Discovering Aikido: Principles for Practical Learning  ©



The Syllabus and Grading


It's better to be looked over than it is to be overlooked.  Mae West


Most martial arts syllabi are a mishmash of spurious techniques. To a beginner of Aikido the syllabus is quite unfathomable. At best, by Shodan they might understand, at worst, they may still have no clue where they stand. Often, they can not see what they do know, nor can they see what they need to know, let alone figure it out. Obviously, for beginners or intermediates the situation will be more acute.


(a) Logical progress

A good syllabus ought to be clear and logical. For example, for beginners or intermediates we could start with eight attacks and ten basic techniques making a total of eighty when combined. In natural progression, the attacks might typically be: (1) ai-hanmi katate-dori, (2) gyaku-hanmi katate-dori, (3) sode-dori, (4) mune-dori, (5) shomen-uchi, (6) yokomen-uchi, (7) tsuki, (8) ushiro ryote-dori. The techniques are: (1) ikkyo, (2) nikyo, (3) sankyo, (4) yonkyo, (5) gokyo, (6) irimi-nage, (7) kote-gaeshi, (8) shiho-nage, (9) kaiten-nage, (10) tenchi-nage.

The first part of this mini-syllabus is to practise one technique a week from eight attacks. Practising from all eight attacks each lesson keeps the single technique interesting and shows them the extent of what they need to know. Confusing at first, by the end of the week it will begin to make sense. Part two of the mini-syllabus is based on the attack. This time, all ten basic techniques are practised every lesson against a single attack. This is best modified by the addition of two kokyu-nage techniques, irimi and tenkan, performed at the beginning of the lesson that are carefully chosen to provide a basis in common movement and principle between the techniques to be done that day. Accordingly, if one is doing an ai-hanmi katate-dori attack, the way the kokyu-nage is taught should dictate the method by which each and every of the ten basic techniques are performed. Part one is a mechanical introduction, part two allows students to get a feel for similarities, or the common principles that bind Aikido together. Obviously, it takes ten weeks to work through part one, and eight weeks to finish part two of this mini-syllabus. A week of revision after each would make a total of twenty weeks, after which time they would have had a lot of basic practice. The keen beginner would be able to say they know eighty techniques fairly well. They would likely remember what they know and be able to perform on demand if asked. Any gaps in their knowledge would be readily apparent to other beginners watching. Finally, if they are shown a few more attacks or techniques, what has to be done is already known –they will be able to figure out and fill in unknown gaps. Better still, such logical knowledge can not easily be forgotten.

A logical syllabus should ensure that students cover the whole range of techniques in a finite period. It can be repeated at will or used to attract newcomers. A logical syllabus contributes to attendance since it compels them to train - if students miss a week they miss a segment of their learning. It contributes to learning because students can help each other fill in the gaps if something is missed. It contributes to common sense because it places the tools of learning in the hands of the students.


(b) Random approach.

Many a school has a random approach to teaching. At best, it serves to stimulate the students to thought as the teacher hands out doses of interesting principles. At worst, there is no structure or logic and the result is boring training with no perceivable direction towards progress.


(c) Weapons syllabus

Some receive weapons grades in Aikido. The problem here is that the weapons of Aikido are not ends unto themselves, they are a means to improve one's Aikido. The weapon system in Aikido can not compete with arts that concentrate exclusively on weapons such as Kenjutsu, Jodo, Escrima, or Silat. Aiki-ken is not Kenjutsu and so should not be compared with Kenjutsu. It may be that the closer to real Kenjutsu that Aiki-ken is the better the training can be but at the end of the day, Aiki-ken exercises are designed to help one's Aikido. One practical idea for weapons related gradings might be for them to be self-awarded as follows: If students all wore protective clothing and battered each other to hell, a self grading would be to voluntarily remove some of that clothing thereby making the statement that one was good enough not to get hit, or tough enough not to mind.


(d) Losing direction

Most who start Aikido ultimately quit, even yudansha. There are many reasons and one of them is that they find the syllabus boring. The fault here is usually that the student has been driven by the syllabus and that when getting up to third or second kyu or so it all begins to look pretty much the same - there are few, if any, new techniques. These students have failed to realise that in Aikido there are simply fewer basic techniques compared to other arts. What the student has to come to terms with is that progressing in Aikido does not mean learning innumerable new moves, it means performing the original ones better. One can only really begin to learn Aikido once one has fallen in love with the basics and this shows in one's development more than one might realise. The source of advanced techniques is found in the basics and once this is realised, advanced gradings actually become rather meaningless. Those students with their eye ever on the next grade are the ones who ultimately fail to really learn and end up quitting as one day, the folly of their way catches up with them – they realise that while they have the grade, they lack the requisite skill.


(e) Grading

The belted grading system as we know it is relatively new, stemming from Kano Jigoro's modernised Judo and has been adopted by most Japanese, Korean, and even Chinese arts. However, many Aikido schools use only white and black belts with yudansha wearing hakama, which somehow gives the art its own special niche.

