Provide As Much Feedback As Possible
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 will continue 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 provide as much feedback to each aikidoka as possible.
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 eighth of these is that excellent coaching sessions generate as much feedback to each athlete as possible.
Types Of Feedback
The first thing to understand about providing feedback is that there are two types: Primary and Secondary. We gather primary feedback through direct sensory input. In aikido, this is what a student felt during the technique. Secondary feedback comes from other people’s reactions to what we say and do. This means that a sensei is a source of secondary feedback. That secondary feedback will almost always be verbal.
Although called secondary feedback, it is at least as important as the primary feedback for an aikidoka. Consider how many times you’ve seen an aikidoka stuck on a technique, or even been stuck yourself. The uke is providing some resistance and the nage has a good source of primary feedback. So why are they stuck? When an uke is providing feedback to the nage they shouldn’t become blocked. Now, there are many answers to why they are (e.g. they failed to flow), but most of those answers aren’t reasons. One of the reasons is that they failed to interpret the primary feedback.
Many athletes, not just aikidoka, want the coach to interpret their primary feedback for them. Secondary feedback becomes vital to progression for most people.
Feedback from a sensei is predominantly verbal. Sure, there are times when they will take ukemi and provide primary feedback, but even then most sensei will verbally explain something based on the primary feedback they received during the ukemi.
When providing feedback to a student there are four things to ask yourself to determine if it’s effective feedback:
- Are you mainly making value statements? e.g. “Well done”, “Good pin”.
- Is corrective feedback negative? e.g. “You didn’t turn far enough.”
- Do you provide feedback where others can hear it?
- When providing feedback is it done during a technique?
If the answers to these questions are ‘yes’, then you should consider how you provide feedback. Here’s why:
A value statement doesn’t quantify anything. What was good about the pin? The aikidoka doesn’t actually know and so the likelihood of a repeat performance does not go up.
Negative feedback can make the aikidoka eager to please. They may start to try harder and tense up as a result. Not helpful for improving their aikido.
Others Can Here It
This is difficult to avoid in a dojo, but, if other people can hear the negative feedback it generally makes the problem worse.
During A Technique
Providing feedback during a technique distracts the aikidoka and makes the situation worse. It is far better to wait until the technique has reached it’s conclusion, then provide feedback.
Not Just Sensei
This one is likely to ruffle a few feathers depending on the nature of your dojo. The sensei should not be the only one to provide feedback to students. When working in pairs, the partner should be a source of secondary feedback. This is not a radical concept either. The statement, ‘uke is the teacher of nage’, is a common one in many dojo.
Often, there is an unwritten rule that only the sensei can correct someone. It is not uncommon to find a hierarchy in a dojo that prohibits students from correcting each other. This is not limited to aikido though. Many sports encourage the idea that only the coach can provide meaningful feedback.
The biggest issue with this style of coaching is that the sensei can only provide feedback to a single aikidoka at a time. This can result in students never receiving any feedback on the current technique. How can they improve without that feedback? This system prevents any progress they could have made during that part of training.
Encouraging students to adopt a reciprocal style of training can overcome this limitation. Sensei should encourage uke to provide feedback to nage, and vice versa. Remember that ukemi is at least as important as waza. Ukemi needs to be properly taught and coached as well.
Interestingly, there is research to suggest that this training style provides better feedback.
The biggest barrier to this style of coaching will be the sensei. Many of us simply do not wish to have our students coach each other. The basic argument is that they do not know as much as us, and they risk telling their partner the wrong thing. This is a fair argument but a simple examination reveals that it is not a good one.
Let The Students Provide Feedback
The risk of allowing a student to provide feedback amounts to them telling their partner the wrong thing. How wrong are they going to be though?
For instance, 2+2=4 is generally considered to be correct. 2+2=5 is wrong; 2+2=22 could be considered more wrong. When teaching aikido, what level of incorrect are we willing to accept? The answer cannot be zero. No sensei claims that they know everything, quite the opposite. We all claim that we don’t know everything and still have much to learn. If that’s the case then, to a certain degree, every sensei provides incorrect feedback to their students. They have to be, by their own admission. So once again, what level of incorrect are we willing to accept?
You Have To Feel It
There’s more to consider here though, the most obvious of which is that the training pair felt what was happening. Most people will say you learn a lot more by taking ukemi, that you have to feel it. Highly debatable, but it is the prevailing opinion. Unfortunately, that idea is contrary to the sensei being the only person to provide feedback. The sensei didn’t feel the technique they’re about to correct. They either have to take the ukemi and correct based on that, or accept that you don’t always have to feel it to know what’s wrong.
This can be a spectrum, it doesn’t have to be either/or. There are times when teaching that just observing is enough to show the error. Other times you will need to get hands on to find out what’s really going wrong. It depends on the level of correction you’re trying to achieve.
What Are They Thinking?
A great thing about letting students provide feedback to each other is the opportunity to listen to what they are saying. When an aikidoka tells another one what they’ve done wrong, you find out what they think is going on. Everybody bases feedback on what they think the technique should be. You can learn a lot about why a student is making certain errors in their technique by listening to them correct others.
A depressing side-effect though is that you also learn what you have failed to teach them as a sensei. They determined what is taking place based on the sensei’s instructions, any misconception they have belongs to us.
If an uke is going to be providing feedback to the nage, then they will be more engaged in the technique and paying attention throughout. The common habit of switching off and a doing a few rolls until it’s time to be nage again should diminish. This would be a wonderful outcome for everyone involved. A lot of technical holes will close as complacency diminishes.
When providing feedback, both partners will be mentally rehearsing the other side of the technique. Uke will be mentally checking nage, and vice versa. Both aikidoka will be performing both roles every time. Granted, one side will be entirely mental, but that can still have a positive reinforcement effect. Further, an aspect of aikido is harmony with the other person. That means paying attention to what they are doing. Devoting a portion of our brain to keeping an eye on them will go a long way to promoting that aspect.
It Has To Be Constructive
The obvious caveat to this though is that when providing feedback it has to be constructive. The same four questions apply to everyone providing feedback, not just the sensei. This may need a staged process. Sensei may need to make some adjustments in how they provide feedback, then teach their students those lessons. As in all things, it takes practice to become proficient.
Reduce The Need For Secondary Feedback
It is entirely possible to minimise the amount of verbal feedback required. Especially in a contact activity like aikido. The way to do this though might not be something that fits into the nature of every dojo. All we have to do is design our training drills to provide as much primary feedback as possible. If we do this, then a natural consequence is that the aikidoka become more engaged with the training. They can obtain and interpret their own feedback and make progress.
Choose Words Carefully
Given all of the above, it should be clear that when a sensei provides feedback they need to choose their words carefully. Even the most innocent comment, perhaps made in jest, can be dwelt upon and lead to a decline in performance.
An option to help with this is to record a session so the sensei can see themselves, hear the feedback they are giving, and see how students react.
No improvement takes place without feedback, so when a sensei provides feedback, it should be of the highest quality possible. We cannot overstate the importance of secondary feedback, so make yours the best it can be
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