You always suck at aikido

It’s close to midnight, and I am sitting with one of the senior students of Kokikai Aikido. We’ve been talking about all sorts of aspects of aikido training and the evolution of technique over time. As we continue to talk, I mention that one of the things I have a hard time with is that there always seems to be another level of proficiency; that a technique I could have sworn I had down one week is not working nearly so well the next. He looks at me, and responds: "You know why that is? It’s because you always suck at aikido."

The words are a jolt. You always suck at aikido? This is NOT what I signed on for. You start a martial art to become an expert at it, don’t you? To be told that you will never be good at it seems…disheartening at best.

The explanation that I was given, however, made sense. The art of aikido is one of constant refinement. In Kokikai Aikido especially, we are taught to continually analyze our techniques and strategies. As we refine our movements, we internally raise the bar of what we expect out of ourselves. Essentially, once we understand how to move better, faster, and more efficiently, we won’t accept anything on the mat that falls short of our new level. The problem, of course, is that it takes time and practice to make this new level the norm of your practice. So it is not uncommon for you to struggle with a technique–it’s not that you can’t do it, it’s that you can’t do it at which you want to do it.

This cycle has been borne out many times in my own training. For example, when I first learned tsuki kotegaeshi (a response to a punch in which you rotate your opponent’s wrist out and away from them, resulting in their loss of balance), I was instructed to keep my opponent’s wrist low, and the rotation of that wrist as tight as possible. This resulted in a relatively effective technique, but it had two drawbacks: first, it really cranked on your opponent’s wrist; second, opponent’s with thick wrists were very hard to throw without injuring them. Over time, I learned that a more efficient way to do the technique was to keep your opponent’s arm close to their body and then extend it behind them. This modification stretched the uke out more, resulting in an increase in loss of balance and a decrease in the amount of torque on the wrist. An excellent and effective refinement, but it took a long time before I could make it work reliably. Yet, because I had spent so long studying the old way of applying the technique, I knew I could always fall back to it and make the old way work. But that wasn’t good enough. I wanted to do the technique in the newer, more efficient way. Over time, the new way eventually supplanted the old way, as I got better at understanding how to apply. And what happened next? The technique became more refined again–and the process started anew.

And this is what was meant by saying you always suck at aikido–you are always striving to hit the next level, and each time you improve, there’s yet another layer of refinement to implement. It certainly doesn’t meant that the techniques don’t work–it just means that we are never satisfied with our current capabilities. I have trained long enough that I know how to throw someone (in most cases–I won’t claim to be perfect), but that doesn’t mean that I’m satisfied with the level at which I execute the technique. Perhaps this is part of the attraction of aikido–it is an art in which you are in a continual state of refinement, yet it incorporates this cycle of improvement without sacrificing the effectiveness of its techniques.

4 thoughts on “You always suck at aikido

  1. Yep, you got it. Aikido is an art, which means there is the possibility for continual lifelong improvement. Not only that, but the higher-ups in my group assure me that successive generations are getting better – so there is not only longitudinal improvement, but cross-sectional improvement too. Aikido is becoming better as a whole as time goes on.

    Now, here’s the potentially heretical part – does this mean that it is possible for someone of our generation (perhaps even you or I) to eventually be better than M. Ueshiba ever was?

  2. Patrick,

    I hear the same thing–in fact, in our style we just updated all of our testing requirements. Why? Because our training methods and techniques have been continually refined, so we need the test requirements to reflect that.

    And I don’t think your question is heretical at all. I know that, in Kokikai, it is hoped and expected that we might eventually be better than our instructors. This is balanced by the fact that our instructors are also trying to improve! So everyone continues to grow.

  3. Dave…

    That title and topic is total flame bait … Are you sure he didn’t mean … nope not goin there… 🙂

    As for equaling or surpassing Ueshiba O-Sensei, that is a little bit like fantasy football. We can never know how the game really would have been played out. Osensei is no longer here to measure against. All we have are videos and stories that mostly venerate the guy. We are human, as was he, so we should be able to climb the mountain too. However, he had something that most of us do not. He had Aikido as the dominating core of his daily life. Everything he did seemed related to his own training in some way. So, unless an Aikidoka is willing to train like a madman, it is unlikely that they will achieve that level of proficiency. IMHO.


  4. LOL! Nicely put! I have ben training since I was ten years old, about three decades, but still every now and then I’ll get a complete newbie stroll on the mat and make the “basic” technique look farcical and ineffective! Of course, a there are always options, which is one of the wonderful things about our art, but it clearly shows how one can never, ever “get there”…

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