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Am I Tough Enough to Be a Beginner?
by The Mirror
Am I Tough Enough to Be a Beginner?

This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Katherine Derbyshire © 2011.
In 1997, Tiger Woods was already the number one golfer in the world. He'd won the Masters with a record score and a record margin of victory. Then, he faded. Only a single win in 1998. Clearly just a flash in the pan, right?

No, he was working on his swing. He came back better than ever, and from 1999 until 2002 was one of the most dominating players in the history of golf.

Then he did it again, failing to win a major in either 2003 or 2004 before retaking the top spot in 2005.

Think about that for a minute. A man at the very top of his game, already an icon, spent two years in a self-imposed slump because he was trying to get better.

In aikido, we call that beginner's mind. Everyone agrees that it's a good thing, but how many people actually practice it consistently? Beginners do — being beginners, they have no choice. But fifth-kyu shihan syndrome is well-known, as is brown belt disease. Go to any seminar and you'll see plenty of people falling back to their old habits instead of whatever the instructor is demonstrating.

Beginner's mind is hard. No one enjoys doing things wrong. Everyone wants technique that "works," especially when people are watching. But the reason why beginner's mind is so important is that the alternative is really just a way of lying to yourself.

Suppose I'm a brown belt or a relatively junior black belt, up in front of a class full of beginners. I call someone up to take ukemi, confidently step in to execute the technique … and he doesn't budge. Uh oh. Now what?

Well, since he's a beginner, he's probably doing lots of things wrong. I can correct his posture, explain why being rigid is a bad idea, encourage him to relax, and one way or another probably create a situation in which I can get him to fall down.

But then I visit other dojos, or go to seminars, and it keeps happening. My technique doesn't work away from my own dojo, either. Now there's a problem. I'm a black belt. I've been training for a long time. I should be pretty good at this by now, shouldn't I?

It must be uke's fault. He's not committed enough, or relaxed enough. He's not really attacking, or he's attacking in a way that makes my technique impossible. Or he's just being rude, misunderstanding the purpose of the exercise, misunderstanding the purpose of training, the goals of aikido.

All of which may be true. Still, my technique doesn't work.

The easiest way to solve such a problem is to avoid it. Don't go to seminars, or only train with friends if I do. Avoid the more obnoxious members of my own dojo. Decide that my dojo is too martial, and train somewhere that emphasizes aikido's more philosophical side.

None of which will improve my aikido, of course, but these solutions allow my ego to protect itself from failure and embarrassment. That's important too, right?

Well, no. Not if I'm looking for a practice that refines the spirit. Not if I want to polish the mirror, sharpen the sword, or any of those metaphors that budoka like to use. You can't forge steel without fire. You can't learn to do something well unless you're willing to do it badly.

It's hard. Standing in front of a class with an uke who doesn't move isn't much fun. Getting whacked with a shinai because my irimi is inadequate really starts to sting after a while.

Watching my teachers helps. This is one of the ways — perhaps one of the most important ways — in which teachers light the path for the rest of us to follow.

The first draft of this column included a section about how hard it must be to have beginner's mind when your livelihood depends on getting up in front of a class and showing what you can do. I cut it because I don't actually know. I just know that I have enormous respect for the teachers who can walk into a class and present a new version of a technique because they've decided the old version didn't work. Or who are willing to put on a white belt and train with teachers from other arts or teachers who have less experience, just to find out what else might be out there.

Those models remind me that I have the luxury of anonymity. I'm not Tiger Woods. I'm not a shihan; I don't have a big number after my name. No one really cares whether my technique works or not. With anonymity comes the freedom to fail as often as I need to in order to actually get good.

Fall down seven times, stand up eight.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:

We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.
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Old 06-21-2011, 02:56 AM   #2
Join Date: Oct 2005
Posts: 428
Re: Am I Tough Enough to Be a Beginner?

The teacher of my teacher César a 5 Dan went to the last seminar of Endo Sensei the first day with a white belt and without hakama and as one shodan was impressed of him and the teacher of this one recognized who it was, César moved his head not to say anything, so next day as the shodan realized who it was he thanked him.
I think we should train in every seminar as the instructor of the seminar tells us, even if it is against that what we usually do, just to try maybe we find out something. Thanks a lot for your interesting column Katherine.
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Old 06-21-2011, 03:53 AM   #3
Tim Ruijs
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Dojo: Makato/Netherlands
Location: Netherlands - Leusden
Join Date: Aug 2005
Posts: 463
Re: Am I Tough Enough to Be a Beginner?

Interesting read.

Carina summarises it perfectly: do as your teacher does, even if you do not understand (yet?).
It is hard to face you problems, but in there lies your progress.

In class I always say it is ok to do things badly, but try not to keep doing things badly. Understand and improve...study.
Make a mistake once and never again

Thanx for putting this in writing Katherine.

In a real fight:
* If you make a bad decision, you die.
* If you don't decide anything, you die.
Aikido teaches you how to decide.
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Old 06-21-2011, 08:55 AM   #4
Janet Rosen
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Location: Left Coast
Join Date: May 2002
Posts: 4,339
Re: Am I Tough Enough to Be a Beginner?

