Dave de Vos
So how many hours have you spent actually training? Do you still strive for some level of training intensity after so many years? Do you still learn from training?
An idealized model for Aikido training would be starting training as a child. The training would be non-impactive stressing relaxed movement, basics such as footwork, understanding balance control, good posture etc but not with joint locking or atemi waza.
Then, in the twenties, the training would get more intense. The kihon waza of joint locks, atemi waza, break falls, etc would be introduced. Hopefully, some emphasis on proper relaxation and aiki principles too, but intensity of training would be important.
The intensity of the physical training could continue up until about aged 40 as long as it was uninterrupted. After that, it is better to use weapons work to continue to "push the envelope" since that is far less impactive on the body.
By the time one hits forty, one has a good twenty to thirty years under ones belt. By that time, teaching becomes an important part of the training and ukemi becomes less important, at least it should be less impactive, otherwise one hits fifty and is completely beat up.
Teaching becomes increasingly the focus, although one never stops looking for new information and inspiration.
So this, in my opinion would be the ideal. It is, however, not really the way things work.
Very few of the kids on a Children's Program will actually continue training as adults. Now, with young men wishing to fight, interest amongst twenty something males in traditional martial arts is at a new low. So the average age amongst Aikido practitioners is rising steadily.
This has huge implications for the art. The majority of my new students are already past the age at which they can physically train to their limit without being injured. I simply cannot duplicate the kind of training I went through with my students because they are too old already to do it.
Most Aikido folks do not do much weapons work or, if they do it is remedial and does not have the depth that will carry ones advancement forward nor is it technically solid enough that they can "push the envelope" using the weapons as a tool for continuing to advance their understanding as their bodies need to go easier.
Aikido is becoming an art that folks do either because they want to avoid the intensity of other martial arts or because they have done other martial arts and now wish to go easy because they are already physically trashed. In either case, the training is adjusted to fit the students and the art becomes something quite different than what it would have been in the ideal model.
With the majority of folks being older and / or less inclined towards hard physical training, those rare young, athletic students who could train hard are held back because in most dojos they have very few partners that can train with them. I had a couple of acquaintances leave a dojo because they were perceived as too rough because people were being hurt training with them. The fact was that they were in a dojo full of people who simply couldn't train with any intensity and these guys were trying to train as they had done in their earlier dojos as they had been taught by their previous teachers. They were simply in a dojo in which you couldn't train that way. More and more dojos are like this.
So, in terms of experience, years is just one indicator. But it makes a huge difference when you started, how you trained, etc. Twenty years starting at age 10 - 30 is entirely different than 20 years starting at age 30 - 50 (which is becoming more the norm). Folks starting later not only cannot train as physically hard, but they are at a stage in their lives in which they typically cannot train as frequently. Once your career takes off and you have family responsibilities it is rare to see one training every day. Two or three times a week is a serious student. So that student who has twenty years of training but started when he or she was thirty may have half as many hours on the mat as the student who started at twenty and went through a ten year period when he or she trained every day.
This is why, when I look around, I don't see many teachers who have any students at all who look to be as good as they are or better. As critical as I am of the teachers themselves, it is also a matter of not having the "material" to work with. The people of my generation who are running dojos with whom I am familiar all spent a period of a decade or two training 5 to 7 days a week, often several hours per day. I have almost no students who can do that. Most of these folks are training three times a week for between 1 1/2 and 2 hours each day. Do the math... half as many days for 30% to 50% fewer hours over twenty years is a huge differential.
Does anyone think that any of these dojos will close when their current teachers retire? Of course not... The teacher will hand off the dojo to one of the seniors to carry on, despite the fact that that senior isn't anywhere near that retiring teacher's ability (due to having trained a fraction of the time and with less intensity).
There was a fellow up in Canada years ago who had been in his dojo for well over a decade. If you chatted with him, you'd have thought Aikido was the center of his life and that he must be very experienced and skillful. Aikido was almost all he talked about... Except that he actually seldom was actually in class. His attendance was very sporadic. He was one of these folks who always complained of some physical ailment that caused him to miss class this week, the job related event that took priority, etc. We used to joke that he had been pretending to train longer than anyone we knew. This is not unusual. Ask someone how long they have been training, they'll often give you a figure that has nothing to do with how many hours of training or the quality of that training. In their minds they really have been training for fifteen years despite the fact that one of us from my day had the same amount of mat time in four or five years.
I know this sounds like the old guy bitching... "In my day..." But I think I am simply reflecting a fact. I look at the teachers here in Seattle, most of whom I know very well, and the vast majority trained as I have stated. Kimberly Richardson, Joanne Veneziano, Pam Cooper and I all trained together under Mary Heiny for years and we trained minimum five days a week plus seminars on the weekend more often than not. Bookman Sensei trained seven days a week in Japan with Chiba Sensei. Chuck Clark and Aaron Clark trained seven days a week, in several arts. I am not directly familiar with how the other teachers trained but I doubt it was different.
When I talk to these teachers, virtually all say that they have VERY few students who train as we trained. So, I don't think this is just a matter of the crotchety old guy remembering an idealized age that really didn't exist.
Just as with your Go experience, if you lay down a foundation of intensive experience early on, that will stay with you for a long time, even when you might cut back a bit on frequency or intensity. It won't carry you forever, but it allows you to get the most out of any subsequent training. With a good foundation one can keep progressing, albeit more slowly perhaps, with fewer hours of less intensity. But the folks who don't have that never really make up for it. My take on it anyway...