Thursday, August 26, 2010

Kote gaeshi: how to counter it


Given that I've just analysed the application of kote gaeshi (wrist out turn throw/projection/lock) I thought I'd discuss methods of countering it. But before I do that I thought I'd first clarify what kote gaeshi is (in other words, the purpose of this technique).

Lock or throw/projection?

Kote gaeshi is, first and foremost, a wrist lock. If it is performed quickly it can act as a wrist break - particularly if, as I previously mentioned, you put your whole body weight behind the technique and harness your attacker's momentum. When a small joint bears such weight and momentum, the result can be devastating.

The reason kote gaeshi is regarded as a throw or projection is not because it necessarily results in your attacker falling. Indeed, when I apply kote gaeshi to an untrained person, I've noticed that 9 times out of 10 the person will just stand there crying out in pain as the lock is applied. In those cirumstances I have to be careful, as the person will take no action to relieve the stress on the wrist.

A trained student will however "go with the flow" - usually by falling. This immediately takes the strain off the wrist joint. It is this tendency that leads people to call kote gaeshi a "throw" or "projection". When faced with a choice of severely strained or snapped wrist on one hand, or being thrown on the other, I would choose the latter each time.1

But this raises the question - how should one fall when kote gaeshi is applied? There are 3 options:

Option #1: escaping kote gaeshi with a forward flip

I've noticed that when kote gaeshi is applied to a person, the natural tendency is for the person's opposite shoulder to roll in towards the wrist.

One can capitalise on this natural tendency and throw the shoulder in even further - leading to a forward flip. This is the option preferred by arts like Daito ryu jujutsu and aikido. The forward flip deals directly with the pressure on the wrist as the twist is undone - and is undone very sharply.

The problem with this approach is that while it works well enough on a padded dojo floor, flipping oneself in the street is an entirely different matter. Surfaces like concrete or bitumen are hard and unforgiving - especially when they are studded with loose blue metal gravel (as I once experienced). I would have thought a forward flip should be very much an option of "last resort".

It is important to note that I am not disparaging the skill of aikidoka and jujutsu practitioners in doing the forward flip: I can see how such falling practise is very useful. Clearly there are instances where you might need to resort to flipping yourself - and developing a good breakfall can make the difference between bruises or broken bones.

But in the end, I think there are safer ways of "falling into" kote gaeshi.

Option #2: escaping kote gaeshi by falling backward

While it is not one's first instinct, it is possible to learn to throw the opposite shoulder back when kote gaeshi is applied. This will result in a backward (rather than forward) fall. In my dojo this is preferred to option #1.

The beauty of this type of falling is that it permits you to collapse into a backward roll. Such a roll takes the "edge" off impacting on hard ground. It also permits you to continue rolling back onto your feet. As with option #1, the roll "undoes" the kote gaeshi wrist twist, but in this case it does so without risking a heavy impact on a hard surface.

Option #3: escaping kote gaeshi falling into a counter lock

However falling onto the ground is by no means the only way of countering a kote gaeshi. If you catch your attacker's lock at the right time, you can instead fall into a counter lock. One such counter lock is demonstrated in the adjacent gif.

You will note from this gif and the video below (which details this method of countering kote gaeshi) that you should fall into the lock in much the same way as with option #1 - ie. by rolling your opposite shoulder in. As I discussed earlier, this is arguably the natural reaction to a kote gaeshi. However, instead of doing a forward flip, you grasp his supporting arm (not the main attacking one) and apply your own lock (waki gatame).

In effecting the waki gatame, you do a forward roll onto your back and undo the kote gaeshi. But instead of rolling on the floor, in this case you are rolling with your back against your opponent.

A video in which I demonstrate how to apply a counter lock to a kote gaeshi


The kote gaeshi comprises a wrist twist. Accordingly, counters to the kote gaeshi involve "undoing" that twist (assuming you can't avoid the twist in the first place).

"Undoing" a kote gaeshi can be achieved by untwisting the body - either in a forward flip/roll or a backward roll.

And if you're going to be rolling, you might as well apply your own lock as you do so!

