Optimal training in aikido, part 1

How does anyone know what to aim for in perfecting aikido technique?

Aikido is a Japanese martial art. Traditionally, Aikido doesn’t feature competition or sparring, rather you take turns to practice the movements, consisting of various locks and throws. After a demonstration by the instructor (sensei), your partner (uke) simulates an attack and you (tori) perform the technique with a level of fluidity, speed and mercilessness matched to your skill and the skill of your partner. After a few goes you swop roles. After a few rounds of this, and maybe the sensei offering some one-to-one comments, the sensei demonstrates another technique and you find a new partner and take turns to practice again.

There are variations, and some other elements of practice, but for many people this is the main way they improve their skill at the art.

I am interested in the best way to get better at aikido (what should we do during training?), and the related issue of what the ultimate target of practice is (what defines a movement as good or bad, better or worse?). There are a few reasons why these issues, for aikido, are not obvious.

Martial arts in general are fighting systems, so they are meant to make you better at fighting. The problem with this is that you can’t train in real fighting (unless you like injury or litigation), so the different martial arts all adopt proxies, which introduce rules to stop people getting hurt. At the same time, the rules of the proxy-fights make them bad simulations of real rights, so if you optimise your skill to be good at a proxy-fight you may build into your technique blind spots for which you haven’t trained (or even for which you have trained yourself to be particularly susceptible). Examples: sparring which is stopped when it goes to the floor, outlawed moves (kicks to the head, eye gouging, various locks and breaks).

Many martial arts convey information about forms outside of ‘live’ contest situations. So Judo, Karate, etc all have a varying emphasis on practising the techniques separately from sparring or competition, and sometimes very formalised routines called kata, outside of competition.

Aikido’s situation is that it teaches some techniques which are too dangerous to do in competition. If your opponent resists it either won’t work or you’ll break one of their limbs. This means that when you practice these techniques you need a high degree of trust and consent from your uke. In a sense the uke is letting you progress the move to the end —they have to start the move as if they don’t anticipate what you are going to do (even though you’ve probably done it with them only seconds before), and then as the technique develops they have to react in such as way as to protect themselves from injury (typically by rolling or flipping).

So when we practice aikido we practice with the cooperation of someone who is, in some sense, letting us do the technique, but we are aiming to perfect a technique which will work on someone who isn’t cooperating. In fact, we want to develop technique which works on someone who is doing more than just not cooperating, they are actively trying to hurt us. The first issue is how to develop effective technique for antagonistic situations from practice which is predicated on cooperation.

The second issue is that, there are usually many ways to make a particular technique ‘work’ (and usually each school or each sensei will teach subtle variations). Is there any principled way to discriminate between these variations?

In a competition based martial art you have a method for answering the questions about the superior variations — if technique A helps people win, it’s good. If technique B is often defeated, its bad. Note that even here you don’t get away from doing some extra thought: because competitions are proxy-fights we still distinguish from legitimate wins and technical wins which are within the rules but would never work in any situation other than the one defined by the rules. People who train exclusively to win competitions, but using gamesmanship and techniques which exploit rule-loopholes are viewed with scorn — they’re optimising the wrong problem.

But in martial arts without competitions, like aikido, you don’t even have the opportunity of this objective but potentially misleading method. We practice the techniques, develop a feel for ‘what works’. And different styles teach different things. How do we decide between them? How do you know you are aspiring to an aikido which has even the possibility of being effective outside of the practice hall?

If you think the answer to this is “you just need to be honest with yourself” then I think you’ve overestimated our ability to do that, and/or underestimated the difficulty of gaining insight into the target of what we’re trying to learn.

Aikido is based around a system where knowledge of the art is passed down from the most senior grades. This system suggest that aikido has some true form which is passed down, like a secret, to each generation. This is obviously falsified, both by the historical fact that aikido was invented by a single individual in the 1920s and by the realisation that none of his students since can seem to agree entirely of how it should be practiced.

The idea of ‘revealed truth’ in aikido also contradicts what we know from the psychological science of motor learning, where self-guided discovery and practice based refinement of movements are known to be key to skill learning.

A useful contrast is other domains of motor skills, sports. Although coaching is important, in something like soccer, there’s a large component of learning through discovery — get on the pitch and kick the ball. The difference to aikido is that aikido doesn’t have a pitch. In soccer you can see how your practice has paid off in the match. In aikido, you practice for a match you hope to never play.

One response to this is to say “Fine, aikido isn’t realistic — I’m doing it for other reasons” which is fine (and probably the wise choice if you started out wanting to know self-defence, aikido is not first place to learn that). However, this response leaves the problem of what you are trying to learn unsolved. Aikido is fun, and beautiful, and patterned by the same constraints of human bodies and movement as dancing, but although it is a lot like dancing, it isn’t dancing. It references combat, but it isn’t clear to me how that reference can be meaningful when the people teaching it and practicing it no longer engage in combat as a profession (contrast the Samurai of feudal Japan).