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.