Yesterday, I had an interesting talk with a prominent trainer in one of the biggest Swedish soccer teams. We compared experiences and perspectives on our respective fields -- soccer and the martial arts. We found that we have much to learn from each other, so we will continue our exchange -- in theory and in practice.
What we found to be the most significant difference between soccer and the martial arts is that the former is a team endeavor, whereas all forms of the latter are individual.
By the way, this is also how Amazon categorizes those sports. In their Browse Subjects feature, the martial arts are sorted under individual sports. Soccer, being as big as it is (except for in the US), has its own section under the sports heading.
Americans might find it hard to believe, but I have heard that of all the money in sports worldwide, a vast majority circulates within soccer alone. I have no idea how that happened, but generally speaking, team sports seem to attract wider audiences and inspire their interest, even passion, more than individual sports do.
But that's of little interest to an aikido practitioner. I am more intrigued by the differences in attitude, practice and progress between team sports and individual ones -- the martial arts in particular.
It seems that team sports promote a horizontal structure, where all the team members are regarded as somewhat equals, at least socially, and any leader will have to win the acceptance of the team. A coach who is completely insensitive to the team's inner solidarity will not succeed in winning its trust, getting the team to excel, or remain very long on the job.
In the martial arts, though, the "coach" is sensei, the teacher, with skills and knowledge surpassing those of the students. The structure is vertical -- from sensei down to the fresh beginner. There is almost no questioning upward, nor is there much chance of the students putting demands on their teacher. Rather, the tradition is that the students are obliged to be sensitive to sensei's needs.
Loyalty instead of solidarity
In a well-functioning dojo, this unconditional obedience upward, with loyalty to sensei instead of solidarity among the students, has its pedagogical rewards. It's an excellent learning situation for the students.
But things are not always perfect. A sensei can abuse this firm vertical structure to the point where pedagogical gains are practically extinct. Still, the students are not likely to protest. The tradition doesn't allow it. They may leave the dojo, one after the other -- but they will not join and make demands on sensei.
This is a weakness, nothing else. Even though we are learning an art with intricate traditions, some rightly described as rituals, containing essential elements of the art, there is great need for sensei to have his or her priorities right. Otherwise, the rituals lose their meaning and become counter-productive.
Only when the students have the confidence to expect correctness of their sensei, and the courage to protest when that's not the case, the classes have a chance of being beneficial to all, and the students will progress. Sensei will, too.
We can learn something valuable about this horizontal perspective, the positive confidence of the students, and solidarity among them, from the team sports. They call it team spirit.
It's not a complete mystery to the martial arts. The dojo is a practice hall where everyone is supposed to benefit and progress -- by the help of everyone else. It's a joint effort by nature. One could call it Mahayana, the collective search for enlightenment, as opposed to Hinayana, where that quest is pursued in solitude.
Aikido is particularly close to this ideal, since it has no competition. Therefore, there should be no reason for students to neglect the needs of fellow students, or try to top them in practice.
Still, this fellowship rarely leads to a healthy independence toward sensei. Even though the students cooperate, they don't always develop the solidarity to balance sensei's authority. For this to happen, they need to cooperate concretely in practice -- not just in pairs of two individuals, but as a group comprising all of them.
If they work as a team, they get the team spirit.
Dojo team spirit
This happens to some extent in the everyday care of the dojo that is usually required of the students, but if it's done as obedience to sensei, no team spirit is likely to evolve. The students must feel that the dojo is theirs, almost to the extent that sensei is a guest, whom they want to present the facilities at their finest.
Some of the team spirit is stimulated by collective training forms, such as kakarigeiko
, but again that's not much of a team effort if the object is for one of them to defend against the others.
So, is there some way of training aikido, where all the students really work together as a team, getting a result that everybody prospers equally from?
I guess that the most direct way of creating team spirit in a dojo is if all of the students participate in building one. Maybe dojos should be founded and owned by students, not by teachers. That might be hard to accomplish, though, in real life.
Stefan Stenudd is a 6 dan Aikikai aikido instructor, member of the International Aikido Federation Directing Committee, the Swedish Aikikai Grading Committee, and the Swedish Budo Federation Board. He has practiced aikido since 1972. Presently he teaches aikido and iaido at his dojo Enighet in Malmo, Sweden, and at seminars in Sweden and abroad. He is also an author, artist, and historian of ideas. He has published a number of books in Swedish and English, both fiction and non-fiction. Among the latter are books about aikido and aikibatto, also a guide to the lifeforce qi, and a Life Energy Encyclopedia. He has written a Swedish interpretation of the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching, and of the Japanese samurai classic Book of Five Rings. In the history of ideas he studies the thought patterns of creation myths, as well as Aristotle's Poetics. He has his own extensive aikido website: http://www.stenudd.com/aikido