View Full Version : The Limiting Factor in a Student's Training

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George S. Ledyard
12-14-2009, 03:10 PM
Aikido has gone from a martial art taught privately to an extremely small group of students in Japan before WWII to a publicly taught art after the war and eventually in which active measures were taken to spread the art globally in a single generation. This effort was fantastically successful. Perhaps a million people world wide practice Aikido today.

What made this rapid growth possible was the development of a tier of teachers, not Shihan, not even mid-level but really entry level instructors who opened dojos and clubs all over the world. Most of us in my generation were running dojos at San Dan. It was not unusual for Non-Yudansha to find themselves running clubs or programs.

In the last forty years students of the students of the uchi deshi have begun to open schools. These are people who never trained directly under a Shihan level instructor for any significant amount of time. So now, in many communities there are multiple choices of styles and teachers. In Seattle, admittedly an extreme case, there are over twenty dojos in the immediate metro area.

I think that there needs to be a discussion of what the responsibilities of a teacher are in regards to his or her students. I think that the overriding mission that most teachers who have opened dojos have adhered to was that there was something fundamentally good about "more" people doing Aikido. That somehow they were missionaries going forth to convert the heathen and bring them into the fold.

It didn't really matter whether they were qualified to run a school... Maybe they were the only ones in the area from a particular organization or under a particular teacher. Since organizations exist to perpetuate themselves, of course such people were permitted, even encouraged to open their own schools. It was seen as better to have a school doing things "our way" albeit at a mediocre quality, than to have the student attend a dojo with a much more senior and skilled instructor from another lineage. So not only was growing Aikido a goal in itself but so was spreading the gospel according to ones own teacher or style.

I wish to question the idea that there is something inherently good about practicing Aikido at whatever level is available as opposed to doing another practice at a high level. Most Aikido teachers are content with their roles guiding the practice of their students as long as they feel they are better than their students and have something positive to offer. I would ask people if this is really true? If a student. by choosing to train with you, is passing up the opportunity to train with another teacher, of the same art or even a different art, aren't you actually short changing that student?

I would suggest that, as an absolute minimum, a teacher should be offering training that will allow his or her students to be as good (even better?) than that teacher is. If each person running a dojo or overseeing the training in some community center program or other were to honestly ask this question, what would the answer be?

I have come to the belief that in the majority of cases, the honest answer would be that no one in said dojo shows any sign of meeting or exceeding the skill level of the teacher. I think that in most cases, the teacher has become the limiting factor in the development of their student's Aikido.

I hear teachers talk about "falling standards" all the time. Tests are generally conceded not to be what they were 20 years ago, weapons work is not what it was, etc. While there is general agreement that this seems to be true, I think there is very little self examination on the part of the teaching community as to how they have created this situation.

When growth for its own sake becomes the overriding goal, when creating an harmonious and well bonded dojo community becomes more important than the transmission of the art, then there is a problem.

I have been around long enough to have seen a generation or two go fourth from their respective dojos and start their own places. Many of these people have established highly successful schools, lots of students, great spirit, beautiful facilities... But when you look at the student population of these dojos you see no one who is going to be as good as their teacher. You see people who have the potential. You see people putting in the time and effort. But you don't see the resulting progress.

I have seen tests performed by students at a given level that simply weren't in the ball park compared to what their teachers had done at that very same level. (Boy does that make me feel old when I have seen both teacher and student test for that same rank.) What would cause a teacher to accept far less from his or her student than they had achieved at that same point in their training? I simply do not understand? It's one thing to not know... it's quite another to know and not pass it on.

How many people running dojos have been trotting off to seminars with their teachers for decades and having no clue what these teachers were doing? Year after year... no real change in understanding. At what point do you ask yourself what it is that you are teaching? If you know it isn't what your teacher is doing, is what you are teaching worth while or not? Is there some inherent merit to passing in what is really not very high quality?

