Trust Your Training

(Reprinted from

It seems that every month or so, I get asked about whether aikido is “effective” as a martial art. I don’t particular care for this question, because you can define “effective” in so many ways. Effective on the street? Effective on the field of battle? Effective in a school? Effective because anyone can do it? I could go on, but you get the idea. We need to remember that, in the case of a physical confrontation, the winner does not indicate the best martial art, but rather the best martial artist at that time and at that place.

That said, I understand why people ask the question. Studying a martial art is extremely difficult and very time-consuming. It is only natural–I would even say it is recommended–that people question the effectiveness of their training. To those asking this question, now, I’ll give you the answer I often give: “Aikido is effective. More importantly, our training system is effective for the goals we want to accomplish.”

In aikido, we are not interested in fighting. You could even say that we are only marginally interested in self-defense. What we are interested in is balance. How to take it, how to keep it, how to use it. This is different from striking arts, which focus on how to block and how to hit. It is also (and many people get confused here) different from grappling arts (like judo), which focus on more on takedowns and pins. In aikido, we focus on how to keep our balance as much as possible, and how to take the balance of our attackers. From there, we next study what to do with an off-balanced opponent. Throw them to the ground? Set them down gently? Hit them? Any of these responses may well be appropriate–it is our job to understand the choices that are available, and how to take advantage of them as needed.

One particular challenge people have with aikido is that they only trust it partway. What I mean is this: they initialize an aikido technique, but when encounter a problem or resistance they immediately revert back to instincts. This usually means trying to hit or grapple. There are two problems here. First, there is no guarantee that strike or a takedown will work. There is a reason why MMA, boxing, wrestling, and other arts have weight classes. Putting someone who weighs 200 pounds in a ring with someone who weighs 135 doesn’t make a lot of sense. The second problem is more obvious. In aikido, we study that narrow sliver of time between an attacker’s commitment and an attacker’s connection. This seems very difficult (and sometimes is) but it really is no different than a baseball player learning how to hit a baseball. But because we focus so much on this moment, we don’t study how to hit or grapple as much. So the second problem is that we just aren’t as good at hitting and grappling!

Instead, what I encourage all aikido students–all martial arts students, in fact–is to trust your training. If the principles you study are sound, then by trusting in them you will eventually have a reliable set of movements that will serve you well. And if they are not sound, then you will learn quickly that the art is not effective and you need to move on. The bad news: this information does not come to you quickly. The good news it also shouldn’t take months or years. A good school with a good group of students should give you the opportunity to test the principles of a martial art, and you should at least get some preliminary results of those tests within a month or so. You may not be very good at the art, but at least you should have a sense of “Interesting. I think I see how this works.”

You will be surprised how much you can do when you learn to trust your training. It’s only when you doubt that you hinder your progress.

3 thoughts on “Trust Your Training

  1. More than the vast majority of martial arts, Aikido presents us with a worst case scenario in each of its techniques: Nage is in a fix from the start, already being tightly grabbed or under the attack of a Uke stronger than him (that’s why Nage cannot rely on sheer strength).But Nage always turn the tables on Uke and nobody gets hurt. It’s always a happy end. What if Aikido was a way to understand how the big wheel turns, teaching us how to turn misfortunes into blessings? If so, it would certainly help us to ease our fears and achieve peace of mind. Could Aikido be also effective for that purpose?

  2. Great post. I grow so tiresome to listen to pubescent fighter-wannabes tout MMA as the end all to be all of effective self defense.

    Quite frankly, I’d rather take an attacker’s speed, turn my body, and send him to the ground in a heap as I walk away calmly than to try to go toe to toe with him, grapple with him on the ground, and hope he doesnt stab me in the thigh as I go for an arm bar.

  3. On the Effectiveness of Training

    I train at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. Lots of teachers and high ranking students from the world over gather there. Until quite recently I used to think we were not taught the real techniques and therefore had little effectiveness as martial artists. Then I started to train outside the Dojo with someone who must be longing also for the real thing. I got hurt right at the beginning of our training by being thrown headlong from a very low height. In other words, ukemi was impossible with this throw. I asked the masters if there existed special ukemi to deal with these throws. “None” was their answer. I should have realized that the throw was dangerous and my mistake was to comply with Tori’s technique as I usually do in regular practice. In other words there is no such thing as a “realistic training” where you help Tori achieve complete success of his lethal technique and then hope for safety. If so how masters manage to achieve their undeniable effectiveness? The secret is hidden in plain light: by caring about the safety of your partner, you are by necessity concerned with the danger involved and therefore are aware of the “real technique”. Who will ever question that a doctor knows how to kill?

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