Let’s take a moment to consider the job of a swimming coach. Swimming coaches have a problem that seems a difficult one to solve and that provides them with numerous issues when coaching their athletes. I’ve taken to referring to this problem in capitals. ‘The Swimming Coach Problem’.
What is it?
Since I’ve gone to the trouble of formally naming it what exactly is it? A swimming coach will almost always find themselves in a situation where they have a group of diverse athletes, all training towards the same goal, in the same style, each with a different set of technical problems. These athletes need individual attention from the coach but they are almost always in a group session. How can the coach operate so that each athlete gets the individual attention they deserve to improve?
Does that problem sound at all familiar to you? Can you think of any parallels with something else that may be the subject of this entire site? This is actually a recognised issue in coaching, it’s just slightly more obvious in swimming. Aikido instructors face the exact same issue every single class. For us though it can be more pronounced. The grade range in my dojo is from kihon, through all the kyu grades (we have 6), and then up to fourth dan. That’s complete novice to low level expert.
My dojo isn’t unique in this regard either. While aikido is recognised as being ‘top heavy’ (the ratio of dan grades to kyu grades is small rather than large) they are many dojo’s where the instructor is looking at teaching very advanced students and beginners at the same time.
Swimming vs Aikido
If we accept that The Swimming Coach Problem applies to aikidoka, and it really does, then you might assume that we solve it in the same way. That would be an incorrect assumption. Swimming coaches realised something a long time ago. If two athletes are having difficulty with the front crawl and one of them is screwing up the arms and the other is screwing up the legs; then getting into the water and demonstrating how to perform front crawl isn’t going to help either of them.
Swimming coaches simply don’t do that; however, that’s exactly what the aikido teaching method is.
The aikido instructor stands there in front of a room of students, each with different problems and shows them how to do the whole thing. There is no individualisation of training. Every student gets the same thing, so progress is very slow for the group.
I’ve over-simplified this, I admit that. It would be unusual for the instructor to demonstrate something then take a seat and do nothing while the students train. While I’ve recently come across instructors that do precisely that I consider them the exception rather than the norm. Usually, they’ll move around the mats and give students individual attention on things they need to correct. This attention though, while well-meaning, is misguided.
A method to solve this
It’s great that the students get the attention they need, what’s not great is that after the instructor leaves they’re still doing the exact same technique they were before. To phrase that a slightly different way lets imagine that shomen uchi ikkyo omote is being practiced. A student was training and doing some aspect of the technique wrong. In this case, they were collapsing their arms as they entered, no extension. The instructor has come over and identified this as a problem, shown them how to correct it and left. This likely involved demonstrating what the student was doing wrong and why it was problem. Then showing how to do it correctly before watching the student try it. If they have corrected the issue the instructor moves on. With their training partner the student now repeats the entire technique attempting to focus on the extension.
What should happen is that after the instructor leaves the student is performing a completely different exercise designed to drill the flawed component of their technique to improve it. In this example the student should be performing some exercise that will promote extension in their arms as they enter. Something like torifune or tsugi ashi against a kick shield might work. A fundamental technical flaw has been identified, demonstrating the technique as a whole isn’t going to help. The instructor should have intervened and stopped the student from continuing with ikkyo altogether.
The handy thing about aikido is that a problem in one technique is very likely to carry through to other techniques. The lack of extension in ikkyo is very likely to appear in all other techniques as well. If it was properly addressed as a separate issue then all the affected techniques will improve. This is much faster than correcting each individual technique. If the student spent the next 15 minutes drilling arm extension to the point where the collapse has been removed, then the instructor has just improved all the techniques rather than just ikkyo. They won’t have to come round during each technique and correct the students extension.
If we can start to provide our students with individual exercises designed to promote the principles common to each technique then all of the techniques will improve because we’ve focused on the base concept rather than the application. If every student in the room is performing the same movement all the time then ultimately we’re failing as instructors. We are, undoubtedly, getting our students to improve but the way we’re doing it is actively hindering them.
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