The 5 Habits Of The Highly Effective Aikido Student

I’ve been training Aikido for the last 14 years and teaching as a black belt 2 – 4 times a week for nine.  As an instructor, and as a student I try to pay special attention to the shedding and building of habits.  In my experience there are five key habit that really serve your training well.  Drum roll please!

  1. Show up – Show up to class. Pretty simple.  Make a habit of getting to the dojo, getting into your dogi, and hitting the mat.  Try for on more class per week than seems easily reasonable.  Push your comfort slightly.  One of the secrets of habit forming is to face squarely the fact that you are making a change, therefore you will be doing something differently.  That will push your comfort, in the sense of feeling out of the ordinary.  That’s to be expected, encouraged and worked with.
  2. No do overs – When we learn something new (and this seems to be endemic to the Western world-view) we tend to think that we should get it quickly and easily.  That is true in some cases, but when dealing with a new skill set with depth, not so much.  One of the ways this manifests is the “do over” and it is the death of Aikido.  A “do over” is when you get part way into a technique, think you may have made a mistake, and abandon the practice to start over.  Bad, bad, bad.  Aikido is a martial art.  Martial arts inherently are dealing with situations where you are at risk, or in crisis, and have no time to think.  You just have to do.  In those situations you can only rely on habitual responses you have built up.  A “do over” builds the habit of running from a situation to re-start it.  Imagine you are suddenly in a bar-room brawl with some mook swinging his ham hock of a fist at your head.  You step around the arc, but not as skillfully as you’ve seen your sensei do, so you throw up your hands and say, “I screwed that one up.  Let me try again.” Insanity.  No do overs!
  3. Make it happen – Another habit of people learning something new is looking for approval during the performance of a new skill.  It’s pretty common to see a junior rank pausing in the middle of a technique to see if the senior student approves.  Back to the bar-room example that would be like sweeping the mook’s arm out of the air, gripping the wrist, pivoting and flipping the wrist over then pausing before his balance is taken to ask, “How am I doing?”  Madness.  The proof that a technique happened is that the attacker (either real or simulated) is neutralized.  In Aikido this usually means thrown, or pinned.  Until that point, don’t check in to see if you are on track.  If you are out of the ball park the senior will either let you know after you’re done, or if there is suddenly no motion because the technique has gone far south, or will stop you mid-technique to offer a suggestion.  (This last method is a bad one, but that’s for another post.  Really a junior dojo mate should only be stopped if they are about to injure themselves or someone else.)  Complete the technique, even if it’s a bad one, then get feed back, not while executing a move.
  4. Keep the agreement – Aikido, like any martial art, is training for a fight but is not itself a fight.  There are agreements and contexts for every practice.  If either the attacker, or the receiver leave that agreement the practice is neutralized.  You are wasting class time.  One of the tricks of learning Aikido is being able to act as if you don’t know what’s about to happen.  I throw a punch at your gut.  You turn off the line and intercept the motion of my fist.  Gripping my fist you begin to lead my motion as I circle around to try and strike you with my free hand.  You sweep the arm up, adding to the motion slightly, turning my wrist over on itself which turns my shoulder, which in turn affects my center and I fall.  Classic kote-gaeshi (wrist-reversal.)  If at any point I (as attacker) leave the agreement I have nullified that practice.  You (as the receiver) may adapt and apply a different technique, but your practice of that version of kote-gaeshi is gone.  This can happen at any point along the way.  I can throw a blade hand cut to the top of your head instead.  Or, I could not turn in to attack you with my free hand once you’ve turned.  Or, I could pull my arm in away from your turning my wrist.  Any one of those (and a dozen more) will make the practice of that specific version of a technique go away.  Simple as that.  Conversely, if you as receiver change mid-stream to a different technique, or version of the same technique, you have negated my practice as attacker of that particular exchange.  That is not as bad as the receiver leaving the agreement since it demands that the attacker access the core principles of ukemi (receiving) to follow through while staying safe, but it still negates that specific practice.  For the learning of Aikido to proceed smoothly, both sides have to keep the agreement.
  5. Follow through – Follow through has two aspects.  Firstly, Aikido is a physical act.  It can be unpacked and discussed verbally and mentally, but the performance of Aikido is primarily a physical act.  The body learns differently than the mind does in some respects.  One is time for a physical act to completely pass through the system before moving on.  After a technique is executed the body takes a moment to settle through the motion and feel fully what just occurred, imprinting that feeling on itself so that the next execution is improved.  In practice this means sticking with the motion and feeling of the technique for a second, or two, after the technique is “done” and the would-be attacker is pinned, or thrown.  It’s pretty common on the mat to see a student throw their partner then flop their arms down to their side, standing up out of stance while the partner is still flying.  That denies the body the opportunity to absorb what just happened, cutting short the learning cycle.  Let the body feel what it’s like.  It’s sort of like an echo.  When you yell across a canyon you have not heard that particular yell all the way until the last echo fades.  If you stop listening before that you have missed some of the richness and depth of that particular experience.  Follow through is like that.  There is feedback occurring when, and after, you throw your partner.  Stay there for a second, or two, still engaged to let that reverberation fully affect your body.  Secondly, follow through has a more basic facet.  When throwing someone, if you stop the throw before it’s actually happened you wreck the technique.  This is associated with the habit of “no do overs”, except there is no re-set, just a pause of doubt to see if you are doing it right.  This can be either watching to see if the partner falls, or when practicing with a senior student it can be a pause to see if they approve.  Again you are training your body to not complete the technique, and the habit you grind in during training are the only ones that will serve you when you have to execute a technique in a real situation.

Aikido, like an martial art, is about building new habitual skills for the body to use in times of emergency while discarding, or re-tooling old habits.  When a situation suddenly comes upon us we will not have time to think.  We will simply react.  Our reactions will be based on the habits we have developed and honed during training.  Lending a conscious eye to their development will accelerate your training greatly.

I’d love to hear what habits you build on, or work to shed, in your life and how you go about doing so.

Cheers!