Personal Responsibility in Training

I was trained by Mitsugi Saotome Shihan, a fifteen year uchi deshi of the Founder of Aikido. In many ways Saotome Sensei was quite Westernized. As an artist, he exhibited many of the traits of individuality and creativity one might expect in any Western artist. He is anything but an "organization man".

But when it came to Aikido, how he looked at his art and how he went about trying to transmit it to my generation, he was as Japanese as they come. While he was generous in his willingness to show you something, and was open off the mat to questions, he offered little in the way of actual technical explanation. He was attempting to train your "eye", to force you to see what was happening and get past the verbal / conceptual aspect of training as much as possible.

This put a lot of responsibility on the student. You were expected to do most of he work. If you were not dedicated enough to do the work, you would be allowed to fail. Progress was entirely up to you.

So, one of the things I learned almost immediately when I started training was that, if Sensei gave you the gift of a correction or he showed you a better way to do something, the ABSOLUTE MINIMUM expectation was that the next time he saw you you had at least fixed that issue. While he might not say anything if you did not do so, you might find that you were no longer being called up to take ukemi or you were no longer offered any other instruction until you got serious.

Anyone who has trained with Saotome Sensei has heard his lament, "I have seen you every year for ten years... each year no difference. Your training, what meaning?"

Some of the reason that people fail to progress is that they have such a remedial foundation that they simply do not understand what it is that Sensei might be criticizing at a given point in time. His instruction is often quite oblique. He might go on about too much time on the computer, the death of Western Civilization, or somesuch, when he is trying to say that people have compromised postures, look weak and can't project their intent. He might be trying to get them to understand that, if they do not fix these very fundamental elements, which from Sensei's standpoint should have been taken care of by Shodan, attempting to do what it is that he is trying to show in class is futile. In other words, go home and fix this and come back when you are teachable.

Sensei's frustration comes from pointing this out, year after year, and having to yell at everyone for the same things each year. For Sensei, Aikido is not some hobby one does when one doesn't have anything else going on. Training is not a social function. Aikido is Budo. It is a lifestyle, a Path, or Michi, that informs every aspect of one's life. Each of us has only a finite amount of time on this earth. Budo is about making every moment count. It is about living with Makoto, or sincerity, commitment, clarity. Doing something halfway is not exhibiting "makoto".

While I understand that people do not necessarily understand what it is that Sensei wishes them to change, ignorance is not an excuse. If Sensei lets people know that he is unhappy with some aspect of our Aikido, and someone is unclear about what it is that he is criticizing, then ASK SOMEONE WHO KNOWS. Sensei's personally trained deshi are mostly still around. They can tell you what it is he wishes you to change, they can tell you how to go about training in a way that will fix the issue. In Sensei's world, he has told you there is a problem. He has shown you what it looks like when it is right. The rest is up to you.

I have to say that, after 42 years of training and teaching, I am very sympathetic to Sensei's frustrations. People in general do not take their training seriously. They decide that Sensei is just cranky, but they take no responsibility for their part in making him cranky. They roll their eyes when they get the same lecture once again, but they fail to accept that the reason they are getting that lecture once again is that they STILL have not fixed the problem.

When the bulk of the practitioners of an art are not serious about their training, it changes the art. It makes it hard for someone who does wish to be serious to do so.

Back in the day, the core group of folks in the DC dojo where I started with Sensei were all serious. We trained 6 or 7 days a week. People who were less serious simply had to struggle to keep up. The training was not adjusted to keep them happy or to make sure they could keep up. The training was the training. You kept up or you didn't. If you didn;t, you most likely quit.

It was not really different when I got to Seattle and trained with Mary Heiny Sensei. The core group, which set the tone for the training in the dojo were all training 4 - 6 times a week. People were serious about what they were doing.

For any number of reasons, things are different now. It is almost impossible to find students who will train every day. In my own dojo, a serious student is on the mat three times a week. It is harder than it was to get people to travel for seminars or camps. There is no question that there is a relationship between how many hours on the mat you can get and how you progress. But I have learned that frequency is not as important as the quality of the time spent.

It is a fact that all of the top teachers in the art spent some period of time where all they did was train. A number moved to Japan to train. Others, like myself, trained here but daily and very intensively. If someone wishes to reach that level, they will have to train that way. I don't care what kind of raw talent they have, they will never be a Saotome Sensei or a Mary Heiny Sensei training two or three days a week.

But... that does not mean that they cannot be excellent. My senior instructor, Alex Nakamura Sensei has done Aikido longer than I have. He remembers Tohei Sensei from Hawaii when he was a kid. He had a career, raised kids, and has been on the mat three days a week without fail for going on fifty years. I was recently able to award him his 6th Dan.

Alex is the perfect example of quality over quantity. He was always serious about his training. When he went back to Hawaii on vacation, he took his gi and he trained there. If I showed something in class, the next thing I knew Alex was working on the same things in his class. He trains with "makoto". In his mid-seventies, he is still working to get better, still trying new ideas, still progressing.

So, my point in all of this is that ultimately, it is up to you. It is your responsibility to the art, to your teacher, to yourself to train seriously when you train. Make every minute count when you have that gift of time on the mat with your teachers. And show them respect by taking their instruction seriously. Don't blow them off when they tell you to fix something. Showing up over and over making the same mistakes is insulting. If you are not sure what is the problem or not sure how to fix it, ask someone who knows. Saotome Shihan's personal deshi are starting to pass away. But there are still enough of us left that there is no excuse for being unclear about what Sensei would like from your training. Ask your questions while there are still people to ask who understand.

I think people need to accept the responsibility for their training. If you don't feel like your Aikido is in a whole different place than it was five years ago, and I mean by magnitudes, what is it that you are doing wrong?

We are so lucky that we can still have the great gift of getting on the mat with Saotome Shihan. He is one of the geniuses of post-WWII Aikido. His time with us is getting shorter, soon he will be gone. Give him the respect due him and his teaching and show up having at least fixed the remedial things he has been talking about for decades so that he can demonstrate what he REALLY wants to be able to show us.

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