Choosing a course
Friday, 10 January 2020
There is a question that I get asked on occasion which tends to have a fairly standard answer, “How do you chose which courses to go to?” I am asked this because the people that know me are aware that I’m highly selective with the courses I attend. I am carer, meaning I don’t have much time to spend away from home, and also do not have a lot of funds to spare, so I must spend them very carefully. In contrast I know people that go to every single course they hear about. I don’t think either method is better than the other but I know more people with time/money constraints that have to pick and choose.
As you can imagine, my circumstances force me to be highly selective with what courses I attend. It would be great to go to them all but I simply can’t. At my current level (5th dan) attending courses is non-optional. I need to get on the mats with people that are better than me to keep learning. This means that I need to go to courses.
When I first started going to them I went to as many as I could. I quickly realised though that this was a wasted endeavour. While I always learned something from every course I learned a lot more in some than others. It was time to be more cautious, so I started doing some stuff that became a standard system for me. Over the years this helped to maximise my return on investment.
Find out if the person is legitimate.
There are a lot of fake people out there and they bill themselves as professionals. They are in it for the money and usually lack anything but the most basic of skill. Training with them would be a complete waste of resources. Conveniently this is often very easy to determine, especially in aikido. You can usually tell from the seminar advert whether or not the person is a fraud. It tends to be fairly obvious, i.e. 6th dans that look to be 25; holding a sword with a poor grip; that kind of thing. In fairness I would point out that I have seen very little of this in aikido.
What is their base style and does it differ significantly from mine?
In terms of lineage the closest thing I could say about my style is that it stems a lot from Tohei and in some ways from O Sensei himself (one of my teachers was Alan Ruddock, an Irishman who trained extensively with O Sensei in the 1960s). As fun as it is to go to Shodokan, Yoshinkan, etc. courses, it’s so different that I get very little out of it. If the seminar style is very different to mine I just don’t go.
Have I heard of this person?
There are some aikidoka out there that are extremely well known. They are well known because they are very good. Often times it is worth attending their seminar regardless of style. For instance, Donovan Waite is considered to be an excellent teacher. Although his style is quite different to mine I did pick up some teaching tips from watching how rather than what he was teaching.
Another aspect of training with these individuals is that, strangely, it can lend legitimacy by association. It’s strange, but true. People mentally adjust their opinion when they find you’ve been to courses by ‘x’ person.
This step is very loose in my process. It will more likely inform the other steps than be a make or break decision. Just because I have, or have not, heard of someone is no guarantee I’ll turn up. If I haven’t heard of them the next step becomes much more important. If I have heard of them chances are I’ve already carried out Step 4 and can decide if I want to go or not.
What do they actually do on the mats?
This is where YouTube is a godsend. If I’m still interested at this stage I’ll head to the internet and hunt out any footage of them that I can find. The more recent the better. This is an absolute, cast iron deal-breaker for me. I will not attend a course with someone unless I can see what they are doing. I don’t care how well known they are; how many testimonials they have; how fabulous their online profile is; how many insanely professional and dynamic still photos I can find, if there is no video footage of them I’m not going.
It has to be the person as well, I don’t care what their students are doing, I don’t care what their typical training class looks like. I want to see them performing a demonstration - public or private teaching.
I have heard many people give many reasons as to why they won’t allow video of themselves to be put online. I consider just about all of them to be rubbish. In these modern times it is entirely reasonable for people to expect to see video of the instructor before they decide if they’re going.
Do I like what I see?
Assuming I can find video of them, and I usually can, do I like what I can see? I would estimate that over 95% of the roughly 10% of courses that make it to this step fail right here. I see a lot of aikido that I just don’t like. The primary reason is that the instructor I’m watching fails to obey Rule #1 and can easily be hit. They never are, because the ukes don’t do it, but they are in a position where they can be. I believe that Rule #1 is inviolable. If at any point during your technique you can be hit, you have done something wrong.
There are of course other reasons, such as highly static nages, the specific reason is irrelevant. If I don’t like what I see, I’m not going to go. Unsurprisingly, over the years I have become better at discerning what I do and do not like.
If a course makes it all the way to, and then passes, Step 5, I know I want to go. Then it’s a question of ‘but can I?’ That comes down to individual resources and only you can answer that for yourself.
Over the years this process has saved me a lot of time and money. I constantly reject courses that are only 28kms (16miles) away but routinely travel from the U.K. to attend courses in Holland. The difference being that at the courses nearby I have fun, meet some aikidoka, learn a little bit that I can work on for a month or so. In Holland, I have fun, meet some aikidoka, learn stuff that I can work on for the next 3 - 5 years. There is no comparison there.
This system is by no means comprehensive, but it works for me. Step 5 is the big one where it becomes very individual. The only advice I can give for that is to ask yourself, ‘Are they so good they make my jaw drop?’ That’s usually a pretty good indicator that you like what they do.
If you have all the money in the world, go to all the courses. If you don’t though, then perhaps this will help you decide if you should go to a course or not. Sometimes it takes a lot of planning, but if someone does one seminar then chances are they’ll do others, or the same one next year. It took three years from deciding I wanted to go to a seminar in Holland before I was actually able to attend. If you can’t make it this time don’t give up, just keep planning.