other hand.
  • Reliable: Works smoothly and consistently against forceful attacks. A skilled 120 lb. woman should have no problem deflecting a full force strike from an attacker twice her size.
  • Tempo Gain: The covering movement itself is a set-up for a range of throws and atemi. You accomplish two things at once when executing this movement: defense and set-up for throw or control.

Disadvantages

No movement is without flaws, or ideally suited for every situation. This deflection is no exception. While it’s a reliable and useful technique, it has weaknesses. Here are some of the ones we’ve become aware of:

  • Does not immediately break the attacker’s balance (kuzushi). It’s imperative this be done immediately after the deflection via a throw, atemi, or a movement from the nage’s supporting hand. It’s always preferred to break the attacker’s balance with your first movement, but this is sometimes a tradeoff worth taking if you need to deal with a fast strike from a well-balanced attacker. As an exception to the rule, Matsuoka Sensei can now execute this cover and break the attacker’s balance immediately, but no one else in the dojo can do it yet.
  • Fails against strikes in a horizontal plane. This particular cover works very well against almost any overhead or forward-projecting attack. It can be adapted to deal with a yokomenuchi attack or punches thrown in a range of vectors, but the geometry of the movement breaks down when facing a strike in a near horizontal plane (like certain types of hook punches). We have other hand movements to deal with that attack vector, but it’s important to point out that against a horizontal plane strike, this movement fails or turns into a crude, high-impact block.

Applications

This cover can be used to launch a devastating atemi to the attacker’s face in the form of an open hand strike with the blade of the hand, a hammer fist, or a strike to the eyes with the fingers.  The deflection can also be used to transition into a range of traditional aikido throws and controls including iriminage, kotegaeshi, kaitennage, and kubishime.

Wes leading class at Ikazuchi Dojo

Wes checking structural soundness of Nastia’s menuchi-undo form.

Practice Methods

Ikazuchi Dojo uses many drills and practice methods to develop competency with this deflection. Following are a few ways we cultivate skill with the movement:

  • Menuchi-undo: This basic hand movement exercise, along with its multi-direction variants (zengo-undo, happo-undo) is often practiced in our warm-ups. This exercise builds neuromuscular competency with the movement so it becomes hardwired into reflexes. If you have to think about how to defend against a strike, it’s too late. We want this movement burned into muscle memory.
  • Basic Form Development: We emphasize development of proper form for the cover and the supporting hand which acts as a tool to clear and check the attacking hand. Detailing the nuances of the form are outside the scope of this post, but we typically start by training against a shomenuchi attack. This traditional aikido attack is unlikely to be encountered in the real world (unless there’s a stick or blunt instrument being used as a weapon). However, the attack is an excellent learning tool as it uses a clean line of attack (exactly vertical) and a failed cover results in a far less serious injury than a punch to the face.
  • Reflex and Adaptation Drills: Once the basic form is learned, we encourage students to practice covers against rear and lead hand attacks, first in sequence and later in a free form manner. After a level of competence is reached, we also practice covering against a range of attacks in an unscripted way. For example, reflexively adapting the angle of the cover to deal with a shomen, yokomen, or tsuki to the face. We recommend a slow practice that gradually builds speed as competency is gained. We find we make the most progress when working in a zone where we make mistakes about 20-30% of the time with unscripted attacks. If you get it right all the time, you’re not learning. If you fail too often, you’re practicing too fast. When training this way at intermediate levels, we either use a highly skilled uke or create a bit of extra distance to the target to avoid getting hit when training errors occur.
  • Technique Application: This cover is an integral part of many of our throws and is practiced as a component of our regular technique training.

Seeking Improvement

Many aikido practitioners have been inspired by this deflection and have now added it to their training curriculum. Copying forms seen in films or video by sweeping the arm through space will provide a functional cover. However, seeking the subtle details of the deflection will result in a dramatically improved movement. Areas we’ve been paying attention to in this regard include:

  • Body structure: Aligning the skeleton to most efficiently receive and project force. The wrist of the covering arm should be in horizontal alignment with the shoulder. If the deflecting hand is too far inside or outside the shoulder when it encounters a powerful attack, the cover is likely to collapse. I’ve experienced this personally when fielding attacks from Matsuoka Sensei or seasoned karate practitioners. Additionally, the forearm should be slightly rotated outwards so the ulna bone avoids direct contact with the strike. Without this adjustment, the cover is likely to result in collision and impact that can bruise the arm and result in a loss of balance and structural stability.
  • Supporting hand: The non-covering hand plays a very important role in this deflection. Typically overlooked, it can be used to prevent follow-up attacks, destabilize the attacker’s body structure, and set up the conditions necessary for a throw to work reliably.
  • Movement path efficiency: Winding up the hand before covering or making any extraneous movement will slow the cover and reduce its chance of success against a skilled striker. Raising the covering hand too high or too wide can leave openings and slow your next action (atemi or throw). For example, when dealing with an overhead strike, the covering hand should be raised so the wrist is at eye level. This ensures that even with a weapon, the attack always clears your head. However, with a forward projecting strike like a punch to the face, this is not necessary and the additional time it takes to raise the wrist past the level of the striking hand gives up precious time with no benefit.

Here’s a short video of Josh Gold sharing some of the technical details of the deflection and associated atemi with Mark Cheng (off-screen). This was filmed during part of Mark and Josh’s ongoing knowledge exchange program. You can read more about Mark and Josh’s cross training here.