For a 2015 addendum to this article, go here.


1. It is worth noting that your only chance in appling kote gaeshi as a projection lies in using your opponent's momentum against him/her. This most frequently means utilising your opponent's retracting/withdrawing momentum - as I discuss in my article: Kote gaeshi: how to apply it against resistant partners".

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Kote gaeshi: how to apply it against resistant partners


The humble kote gaeshi - wrist out turn throw/projection/lock - is arguably the most ubiquitous small joint technique seen in traditional martial arts. It is a mainstay of aikido and its parent art, Daito ryu jujutsu. It appears to have been adopted by many karateka as "one of their own" (even though it is often hard to see it in kata). And the technique is certainly common in qin na - the grappling that accompanies many of the traditional Chinese martial arts.

By contrast, the kote gaeshi is hardly, if at all, seen in modern combat sports. In fact, I have been surprised by the number of combat sports practitioners who have said to me over the years that they consider it to be a "fanciful" technique that certainly "won't work in a real fight".

Yet I consider it to be a supremely useful lock - the second most common one that I apply in hard, stand-up sparring (the arm bar being the most common). Why this disparity? I believe it has to do with some fundamental misconceptions about how to apply the kote gaeshi, in particular the correct use of footwork and application of body weight.

Kote gaeshi and leading your opponent's forward momentum

In a previous article, I noted that the kote gaeshi is not well-suited to being applied by leading the forward momentum of your attacker. As you will note from that article, leading forward momentum involves:
(a) an entry (irimi) - where you move in towards your opponent and "catch" his/her attack; and
(b) a circular movement (tenkan) - where you you continue your attacker's forward momentum and redirect it back onto the attacker. The application of kote gaeshi using this method is illustrated in the adjacent gif.

As I have previously observed:
"[Leading forward momentum] is only possible if you enter closely to your opponent and, essentially, meet him/her body to body. To redirect an oncoming force you need to work like a spinning top, moving into the centre - where the speed is slow enough to give you the opportunity of catching the momentum and "going with it"...

[A]ttempting to catch and continue/redirect the extremity of a limb (eg. a hand or foot) is, in my experience, practically impossible given the usual speed at which an attacking limb is travelling at the point of interception, the speed of typical human reaction and the fact that you are not entering into, and utilising, the centre of his/her "circle"."
In other words, I think it unlikely, in the extreme, that you will be able to continue the forward momentum of a punch by catching your opponent's hand/wrist.

You might well catch your opponent's hand/wrist - but only after the inital contact of your limbs (eg. while deflecting) when you can establish some kinaesthetic awareness. And given that street attacks are hardly likely to resemble a full, committed step with a punch (as seen in karate or aikido basic practice), by the time you catch your opponent's hand/wrist, he/she is almost certainly going to be pulling back - or doing something else. You can be reasonably sure that your attacker won't still be pushing forward with the original attack.

For these reasons, the first phase of the classical kote gaeshi I demonstrate above (ie. leading the forward momentum using irimi and tenkan) is unlikely ever to be applied in a civilian defence scenario, or in sparring. Catching hands on their outward movement is, in my opinion, largely fanciful.

Kote gaeshi and leading your opponent's reversed momentum

By contrast, the second phase of the kote gaeshi (where I lead the "reversed momentum") is not only possible - it is quite practical and useful. As I said at the outset, it is the second most common lock I apply in standing sparring, particularly in the melee range where striking and deflecting/trapping start to merge with grabbing.

As with irimi nage, it is possible to isolate the second phase of the kote gaeshi and not go through the inital leading of forward momentum. The adjacent gif illustrates this technique.

You will notice from this gif that there is an initial deflection which is usually accompanied by some kind of body shifting (taisabkai) or evasion (tenshin). This body movement might or might not involve irimi (entering).

It is during this initial deflection that contact is made with the opponent's attacking arm. As discussed, a grab on first contact against a hard and fast punch/strike is unlikely. In any event, your goal at this point should be to avoid being hit - not to grab. However, that inital contact gives your body a vital kinaesthetic context. And using this context your brain can compute and estimate (with reasonable accuracy) where the limb will be in a moment's time. Accordingly I have found that it is possible to establish a grab in the half second or so following the deflection.