The syllabus itself is good for the students in that their training appears to be organised. The actual test is useful in that it provides focus and forces the students to demonstrate their skill under duress. The very first grading and the Shodan grading are very important events - both loom omnipresent. If one's first grading is done well, all the subsequent ones will be easy. Better to wait and get it right than to rush in early and look the fool. If one trains well and performs the first test well, future tests will likely be much easier.


(f) Preparation

For gradings one obviously needs to learn the techniques on the grading syllabus. The problem here is that some clubs practice nothing but the grading syllabus. Worse, they pair-off people of a similar grade and do nothing but what is required for the next grading. Such is their total training experience. It is easy to teach, of course, and allows students to rapidly advance up the grading ladder. Better, is a more natural approach. Everyone trains together and everyone changes partners every time the technique changes, or every time the students sit down and receive further explanation. Over a period of several months any beginner ought to have experienced all of the basic techniques and upon glancing at the grading syllabus should discover to their delight that they have covered most, if not all and more of what they need to do for their next grading. If that beginner is unsure of something on the syllabus, then they could ask any senior or the teacher for advice. Practice for a grading ought be no more than a week in advance, and even that might be too much; if you have to train for a grading it means you are not ready for it. This approach places responsibility for grading firmly upon the shoulders of the students. It encourages them to seek rather than have the teacher show. Instead, the teacher becomes a guide. What can sometimes be seen before gradings is pairs of students trying to figure out new techniques they have not yet been taught by following principles they have acquired in other techniques. The power of curiosity!


(g) Purpose

The singular most advantageous use of the grading is providing the student with a stressful situation to be overcome. Under stress we often resort to our crudest form of technique; the grading makes the students aware of it, both in their own performance and in the observation of others. Proper training will correct this. Unlike in Japan where a teacher almost always knows and grades their own students, for years in the West this was almost impossible for want of senior instructors, hence, we have developed the idea of grading in front of people who barley know us. As such, many teachers have cold technical bureaucratic standards written in triplicate and set in stone that have to be met in order to pass. A more capitalistic approach is to just pass all and rake in the money. Another, nowadays not so common, idea is that a grading is really just recognition of improvement where after some time the teacher perceives a noticeable improvement and then grades the student on the spot.


(h) Growth

Anyone who has trained for a while will know that their initial learning curve is steep but then levels off, reaching a plateau. Some people stay on their plateau for what seems like an age and then, one day, something happens and they realise they have jumped up a notch. This is equivalent to a grading, except that here, the self, instead of the teacher, discerns a radical improvement. If the teacher discerns it, it could also be interpreted that one has just jumped up a notch, whether a grade has been awarded or not. Here, what is recognised is a noticeable improvement in skill. This is very different to just learning a new set of techniques and demonstrating them in mediocre fashion to pass the next grading.

People improve in different ways. Some overcome repressive fear, some overcome a physical disability, some lose a lot of weight, some become more positive in outlook, some suddenly become more co-ordinated, and so on. The struggle is different in every case thus an outside teacher coming in for a day to grade can know little of this experience. In this sense, it certainly seems a little strange that a whole group of people could be ready for grading at the same time.


(i) Feedback

Feedback on gradings can be counter-productive. While it might help a student correct their weaknesses, one needs to give the students every reason to think; in this way they can educate themselves. Far more progress will be made if they have to figure out where their own problems lie and form their own solutions. And if the student cannot figure it out, then it may just be that more training is in order. The more that is explained, the less chance the student has of figuring things out for themselves and having their own mini-enlightenment - the whole point of self development in any sphere.


(j) Encouragement or criticism

A modern, perhaps Western, trend in study, or recreation is to encourage the learner. Tell them how well they did even if they were hopeless. There is no doubt that this aids the learning process. This thinking also exists in modern sports and recently, extends to martial arts. While useful, I believe that in martial arts there should be little or no praise. I also dislike clapping in praise in martial arts. Whether they do well or do badly should be of no concern to me. It is a personal quest. I should not need to be praised by others. And if I do need it, I need to get rid of that need.

If praise is to be given it should be sparingly, and only to those of low ability in desperate need of a boost. Martial artists need constant criticism, and they need to learn to respond positively to that criticism and not take it personally. It goes without saying that the criticism should be honest and not overdone. The army sergeant may shout like crazy at the recruit who cannot get over the wall, but once over, nothing more is said - not being able to get over is death, getting over is life. The sergeant puts up barriers for the soldier to overcome. The teacher criticises to push the students to examine themselves. I have many times seen an awful series of techniques displayed by a student after which time, all present clap, though all know it was terrible. Yet the student being clapped, who previously may have rightly doubted their skill, suddenly becomes elated and smiles, as though they had just done exceedingly well. Worse, they might become conceited, actually believing it. This is ridiculous. All that is necessary is honesty. In fact, whether it was good or bad, nothing need be said. It is a personal journey. If what was shown was of little skill, or of great skill, it is of no consequence, it only shows the level one is at – one’s stage along the Way. Criticism exists everywhere and being exposed to it in the dojo gives one the chance to mentally train oneself to deal with it in ordinary life. Personally, I regard those teachers whom I could never please as being my best teachers.


