Competition style tanto randori should never be thought of as the pinnacle of aikido. Randori competitions are defining aspects of Tomiki Aikido, but are not the highest goal nor the greatest benchmark of skill.
Tanto randori can be viewed as an integration exercise, something that forces the simultaneous application of the principles of shizentai, taisabaki, and ma’ai, while heightening awareness of proper timing, movement in space, and flow. It is extrem-ely useful and also very mar-ketable. These competitions attract new practitioners while simul-taneously incentivizing a certain caliber of athleticism and martial efficacy.
But that caliber is not enough.
Tanto randori competitions are a brilliant method for experiencing the highest level of resistance safely available from other trained aikidoka. That is a good, but very qualified step in martial development. The next step is to recognize and correct the deficits of this tool.
As it stands, competition bouts frequently become protracted, muscular affairs that take place within judo distance. Structure and control are sacrificed for the sake of a score-able point and knife control is minimal after entering the ‘safe space’ of non-legal stabs.
To correct these deficits a tailored spectrum of multiple-attack drills would be the best-fit solution. Multiple-attack inherently incentivizes precise application of techniques while penalizing extended struggles, and sloppy post-throw balance. In other words, you are overrun unless you attack quickly and finish quickly. That is an ideal counterpoint to the lessons of persistence, power, and adaptability that tanto randori teaches.
The general training methodology would be to reduce the level of resistance from competition standards. Then temporarily suspend a competition rule to force the development of targeted skills.
For example, a sensei might allow stabbing under contact, which is illegal in the ring. In this scenario the goal would be to focus on not staring at the knife and completing techniques without becoming stuck in judo/stabbing range. The students would build their skills by starting with one-on-one practice. After achieving basic competence they would progress to multiple-attack. That stage of training would improve the consistency and precision of their newly developed skills.
Training that is intentionally harder than competition is a common practice for many world-class athletic teams. For instance, in Brazil football players often train with games of futebol de salão. The game is five-on-five in a field the size of a basketball court. The team FC Barcelona goes even further and has two players compete for the longest stretch of ball control in a room slightly larger than a bathroom. The end result is a pressure cooker of constant activity and non-stop struggle. This increased exposure to challenging situations forces the creation and refinement of skills.
Aikido training would maintain a high level of difficultly by gradually allowing greater levels of non-compliance and offensive strategy from the all the uke in multiple-attack. Still, resistance would eventually have to be lowered again so that a new skill or strategy could be built up.
In many if not most situations the sensei would not remove a rule but simply penalize their student’s weakness: like falling to a knee too frequently when throwing, or the widening of the stance when adrenaline is peaked. In that situation the student could do drills every practice to correct their deficit. The drills would continue until the new habit could hold true through increasingly rigorous multiple-attack sessions.
After training in such a manner regular tanto randori would act as a testing ground: an arena with higher resistance, greater strategy, trained opponents, and a more rules to ensure safety. Practitioners would still be capable of exploiting ring boundaries and stabbing limits, but wouldn’t be used to relying on them as a crutch.
That is an important distinction. This training ideology does not mean that tanto randori competitions need to be removed or even changed; quite the opposite. The goal is to let aikidoka focus on higher-level skills that will trickle down and elevate the quality of competition bouts.
This growth is vital if aikido completions are to grow and eventually enter the Olympic stage. Furthermore, the Olympics themselves are only important because they would provide Tomiki style Aikido the publicity needed to draw new students. That level of prestige and public awareness would give instructors access to better facilities, top athletes, and more competitions to refine their theories in.
As Kenji Tomiki said in his article “Modernizing Jujistsu”, as translated by Shihan Dziubla: “This perfection, however, further awaits the cooperation of many people over long years”. The goal of tanto randori is to force growth and build upon the amazing work that has been handed off to current aikidoka.
The essence of tanto randori competitions should be one of experimentation; of learning and of constant struggle. Their goal is to perpetually produce a new problem that will yield a new hypothesis, a new test, and a new understanding.
Aikido is a martial art. To create a sport that aids practitioners is fine: maybe even vital. The risk is that the custodians of this ancient martial legacy will push too hard for the short-term goal; that they will make a budo into a sport instead of making a sport to help hone their budo.
Kata combined with training in scenarios more martially challenging than competitions maintains the art’s integrity. It also ensures that competitions, the representative snap shots of aikido hoping to be broadcast on the Olympic stage, will showcase talents that exceed the bare minimum needed to squeeze out a point.
In the end, being skilled in tanto randori is a goal, but not the goal. It is an excellent testing ground, a way to harness competitive urges, a good training tool, and just one of many mile markers on the path to struggle, and therefore, to martial excellence.