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Success as a secondary reward

by on August 9, 2016

If you’ve been arguing that winning should not be a primary focus in aikido competition, what should you say if you win? Join me as I try to work that out…

I never met Keith Benedix. The closest I came was in the fall of 2005 when I went to my first international tournament in Chiba. Keith was supposed to be part of the US contingent, and he actually made the arrangements for our jackets, one of which still hangs proudly in my closet. But he never made it to the tournament that year, and has since passed away.

A few days ago at the TAA Nationals at UNC Chapel Hill I was awarded the Keith Benedix Award as overall tournament champion. It was not what I expected, nor one of my goals, but I am very gratified and humbled for the recognition. It also puts me in a somewhat strange place, because just a few days prior I recorded a video where I suggested that everyone should find their own way to evaluate their performance. Before I go any further with this post, let me double down on that sentiment.

I relish competition in aikido, and at the same time I am wary of it. I see no need to resolve this tension. In a previous post I quoted Morris Berman’s thoughts on paradox. Just the other day I came across Alfred Kazin’s thoughts on the subject in Brain Pickings.

Trust to the contradictions and see them all. Never annul one force to give supremacy to another. The contradiction itself is the reality in all its manifoldness. Man from his vantage point can see reality only in contradictions. And the more faithful he is to his perception of the contradiction, the more he is open to what there is for him to know. “Harmony” as an absolute good is for the gods, not for man.

So how do I feel about my success at the tournament? Of course I am happy for the recognition. It feels good to be recognized by your peers, and a plaque is easily understood.  I have been studying aikido since 2002. In that time I have attended 5 biennial international tournaments, and two alternate-year nationals. In all that time, my friends and family have been largely uninterested in seeing my matches. I may have dragged out some footage at various times, but I don’t recall a request to see them.

By contrast, I took up latin dance in 2014, and ended up in a local performance later that year. Since then everyone seems to ask when the next show will be or if there are any videos of the last one. The people in most of my circles don’t care all that much about aikido, and that’s fine. I don’t do it for them. Still, overall champion is more easily digestible than “mostly hewed to some esoteric criteria”, so perhaps it will be nice as evidence that I’m successful at my weird hobby.

It may even open a few doors. I don’t have my own dojo space right now and mostly study through seminars and occasionally dropping in on the non-traditional and unaffiliated midcoast group. If I do try to set something up with a YMCA or college in the future, being able to say I was the 2016 national champion could lend a little more credibility, which would also be nice.

Explainability is nice, and affirmation from other aikidoka is great, but I can’t put too much stock in a plaque. If aikido competitions have taught me anything, it is that success is fickle and fleeting. Shimada Norihito‘s matches in 2013 come to mind. A little guy (smaller than me I’d guess – no excuses!) managed to run the gauntlet, beating Josh Ramey, Jermain Liburd, and finally Konaka Junji to win the individual title. Shortly thereafter he was dumped on his ass by a member of the British team. Whereas other styles of aikido will allow you to sustain an internal narrative that you have magic powers, competition will put you quickly back in your place. Some players do better than others, but competition is risky and even the best players can be upset by newbies wearing colored belts. I may be overall champion (not to be confused with individual randori champion!) today, but I could very easily be knocked out  in the first round at the next tournament. This is doubly true because of all of the talented US players who weren’t present at the tournament. I could list at least 10 players capable of performing very well who couldn’t or didn’t attend.

Awards are something, and I’m happy to have received mine, but they are not everything. So how else might I evaluate my tournament experience? In the evenings, if it’s not unreasonably late, I try to write down a few positive things about the day, as well as a thing or two to improve. I’ll try something similar here.

Good Thing #1: Random Partner Kata.

I love the random partner kata concept. It’s a fun way to make a new friend while working towards a common goal. Being off in Maine by myself I don’t have a regular partner, so every kata I do is more or less a random partner kata anyways. This year I had the pleasure of working with one of the youngest competitors, Bennett. The first time we ran through the assigned techniques I knew we would be in the running. I gave Bennett a few things to work on, and she nailed them. Towards the end of our lunch/practice time someone came in and told us the judges would be 10 or 15 minutes late, so I made one last change, showing Bennet how she could really clobber me in one technique. More than the eventual result, I got a big kick out taking a fall for a 15 year old blue belt similar to a couple I took for Manny Vargas in his recent exam. It was a blast.

