The new student, after a few training sessions, goes over to the instructor and says, “You are so good, how long have you been training?”, or something similar. Another example is, “How long does it take to get a black belt?” These are common questions that crop up almost every time a new student joins a dojo. They’re important questions, but they’re not the real questions. What the student wants to know is how much work they have to do to achieve the same level.
So What Is The Answer?
There is a number that can be used to answer both of the questions. The person being asked knows those numbers. They know how long they’ve been training, how long it took to achieve shodan. Often those numbers are the answer given and the beginner is seldom happy with the new knowledge. I say they’re unhappy because it usually indicates that the road ahead has a substantial amount of time and work involved.
The answers given to the questions are likely the reason that McDojo’s can thrive. If the honest answer is given, without any relative comparison, then many students are never seen again. The simple truth is that on a level playing field it takes years to get a shodan, and even more to reach the level of your instructor.
The catch is that it’s not a level playing field. A student with zero athletic ability will take longer than a naturally gifted aikidoka, and neither of them are guaranteed success. The first of those students is easy to find, the latter a far rarer animal. In over 20 years I can only recall a single student who was naturally gifted at aikido. Of course, if they aren’t willing to do the work required then they are both doomed to failure.
It’s Harder Than You Think
McDojo’s sell people on the idea that it’s easy. The process is simpler than you’ve been told and you can attain a black belt in under a year. This is of course quite true. You can earn a black belt in under a year, just not training for two hours twice a week. I have previously commented that in aikido it takes too long to get a shodan rank, a feature of aikido that I blame firmly on grade inflation and the teaching method.
Regardless of those issues there is one thing that all legitimate dojos will agree on. It takes work. You have to be willing to get on the mats and train as hard as you can for a sustained period of time. In other words, you have to do the work.
Most people aren’t willing to do it, especially in today’s society. Many things that we seek out are quickly obtainable. Need a brand new computer, you can have that tomorrow. Today if you’re willing to go to the store in person. You want someone to make you a pizza and deliver it? 30 minutes or less. Want to binge watch the latest TV show? No waiting required.
Now consider that the answer to the question, “How long does X take?”, is in years, and sometimes decades. It’s hardly a surprise that the attrition rate is high when there is so much work to do.
There has to be a secret though, right? A shortcut perhaps. Well, there is. The best I’ve ever heard it put was by a self-defence instructor at a course. The conversation went a bit like this:
Student: How do you develop mental strength?
Instructor: You do more things you don’t like that are useful, and less things you like that are useless.
Student: HAHA, ok, sure, but what’s the real method?
They wanted the quick and easy route. They were hoping to find out what that secret technique that grants you unparalleled skill is. The simple truth that they were told what it was didn’t even register with them, because they didn’t want to do the work.
You Can Convince Them
As an experiment I discovered that you can convince people to do the work. Or at the very least manage their expectations. Teaching at a university club I looked over a brand new intake of about 50 students. I pointed out that this would take a lot of effort, and a lot of time. I also pointed out that there was 600 hours of training time between their first day and their last one in 4 years time. There are also 600 hours (taking a standard office day) in a single semester. 8 hours a day for 15 weeks. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so onerous. The final observation I made was that if they could commit to that, to just 600 hours of training, I could give them a good shot at leaving with a black belt. Not a guarantee, but everything in my power to get them there.
What happened next astonished me. The club subsequently experienced its lowest attrition rate for years. Perhaps it was the honesty, perhaps it was the relative comparison, perhaps it was just that I laid a challenge to a competitive audience. Regardless of the reason, setting out to manage their expectations on the very first session seemed to have a positive result.
Unfortunately, a single data point does not make a conclusion. It will take years before I can confirm the truth of this, but initial observations are promising.
How To Get Really Good
To reach the pinnacle of your skill. To become very good, you have to do the work. Unfortunately, that does not mean turning up to every class. That’s not enough. If you are lucky enough to have access to a dojo where you can train everyday, then it will be. The majority of aikidoka though are not so lucky. Most dojo train only a few times a week for 1-2 hours. People have lives to lead and there are few that can make a living from this.
An unspoken rule is that you have to start training beyond the dojo. Solo practice becomes a necessity, not an optional choice. Therein lies a problem with aikido and the teaching method (The Swimming Coach Problem). Most people will tell you that aikido cannot be taught as a solo art. That a partner is an absolute requirement to learn it. This is entirely true, but only to an extent.
When the world was hit with a pandemic most dojo closed and everyone started training at home. For aikidoka this almost universally meant training with weapons. As I noted in this post about weapons shortly after this began, this was a missed opportunity.
You Can Train Solo
It is possible to train in aikido as a solo art. It just requires some thought, and a totally different approach to teaching. The last seminar I taught before Covid was based around the concept of structure. What it is, why it’s important, how to develop it. Most people would teach this by emphasising it through techniques like ikkyo, nikyo and tenchi nage. I taught it through Principles Based Teaching. I demonstrated numerous solo exercises that can be worked on in most places without anyone else. The students were left with a series of drills that they could use to build epic structure in their techniques. The catch? They had to do the work.
There are only really three things that cannot be practiced without a partner in aikido:
- Empty hand techniques
- Weapon taking
If you’re thinking that that seems like all of aikido, I can understand why. If you think that though then you might want to really consider what aikido is. Is it a collection of techniques? If so, then you’re right and I’m wrong about solo practice. On the other hand, if it is more than the techniques then the opposite is true. My contention would be that if it were just the techniques, why don’t you see them in randori? Aikido is not the techniques we practice, those are the equivalent of a boxer hitting a heavy bag. They’re a training tool.
Do The Work
Solo drills, paired practice, weapons kata. It doesn’t matter what you go for, if you don’t do the work you won’t reach your full potential. You can put in the extra time most days. It’s easier than you might think. Waiting for a bus? Set one foot on top of the other and work on your balance. Opening a push door? Do it as though you were trying to knock someone back with an irimi step. Sitting at a computer for 8 hours? Make sure you sit up straight and work on your posture.
There are many ways to get the extra practice time you need. You just have to look for them and, most importantly, commit to doing the work. At the end of the day, no matter what you want to succeed at, that’s the real secret.
Do. The. Work.
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