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Competition in Aikido

by on December 11, 2011

The Tomiki style is somewhat unusual in the world of aikido in that it encourages competition. It is not entirely unique in this regard, I believe the Ki society also has a form of embu competition, but most styles regard competition as antithetical to the very idea of Aikido.

There are two main types of competition in Tomiki aikido: randori, usually tanto randori, and embu. Professor Tomiki was a student of both Ueshiba sensei, the founder of Aikido, and Kano sensei, the founder of Judo. Tomiki’s system of aikido randori is very similar to judo randori, but with aikido techniques. The addition of a rubber knife in tanto randori helps to  encourage an aikido, rather than judo, ma-ai (the distance between opponents) and helps to give uke a more aggressive intent.

Embu competition is essentially judged demonstration of techniques performed in pairs. To a first-time observer, competition embu is much more interesting to watch than randori. Crisp techniques occur one after the other. In embu participants coordinate to create opportunities for good aikido to happen.

In randori, on the other hand, the players work against the other, each trying to minimize the other’s opportunity to apply true aikido. It should not be surprizing then, that one seldom sees great aikido in a randori match. Randori often brings out the worst in competitors: players muscling when they should be blending, leaning when they should be upright, yanking with their arms when they should be moving their feet, etc…

Is this a reason to condemn aikido randori? Not in my mind. The elements of good aikido, such as posture, relaxation, and focus, may be difficult to apply in randori, but they are also difficult to apply in a fight. Some people approach aikido randori as a game to be won. I certainly did when I began competing. Now, as much as possible, I treat competition as an opportunity to test my aikido. There is still a part of me that wants to win the match, but I find that the less I focus on results, the better I do. That’s a lesson that’s hard to teach in any other way.

Randori is by no means perfect. Like any game, there are rules, and these rules cause problems. I’ll discuss some of these problems in future posts. For now I’ll just say that I’ve found competition to be a valuable, if imperfect, way to test and challenge my aikido.

This August I traveled to London to compete in the 9th international tournament. There are no weight limits in randori, and I had no illusions about my chances there. Josh Ramey, who won, outweighs me by a good 80 or 90 pounds. Meanwhile, my embu partner Carlos and I didn’t get to practice together until the morning of the competition, so I had to be realistic about my chances there as well. My goal for the tournament therefore was not to come home with hardware, but to go out and play MY game. In the end I was quite happy with the way I played, and I ended up making it deeper into the tournament than I expected. Carlos and I made it to the quarterfinals with the Tanto Junanahon embu, I made it into the 4th round in individual randori, and we won a few team matches as well. (And did I mention that Josh won the finals?)

Here are a few of my videos from London. (I tried to embed my full playlist, but ran into some issues)

Me and Carlos in the 2nd round tanto junanahon embu:

Josh Ramey in the finals:

My round 3 match:

From → From YouTube, Video

  1. I am a Tomiki lineage guy. Having competition in aikido, in my humble opinion, really damaged the work and development of a lot of players. It is all force on force. It becomes a big mess quickly because aiki necessitates transcending the win/loss duality. Ego and the drive to win at all costs makes for some interesting budo, but I would argue it makes for some poor aiki. As far as kata competition goes, people are just creating demonstration dance rather than solving the real problems of how to survive.

    Just my opinion. Fortunately the world is big enough so everyone can play the way they want.

  2. To me, competition is a powerful tool that can either help or hinder your development.

    As you point out, competition makes aiki difficult. When approached as a training tool, this increased difficulty can help you learn to focus and relax in stressful situations. When approached as an end in itself however, competition randori does often make for poor aiki, and I would go a step further, and say bad budo as well, due to the current state of the rules and the difficulty of judging.

    Competition embu also needs to be approached in the right way. One way to make a kata look good is to really master it. Another way is to collude with your partner, and when this happens, it is basically pointless. Judging the difference between the two is very difficult, but the players know, and that’s what’s most important.

    Competition probably has damaged the work and development of many players, but I believe that, when approached with the proper mind-set, it provides benefits that no other training method can.

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