Again, when this occurs, your opponent will very likely have abandoned the initial punch/strike. More than likely you will establish contact as your opponent is withdrawing his or her arm from the attack (whether straight back or in another direction). At this point it is possible to lead that withdrawal - using a kote gaeshi in the process. I discuss the mechanics of this use of kote gaeshi in the video below:

A video where I discuss the mechanics of kote gaeshi as practised in our school

Kote gaeshi and footwork

As I say in the above video, there are a few important points to remember when executing a kote gaeshi while leading "reversed" momentum (ie. applying a kote gaeshi to a hand that is being withdrawn). To harness this reversed momentum, you need to be quick. In fact, you have to move "in synch" with your opponent. If you delay, the hand will be withdrawn and you will have lost your chance. And the key to staying "in synch" lies in your footwork.

The rule about kote gaeshi footwork can be summarised as follows:
Always move the leg that is closest to your opponent - and do so in the direction of the withdrawal.
Why is this important?

By way of an illustration, stand facing a partner with your right leg forward and your left leg back. Stand close enough that you can put your palm on your partner's chest. Now lift your front leg. You will notice that you instantly exert force on your partner. This is because your body weight immediately falls behind your hand.

Next, see what happens when you move your back leg - start to step forward. You will note that, unlike moving the front leg, moving the back does not exert any force until your back leg crosses the vertical mid-line of your body (ie. when your back leg is passing your front).

This should give you a clue just how important it is to move the correct leg when applying kote gaeshi. Given the speed at which your attacker is going to be withdrawing his/her hand, you need instant application of force in the direction of the withdrawal.

Moving the front leg in the right direction gives you that instant force by applying your bodyweight to the task. Moving the back leg does not.

The adjacent gif shows this footwork more clearly.

In this exercise I have assumed that the withdrawal of the attacking punch will be straight back, but in reality it could be at a variety of angles. In my experience you can discern the correct angle as the withdrawal starts to occur, permitting you to "go with the flow" and apply the withdrawn momentum against your opponent.

Mistakes with kote gaeshi footwork

It is my view that the failure to apply kote gaeshi against resistant training partners (or attackers in civilian defence scenarios) is largely a result of incorrect footwork.

You will note that even in the gif at the start of the article (where I demonstrate the full, classical kote gaeshi), I still apply the footwork rule outlined above.

However, I was taught kote gaeshi by a number of instructors - and not all of them followed this rule. Here are 2 examples of variants that I believe contain fundamental mistakes:

Common mistake #1

The adjacent gif demonstrates the variant of kote gaeshi that I was shown when I first started training.

In it you will note that the defender does move his front leg when applying the kote gaeshi. However he doesn't step in the direction of the (inevitable) withdrawal. Instead he moves directly opposite to that withdrawal - ie. he pulls his attacker forward. This would be fine if he were leading forward momentum (assuming this were at all practicable). But in his demonstration there isn't even the slightest suggestion that the attacker's momentum will be moving forward.

What would happen if he tried to apply this against a resistant attacker? I suspect that the attacker would simply pull his hand away. And even if he didn't, the kote gaeshi would still fail. Why? The defender would not be in a position to utilise his bodyweight. And in order to apply any throw/projection, you must use your bodyweight. Where does this defender place is bodyweight? He pulls it far away from his attacker, opening up a gap between them. To effect any throw/projection you must be close to your opponent - "hip to hip" even. You don't get there by stepping away and trying to "drag" your partner with you via outstretched arms.

Common mistake #2

The adjacent gif presents an attempted "cure" from the problems encountered in common mistake #1. How? In this case, the defender is apparently aware that he shouldn't open up a gap between himself and his opponent. So he first makes a step towards his partner with his back leg, and only then executes the forward kote gaeshi (as per the common mistake #1). In other words, the technique is the same, but for the extra step-up at the beginning.