Apparently the British stay in their kata pairings for years, if not their entire aikido career. Working with a consistent partner is a great way to produce a smooth, consistent performance. I know from experience. Back at Vassar I always worked with the same uke, and we were sharp. We were sharp because I was pretty good, we were sharp because Eric was a great uke, and, significantly, we were sharp because  we could coordinate our movements through months of endless repetition. Coordination made up any deficiencies I had in control.

On the one hand, this familiarity makes sense. Figure skating pairs and professional dancers choose one dedicated partner – doesn’t it make sense for aikidoka to do the same with kata partners? To this I would reply yes, maybe – depending on what your goals are.

During his seminar Bob Jones laid out his philosophy of aikido, and I thought it was spot-on. I agree with him wholeheartedly that the Tomiki system is less a style than a training methodology. I thoroughly admire his willingness to broaden his horizons in search of good material. I think I agreed with Bob Jones’s entire analysis – our only point of divergence was at the very outset – our primary goals.

Bob approaches aikido primarily as a sporting endeavor. To him, the primary benefit of participating in aikido is enjoying it as a sport. If you participate long enough to become good at the sport, your ability to defend yourself will improve as a secondary benefit. As I said in my last video, I totally support this motive for aikido, but mine is different.

Self-defense is not really my motive either. Sure, I could probably handle myself in a physical altercation better than I would have been able to in 2002, but I don’t want to kid myself about my abilities. Besides, I haven’t been in a confrontation since middle school and I don’t anticipate any.

The main reason I practice aikido is to learn a set of functional and generalizable mind-body skills. Most of these skills do relate to unarmed conflict (and there is certainly a part of my inherited animal brain that covets such capacities, however irrelevant they may be in the modern world. I can be logical, but I am also a male animal). However, mastery of these skills does not always correlate with success in the sport, nor are they necessarily the simplest method of self-defense. Some elements of the Tomiki system may well help you defend yourself after a few months of practice, but the skills I am trying to learn take years and years to master.

This skill set is my Everest. I want to master it because I believe it exists. I probably believe in a more subtle and strange aikido skill set than most people in Tomiki circles, yet not so mystical as others in the wider aikido world. When my target skill set and the sport diverge, you will usually find me chasing the skill set. If I wanted a sport for sport’s sake I would choose pond hockey or ultimate frisbee.

At the same time, I believe that participation in the sport can provide a rare opportunity for clear-eyed evaluation of your abilities. The key, if your main goal is something other than sporting victory, is to have your own honest method of evaluating your performance.

There is also the element of short and long-term goals, and process orientation versus goal orientation. In his introduction to competition randori, Bob Jones suggested focusing on getting small balance breaks rather than big throws. I think this is spot-on. Aiming for big throws is the quickest way to get into trouble, and big throws will be made possible by small balance breaks anyways.

To me, this principal applies much more broadly. Every move you make towards the tempting goal in front of you complicates your path towards mastering the full skill set of aikido. You might be able to get a throw by applying more muscle than subtlety. You might be able to win a smaller tournament by training these muscle techniques. However, every time you turn to muscle, the kind of aikido I want to master suffers. I don’t mean to suggest that these muscle techniques are simple to acquire, or even less effective, they are just not what I am trying to acquire.

Returning to kata, working with a regular uke is the surest and quickest way to bring a performance from appearing passable to appearing good. However, it is easy to become blinded to the difference between mastery and familiar collusion. If you want to see how well you can do a kata, try performing with an unfamiliar uke. I remember a rude awakening at my first overseas tournament, when my unfamiliar partner expected more of a real balance break at one point than anyone at Vassar ever did.

Being a good uke is a skill in and of itself. Performing a kata does require coordination – that’s why you see so much more action than you ever see in randori – but proper partnering takes skill. It is not enough to throw yourself when tori makes contact – that will only make the kata look fake. The key is to have the correct intentions behind the correct attacks and then be present to the points of contact and allow yourself to be smoothly led.

This is one major difference between other judged partner activities. Olympic ballroom dancers and figure skaters may work with regular partners, but they also don’t claim to be demonstrating martial techniques developed to control uncooperative adversaries.

Working with the same partner ensures a better performance in the short run, but it can also mask a deficiency in engaged ukemi and technique mastery. If you want to succeed at the highest levels then at some point you’ll probably have to make your path as smooth as possible. But before that time comes you might be well served by the challenge of working with unfamiliar partners.

The feeling that comes before growth is awkwardness.

</rant>

Good Thing #2: Shomenate

One of the things I wanted to work on for this tournament was having more idōryoku behind my shomenate entries. My game is focused on working with the energy that uke gives me. The only exception I want to be making is atemiwaza, which I want to be as direct as possible.

