One of my students a while back gave me a book on the Theory of Limits. Suffice it to say that a) it was totally and completely over my head after about four chapters or so and b) it totally changed how I thought about the process of teaching and training.
Without getting too technical, what the book said was that, in a complex system like a factory, in order to increase output it is essential to analyze the different factors that went into production and arrive at which is the "limiting factor". Resources can be devoted to all of the other factors with little or no increase in the out, hence the "limiting factor.
If one treats the acquisition of Aikido skills as just such a complex system, with increase in skill level being the "output" desired, one can see how the theory of limits would be a useful way to think about ones training or how one would teach.
If most people were asked what the limiting factor was in their training, I think that most would reply "time". Most folks simply do not have the time to train as they would like. If they only could train more, then they would really be able to take their training to a higher level... But is time REALLY the true limiting factor. Most of the time I would say not.
I believe that the limiting factors for most Aikido folks fall into one of several categories. These all have to do with very basic and fundamental factors which means that they represent true "limiting factors" which, if not corrected make any progress impossible.
A few years ago, Ushiro Kenji Sensei, the Karate teacher was asked what one single thing would he point to that would, if addressed, make Aikido better. He didn't hesitate a second before replying "the attacks". I think that he is absolutely right and I would like to talk about the various issues with our attacks that make them the "limiting factor" for most Aikido practitioners.
While the overly formalistic structure of Aikido attacks could be seen as an issue, I personally do not think that is what Ushiro Sensei was referring to. Aikido attacks have three general issues which can be present all together or individually in a person's training. First is the fact that most Aikido attacks are slow. Slow to the point of a skilled martial artist practically dozing while waiting for the attack to arrive. The time lag between when the attacker "decides" to attack and when he actually starts moving is so great that I can normally enter and strike two or three times before the attack has been able to from itself properly.
I once had a young man ask me how I was "so fast" after we had trained during a class at Summer Camp. I replied that I wasn't fast, he was slow. This young man was half my weight and in far better physical condition than I was. I'm the "super tanker" when compared to these young folks in their twenties. I told him that the reason I was faster than he was had to do with the fact that I was more relaxed and had put a lot of attention on how to move my large mass rapidly. Most of my insights in this are came from attacking Saotome Sensei with the sword. Unlike some ukes, who see their job as delivering an attack designed to allow Sensei to show whatever it is he is wishing to show at the time, I attack him with a 100% committed intention to strike him if I can. It took me years of trying to get to the point at which I can actually succeed once in a while. But the trying taught me a lot about the mechanics of moving which no one ever showed me in class.
I think that the lack of competition in most Aikido is responsible for this lack of speed. If one looks at the Tomiki Aikido folks, who actually do have competition, the one place where they absolutely stand out is their blazing speed. In most Aikido schools there is simply no incentive to develop that kind of speed, in fact, in many schools there is a disincentive because training with that kind of speed points out the inability of the practitioners to "enter" properly and results in a large number of technical failures, embarrassing and painful. So folks attack at their slow "full speed" and receive at their slow "full speed" and because everyone is equally slow, they all feel that they are training "all out". I call this "mutually compensating dysfunction".
Another related problem is that the mechanics of the strikes are often wretched. Just watch the uke who delivers a tsuki with his back arm hanging out behind him like a flag in the breeze, weight totally transferred to the front foot and back foot coming off the mat, all this before the nage has actually done anything. You could sneeze and this guy would fall over. If one compromises ones own structure during an attack, the nage doesn't need to do anything properly to successfully throw the uke.
Most Aikido ukemi that I see is really designed to make the teacher look good, rather than make any sense martially. The uke should be attempting to maintain his or her postural integrity and if it is compromised, regain it as quickly as possible. Instead ukes are taught to maintain a kind of tension that allows them to be easily shaped by the nage into whatever form he wishes.
