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Tanto Randori is a Terrible Game

by on September 8, 2015

Tanto randori is a terrible game, almost completely devoid of anything remotely resembling aikido.

I intend to keep playing.

(I’m writing from a hammock in Cairns while I wait for the hostel office to open back up. This Australia trip has been fun, albeit much too short. (And now I’m posting this from back home in the states…))

There was a discussion over dinner several days ago back in Gold Coast about reasons people practice aikido. I think it’s a crucial question to ask, though I must admit, I’m not always entirely sure of my own answer.

The question came up when someone reacted to the phrase “on the street”. They said that they did not think of aikido as budo.

To me, this is a fine position to take. I mentioned that have trained with people who approach aikido primarily as mindfulness practice, and I have trained with people who approach aikido primarily as exercise. As far as I’m concerned, these are totally legitimate reasons to practice. I asked, if they did not consider aikido budo, why did they practice?

Apparently they enjoyed the process of learning and perfecting the motions of the art. I nodded my head, believing myself to still be a sympathetic conversation partner.

In that sense, I suggested, it was like dance or gymnastics?

I mentioned that I’ve been doing a lot of dance recently, and would no doubt enjoy gymnastics as well. The movement vocabularies of dance and gymnastics have no practical function (aside from their signal value) and yet many people enjoy them. Did aikido fill this role for them?

I’m afraid I offended.

Still, it’s important to ask yourself why you practice to have any hope of evaluating the effectiveness of your training.

As I said, I would classify very little of what I saw on the mats this weekend aikido. This was no particular surprise, because true aikido is really hard to achieve. I was a little surprised though, that almost nobody even seemed to be aspiring to do aikido.

Clearly my definition of aikido differs from others.

But here’s the beautiful thing: competition can help me towards my goals even as it helps other participants towards their own very different goals.

Mindfulness, exercise, graceful movement, sporting glory, narcissistic blog fodder, whatever your goal, I believe aikido shiai can play a role. It is important though, to be clear on your intentions going in.

It is difficult to do aikido in shiai (competition). Shiai is stressful, and a little dangerous. Perhaps the biggest obstacle though, is the big fat goal of winning. Once you begin to work within the paradigm of winner and loser, it is very difficult to follow the approach which I believe is necessary for true aikido.

This is why most styles of aikido eschew competition. I believe it’s a mistake.

As I said, some people approach aikido as a sport, and for them, the value of competition is self-evident. But even for an aiki-snob like me, shiai can play a role.

Shiai is a challenging environment in which to practice aikido. That’s the point.

It is easier to stand up unencumbered than to deadlift hundreds of pounds, but ease of movement is not the reason people lift weights. It’s easier to veg out than study, but ease is not the reason people study.

Shiai makes aikido difficult in part because of the motivated, knowledgeable opponent, but more, I think, because of the wrestler in your own head who values the outcome over the process. Focus on the outcome and you might win the game, but probably not through aikido.

When I set out for Australia, I wanted to focus not on winning, but on doing two things as I played:

1. Keeping my intention and attention fully forward
2. Not existing

I can’t say I achieved them, but I sure as hell tried.

Between individuals and team competition I played 5 matches, I won only one of those matches, and that was through stabbing, not aikido.

It’s interesting to me that the times I came closest executing real aikido techniques were the times where my opponents were focusing more on the score of the game than I was.

In the third round our team came up against the very strong BAA A team who went on to win the finals. I was in the final spot, and by the time my match came around we were down 0-4. Winning my match would not change the outcome. What’s more, I had already played my opponent, Dee Ogunbiyi in individuals. With a slightly wonky right arm and a third-place match to prepare for, I saw zero reason to exert myself. In fact, the minute we lost match #3 I immediately changed my preparations.

Rather than work footwork, I switched over to the ukemi practice Joe recommended. My new goal was to skunk out. If I could take two falls quickly and cleanly the round would be over and we could all get on with the important things. But I wanted these to be nice falls. Big pretty fliers if possible.