I constantly run into teachers who admit that their weapons skills are not what they'd like. Yet, these very same teachers are responsible for preparing their students to do weapons work on their tests. If they are not confidant in their skills, how can they possibly prepare others to be anything but inadequate? So the question is, why haven't they made acquisition of these skills a number one priority so that they can do their jobs properly? Have they invited skilled teachers to come to their dojos specifically to work on these skills? Have they sought out teachers who have the skills and traveled to their dojos? Usually, the answer is no. They bemoan the fact that there isn't more weapons training at the various seminars and camps held by the organization but do absolutely nothing to take responsibility for their own progress.

The economy has caused many smaller dojos a huge problem. In our area several have already closed their doors and moved into community centers. A number of others are marginal and their teachers actually have out of pocket to keep the doors open.

So the obvious question is, does that dojo NEED to stay open. Given how much time and energy it takes to run a school and minister to the needs of ones student population, combined with the ever present financial and time pressure which interferes with doing as much personal training as one would like (or professes to wish to do), wouldn't it simply be better to close the school and start training at another dojo with a skilled instructor? Isn't it really better for that teacher and the art itself to have that teacher go back to being a serious student full time than being a mediocre instructor of even more mediocre students?

I am often accused of taking an elitist position on these issues. But really... does anyone actually think that the Founder was envisioning a global community of martial arts mediocrities when he said that Aikido could change the world?

The bottom line is that it all starts and ends with the community of teachers. They are responsible to attain the highest levels possible in their art. Their are responsible for passing on that knowledge. A student with the will and the ability should be able to attain excellence at any dojo. If not, that dojo probably doesn't need to be there.

I have been to dojos where talented people were being short changed. Fifteen minutes away there was another dojo and a different teacher turning out top notch students. This particular dojo had no reason to exist and was actually, in my opinion, a detriment to the art. Taking people's time and money, and then not delivering is borderline fraudulent as far as I am concerned. Yet, there was no consciousness on the part of the instructor at this dojo of anything amiss.

I think the whole Aikido teaching community needs to take a hard look at itself. We need to ask ourselves if what we are passing on really represents something positive for the art and for the student. We need to be aware that every time we convince s student to train with us, he or she is choosing not to train with someone else. Do we really think we offer a quality experience that is as good or better than what that student would get elsewhere? Are we striving for quality or quantity? Are there people who simply shouldn't be training? Or do we think we should change the training to make it "accessible" to everyone? And what happens to the training of the people who could have been excellent if the training is made "accessible" to people who will never be excellent?

I once asked one of my teachers, after seeing a very poor yudansha test, who sets the standard for testing? He replied that it is the job of the instructors to set the standard. In other words, it is my job. No one is going to tell me. If I settle for less in my own training I am short changing myself and my students. If I allow them to be less than they are capable of, even if it means that I lose the students who don't have the commitment to go the distance, then I am short changing my students.

I absolutely believe that it is the teacher's job, his responsibility, his imperative, to not be the limiting factor in his own students' training. I think the whole Aikido teaching community could benefit from a bit of brutally honest self examination on this issue.

(Original blog post may be found here (http://aikieast.blogspot.com/2009/12/limiting-factor-in-students-training.html).)

12-15-2009, 07:06 AM
One of the reasons is the switching of the focus of Aikido from a martial art into a vehicle for spiritual enlightenment or personal growth.

When the overriding goal is other than to have your Aikido effective as a martial art there is no incentive to take the time, do the hard work and learn the basics.


Carsten Möllering
12-15-2009, 09:04 AM
Well that sounds as if there are no specific lines of tradition of aikido in your country which set specific standards?
As if there is no "structure" of teaching and testing ?
As if there are no shihan, overseeing the standards, the teaching and testing?

Do the teachers who run a dojo not havoe a tseacherl of theair own who looks also after their students, at seminars or something like that?


That sounds unfamiliar to me.
As if everybody runs a dojo who just likes it?


Russ Q
12-15-2009, 10:57 AM
This is an interesting question. Coming from an area with a small population and two dojos (mine and a peer) the questions hits "close to home". I think Sensei, generally, your premise is sound but we also need to ask how the student is being taught. I will get into details via PM.