When the attacks are so un-integrated, nage simply doesn't have to execute a technique properly to have it "work" since 90% of what was required was done for him by the attacker. Also, the tension that causes so much of the lack of speed in Aikido also results in strikes which simply lack the power to have much of an effect on the nage or even if they have some power, they are too slow to actually strike anyone who didn't wish to be struck. So lack of power is the second issue with most Aikido attacks. It is related to the lack of speed but is not identical to it.
The third issue with Aikido attacks is also related but needs to be discussed on its own. Most Aikido folks either have no intention behind their attacks or entirely misunderstand what that intent is supposed to do. Almost no where I travel are the ukes really trying to strike the nage. On those rare occasions on which the nage is struck, it is a often a big shock to everyone on the mat, resulting in all the students pausing to see what has happened. One student I knew, after clocking an instructor with a shomen strike, was told that it was his job "not to strike the instructor"...
So, not only are the attacks slow, but even when they have some pop, they are not actually intended to strike. This changes the maai, it totally changes the experience on the nage's side. Most students who fail to achieve an good entry on an attack did so because they couldn't stand in front of the column of force that precedes a powerful attack with intention. They bail long before they actually get struck. Unless the student actually practices with partners who strike with speed and intention, they can never learn to really do "irimi". "Irimi" is so fundamental to Aikido that everything rests on it. Thirty years of daily training are a complete waste if "irimi" isn't understood.
Even the grabs of Aikido have almost nothing to do with sensible martial arts. The Aikido world has seemingly split in to two groups of folks. The first group is serious about their martial training and has somehow come to believe that a grab is supposed to stop an opponent from moving. So they attack with tremendous muscular tension and make themselves into dead weights that their partners are somehow supposed to move. Who ever heard of winning a fight by turning your opponent's hand purple? Often, these attacks are accompanied by a lot of holding of breath and grunting, letting everyone concerned know that this is a "committed" attack. Basically this is bad martial arts. A grab should be able to move the defender, neutralize his ability to counter attack, and create an opening in which you can strike and he can't defend. Squishing someone's wrist does not do this. Nor does pushing his arm powerfully into his body (another favorite of mine). When you grab an arm and then push it into the nage's body you are presenting yourself to his counter strike in a way that is completely unnecessary.
If the attack is a grab to the body, the intention is to use that grab to unbalance the defender, not to hold on and make oneself immovable. Uke's garb should make it difficult to throw atemi with either the arms or legs. It should be designed to disturb the structure of the nage as a set up for a throw or a strike or both.
The other camp has decided that, despite the art being fundamentally about the study of connection, we don't actually want to make a true connection. So the uke disconnects his own arm from his own center and runs forth to grab the wrist or gi of his partner with absolutely no idea how to connect to that partner's center. The grabbing attack they deliver will not effect the balance of the nage, it will not restrict his ability to move, it will not prevent him from delivering a counter strike if he chooses... in point of fact, the grab has no function at all.
Practice then devolves to an attack is delivered which is not really intended to connect, if it does, it doesn't connect to the nage's center, it is avoided by a nage who moves to escape from the attack (despite the fact that, if they didn't move, the partner wouldn't actually strike them anyway), the uke, as yet unaffected by anything nage has done, compromises his own balance chasing an arm he doesn't need to chase, and is so off balance after the process that nage can do whatever technique he or she wishes, without ever actually connecting to the uke's center.
So, in my mind, fixing the attacks in Aikido involves addressing a number of sub issues such as relaxation vs tension, center to center connection vs surface connection or no connection at all. It should involve the practice of the standard strikes to develop both speed and power and the students MUST develop a strong intention to go with these physical skills. Training will not result in any real benefit without this being corrected.
So, you read all this patiently and then decided that at your dojo, none of these is a problem. The ukes are fast and have power. They understand how to attack properly, they try to stay balanced and correct their alignment when it's broken, and the regularly clock their partners with their strikes. Assuming that your dojo actually has some students left after you have been training this way, what is likely to be the next "limiting factor" at work?
End of Part 1
(Original blog post may be found here