Balance Aikido

To injure an opponent is to injure yourself.

- O Sensei

Teaching Style

Aikido teaching is extremely standard. It’s a fairly uniform thing and I’ve genuinely never seen anything different to this. For the record I’ve trained in at least 8 different countries, over a period exceeding 20 years. This is a teaching style that I do not like, because it is massively flawed.

Every aikido student learns in the same way. The instructor calls a halt to training, everybody lines up in seiza (kneeling). In really big classes they may gather around in a circle. The instructor then demonstrates an entire technique on an uke (attacker) several times. They might explain some aspect of the technique to focus on before everybody attempts to replicate this. It is show and copy. An equivalent analogy would be like a driving instructor getting into the drivers seat, showing you how to drive for 2 minutes, perhaps mention pedals, then walk away and leave you to it. After you've crashed repeatedly, they'll come back and show you turning right (but not left, that's next week).

On consideration this system has been highly successful. For decades it has produced aikido students that have attained a very high level. From a different point of view this teaching method has been a spectacular failure. It has produced very capable students but it has also taken a very long time to do it.

Let’s take a moment to consider the job of a swimming coach. Swimming coaches have a problem that seems a difficult one to solve and that provides them with numerous issues when coaching their athletes. I’ve taken to referring to this problem in capitals. ‘The Swimming Coach Problem’. Since I’ve gone to the trouble of formally naming it what exactly is it? Swimming coaches will almost always find themselves in a situation where they have a group of diverse athletes, all training towards the same goal, in the same style, each with a different set of technical problems. These athletes need individual attention from the coach but they are almost always in a group session. How can the coach operate so that each athlete gets the individual attention they deserve to improve? This is actually a recognised issue in coaching, it’s just slightly more obvious in swimming. Aikido instructors face the exact same issue every single class. For us though it can be more pronounced.

If we accept that The Swimming Coach Problem applies to aikidoka, and it really does, then you might assume that we solve it in the same way. That would be an incorrect assumption. Swimming coaches realised something a long time ago. If two athletes are having difficulty with the front crawl and one of them is screwing up the arms and the other is screwing up the legs; then getting into the water and demonstrating how to perform front crawl isn’t going to help either of them.

Swimming coaches simply don’t do that; however, that’s exactly what the aikido teaching method is.

Instead of spending all of every class practicing entire techniques a portion of the class should be given over to drilling fundamental principles. This isn’t a radical concept either. Most other martial arts will actually do this, whether they realise it or not. For instance boxers will spend time working a speed bag.

Something to realise here is that fundamental does not mean basic. Basics are how you place your hands in kote gaeshi (wrist throw), or how far you enter when performing irimi nage (entering throw). Fundamentals on the other hand are things that apply to every technique and movement. Taking balance is a fundamental, so is moving off the line of attack.

I recently made a list of what I believe the fundamentals of aikido to actually be. A list of things that apply to every technique we do. From there it was possible to formulate a series of repetitive drills to promote those in the students. An example of one is having students duck under a shoulder high piece of string to teach maintaining posture when lowering weight. It teaches them to bend their knees, get lower, and still have shizentai (natural posture). You could certainly promote that during the normal teaching method, but ducking a piece of string gets them familiar with it faster. I shamelessly stole this one from boxing but adapted it to the needs of aikido students.

The handy thing about aikido is that a problem in one technique is very likely to carry through to other techniques. The lack of extension in one techinque is very likely to appear in all other techniques as well. If it was properly addressed as a separate issue then all the affected techniques will improve. This is much faster than correcting each individual technique. If the student spent the next 15 minutes drilling arm extension to the point where the collapse has been removed, then the instructor has just improved all the techniques rather than just one. They won’t have to come round during each technique and correct the students extension. 

What this has led to is a somewhat unusual teaching style at Balance Aikido. Instead of spending the whole class performing techniques a portion of it is always given over to carrying out drills that reinforce the fundamental principles. They are designed to teach foundational aspects of all techniques, not just one.