better to be looked over than it is to be overlooked.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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
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
(l) Example of process in method
- Static soft training for beginners to learn shapes (techniques).
Beginners study at this level to get the gist of the basic forms.
- Static hard training to learn to manipulate shapes (techniques). Study
at this level for an extended period of time.
- 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.
- 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.
- Determined dynamic strong striking and grabbing attacks - with real
purpose to destabilise tori - to learn how to apply the shapes
- 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
- Learn all the forms/techniques. (Shodan?)
- When shown a new principle you slowly learn to apply it to all your
- When shown/discovering a new principle, you can instantly understand and
apply it to all your techniques. (Sandan?)
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.