The problem with this should be obvious: First, he's moving his back leg - which we have already noted does not apply immediate force to the kote gaeshi. Indeed, the defender doesn't expect it to - he's simply positioning himself for the next step in which the kote gaeshi will be performed. In other words, the defender is deliberately taking an extra step which has no direct bearing on the kote gaeshi. This extra step takes time - time you just don't have. It seems to work well enough if your opponent is happy to just stand there. But if your opponent moves, all bets are off.

Kote gaeshi - as with any other throw/projection - works on a "one for one" principle: for every one movement your opponent makes, you must answer with one movement. In other words, your throw must be one movement in answer to his/her attack. Through correct footwork, you can connect your deflection and throw so that they become part of a single continuum, enabling you to respond effectively. Extra steps just don't fit this equation. Common mistake #2 wrongly assumes that your opponent will be motionless during the extra step(s) enabling you to position yourself correctly. Against a resistant partner you simply don't have that luxury.

In the above gif, the extent of the "mistake" is disguised to some extent by the fact that the "attacker" is initially bent over. The extra steps occur while she is straightening up. However her bent posture in no way requires the extra steps. Moreover, note the time it takes for the kote gaeshi to be applied and compare it to the gif of me doing the kote gaeshi earlier in the article. Common mistake #2 takes roughly 3 times as long as my "direct" version.


Kote gaeshi is often dismissed as an ineffective throw/projection/lock. However in my experience it is nothing of the sort. The reason it is dismissed has, I believe, a lot to do with how it is taught. In particular, some instructors appear to assume that because the kote gaeshi is a wrist-based throw/projection/lock, the usual principles of grappling don't apply. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As with any grappling, the need to harness your own bodyweight - and use the attacker's weight/momentum against him/her - is paramount. This requires you to be close to your opponent. You simply can't effect kote gaeshi by pulling away from an attacker. Nor can you bargain on your opponent staying still while you carefully position yourself.

Instead, as with any judo throw for example, you must be in the right place at the right time. You must predict where your opponent is heading and "lead" his/her momentum in that direction. Above all, you must take care to keep your body close to your opponent. Grappling just doesn't work as a "long-distance relationship". And kote gaeshi is nothing if not grappling.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, August 23, 2010

“Leading” momentum – how realistic is it?


There are a great many “projections” or throws in the traditional martial arts (particularly in aikido) that focus on “leading” the momentum of the opponent – that is to say, continuing and redirecting the momentum of your opponent rather than opposing it.

I have a great admiration for this concept both philosophically and technically. But just how “practical” is it? In other words, what are your chances of “leading” the momentum of an opponent in a real civilian defence scenario?

Before I attempt to answer this question, let me first attempt to explain and describe the art and science of “leading” momentum.

Tai no henko – “body blending” as the essence of leading momentum

The concept behind “leading” is to use your opponent’s momentum against him or her: the harder your opponent tries to attack, the more this is redirected back to him or her.

I love this concept, both philosophically and pragmatically. I have previously discussed my inclination towards Daoist philosophy, in particular the concept of wu-wei (“going with the flow”). Indeed, it is the title of this blog. I firmly believe that optimal conflict management lies in following the lines of least resistance – whether that conflict is physical or just verbal.

A basic exercise used in aikido to introduce a student to the lines of least resistance is the exercise known as “tai no henko” or “body blending”. I illustrate the exercise below:

Tai no henko or “hiraki ashi” – a basic exercise to introduce students to “going with the flow”

You will note from the above video that the central concept behind tai no henko is the footwork known as “hiraki ashi”. This footwork involves 2 distinct actions:
(1) a step towards your opponent (irimi); then
(2) a turning action (tenkan).

Irimi – the necessity of entering

The initial step in towards your opponent is crucial to “leading” his or her momentum because it permits you to intercept the attack in its outward phase. This step towards your opponent is called “irimi” (entering) in Japanese.

Why is irimi so important? Quite simply, you need to catch your opponent mid-stride. If you catch him or her too early (ie. before your opponent builds up sufficient momentum) you might end up pulling rather than “leading” or “redirecting”. If you catch your opponent too late, the forward momentum will have been exhausted. Once again, you will end up pulling your opponent rather than “leading” him or her. The goal is to catch your opponent at the “sweet spot”.

