One of my younger students approached me after class the other day. He’s a good, but intense kid, and I could tell by the look on his face that something was troubling him. He approached quietly, and stood in front of me for a moment, trying to figure out what he wanted to say.
“Shevitz-sensei,” he said eventually, “What do you do when someone grabs your shoulders and won’t let go?”
I looked at him for a moment. We’ve covered this type of attack relatively often, but he’s young, and only been training for less than a year. At first, I was about to give him a list of different ways to move and respond–turn this way if he’s about to grab you, but hasn’t yet; step this way if he’s gotten a good grip on you. In fact, I was about to call over one of my students to demonstrate, when my brain finally kicked into gear. Instead of showing a few techniques, I looked at my student carefully and asked: “Why?”
He thought for a moment. “There’s a guy at school. He keeps grabbing me by my shoulders and bugging me. He won’t let go.”
“Okay,” I said. “That’s clearly unacceptable. It’s completely wrong of him to do that.” As I said this, my student visibly relaxed, and I suddenly realized that he was actually worried that, somehow, being bullied was his fault. “Who else have you told about this besides me?” I asked.
“Nobody. Not yet, anyway.”
I nodded. “Well, the first thing we need to do is talk with your parents. They’ll want to know about this, and they’ll want to help. We need to give them the chance to do that. They might also talk to your school–they should know too. After all, this kid might be picking on others besides you.” I could tell that, while he understood my answers, my student was a little disappointed; clearly he wanted to take care of this issue himself, and he wanted to use technique to do it. “Listen,” I continued. “We could talk about all sorts of techniques that you could use to get this guy to back off. But what happens next? If you get into a fight, you’ll both be in trouble. Let’s give your folks a chance to deal with this; in the meantime, if he comes after you again, stay relaxed. Focus on moving around him–not fighting him. Turn out of the way. Use your entering footwork. If that’s not enough, we can talk about other things.”
We went over to his dad, who was waiting by the door. I hung around while my student got the conversation started. As they left, still talking, the dad looked over at me. “Thanks,” he said. I felt, and still feel, that I handled the situation appropriately.
When a student steps on the mat, I want them to learn about self-defense. Aikido is a martial art, after all. If we don’t focus on the self-defense component, then what are we doing? But, just as important as knowing how to apply self-defense techniques is knowing when to apply those techniques. I admit it: I really wanted to show my student that there were lots of techniques he could do–techniques he already knew–to deal with this bully. And yet… I knew that if I focused just on that, he’d end up getting in a fight and getting into trouble. Was that really the result I wanted? The answer is: no. I want all of my students to have confidence and feel safe. But I also want them to know that applying technique is a last resort–that other options need to be considered first. Technique alone, at best, provides a victory of the moment. Regretfully, often that’s exactly what we need. But true victory has to move beyond the immediate conflict, to identifying the cause of the issue and negating it at the source. This is a harder solution, but a far more lasting one as well.