I firmly believe that losing an aikido shiai (tournament match) is far better than winning.
Aikido is full of paradoxes. And they especially surface during randori:
- Our techniques become more powerful when we don’t use strength.
- We move better and more effectively when we are emotionally distanced from the furor and tempest of the conflict immediately confronting us.
- If we watch the knife hand, we repeatedly get stabbed.
- When we push and aggressively move against our opponent, we get hurled to the mat or forced into submission.
- The harder we try, the worse it gets.
- We learn more from losing than from winning.
Yes, the emotional blow of losing is painful, but losing is better than winning.
Why do I say that?
I’ve competed in many, many tournaments over the decades. And you know what? I’ve always learned more when I lost tournaments. Why? Because I NEEDED to know why I lost and what I could do better. Why? Because I didn’t like losing. When I won, I self-contentedly patted myself on the back and thought no further about it. But losing was always a blow. None of us likes to lose. So, I reflected on my losses (I couldn’t watch the instant replays back then because this was in the pre-historic days before easy access to smart phone cameras), tried to remember what I did wrong and what the other guy did right to beat me, and I learnt from my mistakes, trained even harder, and went out the next time and did better.
That is the genius of Tomiki Sensei’s insight that we need competition in order to preserve and improve aikido, which is by its very nature self-defensive and hence not readily conducive to competition. We have been working for over 50 years to develop and refine how we can perform aikido as a sport in a competitive setting, and I am pleased to say that with the establishment of the WSAF we are improving how we do that. The London World Championship was wonderfully hosted, and we saw lots of top-notch aikido.
At the same time, however, we must remember that the goal and purpose of competition is not to win but, rather, to improve the over-all level of our aikido skills. Naturally, in the process each of us will also learn what techniques work best for ourselves. We can only get better if we have a determined and committed attacker, who will push us to our limits. And that’s why Tomiki Aikido is so much fun, because we can give it our all and know that by doing so we are helping our partner to get better. And that, in turn, may someday help save his or her life, or the lives of loved ones.
Allow me a story. I trained at Waseda University twice during the 1970s when Tomiki Sensei and Ohba Sensei were still actively teaching there. The second time was a much longer stay of about two years while I was working on my PhD at the University of Chicago and doing research in Japan on Chinese communist party documents that the Japanese Imperial Army had captured during World War II and taken back to Tokyo. To my advisor’s great dismay, I spent little time on that research and much time on the mats training at Waseda.
I became very close to my teammates at Waseda and they would often tease me for spending so much time at the first-aid box trimming off ripped finger nails and toe nails, taping up broken fingers and toes (“Broken fingers and toes don’t count. Get your ass back out on the mats,” they would yell at me.), and applying iodine to the many scrapes and cuts that were incurred during our incessant randori training.
During my sobetsu-kai, my going-away party, while they were plying me with endless amounts of alcohol, my teammates said, “Oh, Bob-san, you are such a strange foreigner (henna gaijin) coming over here to train with us like this. Most Americans are soft and lazy so we don’t have to worry much about more people like you coming over to train, to learn real aikido… [and to beat us in tournaments – was the unstated conclusion].” [At that time, Waseda had never lost a tournament.] I was, unsurprisingly, a bit irked by this air of superiority and responded, “I’m going back to America and putting together a team that will beat you…someday.” They laughed in good humor at my temerity.
Fast forward to 1982. I returned to Waseda with a team of 13 Americans, and we beat Waseda by the skin of our teeth. At the end of the matches, it was a tie, so we had to fight a tie-breaker. I turned to Stan Nevin, who was my close friend and classmate from University of Chicago, and a most talented aikidoka. We conferred as to who would fight the tie-breaker. I wanted him to do it because I had just fought the last match, and he wanted me to do it. So, we did rock-scissors-paper-stone. I lost and had to fight the tie-breaker. Fortunately, I won.
My friends at Waseda were not happy, especially Shishida Sensei, who had succeeded to Tomiki Sensei’s position as a professor of martial arts at Waseda. He demanded that we have a rematch a week later.
Given Japanese customs and the need to save face, we had no choice but to accept. Unsurprisingly, Waseda trotted out a roster that included several fresh players. And they changed their line-up, as crafty teams do. They won.
And the first Team USA learned much more from losing that match than from winning the first one.
But it sure did feel good to win the first one. Oh, the paradoxes of aikido.
As we say in Japanese, “Gambatte!” which means, hang in there, persevere, don’t give up, fight on, NEVER quit.