A few questions to get us started:
1. Is aikido a martial art?
2. If aikido is a martial art, why would it lack a sparring practice?
Can/should any of these reasons be overcome?
3. Assuming you will not be entering combat, can you realistically expect to reach the upper echelons of a martial art without sparring?
If possible, what does this process entail?
4. What does sparring look like in aikido?
How is it different from jiyuwaza?
What would be the ideal aikido sparring practice?
5. Is the presence of/reliance on weapons a factor in any of the above questions?
1. My personal favorite definition of "martial art" is "a system or systematic method of training for fighting." Training to shoot, move, take cover, shoot while moving, etc. would be a martial art. Training in defined methodologies to deal with unarmed attacks and utilize joint locks, throws, etc. against attackers would be a martial art. Having a training syllabus and systematic method of training is hugely important. For example, consider Man A and Woman B. Man A was blessed with good genetics and is a very fast runner, but does not condition and train his body on a regular basis. Woman B was also born with better than average ability in running, but she does interval training, runs races, keeps a training log, and works to condition her skills. It is possible for Man A to beat Woman B in a footrace, but, as Man A and Woman B age and the distance to be run increases, personally, I would bet more and more heavily on Woman B
. In several decades of training and real world experience, I have found the differences in fighting ability between those who train diligently and those who do not to be even more great than in the running example above.
By the definition above, and by most other definitions that I have encountered for the term "martial art," Aikido should be considered a martial art. Now, the interesting thing is, even though a martial art should, by definition, be a method of training for fighting, there are always two different poles in an art. Some people who practice a martial art are really not interested in fighting at all. For these people, what they do is a Martial ART, with the focus on the system of movements, health or other physical benefits, spiritual or mental development, social interaction, or what have you. Some see their practice as moving meditation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. At the other pole are the MARTIAL Artists, where the focus is on fighting, being able to survive a real attack, and the like. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. All martial arts have a fighting component or they would not be martial. All have a system or art or they would be merely unskilled brawling. For those on the ART extreme, unskilled brawling is uncouth, boorish, and thuggish. For those on the MARTIAL extreme, unskilled brawling is just bad fighting and will get you killed if you ever come up against someone who is skilled and who decides you have polluted the planet with your carcass long enough. In reality, very few people who train are at the extremes, and the general "truth" lies somewhere in the middle. With that said, I am pretty close to the extreme MARTIAL side, probably due to my work, various violent encounters, seeing the aftermath of violent predatory attacks, my training, and maybe even a few bumps and bruises to the psyche and a bit of callousness due to the quantity and quality of the damage I have seen people inflict on each other. What that means is, FOR ME, training combat abilities is where it is at. This does not hold true for others, and their "truth" will be different. I will say that is annoys me a bit when someone on either the far MARTIAL side of the spectrum or the far ART side of the spectrum starts mucking about with the other side's area of expertise. If you are on the ART side and are talking about spiritual development, I will not be jumping into your conversation, because, quite frankly, I lack the expertise and skill set to add much to your discussion. I may ask a question, if you say something that peaks my interest, but that would be about it. If you are talking about physical fitness, flexibility, and the like, I may join in, as I have some knowledge in these areas. If you are on the ART side, however, and you engage one of those on the MARTIAL side in a discussion about what to do when a man points a handgun at your face and starts to squeeze the trigger or some other discussion of a street attack, you really are out of your element and will contribute little to nothing to the discussion.
2. There can be many reasons why Aikidoka do not spar. If on the ART side of the spectrum, and unconcerned with combat, sparring may or may not help their training. That is for them to decide. If on the MARTIAL side, then the odds are the individual has added a sparring component of some nature to their training, so that working against a resisting opponent is trained.
3. You could reach a high level of training in movement, athleticism, flexibility, spiritual or mental development, etc. in the ART, without sparring. I do not know if it is possible to get what I consider truly good at fighting in real combat or defending oneself from realistic attacks without sparring. In my experience, sparring teaches about getting hit, being placed in positions of disadvantage, distancing, timing, and, while working out against resisting opponents many will be taken out of their comfort zone and/or disabused of the martial fantasy they have woven for themselves. I have never met someone who was really, really, good at fighting who did not spar, though I am sure there are some out there, as "always" and "never" are very rare adjectives when describing the real world.
4. Good sparring in Aikido would look like good sparring does in virtually every other art. To be direct, it will look like Aikido, but a bit sloppier and not as precise, as it will be done at a speed and with a partner who is not compliant and who is adding stress and stimulus to the training partner. In general, I have found the best practice is to control the action between students, or control sparring between a student and myself, so that the "prime learning zone" is reached. In my experience, students learn the most from sparring when they are not quite comfortable, the attacks are coming just a bit too fast for them and they have to grow and develop a bit to intercept the attacks and counterattack successfully. Thus, I do not just pummel a student or throw multiple strikes in one second. That teaches them nothing. I take them out of their comfort zone, let them get a bit ragged, but do not let everything degenerate to wild flailing or having them cover up and "turtle" and just accept attacks. When the student starts to make this kind of sparring look easy and the techniques are very crisp, it is time to up the speed and intensity so they can keep growing in ability.
5. In reality, Aikido does not rely on weapons. It is mostly an empty hand system. It actually is very good, in my opinion, empty hand against longer impact weapons (a bat, pool cue, etc.), and is good in the close range standup empty hand arena. It is not so good against someone who throws fast combination attacks, and it has problems with the knife. According to Uniform Crime Report Statistics, in the United States, the most prevalent weapon in criminal homicides is the handgun. Following the handgun comes the knife. Knives kill more people in the U.S. than all non-handgun firearms (rifles, shotguns, submachine guns, whatever) combined. Bad guys rely on weapons a lot. So do good guys. However, a lot of robberies and other violent attacks, and all rapes, are going to be at very close range. If you can control an arm, you can control a weapon held in that arm. Of course, gaining control of anyone who is very good with a weapon when you are unarmed is very, very difficult.
WOW. I really did run off at the mouth. I also probably drifted a bit from what was expected in this thread. Hopefully, some have found it interesting or useful.
Take care and train hard.