Observation as a learning method

Raise your arms, move underneath the left arm, then move to the side, then lower both arms, then raise the left arm…now apply/accept the sankyo, push up, release the right hand, from underneath, now release all the fingers at the same time, hold the elbow, tenkan…..Do this by yourself now, I told you it was easy!

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And it is easy once you already know how to do something. The problem is that it is very easy to forget how much time is required to learn an aikido technique, as well as how to learn it. I recall how once, prior to a testing for the 4th kyu, a candidate asked how a shihonage on a ryotetori should be done. The instructor demonstrated about 10 variations of this technique to him, each variation once, quickly and forcefully, at a level appropriate for his highly-ranked DAN, said “there you go”, bowed and left, and the student, taken aback, gave up on his belt testing, thinking that he doesn’t know anything.

An aikido technique which seems extremely simple to any practitioner with average experience, for example, ikkyo, might seem fairly complicated to someone who is being introduced to it for the first time. As we learn new movements, our brain sends messages to our body which go something like this: left foot forward, step to the side, accept the elbow with one hand and the wrist with the other….after a certain number of repetitions, the brain and body start to adopt these movements in unison, therefore it eventually becomes sufficient for the brain to send out a command to execute an ikkyo, and the body will be ready to execute it. It is no secret that if you perform a movement hundreds of thousands of times that you may consider yourself as having learned it, and then after more or less a million repetitions, as something that you will know how to do forever (like walking, riding a bicycle or swimming). It is important not to preoccupy yourself with irrelevant details when learning aikido techniques. You will not be able to learn 15 variations for an ikkyo all at once, because if you attempt this, you will not be able to learn a single one properly.

When you observe how a technique is being done, and when you try to repeat it yourself, the brain forms a plan to which muscles it must send the commands in order for them to produce a movement which will most closely resemble the technique previously observed. These movements are unfamiliar to the muscles. Every muscle “interprets’ the command in its own way, so that at first these movements are clumsy, difficult and incorrect. Then one of two scenarios can happen: if you are of an average intelligence, you realize that you are not doing the technique correctly, and so you attempt to correct yourself by seeking more information, either by asking your instructor or by looking at how someone else is doing it. In the other scenario, the instructor will come over to you himself and help you. Then the brain will send fresh information about the technique to the muscles again. This time this information will seem familiar to the muscles (logically), so they will organize themselves for the technique with more ease. It is in this way that information circulates from the brain to the muscles, then from the receptors back again to the brain, then to the muscles again, until they perform the desired movement. A technique is considered taught when there is no more hesitation, and when all muscles perform the movement in adequate synchrony. Thus, the brain may also relax and from then on a simple command ie ikkyo will be enough to get a technique going.

Some instructors claim that a technique can be polished to a level at which it becomes a reflex reaction to an attack. Whether this is possible or not, remains to be established. In any case, it is certain that with years of practice we can attain a level at which we don’t have to think ahead about how we’re executing a technique, but we can just do it and enjoy ourselves. At this stage, aikido is practiced with ease, even when the circumstances under which we practice vary (for example with uke of various levels of knowledge, skill, height, speed and character). In order to get to this point in our aikido training, we must go back to the beginning, in other words, to the learning of aikido techniques. There are three basic requirements which every student must fulfill in order for the time spent at aikido training to be of use: to concentrate/focus, to attempt to execute what is demonstrated to the best of his ability, and to quickly notice and correct his mistakes.

1. Concentration

Why do we sit in the seiza position, why do we do breathing exercises and gasho? Certainly not to make the time pass by faster for us instructors, but so that we can clear our minds and make room for learning. Before entering the dojo, you should leave all your private worries and problems, sadness and joy in front of the door of the dojo (don’t worry, they will still be waiting for you after class). Then you should watch, listen and try to repeat what you see and hear during the class. I often battle with the banal occurrence where some students, rather than focus, look through me while I am demonstrating a technique. That sort of “absence” from the class is not only a waste of time for those students, but it also poses a danger to others.