Janet Rosen
12-15-2009, 11:04 AM
Much food for thought there.

George S. Ledyard
12-15-2009, 12:20 PM
This is an interesting question. Coming from an area with a small population and two dojos (mine and a peer) the questions hits "close to home". I think Sensei, generally, your premise is sound but we also need to ask how the student is being taught. I will get into details via PM.



I guess that is my point... The question is whether, in a small town, there needs to be two dojos? Or, if there is some wonderful teacher of T'ai Chi, maybe there should be no dojos. Maybe everyone would be better off doing the T'ai Chi with the advanced teacher, rather than muddling along doing Aikido. Is there some inherent value to doing Aikido, regardless of the quality level?

I guess I come down on the side of some training is better than no training. If I am the only game in town, than I simply try to do my utmost to keep getting better so that I can deliver the goods to my students. If the only other game in town is some wretched McDojo, I would feel like I was doing a public service "saving" the public from that experience.

I am simply saying that I think a certain amount of self reflection is called for. If I can't honestly say that my students at San Dan are equal to or better than I was at San Dan, that they have every chance of being as good or better than I am when they have trained as long, then I have not been doing my job. I see this all the time and I think we should be looking at it.

As for the idea that organizations and Shihans overseeing them accomplish this, well, I would say the evidence in a lot of cases is to the contrary. I am not going to get into specific teachers or organizations. This is a matter for self reflection. If you think everything is fine, then don't worry about it. I don't really think that students should be worrying over much about these issues. It is for the folks who have set themselves up as teachers do decide if they are really doing their jobs. One can look at the "product" and see the result of ones efforts. It's sitting right there in front if us. It is a simple question... Are my students as good as I was when I was at the same level? Do I know what I should know to teach what is expected by my own teacher or organization. If the answer is no to either or both of these questions, then something is not right.

Russ Q
12-15-2009, 12:47 PM
Hello Sensei,

I agree, as an instructor, self reflection is very important. How can I improve myself, improve my ability to impart information, improve my students ability to learn this stuff.....I have students who've tested are 4th and 5th kyu....that's a while back for me to decide if they're better than I was at that stage...:-) It will be an ongoing observation.....



12-15-2009, 01:23 PM
If i may be so bold sensei,
Only 10% of teaching is imparted by the teacher. Only through dedicated practice of the principles of aikido do the mysteries come to life. And it is those principles that have made training in aikido such a pain and pleasure. I would train at other dojo's and other styles given the chance but i would not stop aikido. At our place, we have been blessed with a great teacher. But sometimes, he is not able to show up because of his other responsibilities (and he just reached san dan) and i can honestly say we are much better off with his limited guidance then if he were not here. Because, he cannot make me walk the path but him pointing in the right direction is all that is needed.
Your point is very valid. But like everything in this world, there always have to be exceptions to our theories.
It is not an arguement, just an information which may provoke a thought process.
My apologies if i have said something amiss,

Rob Watson
12-15-2009, 07:53 PM
This lowly shodan deigns to offer that the road to mastery begins by asking ones self "what shall I do to get better?". What have I done this year to improve? What have I done today to improve? What am I doing this hour to improve? What am I doing this moment to improve?

Those not on the road to mastery need not concern themselves with such matters.

When every waking moment is filled with the drive to improve there is mastery to be had by simply doing something to improve in every waking moment. Any less is a cheat to ones self and the same flows to ones peers and ones students.

Not many have the drive, ambition and audacity to dare to be better than their teacher - much less the best period. This is not the blatant action of ego but total self sacrifice to the art. A truly high calling indeed. The phrase "one in a million" is apropos if not wildly optimistic!

The limiting factor in a students training is the student. Certainly true in my case.

Garth Jones
12-15-2009, 10:28 PM
Hi George Sensei,

I've been thinking about your initial post and I have two responses, one personal and the other general.