This turned out to be much more difficult than I anticipated. There were funny moments where I tried to take falls on motions that turned out to be set-ups, and ended up killing the technique. There was another moment where, having been maneuvered into showing my back, I waited for an ushiro which never came. But the strangest moment was one where, trying to follow Dee’s lead as closely as I could, I somehow ended up throwing him.

I’m going to have to go back and watch the video, because I have literally no idea what happened. The judges ended up scoring it as a wazaari, which might be the only throw I’ve actually scored in international competition. (note: I’ve now watched it, but I’ll discuss it in another post.)

Of course, I’ve had other throws, but somehow, though they are exactly the type of aikido I aspire to, they never seem to count.

There was a gyaku kaeshiwaza in London, and then two more throws in my tiebreaker team match for third place. (I’ll post the videos as soon as I can)

Those last two throws in the team match didn’t count because the judges deemed that they were not atemi-waza, and tanto can only apply atemi-waza as counters. I did look at a video of that match, and I agree with the judges assessment, the throws were not atemi-waza. So I lost the game. I accept that.

But, to my earlier point, why did I get those two throws at all? Because, in focusing on the outcome of the game, my opponent compromised his own structure and was absurdly over-aggressive. All I needed was a (weak) connection and a little looseness, and he was on the ground decisively.

Almost despite itself, competition provided a perfect laboratory to test the approach I have been trying to work on. In fact, it was precisely the questionable scoring and rules that set up the experiment.

So, to anyone who is on the fence about competition, my advice is this: go, but on your own terms.

(9/11/15 edit: added the word “intention” along with attention)

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7 Comments
  1. A final parting thought: one delicate thing about this approach, as I hinted at in my earlier post, is team competition.

    It is one thing to test your focus against your own desire to win. It’s quite another thing to hold your teammates hostage to “high-horse aiki-snobbery.”

    if I had a muscle game to fall back on, I think I probably would have in my final match for third-place. Fortunately or unfortunately though, for years now I’ve only prepped to play one way. With teammates looking on, the desire to win the game was that much stronger, but as far as I could see, the only hope I had (insufficient as it turned out) was to look past it, stay forward, and, as best as I could, not exist. It was truly a challenge, and I fell short, but that won’t keep me from trying next time.

  2. Erik the Strange permalink

    I don’t think competition is bad. I think sport is bad – or at least of extremely limited use. People play to the rules of the game rather than the principles of the art. If you are not rewarding applications of principle you are rewarding the opposite. However anyone who wants to play I say “knock yourself out!” Have fun, be safe.

  3. I think we’re pretty-much in agreement about rules vs. principals. Anyone who believes that the score of a match even roughly reflects how well principals were applied (or which competitor would have survived an altercation for that matter) is clearly deluding themselves.

    My next post when I have the time will have some video showing terrible aikido awarded with ippons, and good aikido getting nothing.

    Competition is a great laboratory, but at times you have to ignore the score completely.

  4. Mdtac permalink

    I am not one who usually writes blogs or post comments to social media. But I have always said we should do “our aikido” what ever that may be. If we start changing how we do aikido to win points or a game, then I believe we then lose, we lose the essence of what aikido represents, and who we are as individuals. I was told Tomiki himself said “the aikido of today should not look like the aikido of tomorrow “. I have seen your aikido and it is smooth and flowing, graceful and relaxed. It reminds me of how aikido was explained to me. Please don’t quote me on this but it went something like “Your aikido should be like a empty jacket hanging on the cloths line in the wind” and that is how you got the wazaari. You were relaxed and reacting to the movement around you. As for randori I would prefer open mat or round Robbin. Players are more relaxed and are less likely to fright or force a technique. Unfortunately some type of scoring is needed at some levels but I would say we should look to the players and referees to be more aikido like and not rely on the rules to govern them. But that would be a long conversation.

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