For my entire life, I have worked with people with disabilities; and I started studying aikido because at the time, I was teaching agency staff how to manually restrain people safely during behavioral outbursts.
Beginning in the summer of 1968, I practiced judo at the YMCA in downtown San Juan, Puerto Rico; but in high school I had to give it up to focus. While attending the College of Wooster in Ohio, I met a man who taught a style of kung fu he had learned as Marine stationed in Vietnam and Taiwan. Since I had learned ukemi in judo, I became a favored demonstration partner. You learn a lot which is one of the best ways to learn what the teacher is really doing, but leads to taking a lot of abuse. Back to this point later.
I learned to fight from him. We did full range sparring: grabs, sweeps and throws were taught and encouraged as well as striking, and fighting off the ground. We sparred at half to three quarter contact, no gloves, head shots were allowed but not to the face…usually. It was pretty safe and controlled most days, but it did result in a lot of bruises and bangs and a separated shoulder. In the long run I spent about ten years working out with him.
Meanwhile, I graduated college and took a job as direct care staff at a large state institution for persons with disabilities, the Apple Creek State Institute. In theory, I was going to be there two years, until my future wife graduated. Instead, I worked for over thirty years with people with disabilities, first at Apple Creek and then with the Richland County of Developmental Disabilities.
The residents of Unit E, Modules 40 and 42 taught me a hell of a lot more than I ever taught them. They were lessons I would have never learned in a dojo, like how much it hurts to be bit! My supervisors noticed that I had some skill safely restraining folks during behavioral outbursts, and over three years I got a lot of practice in this. (O Goshi in particular proved to be very useful when being charged.)
I continued working intensely with my kung fu teacher and other partners. In the evenings I practiced martial arts in a controlled environment and in daytime I got paid to practice those skills in real life.
After switching to working for the county board, I found myself still resolving conflicts between housemates and staff. My skills in dealing with outbursts landed me on the committee that did the behavioral intervention training for the agency. Always on the lookout for new skills, I found myself at the Mansfield YMCA in an aikido class. This wasn’t going to be permanent, I told my loving, tolerant wife with whom I had two young kids. I wanted to stick around for a few months to see what they do, how they do it. Obviously, the few months turned into a lifelong interest in Tomiki Aikido. (There seems to be a theme here.)
Because I came to aikido looking for “real world” applications, my early training was very physical. I was experimenting with aikido in sparring and subject control.
Then in 1990, I played in my first aikido tournament at the first JAA/USA national competition. This sparked an interest in the kyogi (sport) side of aikido, and I changed my training so it was focused on competition skills. Kata repetitions, randori matches, aikido-directed weight and cardio workouts, even getting certified as a kettle bell coach – everything in my training was dominated by the physical measures of how fast, how hard, how many.
My instructor/training partner at the time was Scott Calderhead sensei. We would meet after work and before picking up kids from daycare, etc. to sneak in kata practices for competition. When the YMCA restricted the use of the Judo room where we trained in the late 1990’s I “remodeled” an old goat barn in the backyard into a dojo called the Black Walnut so we could get in more practice. It was rough, really rough some days, but the mats were good when they weren’t frozen solid. We could work out anytime, and we did.
This was the kind of training that is hard on the body. Small injuries piled up on older ones; and I noticed pain was not going away. But I treated it with youth and beer and kept training.
Then one day in the early 2000’s, Calderhead sensei and I were practicing a variation of ude hineri for a free style kata. I would tackle him, he would under-hook both my arms so my head ended up in his armpit. He would then step forward, rotate and I would do a great big flying fall. One afternoon, he stepped forward and his foot hit a sweat spot on the floor. His foot slid out from under him and he did a “sit-through”, landing on his butt. I was driven down. Initially I did not think it was a major injury. We laughed, cussed, shook it off and kept working. In reality, my C7 vertebra had been crushed into my T1 vertebra, and I had to have them fused together in November 2002. The fusion meant I wasn’t supposed to play anymore, which left embu and coaching.
TRANSITION TO COACHING
As luck would have it, I had a great gang of young bucks hanging around the barn then, big kids like my son Ian, Aaron Crowl and Josh Ramey. The transition from player to coach took time, one can say it was a reluctant transition for me. It forced me to slow down, to become more analytical; and most importantly, to articulate what I was doing and why so my students could understand and grow beyond what I could teach them. Maybe they could also avoid my mistakes.
Coaching meant a lot of work analyzing online video, which was just becoming widely available on Youtube. I had to develop the skills to break down the information, find methods for improving and then communicating that stuff to my students.
I also started read anything I could on Tomiki Aikido. It was in my reading that I was introduced to the 3 Principles and 6 Concepts. You have to remember that this was before they were published in Tetsuro Nariyama Shihan’s book Aikido Randori. The 3 and 6 helped make sense of things for me. I already knew these things at a gross level, instinctively, but now I had words for my instincts and I saw how they applied to kyogi aikido.
Any time I teach a workshop or work with a student, I bring up the 3 and 6. They gave me a road map with which to more effectively dissect techniques. Understanding the 3 and 6 allowed me to look for the underlying commonalities that define aikido technique and apply that understanding to each technique I already knew. Just in case you have not heard them, they are listed at the end of this article.
Meanwhile back in the physical world I was interacting a lot with friends who were into BJJ, cross training brought some technical insights (arm drags, for instance) and my coaching skills expanded, helping me to help Mr. Ramey on his tournament journey through the 2000s, culminating for both of us when Ramey won the world championship in 2011 in London.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Since then, I’ve slowed down some. This new perspective is partially due to having a pacemaker implant in late 2001. I continue to be involved in competition as a referee, rather than as a coach. Last year, I started a class for youngsters ages 6-12. (After 13 they can join the adult class if they are ready.) It’s great! I am sorry I waited this long to start.
The best part of it all is picturing each one growing up to play on team TAA. I have a potential women’s team that could rule in a few years, and a young man I want Mr. Ramey to train. Watch out world! Team Mansfield is coming for you!
I guess some things never change.