On the personal front, I began my training in Iowa City, IA back in the late 80s. At the time the dojo at the University of Iowa was the only game in town. There were a few other tiny dojos in the state, but the nearest top instructor was Akira Tohei Shihan in Chicago. I was a graduate student in chemistry at the time so I didn't know the entire martial arts scene well, but I don't think there were any top flight people in any art in town - just a bunch of university clubs and some storefront tae kwon do and karate dojos. We went to seminars as much as we could (several a year) as did our instructors - we were all doing our best with the resources available.

Now, many years later, Tara and I run a small dojo in Pittsburgh not because we want to be aikido teachers, but because without this dojo, we couldn't train. If we can encourage some folks to come along on our journey, well so much the better. And who knows, we might connect with somebody who will end up an 8th dan someday (wouldn't that be nice). We are very serious about our aikido, however all our training has been around education and careers, which leads to my general observation.

In the professional world (academic chemistry) that I know well, those who rise to the absolute top make huge sacrifices to get there. They have no hobbies, few outside interests, and and often family and friends are distinctly secondary. That drive, that singular focus, gets them to the top of their profession. They are rewarded with professional respect and a permanent, well paying job with benefits. Some end up wealthy through patents and start-up companies.

Our society rewards people with that sort of drive handsomely in the medical world, law, business, etc. The best aikidoists I know have this kind of drive and have, while young, trained in the dojo hours and hours per day (Mary Heiny certainly did!). That leads to a level of mastery that most of the rest of us cannot hope to attain. And what is their reward? Like artists and musicians it seems like the result is lousy pay, a constant struggle to run a dojo, poor access to health care, and no retirement plan. To find students who can surpass the best teachers we have to attract people with the drive to get there who are either trust fund kids or regular folks willing to accept the lifestyle. That seems a hard challenge in our fast pasted consumer oriented world.

I'm afraid that I don't have any solutions (not at the late hour I am typing this anyway) but that is the crux of the problem as I see it.


PS I do agree with your second post (and the other folks who commented) that there is a huge difference between just showing up at the dojo and training with maximum focus. Personally I only get a few hours a week on the mat, so I try to improve something, anything, each time I'm there. I may never reach or surpass the level of understanding Mary Heiny Sensei has, but that's the road ahead and I'm going down it just as well as I can.

Kevin Leavitt
12-15-2009, 10:43 PM
Lots of thoughts on this, but got too busy today to really respond much.

Need for two dojos?

I think the market bears what the market bears, and caveat emptor applies. Certainly in the internet age access to inforrmation has/should improve the knowledge that people have to assess quality etc. That said, I am still amazed at how little informed people are on the subject. I am also intrigued at the profiles/characteristics of people that are attracted to particular dojos.

In Arlington, VA/Washington DC....on any given night, I may be at my main Aikido dojo, (ASU), I may be at the BJJ dojo two blocks up, like tonight, or I may take the train up to the Takoma Dojo 30 minutes away..or down the road at the local Judo dojo.

The point is, that each of these dojos has a slightly different feel, crowd, emphasis, quality etc than the others. This does not include the..what AT LEAST 5 or 6 Aikido dojos that are within 15 or 20 minutes of me that I have never been too!

All of them have decent teachers that are well qualified.

Certainly it would save money to pool our resources together, but why? Why does the market bear 6 or 7 AIkido dojos all within the same metropolitan area?

I certainly don't have all the answers...but location, location, location...is a part of it. Personalities, feel, and what not as well.

We see the same in BJJ, which is a more quantifiable and measureable practice. We know who the best guys are in the area. Why doesn't everyone train with them? Location is one. Cost is not, as they all cost about the same. I have asked various students....it seems to be, after location and hours open...the over all "Feel" or "Zen" of the dojo. They simply like it and click with it.

I think that counts for alot.

Another interesting point is to look at other markets. Why do fast food joints open up next to each other? Coffee shops? etc.

In DC, heck some of the best BJJers are coming out of our area now...which is interesting. Is it one coach? nope, there are several.

Look at silicon valley. Why is it that all those excellent guys came out of the same area?

Anyway, I find it intriguing, even though it may be a slightly different perspective than you are looking at...but I think it is an important phenomenon to consider.

