One of the things that first attracted me to aikido was watching two people practicing a technique when, suddenly, one of them went flying through the air several feet off the ground. Instead of crashing to the ground in a crumpled heap, he executed a beautiful roll and popped back up onto his feet, laughing and ready for more.

In aikido – and many other martial arts – we learn to fall in such a way that we land as safely and comfortably as possible. Good ukemi (falling) skills are necessary not only in the dojo to prevent injury, but in our daily lives as well. Falls cannot always be avoided, but we can take steps to minimize the impact so that it causes a minimal amount of damage.

This is not only true in a literal sense, but in a figurative sense as well. Very few – if any – of us make it through life without failing at something. Whether it be a bad grade in a class, a loss in a competition, a botched presentation at work, or a failed marriage, we sometimes must take “falls” in real life and learning some real-world ukemi can help minimize the impact so we can get back up again with the least amount of damage.  Here are some ways we can practice the real world art of failing with grace and style:

Accept Criticism

It seems like every time I think I have mastered an aikido technique, someone more experienced suggests an aspect that still needs improvement. It can be really frustrating (“I thought I KNEW this one!”), but the thing is – they are usually right. It’s important to try not to get so caught up in pride and ego that you can’t be open to criticism. I have found that the people who take the time to offer honest, constructive critical feedback do so because they care. They want me to do well and succeed.

Learn from Mistakes

There is no better teacher than experience. My sensei often says that the best way to improve at aikido is to “get got”. What he means by this is that the best way to learn a technique is to be defeated several times by that same technique. This teaches us as much – or more – than doing the technique ourselves. Each time we “get got” in life, we should try and take something from it – whether it be the experience itself, ideas on how to do better next time, or even an entertaining cautionary tale for others.

Be a Good Loser

We can’t always be the best at everything. When life doesn’t go our way, it’s important to accept responsibility instead of trying to find something external to blame. Even when there may be other factors that affected the outcome, hiding behind excuses won’t lead to doing better next time. It’s still important that we are honest with ourselves about what we didn’t do well that resulted in the failure.

Never Stop Improving

Try not to compare yourself to how those around you are doing (it’s easy to type, but hard in practice!). The best yardstick of improvement is to compare yourself against how you did last time. Sure, maybe things didn’t go the way you wanted this time, but did you do better than last time? What can you change to make it even better next time? It’s a process that takes a lot of work – but seeing continual improvement (and eventual success) is a really sweet reward.

Appreciate Those Who Helped You

Even if things don’t go as well as we had hoped, chances are good that we still had a lot of people helping, cheering us on, and supporting us. When thinking back to everyone who has helped me in my aikido practice, I’m amazed at how much people went out of their way to help me.

  • The senior students who (very) patiently guided me through the basic beginner concepts, over and over again.
  • Sensei, who never failed to offer encouragement and guidance whenever necessary
  • My awesome training buddy, Roger, who let me throw him around the mat twice a week for almost 6 months while I was preparing for a demo.
  • My husband, who doesn’t do aikido, but occasionally agrees to be my “crash test dummy” when practicing at home.

Even on the days I get frustrated with aikido, thinking about everyone who supports me always cheers me up. It’s hard to stay upset about a failure when you think about all the people who help and support you, and want to see you succeed.

Setbacks are a part of life. Like ukemi in aikido – which I like to refer to as “falling, with style” – we can learn to accept life’s inevitable attacks as gracefully as possible, minimize the damage, and jump back up on our feet, ready to try again.