2. Planning a strategy for a technique execution

Planning a strategy for a technique execution (in simpler terms-the adequate sequence and correct performance of a demonstrated technique). There are two main ways in which this principle is not followed. With lower belts, it mostly happens that they are simply not capable of adopting an unfamiliar technique, so they do what is familiar to them, and most similar to what they see. Higher ranked belts, on the other hand, mostly do many different variations of what the instructor demonstrated to them, or even a completely different technique, with the idea to prove themselves to others. This sort of behavior causes a waste of time and money, serves as a bad example to others, demonstrates disrespect towards the instructor and lowers the chances for progress. If you already came to a class or a seminar, the idea should be that you are there to learn something-this is why it is important to do what you are shown, in the way that it is demonstrated..

3. Correction of mistakes

It is impossible to learn aikido in a way where someone shows you how to do something, and then for you to learn it right off the bat. Making mistakes is also a part of the learning process, especially in the beginning; it just needs to be reduced to the lowest possible level (by concentrating and following the correct strategy when performing a technique). Even so, when an error occurs during training and the instructor points it out, you must not forget the two previous principles. If this mistake is not corrected at the beginning, there is a possibility that we will never improve it. Additionally, it is very important (a lot of people don’t respect this nonetheless) that the instructor is the only one who corrects these mistakes. It often happens that some overly confident student with a 2nd kyu attempts to correct a beginner. We must keep in mind that an ikkyo is a part of testing for the 6th kyu as well as for the 4th DAN, and that only the instructor is able to determine what is considered a mistake at each level.

An aikido class most frequently consists of students first observing the instructor while he demonstrates a technique. This demonstration is often accompanied by a verbal explanation. As the most common way of holding a class, this method in aikido connects the instructor and the students and consists of three parts: a verbal explanation, a demonstration and observation. Believe it or not, many people don’t know how to observe properly.
There are 5 basic principles to follow while observing:

There are 5 basic principles to follow while observing:

  1. Observe the technique as a whole and during this time try to visualize yourself performing it.
  2. Observe the footwork, tai sabaki, and try to remember the sequence of movement. If the demonstrated technique is shihonage ura, this means that the footwork is: tsugiashi, tenkan, kaiten. Once you remember and apply this information, there is a better chance that you will execute this technique properly.
  3. Observe the arm motions ie. Te sabaki. It is important to take note how the arms move and what they do in time and space. With the above mentioned technique, shihonage ura, the free hand executes the atemi and remains at that height until the throw (the grip is done above the head in the moment of the kaiten). If you have correctly executed the tai sabaki and if you have focused on this detail, there is a great chance that you will perform the technique correctly already with the first attempt. Every technique is demonstrated a sufficient number of times and from different angles so that you have time to first observe the movements as a whole, then the footwork and at the end the arm motions).
    The first three principles serve to give you an idea how you should practice something (by concentrating yourself and planning the movement strategy), while the next two principles help you correct yourself while practicing (error correction).

  4. Observe the direction from which the uke is entering and in which direction he/she is falling, in other words, what their final position is in the  katame waza. In our example, the uke falls along the axis he entered the technique in????? and contrary to the direction from which he came (this applies to almost all basic techniques which are done in the ura). Observe this, so that later, when you are practicing, you can follow the position of the uke before, during and after your technique. If the uke doesn’t fall where he should at the end of the technique, try to figure out on your own where your mistake is. 
  5. Observe the stance at the end of the technique. Once you memorize that the same-sided leg and arm are both positioned forward after the throw in the shihonage, and apply this knowledge to your own technique, you will avoid one of  the most common mistakes-a step forward after the kaiten.

Therefore, we will explain and demonstrate while you observe and learn.

If you don’t apply any of the things that I have written about in your training-nothing will happen. If you do apply it, it is certain that your training will be more efficient, you will progress more quickly and my job as the instructor will become easier…


Summer aikido camp "Bajina Bašta 2014."

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