(k) Process

What I mean by process is this: You put a lump of metal in one end of the production line and out comes a perfectly machined engine part at the other. A team got together and organised the process: they ordered the parts, trained the technicians, calculated the measurements, programmed the computers, tested the product, and so on. The result is exactly what they planned for. So, generally, what might the best way be to organise learning in Aikido? And specifically, how should the ideas of irimi and tenkan be introduced. Or how should a basic technique, say kote-gashi, be taught to beginners, intermediates, and advanced students? Should it be the same? Different? Basically, the syllabus is the major part in defining a style, or what you learn. For example, Yoshinkan has a rigid syllabus that is great for beginners but stifles learning for seniors unless they look elsewhere. Shodokan Aikido takes a kata approach and adds randori, which some claim to be against Aikido. Iwama practice in a firm way. Shinshin Toitsu Aikido practices in a soft way. Aikikai has a set list of techniques in its syllabus but each instructor performs those techniques in his own way.

A very good example of process working well can be found in high school wrestling. In my experience, you show a beginner a new technique and by the end of the class he can do it against a resisting opponent. The very next lesson that same beginner can show a new beginner that same technique and that new beginner can perform it successfully against a resisting opponent. How can this be possible? Well, someone has thought very hard about the process. The rules are simple and safe. Because it is safe you can put in 100% with fear chance of injury. The beginning techniques are really simple. You grab and arm and roll your opponent onto his back to score a point. You can vary the training: for example - one partner resists without fighting back while the other fights to turn him over. The kids can't get enough of it - they love it; somehow, it invigorates the practitioner with that timeless spirit of what it has meant through the ages to be a man. It seems as though they just instinctively know what to do. With this in mind then, what is Aikido? How would you explain it in a convincing way to one of these kids who has spent a term or two learning wrestling? And then, what process could you come up with to learn Aikido? My guess is that Tomiki Kenji (Judo and Aikido background) had exactly that dilema.

What we really need is an efficient process. We put beginners in at one end, they go through the process, and good black belts come out at the other end. Any syllabus needs to be clear, logical, and easy to reproduce. It should produce good shodan black belts who can regurgitate whatever they are asked and teach the same. The various Aikido schools/styles each have their own process: in my opinion, there are good parts in each, bad parts in each, and a lot of missing parts in each. Often, Aikido stagnates in its own form. If it is to continue to develop in a positive direction, people really need to take a close look at what/how they are learning/doing/teaching.


(l) Example of process in method

  1. Static soft training for beginners to learn shapes (techniques). Beginners study at this level to get the gist of the basic forms.
  2. Static hard training to learn to manipulate shapes (techniques). Study at this level for an extended period of time.
  3. Intermittent soft dynamic training to develop fluidity. Study occasionally to develop an ultimate goal - but do not stray from reality believeing you can do it just because it seems so easy.
  4. Hard dynamic training to learn to deal with power and to add your own to the fluidity of motion. Study at this level for an extended period of time, to shodan and beyond.
  5. Determined dynamic strong striking and grabbing attacks - with real purpose to destabilise tori - to learn how to apply the shapes (techniques).
  6. Varied timing of attack and response.

It is best to work on hard training for a long time before switching to soft training. What I mean is, hard training against resistance and determined attacks is 100 times more effective and prepares one with an excellent base for soft training. You cannot easily do this in reverse. To be effective, in your early Aikido days, up to say Shodan or beyond, training should focus mostly on overcoming resistance - hard training. Also, one should concentrate on developing fitness and power. Of course, some softer training is always in order, but you cannot really focus on such full-time until the hard training 'restructures' your body.

What does it mean to be Shodan? We make far too much of this in the West. In the East, the Shodan has learned all the basic techniques and is ready to move on. In the West, the Shodan will typically have trained longer and harder. I prefer to think of the learning process along three simple levels.

Incorporating learning in a syllabus

  1. Learn all the forms/techniques. (Shodan?)
  2. When shown a new principle you slowly learn to apply it to all your techniques. (Nidan?)
  3. When shown/discovering a new principle, you can instantly understand and apply it to all your techniques. (Sandan?)
  4. Etc.

Note 1: The above is a very different approach to what most Aikidoka would think of as being a syllabus. My suggestion is to try and incorporate 'method' into the 'structure' of your syllabus.
Note 2: Next time you watch a high grade throwing uke about with ease, check and take note of how hard, or not, uke is really trying to grab and/or clobber tori. Most ukes just fly because they feel they are supposed to. I am suggesting you build some sensible resistance into your syllabus, or at least, your training regimen.



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