Promote Competition Between Friends
Every once in a while the question, “What makes a good sensei?” comes up for discussion. There are many valid answers for this question but this post is going to take a different approach to the standard responses. This month continues the series looking at what makes a good training session? Since the sensei runs the session, a good training session requires a good sensei. The inference being that if you do these things then you will improve as a sensei. This post will be considering that the session should promote competition between friends.
Before we get too far into this it’s important to have some background. Studies have been carried out into elite athletes to discover what, precisely, they look for in an effective coach. Rushall (1995, Think And Act Like a Champion) observed that, “There is a group of overt and covert behaviours that are common to sporting champions”. Of particular interest is that he claimed this list was unchanging. Rushall researched the behaviours of 155 champions and record-holders over a 20 year period. What he discovered was that there were no differences between the old champions and today’s. The basic core values remained the same. Of the items identified by Rushall as being the habits of champions, 10 of them are under the direct control of the coach. The fourth of these is that excellent coaching sessions promote competition between friends.
Of the 10 items from Rushall’s research there are two related to competition. This is the first of them and quite likely to be controversial or dismissed by most aikidoka. Since at least two major styles of aikido have a competition element it seems wise to consider this idea.
A Problem for Aikido
The first thing to know is that despite many claims, O Sensei may not have objected to competition in aikido. When discussing it he tended to use a word that was more like rivalry than competition. What he actually meant by rivalry is not very clear though. It is unlikely that he meant two friends trying to out-do each other on occasion though.
Some aikidoka in favour of competition say that we all compete. The difference is that some have formal competition and the others only compete against themselves. After all, what is an attempt to grade other than proving yourself better in comparison to your past self? The argument is that the very act of training is a form of self-competition. There may be truth to this assertion, it would really depend on the reasons that drive the individual aikidoka to the dojo. It would be an unusual aikidoka that has never experienced that desire though.
For the moment, set aside any objections to competition in aikido that you may have. Instead let’s consider the benefits that may arise from this simple idea. How would competition between friends improve an aikidoka, and what might that look like?
There is a difference between a formal competition and friends playing a game to win against each other. The desire to win is a natural thing, especially among younger people that have more to prove. With care, the effective management of this desire can lead to excellent results.
The simple truth is that during a competition people try harder. They will generally push themselves a little bit further than they otherwise would. In training, this can lead an aikidoka to push the boundaries of what they think they can do.
We can find a simple example of this in mae ukemi training. A common practice is to have aikidoka roll over an obstacle without touching it. This obstacle is often a person crouching down. Difficulty increases by adding in extra people to roll over. Training ukemi in this manner is highly beneficial. It forces the aikidoka to overcome any nerves they may have over ‘diving’ ukemi. Their ability to land safely will increase significantly. At the start of this practice though many aikidoka are unwilling to make the attempt. Introducing a competition element changes this.
It can be as simple as saying, “Who can make it over the most people?” Those previously unwilling to try will most likely make an attempt to pass at least one person. In this way they start to push themselves further than they thought they could.
It is also the case that many people are goal driven. When devising a coaching session consideration should be given to the goals of each aikidoka that is likely to attend. An element of competition in the session can drive people towards achieving that goal. Even if it is the most basic level of goal setting e.g. “I want to jump over 3 people rather than my previous best of 2”.
A competition can also be a way to let people relax and blow off some steam. Everyone has experienced a frustrating training session when nothing seems to work. Breaking out of the training cycle for a bit of can be enormously helpful. The trick here is to ensure that whatever format it takes will help the aikidoka having a bad day.
While friendly competition can provide benefits to a training session it must be kept in context and used appropriately. The coach should not allow it to become a rivalry. If they did allow that to develop it would likely be detrimental to the aikidoka involved, and the dojo as a whole. Happily, there are ways to have a fun contest and prevent any feuding from taking place.
The simplest, but probably not the most obvious, is to make sure nobody competes in something they’re very good at. If the class consisted of a tall dan grade and 5 short 6th kyu’s then diving mae ukemi is not a good choice. The conclusion is forgone and everyone knows it. Any competition has to be fair and must not play to any particular aikidoka’s strengths.
Any integration of friendly competition should also be sparse. Not every session should incorporate it. Allowing the aikidoka to compete against each other in every session is a sure-fire way to create a rivalry. This is the opposite of what we want to achieve.
Remember though, this is aikido and it attracts many people because in most styles there is no competition. This is often a major selling point when attracting new students. The simple truth is that not everybody wants to compete.
Should You Do It?
Competition in aikido always has been, and likely always will be, an area of intense debate between aikidoka. It is only beaten into first place for Most Controversial Topic by the subject of Ki.
While there are undeniable benefits to competition between friends, that doesn’t mean you should start to include it. The first consideration has to be whether or not the members of your dojo are actively engaged in competitive competition. If they are, then yes, you should start to introduce this during the training sessions. If they are not, then it’s a little bit more ambiguous.
As noted above Rushall worked with elite athletes and champions. Competition was a specific goal for all of these individuals. The idea that you could do sport without competing wasn’t applicable to them. It is for aikidoka though.
Bringing in a friendly competition to the dojo does have benefits. Don’t forget though, that many people stepped on the mats precisely because there is no competition. Introducing it may upset that status quo with your students, and not necessarily in a good way.
Ultimately, whether the dojo could benefit from a carefully controlled, friendly competition will depend on:
- the goal of training
- atmosphere in the dojo
- type of student that attends class. A child or young adults class may be more receptive than a senior citizens class for instance.
There are positives and negatives to a friendly competition in the dojo. Whether one outweighs the other will vary from dojo to dojo and only the members of a particular one can make the decision. Given that there are benefits though it’s worth considering. Still, many of us may find that this particular aspect of an excellent coaching session, is not appropriate for our aikido classes.
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