Tenkan – the redirection

Once you have stepped in towards your opponent and intercepted his or her attack, you must then redirect it. This can be achieved through turning around while pivoting on the foot that stepped forwards. To quote the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba:1

“In this sense, there is no opponent in aikido. Even if you have an opponent, he becomes a part of you, a partner you control only.”

I have often heard that in executing the tenkan, the aikidoka is metaphorically turning around to “see the world from the attacker’s perspective”.

But it is important to remember that "tai no henko" is, in itself, not a technique; it is an exercise that teaches you the important principles of irimi and tenkan. How are those principles are applied in particular techniques? Let me focus on one example - the aikido projection known as "irimi nage":

“Leading” momentum and irimi nage

I think the best example of leading momentum is to be found in aikido's irimi nage (entering throw). I have cropped the adjacent gif from a video that is on Youtube, but there are literally thousands of good examples.

You will note that the attacker steps forward with an attack. Rather than step away from the attack, the defender steps in towards it, intercepting it at an early stage (irimi). The defender then continues the forward (and downward) momentum, redirecting it with a circular turn of the body (tenkan). But this is just the first phase of the classical irimi nage demonstrated here:

As the redirection in the first phase is exhausted, the attacker starts to recover his balance, only to find that this act of recovery (in this case standing up and resisting the forward momentum) is itself redirected with the powerful forearm/body projection - a projection I consider the defining element of the irimi nage.

Many people mistakenly think this second phase is equivalent to "clotheslining" your opponent. However the use of the arm in this phase (also found in "tenchi nage" or "heaven and earth throw") relies on correct application of a sophisticated projection - not just a crude ramming home of the forearm across the neck.

Indeed it is possible by-pass the first phase and go straight to the second. Consider the adjacent gif of me performing our school's version of "irimi nage":

You will note that there is no initial "leading" of the opponent's forward momentum. Instead, I focus on the fact that after my initial entry, the attacker is likely to start reversing his momentum (the second phase) so I cut straight to the second phase projection, using the irimi nage to lead his reversed momentum.

Is this better - or just different? It is noteworthy that in all my hard and fast sparring, I have only ever applied our "shortened" variant of irimi nage: I have never managed to apply the first phase of the classical aikido version, namely leading the opponent's forward momentum with a tenkan movement. But then again, one might validly point out that we are talking about sparring - not real fighting. Is there a role for the tenkan in leading the initial forward momentum in a civilian defence scenario? My answer to that is definitely yes - but with some important qualifications:

Tenkan and its application to committed attacks

A tenkan can indeed be applied to continue an attacker's inital forward movement. In the adjacent gif I demonstrate the tenkan when applied in isolation (ie. not as part of some other throw).2 You will notice that I enter and turn, catching my attacker's forward motion as our respective central axes cross.

However it is my view that the instances in which tenkan nage can be applied are very limited.

First, it is my experience that tenkan only works against a very committed, charging attack. In traditional Okinawan and Japanese arts we are accustomed to seeing such attacks used as a platform for practice of techniques. I will save to another time a discussion of the merits and limitations of such a platform since this is a topic onto itself. Suffice it to say, arts such as karate and aikido are traditionally applied in practice against single attacks launched from a committed step (ippon kumite). The attacker is initially out of range, but closes the gap with his or her step.

Second, the tenkan is only possible if you enter closely to your opponent and, essentially, meet him/her body to body. To redirect an oncoming force you need to work like a spinning top, moving into the centre - where the speed is slow enough to give you the opportunity of catching the momentum and "going with it".

By contrast, attempting to catch and continue/redirect the extremity of a limb (eg. a hand or foot) is, in my experience, practically impossible given the usual speed at which an attacking limb is travelling at the point of interception, the speed of typical human reaction and the fact that you are not entering into, and utilising, the centre of his/her "circle".3

With these provisos, I think it is quite possible to enter and redirect a committed attack. However given that such attacks are rarely used in sparring (whether one spars in a modern combat sports fashion, using the sport karate/taekwondo method or our randori method) it is unsurprising that tenkan is also rarely applied in sparring.