For me personally, in DC area, I would not consider opening a school at all as there are so many good people to study with, and simply by being a "student" I garner a great deal of flexibility to train and capture knowledge.

However, in Germany, I had to take on the role of "Sensei" as if I wanted to train, I had to create the environment.

I wasn't the best teacher, and if another one came along, well, I would have yielded to him as that is how I see things and my goal is not to run a school, but to learn as much as I can.

So, I am also intrigued as you are on why one would open up a school in a small town if there was someone better than you, especially since it isn't like running a martial arts dojo is a very profitable endeavor!

AND why would students not figure this out, leave you and go study with the other guy?

Well, I think I covered that above, in the whole feel/personality/comfort thing.

I want to run a dojo one day, as I feel that I have something of value to offer in what I do. Here in DC...not a chance, as there are way too many folks for me to learn from, and my career don't allow for it.

However, in the future, in a smaller town, and I have the time...yea sure...even if there is another dojo doing what I am doing....why?

SImply because I would think that what I have to offer is unique enough, and good enough, that there is some value in shaping my own training environment to help people realize there own training objectives and path.

How will I know...well they show up to class and pay the dues.

Good questions and thought George! Thanks!

Zoe S Toth
03-09-2012, 02:26 PM
George Sensei,

This blog post really struck a chord with me. At the USC college (the SC not CA one) we have two Aikido clubs. A year ago ours, a Seidokan Aikido club was being taught by a 7th dan and his senior students that ranged from 4th dan to 2nd dan. The new club, a Wadokai club, was being taught by an ikkyu. I eventually met him and asked why he started his club. He said he tried ours and it 'was giving him bad habits'. Really? I still find it hard to believe a brown belt would say he could learn nothing from our teacher. Actually, he was saying learning from our teacher who has around 35 years of experience was actually detrimental.

I was amazed by the arrogance. We are not a small club and we travel to seminars all the time, inviting outside instructors in to teach us as much as financially possible. Personally, I thought he wanted to perpetuate the new style.

Secondly, the thing about testing that is insanely infuriating for new people is that it feels like a time thing. I trained a year so I get to test, rather than I am ready to test. Especially since our instructor was testing in a more 'Japanese' fashion- ie a black belt took 3 years rather than the 5-10 that is average in our dojo right now. I would like to see the rank system resolved, even though I speak from the bottom where as you are speaking from towards the top. Its disheartening to wonder if the rank you have is meaningless. After all, why waste the time doing 'tests' when they are really demonstrations?

Of course that could be me talking out of bitterness. It's really hard to think you are the same rank as someone who over the same year, trained less than half as much as you.

Anyway, thank you for the post. It was wonderful.

03-09-2012, 08:22 PM
I recently checked my dojo's website stats. What was the second most clicked page (after entry to front page) do you think? Location, lineage, class times, teachers bio or cost? Sadly it was the latter? (Digressing, I have been around long enough top know that its not the cheapest that is best...its just that this is the most common commodity for assessing quality).

What it does point out is that for the average punter many of the aspects pointed out in this thread are just not that important, the average 'buyer' is just not that discerning or cares about quality and Kevin's maximum hold.


Chris Li
03-09-2012, 09:15 PM
George Sensei,

This blog post really struck a chord with me. At the USC college (the SC not CA one) we have two Aikido clubs. A year ago ours, a Seidokan Aikido club was being taught by a 7th dan and his senior students that ranged from 4th dan to 2nd dan. The new club, a Wadokai club, was being taught by an ikkyu. I eventually met him and asked why he started his club. He said he tried ours and it 'was giving him bad habits'. Really? I still find it hard to believe a brown belt would say he could learn nothing from our teacher. Actually, he was saying learning from our teacher who has around 35 years of experience was actually detrimental.

I don't know if he was right or not, but I wouldn't be surprised to meet yet another 7th dan whose habits are detrimental to your martial health.

Ever consider that he may have been correct?

Anyway, the ranking system was brought in by Jigoro Kano (from Japanese chess, no less!), mainly in his efforts to make martial arts easier to teach to large groups of children. I wouldn't put too much weight on it.