I am not an international competitor – not yet. I should make that clear right up front. I joined the TAA in January 2016, coming from a non-competitive, kata-oriented, independent dojo. Being a part of the TAA has involved a huge learning curve for me. As a result, I have an “outsider’s perspective” on the kyogi side of things. This is an advantage and a disadvantage. It means that, as a teacher I admire once said, “One third of what I tell you is wrong, I just don’t know which third.” All of that being said, I think the outsider perspective gives me some insight into what I perceive as distinct inequities between the United States and other nations when it comes to competition.
With a few extraordinary exceptions, we tend to lag behind other national teams. Let me emphasize that this is not because we lack passion or knowledge or that our aikido is somehow defective. What we need to be honest about is that we face some training challenges that are unique to our particular situation.
You Can’t Get There From Here!
It is very easy to look at the British with a bit of envy, when they take home so many medals in every international competition. What we tend to forget is that Great Britain is roughly the size of New York and Pennsylvania combined, with a population density that is eight times greater than the United States.
To put this into perspective, you could fit thirty-one Great Britains inside the United States. What that means is that the BAA can have 90 training sites (http://www.aikido-baa.org.uk/club-venues/) that are never more than eight hours or so from each other. By contrast, the TAA has 16 dojo on our website, spread over 3.1 million square miles! There is simply no way to compare the ability of clubs in metropolitan London and Leeds (a two-hour train ride) or Essex (a one-hour train ride) to get together and the coordination of clubs in North Carolina, Ohio and Southern California, which are thousands of miles and 6-8 hour flights apart from one another.
You Train Together How Often?
This higher dojo density means that there will always be a greater opportunity for British players to train together. This is a tremendous boon to them as a national organization. Where there is a higher density and greater opportunity, skill will improve geometrically.
When Bob Jones Sensei shared the British training method with us at the 2016 TAA nationals, he made it clear that his teams train to win (https://tomiki.org/seminar-videos/). They train hard and they train often. They utilize methods and plans that have been developed over decades of close partnership. The temptation is to attempt to emulate this approach; but the realities of our situation in the US is that we do not have the prerequisites to do this well.
So What Should We Do, Wise Guy?
The answers to our challenges may not lie only in adopting the drills or behaviors of other organizations, no matter how successful those organizations might be. Here are three big practices groups like the BAA use that I believe will help us develop a stronger international approach.
1. Emphasize regional training. We need to leverage our strengths. In order to do that, we have to be honest with ourselves about both strengths and weaknesses. We are spread out; but we have concentrations of dojo in certain areas. There is no reason we cannot have regional competitions focused on developing skills in a specific area.
If you take a look at the BAA’s national schedule, you will see regional events for adults and kids all year long; and the commitment the individual dojo in the BAA have to these events is serious. The competition inspires students to strive for excellence, which feeds into my second point.
2. Make competitive training a priority. These events should include some instruction, but primarily they should be focused on training skills and drills which can then be taken to the local dojo and worked systematically and repeatedly. Aikido looks like what you do all the time, not once in awhile. If we want to build solid skills, we have to develop solid practices.
Listen to Bob Jones talk about aikido for about five minutes, and he will emphasize the “martial sport” aspect of it. The BAA makes a big deal about training for the sport, and it shows. The same is true in Russia and Japan; and that is why these three national teams win almost all of the medals at international games. You will excel at what you make a priority.
3. Form long lasting partnerships. After the 2015 games in Australia, Charlie Hudson observed that the BAA embu teams work well together as a unit because they have been performing the same embu as partners for years. By contrast, our teams are often composed the day or morning before competition. I am convinced that we lack chemistry, not skill.
This can be combated by forming partnerships and training together. Find someone you work well with and work with them. Watch film of winning embu together. Share ideas. Place a priority on getting serious mat time together.
We cannot expect our situation to change simply because we want it to. In my line of work, I am always dealing with people who are waiting for change to happen to them. “When will it happen?” And my answer is always, “Only you can change you.”