Skill Tree System

In Aikido, rank is awarded and progress is measured by testing performance of techniques.  The techniques, however, do not in themselves contain the essence of Aikido, neither the underlying principles nor the skills and attributes necessary to demonstrate them. By the time a student tests for black belt, they are expected to manifest many skills like posture and dignity, responsive ukemi, sharp weapons handwork and footwork, a deep knowledge of distance, timing, blending, and a clear expression of zanshin and etiquette.  The student is expected to pick up these skills and many more, but rarely are these skills made articulate or formally taught. The Chuseikan Skill Tree is being developed to provide a well-rounded, clear path to acquire the skills our instructors consider necessary demonstrating a high-quality skill that represents our dojo well, and to recognize and reward when those skills are attained.

The 10 Branches of the Chuseikan Skill Tree

The skill tree currently consists of the following ten “branches”.  Each branch has 10 levels of increasingly difficult skills to master and demonstrate.

  1. Forward ukemi (rolls / breakfalls)
  2. Back ukemi (rolls / breakfalls)
  3. No-breakfall ukemi
  4. Etiquette, shisei, and dojo protocol
  5. Ne-waza (groundwork)
  6. Meditation and applied spirituality
  7. Randori (multiple attackers)
  8. Weapons skills
  9. Atemi, pressure points, and wave power
  10. Aiki core principles and concepts

Attainment of a given level in any branch is accomplished by demonstrating the stated requirements in front of Guy Sensei, Don Sensei, or Julie Sensei.  The exercises necessary to learn them, or explanations, can be obtained from these instructors or any student with a higher skill rank.  While they must be demonstrated in order, there are no fees, age, time or rank requirements for attaining skill levels in the skill tree system.  Theoretically, a dedicated but unranked student could test through all ten levels of a branch within a few months of joining Aikido for the first time.

Eventually, we will publish expectations of minimum skill tree levels required before we recommend students test for various black belt ranks.  We will establish a leaderboard where students’ skill tree achievements can be recognized, and we will formally recognize higher skill level achievements with certificates or some other reward.  Participation in the skill tree system is entirely voluntary, and some branches will be optional (e.g. the “no breakfall ukemi” branch is considered equal to and alternative to the other breakfall branches).

This system is still under development and testing; please be understanding as the skill tree details may evolve over time.  Please contact Guy Sensei if you have any questions, wish to request requirements or “homework” for your next skill level, or wish to demonstrate your skills to attain your next skill level.

1. Forward Ukemi Skill Progression

The objectives of ukemi include learning to protect yourself, learning to move so that your partner does not have to “hold back” their power and can practice their technique at full speed, and most importantly removing your own limitations of movement.  Links to video tutorials are provided to help you visualize your goals at each level, and to provide exercises to help you prepare; however, your best bet is to have an instructor or sempai work with you in the Dojo.  If you find better video examples, please let us know!

The first ukemi Skill Progression focuses on forward (“zempo” or “mae”) rolls, breakfalls, and feather falls – the most common ukemi practiced in Aikido.  The objective of this track is to prepare students to be able to take spontaneous, high-level forward ukemi by the time they reach 1st kyu, and to take “shihan-level” forward ukemi by the time they reach nidan.

Video of demonstration requirements for levels 1-10

  1. Basic forward roll (link for video example 2)
  2. Silent / slow forward roll (link for youtube example 1), and
    Forward roll with weapon (link for example, drill #9)
  3. Scissor roll to standing (slap-roll; video example 1), and
    1-hand cartwheel (optional)
  4. 6-direction forward rolls (link for youtube example)
  5. Forward roll core exercise (video example 1; video example 2, “drill #1”)
  6. Classic Judo breakfall – partner (“hard style” – link for video example), and
    No-hands Roll (example 1, example 2, drill #17)
  7. Classic Judo slap breakfall – solo (this level is expected by ikkyu or earlier), and
    Feather forward breakfall – partner (standing arm-grab “soft style”, link for video example)
  8. Core connection-style paired feather fall practice (from kotegaeshi, shihonage, iriminage, and no technique; nage kneeling, and nage squatting; video example 1, video example 2 – drill #46)
  9. Forward feather fall (solo, and from kotegaeshi and shihonage -video instruction examples: link 1, link 2), and
    Ikkyo feather fall (link for video example)
  10. 6-direction forward breakfalls (feather falls), or other advanced forward ukemi (speak with Sensei Guy)

All levels must be demonstrated with consistent ability, right and left side, in Level order, even if the student has gained “higher Level” ukemi skills.  Initially, all testing for Level promotion must be performed with Sensei Guy.  The first few students to reach Level 10 will have a custom metalwork gift made for them by Sensei Guy.  Students are encouraged to request assistance from any student with a higher level in this skill progression for instructions on how to practice and prepare for their own next Level.  There is no “seniority” (sempai/kohai) within a Level; the skill tree is completely based on effort and ability!

Current Student Leaderboard:

  • Level 10
    • Alan Abelson (10/27)
    • Barry Engh (11/6/17)
    • Meredith Abel (11/6/17)
    • Carrie Matteoli (11/6/17)
  • Level 7
    • Isaac Molina (10/30/17)
    • Vanessa Crompton (11/13/17)
  • Level 6
  • Robert Bebeau (11/17/17)
  • Level 4
    • Matt Stephen (10/16/17)
    • Ken Bedeker (10/16/17)
    • April Kirchner (10/16/17)

2. Back Ukemi Skill Progression

The second ukemi Skill Progression focuses on rearward / back (“ushiro”) falls, rolls, breakfalls, and feather falls. The objective of this track is to prepare students to be able to take spontaneous, high-level back ukemi by the time they reach 1st kyu, and to take “shihan-level” back ukemi by the time they reach nidan.

