The nature of practice in Aikido has been a topic of frequent debate/dispute over the years. The founder of Aikido expressly forbid competition from being formally established in this art, which led to one of his early students, Tomiki Sensei, to create his own organization. This style in Aikido is similar to Judo in that competition is part of the art. The founder did not allow formal competitions to be created, but he did allow a lot of dog-eat-dog, hierarchy “training” to take place in the dojos that he taught at. The nature and severity of the training for the live-in students, and later, junior instructors would leave many Aikidoka today aghast at the “un-aiki like” nature of the training. The modern day “understandings” of Aikido training at many dojos have left many old-timers to comment on the un-martial nature of the training. Many of those old-timers do not believe that the art would have spread as quickly as it has if the training was as severe as it was when they trained. These old-timers were to a large degree competent martial artists who had no problems taking on challenges and ending up victorious. Many Aikido dojos today not only do not uniformly create students with a notable level of martial effectiveness, but do not even set this outcome as a goal of training in the dojos. Even Ki Society established a style of competition as a means of addressing some obvious issues related to the nature of training. This situation leaves us in a quandary as to how to structure training in the dojos that we run so that the art is transmitted in a manner that still retains its martial viability while still appealing to a broad array of students (and what they look to gain from their Aikido training). There are no quick fixes and/or easy answers.
It is easy to categorize the nature of practice as ranging from collusive, to cooperativ,e to competitive. These categories serve to distort the nature of training by forcing us to lump types of practice into only a couple of areas, leading to the inevitable war of words on internet forums, and in other venues as well. I will try to explore these grouping in hopes of fleshing out desirable and undesirable aspects within these limited groupings.
Collusive practice is a practice in which the people interact with one another in a wholly unrealistic manner. Nobody in the martial arts world would come out and say that he/she practices in a collusive manner, yet most established dojos have developed an unconscious pattern of interactions, that to some extent, becomes collusive. Group dynamics and a host of other processes are at work in shaping these patterns. At the positive end of things, these types of behaviors indicate a functional and cohesive group that interacts in a manner that sustains the long-term existence of that group. The establishment of secure, non-verbal patterns of communications is a sign of a cohesive group. Collusive practice can have many positive results. Nobody can really dispute that effective, non-verbal communication skills are useful. Problems emerge when people develop the expectations that people outside of that group will respond in a manner that is expected from the in-group, non-verbal communication patterns. If we apply this process to a physical conflict, we can see how dangerous it can be to create these unconscious expectations among the member of a training group/dojo. It reaches the level of the theater of the absurd when the head of such an organization actually believes that these unconscious processes work everywhere with everyone. Most people to date, have seen the video of the “Ki master” get his ass whupped at the hands of a mixed martial artist. The “Ki master” actually believed that the collusive nonsense that he established as a training paradigm would work in a real fight! The simple, indisputable fact is that wholly collusive practice cannot be expected to result in competent martial artists.
Cooperative practice is a more overt and conscious process in which there is an overt understanding as to the nature and expectations of the practice. Cooperative practice is a safe manner to practice physical confrontations. It allows people to explore the various aspects of training without having to become unduly worried over ones’ safety. The nature of this practice can allow people to explore various factors and interactions in great detail, over a significant period of time. The benefits of this type of practice is obvious. Conscious verbal and non-verbal communication skills are very useful. Communication skills are most useful when conflicts arise. An unrealistic leap occurs when people believe that that nature of communications and the outcomes will be the same or similar in situations that are decidedly uncooperative. When the uncooperative situation is a physical conflict, the unrealistic conclusions derived from cooperative practice can be dangerous to one’s survival!
Competitive practice is an overt process in which each party is trying to become victorious over the other partner. The endpoint is that only one party can emerge on top. The nature of this practice forces the parties to have to immediately respond to unpredictable circumstances. People learn very quickly as to what works and when (and the opposite equally applies). That nature of this practice does not contribute to the process of deliberate thinking in the moment, instead leads to a greater focus on responsive/reactive response sets. It is unrealistic to expect that the competitive training paradigm applies to all situations and all circumstances. A ground fighter who is accustomed to taking an opponent to the ground to achieve victory is in for a big surprise when such a tactic fails miserably in a setting such as a crowded bar filled with neutrals, friends and foes.
What if a sound practice paradigm can incorporate some aspects from each of these categories? When we practice a movement in a very slow manner, are not engaging in some degree of collusive practice? We certainly would not want to keep our practice at that pace, but it could serve as a good starting point for developing proper movement at progressively faster speeds. Are we always not cooperating to some degree or another, even when in a competition? There are unspoken and spoken guidelines that govern the way we interact, be it cooperative practice or a competition. Are we not in competition with ourselves and with our partners when we are practicing in a more “free-style” type of training environment (open attack and responses, etc….)? Being able to adjust ahead of the other person’s adjustments is an important ability to have, because that is what typically occurs when people fight. It seems to me that we become caught up in trying to categorize the nature of our practice at the expense of being able to shape our practice to meet the goal of being able to utilize this marital art in a physical encounter.
I would like us to step back from this pandora’s box and begin to look at what we seek to achieve in our Aikido and how we seek to accomplish our goals in our training. If we truly care about our training and the training of our partners, we should be willing to enact a variety of roles so to to help all of us develop an accurate understanding of what we can and cannot do. It is more important to discover what we cannot do. We may need to be pushed by ourselves and others in order to develop this awareness. If we are truly looking to better our Aikido, we need to stop resting on our laurels, let go of our sensitive egos and allow ourselves to be pushed and encouraged to always be moving ahead in our learning. Let us leave these meaningless debates to people who seem to always be trying to define their worlds within their already preconceived boundaries. At the end of the day, if our practice is honest and sincere, we will have undoubtedly enacted roles from within all of those artificially defined training categories.
Marc Abrams Sensei
(Original blog post may be found here