Katherine, I don't think I've ever read a finer essay on lifelong learning, beginners mind and the gift of an honest uke. Thank you.

Janet Rosen
"peace will enter when hate is gone"--percy mayfield
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Old 06-21-2011, 10:29 AM   #5
SeiserL's Avatar
Location: Florida Gulf coast
Join Date: Jun 2000
Posts: 3,902
Re: Am I Tough Enough to Be a Beginner?

Always a good reminder to keep a beginners mind.

I usually have no problem with keeping a beginners body.

Compliments and appreciation.

Lynn Seiser PhD
Yondan Aikido & FMA/JKD
We do not rise to the level of our expectations, but fall to the level of our training. Train well. KWATZ!
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Old 06-21-2011, 11:51 AM   #6
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Location: San Diego CA USA
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Posts: 561
Re: Am I Tough Enough to Be a Beginner?

Awesome, thanks!
Low rank is another kind of anonymity, so I don't have to put on a "fake" white belt.
Katherine, you described the feeling of unexpectedly hitting something like Tiger Woods' slump when you mentioned the strong ukes.
But have you also done something more like Mr. Woods, that is, slumping on purpose while you work on something?
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Old 06-21-2011, 10:51 PM   #7
Dojo: Shobu Aikido of Boston
Location: Peterborough, NH
Join Date: Aug 2010
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Re: Am I Tough Enough to Be a Beginner?

Jonathan Wong wrote: View Post
But have you also done something more like Mr. Woods, that is, slumping on purpose while you work on something?
Not addressed to me (hi, Katherine, nice column!), but howabout, every class?

There's always something Sensei is emphasizing that doesn't come naturally. The temptation to ignore it and do what I know is always there. But the point of training is to work on the stuff that's hard.
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Old 06-22-2011, 01:17 PM   #8
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Location: San Diego CA USA
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Re: Am I Tough Enough to Be a Beginner?

Hugh Beyer wrote: View Post
There's always something Sensei is emphasizing that doesn't come naturally. The temptation to ignore it and do what I know is always there. But the point of training is to work on the stuff that's hard.
Too true. But one thing that really struck me in this column (even just the first 6 sentences) is the sense of consciously deciding to allow the entirety of one's performance to take a long-term dip, not because one is working on a specific detail for a moment, but because the entire behavior is being re-designed.

The column referenced visits to seminars, which is akin to what you mentioned about a teacher emphasizing something that doesn't come easy. But it sounds like Tiger Woods basically said goodbye for a while, so that he could come back later, even better than before.
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Old 06-23-2011, 11:19 AM   #9
graham christian
Dojo: golden center aikido-highgate
Location: london
Join Date: Oct 2010
Posts: 2,697
Re: Am I Tough Enough to Be a Beginner?

Thanks for the column. Very well put.

When you mention the anonymity freedom for the student it reminds me of the most daunting thought for a Teacher in the beginning which is that they will now have to get it right all the time or look a fool.

With these type of thoughts comes the dread of losing face. Thus the teacher has indeed to learn there's no escape from the student mind.

For me when it comes to finding improvement needed in an area I don't see say changing the way I do shihonage as something that puts me back for a while. It means on that particular new way I am back at level one learning going through the process.

A subtle difference of mentality and that is that it is natural progression rather than slump or setback or hassle.

On the teacher/student relationship or difference I would say actually mentality wise there should be none really.

For many years friends of mine would wonder and ask me what is it with me and my son. They would tell me how they tell their kids this or that and lay down the law etc. and were and still are on the most part confused and say things like 'your not like father and son your like brothers or mates.

When I explain how simple it is not many get it. The simplicity for me is this: I drop all 'identity' ideas and should be's and supposed to's etc. and know that we are friends. Since a baby if he did anything wrong or out of order then to me it never was a matter of punishment or scalding it was time for jokes, fun.

I would usually laugh and proceed to say ah, lets have a little look at this so he could willingly share what he'd done and I could relate them to my past or get us to look at it together to see what could have been done differently and better.

No different to teaching for me. Someone always says 'what if blah' and I inevitably say 'well I don't know let's see.' Thus students feel free to ask anything from technical to even something not in the curriculum like 'what if I gave you a roundhouse kick' or something.
Always 'I don't know, lets see.'

To me part of a dojo experience of discipline in an evironment where there is no crime and punishment, no fear only sharing and the spirit of joy for all is learning and progress.

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Old 07-19-2011, 02:42 AM   #10
Join Date: Aug 2002
Posts: 1,318
Re: Am I Tough Enough to Be a Beginner?

Thanks for the kind words, everyone!

Jonathan: what Tiger Woods did was to completely retool his swing. In aikido, that's similar to what some people experience when they start studying internal power, a new way of using the body. You might also encounter it when transitioning to a new dojo's way of doing things. And yes, trying to change something that fundamental will cause your results to slide backward for a while.

(Hi Janet! Hi Hugh!)

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