Video of demonstration requirements for levels 1-10

  • Back falls
    • Level 1 (video exercise 1): Basic backfall from sitting/kneeling (instructional video: link 1)
    • Level 2 (video exercise 2): Basic backfall from standing (with kneel)
    • Level 3 (video exercise 3): Step-back back fall from forward push (tenkan back fall)
    • Level 3 (video exercise 4): Squatting (no-step) back fall (instructional video: link 1)
  • Backward rolls
    • Level 4 (video exercise 5): Basic step-back backward roll from sitting (instructional videos: link 1link 2, link 3, link 4)
    • Level 5 (video exercise 6): Ground exercise: back roll to forward roll
    • Level 5 (video exercise 7): Basic backward roll from standing (with kneel)
    • Level 6 (video exercise 8): Stepping backward roll (backward roll without kneeling)
    • Level 7 (video exercise 9): Squatting backward roll (no step)
    • Level 7 (video exercise 10): Backward roll core exercise
    • Level 8 (video exercise 11): No-hands backward roll
    • Level 8 (video exercise 12): Backward roll with weapon
    • Level 9 (video exercise 13): Push-up / handstand backward roll (instructional video: link 1)
  • Feather Falls
    • Level 9 (video exercise 14): Partner loading back feather fall exercise, assisted (links to instructional videos: link 1link 2)
    • Level 10 (video exercise 15): Partner standing back feather fall exercise, unassisted (link to instructional video)
    • Level 10 (video exercise 16): Postfall solo feather back fall (link to instructional video)
    • Level 10 (Alternate): Ushiro Otoshi, solo back feather fall exercise (instructional videos: method 1method 2)

3. Randori (Multiple Attackers) Skill Progression

The Randori Skill Progression / tactical series is currently under development.  A list of the proposed tactics and skills under this sequence are currently available at this link, as well as links to videos containing tactics and instructional exercises as they are completed.  Students are encouraged to monitor and practice the randori skills presented there in preparation for the formal publication of the sequence as part of the Skill Tree.  A preliminary skill tree for Randori has been developed (August 2018).

4. Core Aiki Principles

  1. Kuzushi (instructional video: link 1)
  2. Ma-ai (distancing)
  3. De-ai (timing)
  4. Kokyu Musubi
  5. Marubashi
  6. Center (Hara) and Fudoshin
  7. Extension and Mu-To

5. No-Breakfall Ukemi

I am a firm believer that Aikido is a michi study, which should mean that if we approach our practice with the right attitude, we should be able to train and become stronger in some way every day until the very end of our lives. No matter how softly we learn to fall, even feather falls require some agility, flexibility, athleticism, and strength – attributes which will decline as we age, no matter what.  If we do not build an effective practice of ukemi that do not rely on these attributes, we are effectively excluding a very significant portion of our training lifespan, and just as importantly, we are effectively excluding a significant portion of our potential student base who are older, injured, or simply will never be healthy enough to take any form of breakfall.  My goal is to develop a skill tree with the following goals:

  1. A progressive, measurable, skill-based alternate path for ukemi that does not require significant agility or need to roll or take breakfalls.
  2. The ability to recognize and reward students for attaining higher levels of skill in this system that is recognized as equal to other ukemi methods (traditional or feather falls respectively).
  3. The ability for students to be able to receive full speed technique from any level attacker without threat or injury, without disconnecting or resisting, and without robbing their partner of the ability to take the technique to completion.  

This system is very much under development and exploration, although we do have some initial principles and exercises that have been very promising.  We are drawing heavily upon lessons from Feldenkrais and Systema for insights in new ways to consider ukemi, as well as the teachings from Aikido instructors such as Sensei Dan Messisco.  Some of the initial principles we are developing for this tree include:

  1. Ground / Core conditioning: the ability to confidently lower to the ground, or get up from prone position, without using one’s hands.
  2. Vertical range: Increasing core spine/hip flexibility to be able to increase range of up/down movement without compromising posture.
  3. “Surfing”: developing connection and movement sensitivity and timing so that uke never receives the force of nage’s attack, but also never disconnects.  The idea is that uke should imagine there is are “raw eggs” under nage’s hands, and it is uke’s responsibility to make sure they aren’t broken by the technique or fall to the floor.
  4. Tactical “sankaku” positioning: Learning where to move with nage’s technique so that nage’s energy is dissipated relative to their foundation/ structure.  The “sankaku” (triangle) is a traditional concept normally applied by nage to create kuzushi (offbalancing) in their uke’s; in this system, uke also tries to apply sankaku positioning to rob nage of technique power.
  5. Waza shaping (until I come up with a better term): seeking safe joint, arm, neck shapes for receiving technique that allow nage to complete their technique without putting uke in a threatening position.

The Skill Tree System is a creative work, and is Copyright © Aikido Chuseikan of Tampa Bay. The Chuseikan Skill Tree System by Aikido Chuseikan of Tampa Bay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, based on work at http://tampaaikido.com/skill-tree/. This means that so long as you do not do it for profit or commercial purposes, you are encouraged to share it in whole or in part, to edit it and create derivative works, so long as you give credit to the source and provide a link back to us. We are sure that many teachers will want to make adjustments to our Skill Tree System based upon their own experience and objectives, and we want to encourage that; please give credit and feedback where appropriate!