In general my shomens were a moderate improvement over previous tournaments, but there was one fantastic kaeshiwaza moment where I kept my posture, uke went flying, and head ref Bob King let out an involuntary “boom!”

Just having that moment alone would have made the tournament a success in my mind.

Good Thing #3: Bleary-eyed post-tournament conversations

I guess I’ve come to the point in my aikido career where people think I might have good advice. Sometimes I hesitate to coach people because my framework differs so greatly from theirs that I’m afraid it will be counter-productive. Still, I’m always happy to discuss aikido with friends, and there were definitely some good conversations Saturday night.

More than anything else, friends are what keeps me coming back to these events. Competition is adversarial, but at the same time, the struggle brings us together. We form different teams, some people win and others loose, but, more than it divides us, the ordeal is a common bond. We are all fellow competitors.

Things to work on

Continuing in the spirit of self evaluation, here are some things I  would like to have made some progress on by the next go-round:

Muscling

Sometimes, with a little extra muscular force, you can topple someone in a direction they aren’t already moving. More often than not however, your muscle will be met by some of their muscle, and while the caloric expenditure in the match will increase, the amount of action will not.

At one point in the tournament, Michael Wood made a shomenate attempt on Ari, who didn’t budge. It was almost comical, like a child trying to push a bus. These things can be very easy to see from the outside, but the temptation can be very hard to resist. In my match against Eric, probably the biggest player I played, William Ball had to remind me not to try to move him. That is not the little guy’s game.

It really shouldn’t be the big guy’s game either. When you are playing someone smaller there is less of an obvious consequence for using muscle, and the temptation can be hard to resist. I caught myself trying to use muscle a few times in matches against smaller players, and more than once I failed to stop myself. Some players were good enough to make me pay, as Justin did with a nifty kotegaeshi.

Turning

I may have come close to setting a record for jogai shidos in my match against Angel. I had a several in other matches as well. As I have said earlier, I don’t always pay a lot of heed to every rule of the game. To me it is more important to maintain the body mechanics that I want than to stay within the ring. As a result, while I stepped out of the ring at least four times, Angel never threw me. For the most part I moved the way I wanted to move in that match. Therefore, while I didn’t win, I am satisfied with my performance.

However, there is always room for improvement. While I am glad not to have gotten stuck in a wrestling match on the sideline, had I been more on top of my positioning I could have kept my body mechanics and remained in-bounds. People often talk about turning the feet, but to me something more subtle is required. I have done it occasionally in practice, but achieving it in competition will be a much greater challenge. In essence, the length of the path described by my feet needs to be made up within my own body. (Bob Jones had a great illustration for this principle in his seminar using two styrofoam cups and a sheet of paper.)

Posture

There was something strange about my posture in several matches. I may have to go back and figure out if it is an issue and if so, what the cause was.

Taking initiative

I found myself warming up over the course of a number of my matches. On the one hand, I’m glad I improved rather than fading. On the other hand, I think there was an element of not being totally engaged in the match from the outset. Hopefully I can work on this for the next tournament. The solution might be as simple as starting off with the mindset that I’m already behind.

Enjoying the moment

By nature I’m an anxious type who likes to be over-prepared. I’m the type who wants to get a good night’s sleep not just the night before, but two nights before a test. When Bennett and I won the random partner kata I thought maybe I could exhale a bit because I would be coming home with my first first-place medal from nationals. But then I kept getting deeper into all of my other events and my mind kept returning to the potential for greater success.

Having succeeded as I did, it’s hard to regret turning in early or preserving energy, but I did look wistfully over at the friendly matches some folks were playing with the Brits, and I wonder what other conversations I might have had if I hadn’t been trying to maximize my sleep.

I might have made an important connection or learned something profound if I had not been worried as much about my performance. I won’t regret my choices here, but I want to remember that the long game comes in different lengths. Sometimes it makes sense to abandon your prep for a rare opportunity.

People say there are many paths to the mountaintop. I would add that there are many false summits. Sometimes to get higher you have to be willing to descend for a while. I was probably lucky to have seen the benefits to disorientation relatively early in my aikido career, and it is something I try to actively embrace. At the moment I am at a high point which I earned through long hours of looking like a doofus. If I want to keep climbing, the only way forward is probably back down. I hope I have the courage to deeply engage with competition and yet hold to the path I’ve chosen, resisting the temptation of victory and fear of defeat.

I don’t anticipate success, but I will try.

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