I would like to draw out a point that Larry made earlier. If I understand him accurately, I seem to have had a similar experience in the instruction of my own students. I am speaking of that moment when one's students respond "spontaneously" but do so without Aiki.
First some background: At our dojo we center every aspect of the training around the capacity to perform Aiki within spontaneous conditions. For us, if we were to define "excellence," or "achievement," that is what it would mean. I am taking Larry's usage of the word "excellence" (as a contrast to "mediocrity") to mean just that. We have several drills or exercises that are part of a "method" we use to take a deshi from form to non-form to a reconciliation of form and non-form. You can see some of our beginner drills at the following links:
From one perspective, a point in these drills is to employ Aiki -- to veer away from using raw leverage, raw muscle, obstructing tactics, etc. The drills are of such a nature, in that they are aimed at the mind of the deshi, that they at first very much fetter the student in his/her response. Another relevant factor of these drills is that at first they only represent physically a small aspect of what is truly possible to experience within any kind of martial encounter. As one progresses, other, more "difficult," aspects of combative engagement are experienced and/or included.
We have all kinds of students that train in this way. We have the person who has never done a martial art or any kind of athletic/competitive endeavor in the whole of their life. We have folks of age 20 to age 52. We have male and female deshi. We have folks that have trained and are ranked in TKD, Kenpo, Krav Maga, Karate, etc., and we have an All-State wrestling champion. We have Deputy Sheriffs and we have City Police Officers. We have folks that are as hard as nails and we have folks that are as delicate as a newly formed leaf. I am noting this because I think that we are for the most part representative of any dojo. In this way then, as a dojo, we do face some of the issues that have lately been brought up in this thread: training elite students only, training the masses, training those that have trained in other martial arts, training those that have never trained in any martial art, etc.
So, we are doing these drills, and a key moment arises: the deshi becomes fettered and their response loses its capacity for employing Aiki. At such times, whether it is the Krav Maga practitioner or the single mother of two that has never trained in anything, the response is the same. Either they force a technique (utilizing the wrong range, the wrong timing, the wrong weapon, the wrong target, etc.) or they retreat into a tactically inferior position in order to prolong their defeat but also to make it equally inevitable. I say these responses are the same because they both come for a lack of Aiki that comes from a fettering of the body/mind.
For the remainder of the discussion, I would like to talk about the first likely response: forcing technique. Through the training the forcing of technique is noted as wrong and it is made clear to the deshi that this is so. This remains so even if it may appear that the deshi's response proved to be "successful." It is wrong for two reasons: first it is wrong because it does not represent the type of spontaneity that the student has committed to attaining; and second it is wrong because its "success" is often only a result of the fact that the drill has compartmentalized the combative experience. As the drills advance, the value of the former aspect is found in its capacity to address larger and larger parts of an overall combative experience.
So, granting that there are a lot of folks that do not do such drills, that do not center their training around such drills, and/or that have poor substitutes for such drills, even within our own parameters we must acknowledge that there is a likelihood for being unable to perform Aiki at spontaneous levels of combat. At such times, to be sure, some of the previously trained folks will claim "muscle memory," and some of the folks that have never trained will claim a lack of experience for their improper response. And, of course, others will come to say that they do not wish to be a "can of whoop ass" -- that that is not what Aikido is about for them, etc. From one point of view, this all appears to make sense individually (concerning why someone responded without Aiki -- in a "common sense" kind of way). However, from the point of view of unfettering the mind, these things are all the same.
For example, for the TKD guy who tells me that he is used to kicking, etc., I tell him that kicking is not the problem. The problem, for example, is not having the proper timing for the kick. I ask him, "Is it part of the TKD ideal to jam your kicks and to have your balance so vulnerable that you cannot really continue your attack and/or counter any counter-attack?" Obviously the answer is "no." I ask, "Does not TKD have a notion of the right weapon for the right job?" Obviously, the answer is "yes." "Does TKD teach you to cling to a weapon no matter what the circumstances or the environment?" The answer: "no." I explain, "The issue here is not what weapon was thrown but how poorly it was employed in terms of the various aspects of Aiki and also how attached the body/mind was to something that was obviously out of harmony with the nature of the situation." This is how the training goes, and it goes like this for the person with no experience to the person that clings to a notion of "Aikido" that does not possess such an understanding. Therefore, in relation to the previously trained person, because all of this is relating to a fettering of the mind, I do not believe that having aikidoka train in other arts prior to training in Aikido ("like in the ‘golden age'") or allowing them leeway concerning "muscle memory" is the solution and/or even relevant to the culture of mediocrity we are discussing. These issues are going to arise no matter what. More than that -- these issues are supposed to arise in the training. So too are our solutions (as teachers) supposed to arise in order to meet them.
For me, this culture is addressed precisely when one's incapacity to employ Aiki at spontaneous levels is brought to the forefront of one's awareness AND when one's likely non-Aiki responses are exposed for their inferiority. If we are going to understand excellence as the capacity to perform Aiki within spontaneous combative situations, then there is no other way to address the culture of mediocrity but by these two avenues. Having tougher people train harder or in a more committed fashion will achieve little to nothing if it means they are only training harder and being more committed to a method of acquiring forms. Being able to raise more questions concerning architectural matters will also achieve little to nothing if those questions never leave the realm of forms training. In this same way, even "cross training" will not achieve what we think it might achieve if we again restrict it to a system of form.
Still, perhaps there is one more relevant notion: the capacity for accurate self-reflection. After all, we all think we are heading down the path of spontaneity, we may even all think we do the same kind of training (allowing for variation), etc. However, we could all be wrong -- myself included. It seems the capacity to reflect upon one's own Self accurately is a much needed skill as well if this culture is to be addressed in any real kind of way.