 

We are delighted to see the aikido community actively experimenting with these movements and evaluating their suitability for a range of applications. We’d love to hear any feedback or insights others have gained through the practice of this cover. We hope these details may spark new thinking, research, and applications.

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14 Comments On “Strike Deflections”

  1. Great article but more Japanese names please. This is called Tsuriage yes? Any name for the covering hand? Momorote hand yes? Thanks.

    Reply

    • Josh,

      Thanks for the feedback! For these kinds of articles, we prefer to use Japanese names for specific techniques but will generally lean towards using English vocabulary for common terms if there’s a clear way to do so. The reasoning behind this is we want our community and audience to be inclusive of martial artists from other disciplines. For martial artists that practice non-Japanese arts, it makes it easier for them to understand, which allows us to better benefit from their perspective and experience.

      Reply

  2. Donna Champagne

    It looks a little like Poison Hands at the beginning of the strike, but the follow through is very different. This looks very effective!

    Reply

  3. Greg Brown Birmingham Ala

    Josh do you feel like the movement off the line hinders the effectiveness against the strikes from the horizontal plane?Also do you feel that most strikes in the street from untrained people are more likely to come from the horizontal plane? I feel like what we in the Aikido world should train these aspects much more and am very interested to know you guys are putting a lot of effort into researching the subject of strikes. Thanks Greg Brown Bham

    Reply

    • Greg,

      Good to hear from you.

      The movement off the line is ok when dealing with a horizontal plane attack but it’s better to use an alternative hand movement with slightly different timing to enter into that space.

      I do think that many strikes from untrained people on the street will be launched this way. We do practice responses for this kind of attack and perhaps can share some of that on our site at some point in the near future.

      I agree we should all train much more in these areas. The classic aikido attacks and techniques form the foundation of the martial system, but I do think there’s value in seeking ways to extend and apply aikido movements so they are relevant to today’s most relevant threats. Most of the stuff we do in aikido can be adapted to deal with punches, elbow strikes, gun disarms, etc. It takes some dedicated effort and trial and error to sort out the best techniques and methods, but I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor that will provide relevant applications. I also think the research and optimization process is a great way for us to test and deepen our understanding of the art.

      Reply

  4. I’m so glad to hear you guys teaching these techniques still, and addressing this topic. In my opionion; it’s probably one of the most effective “style” of aikido for today. Great work on this topic, teaching, lessons and postings as always. Please continue to keep these teachings in aikido.

    Reply

    • Thank you for the feedback Nino. Great to hear from you and see you on the blog. We appreciate the encouragement and look forward to sharing more in the future.

      Reply

  5. Charles McGruder

    Josh,I really enjoy the articles and openness you and Matsuokas syetem. Thank you for shsring your training concepts.

    Reply

  6. Josh, very nice video and very helpful – it would be nice to see more of the covering techniques – david

    Reply

  7. The video is very helpful, and we are very much enjoying your work.
    However we note that your dojo and organization appear to be close to Steven Seagal.
    We believe that one of the main purposes of studying self defense and the martial arts is to steel oneself against lack of personal control, and to learn how to master the three battles. One of which is the inner battle.
    The fact that Seagal is a shining example of someone that has been repeatedly discredited as using his marital arts in anger and specifically in attacking, beating and victimizing others (including women) – and especially others with no martial arts training and no ability to defend themselves, is reason enough for you to distance the good and worthy work you are doing at your Ikazuchi Dojo from Seagal. It is shameful for you to have his photo there, to use his name in your explanations of your history, and it soils the good work and the great intention and objectives of your dojo and all who honorably study, adhere to the disciplines and precepts that go along with the earnest and honest study of the martial arts.
    I study another style from Okinawa, and recognize many wonderful facets of our style in many of the examples you share. It is extremely helpful to see your videos and read your writing. You do a great job of making it accessible to all, which is in the true spirit of the art.
    However as the father of a daughter, and as a person of integrity and earnest spirit in the study of all martial arts, I cannot continue to follow your writings or subscribe to your newsletter or in any way endorse your work as long as you continue to refrain from distancing yourself from Seagal, and refuse to confront the fact that his actions are the antithesis of the spirit of what you are teaching. He is an embarrassment and a liability to all the practice the martial arts. He is a bully and a criminal batterer, and he is the worst type– one that attacks those without martial arts or other skills with which to defend themselves. Shame. Shame. Shame. He must be shunned for these behaviors. He dirties the name of martial arts. He cannot be allowed in the halls of true study of the arts.

    Reply

    • Hi Matty!

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. We see your point and recognize the issue here.

      Matsuoka Sensei, our Chief Instructor, broke away from Steven Seagal back in the 1990s and we’ve never had any association with him since that time. Although I personally have no personal experience with him since the early 1990s, I agree with you that much of the news I’ve read of his actions most certainly do not align with the budo and aikido spirit.

      While we strongly stand against the kind of attitudes and actions you describe here (I’m also the father of a daughter) we still want to be able to accurately describe the history of Matsuoka Sensei’s aikido journey and his technical evolution. We try to do this in a way that can reflect the past and what we’ve learned from it, even though we have had no association with Steven Seagal for almost 20 years and most certainly walk a different path.

      Reply

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