Congratulations! You have done something that very few people do. When you look at the whole of mankind, very few people even start a martial art – let alone earn a black belt. This is a wonderful accomplishment – and one of the most major milestones along your martial arts journey.
Over the course of your training so far, you have probably seen a lot of people start aikido and then drop out, never even finishing the first step towards developing the skill of the art. You were persistent and stuck with it. Maybe you felt discouraged from time to time, but you kept trying. All of that effort was worth it!
However, just because you have made it to shodan level does NOT mean you have mastered aikido. You are familiar with the basic building blocks of the art…now it’s time for you to really begin learning and developing as a martial artist.
You know some of the basics. Now, start looking at some of the higher ranking students and teachers. You can see that their techniques seem smoother, more polished. They seem to move very little and execute balance breaks and throws smoothly and with a minimum of effort. Pretty cool, right? This comes with mat time…you’ll be there too someday.
In our Tomiki-style practice, we have a series of movements called “The Walk”. If this is part of your style, keep practicing this. It contains almost all of the movements we use to execute the various techniques. At this point, you likely know the movements – now it’s time to start smoothing it out. I’ve worked on “The Walk” since the mid-1980s. It has helped me move in different ways and increased my understanding of so many of our fundamental movements.
You will still have plenty of “Aha!” moments when you start seeing aikido moves at a whole new level. When I was sandan, I finally understood a concept about the drop step that my sensei had been trying to explain for a long time. As I continued to work on the drop step, I began seeing other things in aikido – subtleties that had always been there, but that I’d never noticed at the lower levels. You will too.
In aikido, part of the learning is to “get got”. Practice being the attacker. This is a wonderful learning experience because you get to find out where all the “holes” are – how many different places you can be thrown. This knowledge will help tremendously, because you will be able to take advantage of these “holes” when you are the one being attached. We are two parts to a learning machine and it’s important to learn both parts – the attacker and defender.
Have fun with it. You are throwing and getting thrown. A lot of the time, the one that is getting thrown will start laughing right before the throw happens – because they’ve suddenly realized they’ve been “got”. Enjoy the camaraderie and practice time with friends.
As you begin to develop your skills, you will begin teaching newer students what you have learned. This will allow you to look at aikido from an entirely new perspective. Teaching forces you to verbalize each technique as you are demonstrating it. This will let you hear the words as you are doing something and, between the two, you will know if you are saying the right things. You will be able to tell if your words make sense with your actions. This is an often overlooked – yet surprisingly effective – learning tool.
It’s okay to feel like you don’t know much, but please believe me when I say that YOU DO! You may not know as much as some of the others in your dojo, but to get this far YOU DO KNOW THINGS. Some of it will be in your subconscious – you know it without realizing it. If there is a reason for it to come out, you may find yourself using aikido skills you didn’t realize you had.
You know much more than the beginning ranks and helping them to develop their skills will also help you develop yours. The more you teach, the more it will become clear to you as well. Also, it is really fun to watch someone when they get some move or technique and you see the “light bulb” come on in their head – and you know that you helped with that understanding. Teaching may seem intimidating at first, but you may come to find that it is one of the greatest joys of being shodan.
Continue to make aikido a part of your everyday life. Find ways to integrate it into daily activities you are already doing. When I walk, I try to use aikido moves: evasion steps help me move through a crowd with ease, when my lawn mower hits a rough spot and stops, I cycle with my steps so I don’t run into the handle. If I have a cup of coffee while walking, I will try and hold the cup in my center.
These may seem like little things – but they add up over time and can make a big difference in your development. You spend more time outside the dojo then inside it – and it’s important to use this time to help develop your skills.
Congratulations once again on making shodan. I hope you find your aikido journet to be challenging and rewarding. Some of the most exciting times are still ahead of you.