Micromanaging your partner

We have many conversations around “teaching on the mat.” It is done with the best of intentions. How will my partner get better if I don’t correct what they are doing “wrong?” They need to know that the “wrong” foot is forward, or that the hands should be positioned “just so.” I would consider reframing the argument. Teaching on the mat does not help people get better. In fact, it likely has the opposite effect and may ultimately drive folks away from Aikido by making them feel unsuccessful.

How do adults learn? We know that didactic teaching is an ineffective form of teaching for adults. This is the reason that, for example, most of the employee education programs designed to help you learn a new process or a new skill involve some sort of interactive component. I can tell you how to do shihonage until I am blue in the face, but you are not going to learn it until you do it and do it and do it – 10,000 times. I know that the “10,000 times rule” is overly simplistic, but it is a useful concept when considering how mastery is achieved.

Another important concept in achieving mastery is that the individual receives feedback from a qualified coach. If you want to learn to play the trumpet, you go to Tom Sensei for lessons. He listens to you play and gives you feedback on ONE THING that you need to work on next. You then go off and work on that ONE THING for a week or two, come back and have another lesson, and Tom Sensei gives you feedback on how you are doing with that thing. If you still need work, he may make another suggestion on how to approach that thing. If you are doing well, he may move on to the next thing. What is important here is that there is an identified coach who has a global view of your skill set and who analyzes your technique and tells you ONE thing to work on. If Tom Sensei critiques how you play every note in a piece, then you will just be overwhelmed, likely will feel like a failure, and likely will just give up. If Tom Sensei can identify that ONE most important thing for you to work on right now, then, even though the rest of the piece may be horrible, you will be able to make demonstrable progress over time, you will feel successful, and you will stay with it. Importantly, Tom Sensei’s more advanced trumpet students are not throwing in their own 2 cents about every little thing based on their own experiences and what worked for them. Or to make it simpler, I don’t know anyone who likes to be micromanaged at work, particularly by their peers.

Improvement takes time and dedicated practice. If Sensei gives you a correction today, then you are going to work on that during class. If it is something simple, you may be able to make the correction in one class. But if it is something more complex, then it may take several classes or even several weeks or months for you to work on that thing and make the change in your technique. If you correct the person every time they do it “wrong” in class today, that is just going to be frustrating to that person and, again, make them feel unsuccessful, and make it likely that they will leave the practice of Aikido. I know that for me, I almost always have to “sleep on” a new skill before I can make any progress on it. I tend to be very uncomfortable about that, because I feel like Sensei must think that I did not take their instruction seriously. I have found that our Senseis know when we are trying to do what they ask of us and understand that progress takes time. Rome was not built in a day.

Bottom line. To make progress in Aikido, I have to dedicate myself to my own training. You cannot make me better by telling me every little thing that I do wrong (and I do a lot of things wrong). We all started out with 2 left feet, doing techniques backwards and upside down, and generally having no clue what we were doing. We did not get better because our partners micromanaged every little thing we did. We got better because, with guidance from our Senseis, we identified step by step over time, what we needed to work on and we worked on it. For those who have been in the art long enough, I would ask you to reflect on Choate Sensei’s approach. He used to say that he would find one thing and work on that for 6 months. Then once he had mastered that thing, he would find another thing to work on for 6 months. A great example to emulate in developing your own practice and supporting the development of others.


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