At this point I will observe that the applicability of the tenkan doesn't rely solely on a stepping attack (of the kind seen in ippon kumite). Rather, tenkan will work against any sufficiently committed attack. For example a powerful cross punch (with a follow through) is capable of being countered with a tenkan - with or without a step. Consider the video below from 1:00 onwards:

In this video I demonstrate the "tenkan nage" against a right cross or haymaker from about 1:00 onwards

In sparring your partner is unlikely to be trying to hit you with a full power cross or haymaker. So again, it is unlikely that you will have the opportunity to apply a tenkan.

However the fact remains: tenkan is unlikely to work against anything except fully committed punches launched out of range. Even in the above video my partner is throwing the right cross from a distance. It is my experience that when punches are thrown within the melee range you simply don't have the time to catch the outward momentum and continue it. You are limited by the simple logistics of your reaction speed and the shorter time interval in question.

"Leading" reversed momentum

Accordingly it is my view that in respect of most attacks, you will only have the opportunity to intercept the attack - not continue its forward momentum. This interception will usually take the form of a block or deflection. Having made limb to limb contact with the deflection, your opponent will generally cease his or her forward momentum. And as discussed, the time intervals and reaction speeds in the melee range are such that it is near-on impossible to catch your opponent's forward momentum before this happens. What this means is that you are then limited to "leading" the reversed momentum. Like a wave, your opponent with crash and immediately draw back. In the spirit of "wu-wei" or "aiki" you should "go with the flow" and use the inevitable "withdrawal" against your opponent.

A good example of this is to be found in my variant on irimi nage above (in which I make no attempt to continue my attacker's forward momentum, but simply "enhance" his retreat).

In my experience, if you are able to catch part of an attacker's forward momentum, it will most likely only be enough to briefly destablise him or her, before the "reversal": the forward momentum will be insufficient to permit a full "tenkan" throw.

Accordingly the adjacent gif constitutes another variant on the traditional aikido "irimi nage" that I have, from time to time, managed to apply in sparring. You will note that I step into the attack and redirect it. However my attacker quickly realises he has been wrongfooted and starts to resist the redirection, whereupon I "lead" his reversed momentum.

This is quite similar in concept to the irimi nage depicted at the beginning of this article, however it is no where near as "grand" in scope. The control and redirection of the forward momentum is only partial, hence the throw is really quite "abbreviated" as compared to the classical irimi nage. You will also note that I don't have the time to apply the standard forearm projection of the irimi nage (the "clothesline"): I lead my attacker's reversed momentum with as little movement on my part as possible, so as not to lose control of that momentum.


Accordingly I think it is possible to "lead" an attacker's momentum in a civilian defence scenario - maybe not in the way the classical aikido throws are practised, but with the same principles in mind.

Leading the forward momentum of your attacker is possible, but problematic. The circumstances in which this will be possible are, I think, limited to very committed attacks that start out of range and have some element of "follow through".

Leading the reverse momentum is however an entirely different kettle of fish. The initial contact you establish when your defence "meets" an attack will give you the kinaesthetic awareness needed to deal with any reversal of momentum. It is important to note that by "reversal" I don't mean to imply a complete withdrawal or the exact opposite movement to the inital attack - merely a cessation of the momentum of the initial attack and the commencement of some other movement. This might comprise a withdrawal or retraction, or it might involve momentum along some other vector. Either way, the initial momentum is no longer pursued.

I think that leading such a "reversed" momentum is not only possible - it is quite intuitive and effective. Accordingly I make this the primary focus of my own projections - and I leave leading the forward momentum to the occasional instance. I feel this approach has the potential to turn the beautiful philosophy/theory of aikido into a hard-nosed, pragmatic fighting system.


1. See this article or this article.
2. I call this throw "tenkan nage" to distinguish it from irimi nage etc.
3. A good example of the pitfalls of attempting to catch, and continue the momentum of, a hand/fist is to be found in the projection known as "kote gaeshi" or "wrist out-turn throw" - which I plan to analyse in detail in a separate article.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic