This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Katherine Derbyshire © 2012, all rights reserved.
I'm a professional writer. Translating images and actions into words on the page is what I do, and I like to think I'm pretty good at it. Yet, somehow, that facility with words has never extended to my aikido practice. I learn techniques visually and through kinesthetic experience; I very quickly get lost if asked to walk through a written list of steps.
Perhaps for that reason, it never really occurred to me to keep a journal about my aikido training. I've always known that some people do, but it never seemed like something that would be helpful.
Then I got to thinking … why not? Athletes generally, from runners to weightlifters, are told that careful training journals are essential to progress. Successful baseball and tennis players alike spend hours studying game film. Could it be they're onto something? Certainly many of the senior aikidoka that I respect take notes after classes, and in many cases have done so for years.
To make a long story short, I've been keeping a journal for about six months now. I wouldn't say it's been life-changing, but I'll probably keep doing it.
Some of the advantages are obvious, in retrospect, and are the same as the reasons why other athletes keep records. A journal lets me track good days and bad days, helps me see whether that sore shoulder I noticed a couple of weeks ago has gotten better, or whether it might be becoming a chronic problem. It tells me when I've been spending a lot of time on one technique or group of techniques, so maybe it's time to pay attention to other areas.
At a more subtle level, I think keeping a journal has helped me be more mindful during class. It turns out that simply remembering which techniques were covered and what the key instructions were is not so easy. Recalling the class in enough detail to make notes is good discipline.
For instructors at any level, I think a record like this is doubly valuable. Having reminders of my own struggles helps in the never-ending effort to keep beginner's mind. Keeping track of which pedagogical approaches and teaching cues are most effective, as both a teacher and a student, can provide new ideas when my own students seem to be stuck. For higher level teachers, journals can be an unsurpassed resource for future students or can supply raw material for anything from blog posts to books.
Since this is a relatively recent habit, it's hard to say what I might learn after a few years. In sports with tangible metrics, a journal shows progress over time: faster times, higher jumps, heavier weights. Lack of progress is a sign that something is wrong. In aikido, progress is much more difficult to measure. "Good" technique may not be successful, and successful outcomes can still arise from faulty understanding. Still, I hope that a year or two from now my notes will show that I'm either working on different things or examining the same things in a more sophisticated way.
So I think the conclusion of this six-month experiment is that notes are a good thing. A practice journal only takes a few minutes, but can accumulate quite a bit of wisdom over time. There's no way to measure the cost of a note that was never made.
And yet… I'm still a bit wary. You don't need to spend much time on the internet to realize that being articulate is not the same thing as being knowledgeable. Words are what I do: it's easy for me to construct coherent paragraphs, more difficult to actually manifest that head knowledge in my technique. A journal is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
For this and other reasons, I'd encourage future journal-keepers to keep their notes private. There's too much of a temptation to polish anything that will be shared with others. Everyone wants to avoid embarrassment, to sound impressive, to fit in with the group. It's perfectly normal, but undermines the objectivity that a training journal needs. Rather, I think of my journal as notes to my future self, as a scratchpad for thinking out loud. It doesn't have to be more than that to be valuable.
"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.