The Art is Not the Method
Friday, 13 March 2020
There has been a large amount of conversation on social media over the last number of years about the ineffectiveness of aikido as a martial art. This has been caused by numerous factors ranging from aikidoka themselves, to the nature of the demonstrations, to the near meteoric rise of mixed martial arts competitions.
Aikido hasn’t been the only art to suffer under this. Many traditional martial arts are experiencing the same thing. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the loss of numerous kung fu masters in China to mma fighter Xu Xiadong. The amazing thing about those fights is that Xu describes himself as an average fighter past his prime. He doesn’t claim to have any immense skill. When you watch his fights this description seems fair. Which begs the question, how does an average amateur fighter consistently defeat highly skilled professional fighters? The answer to this question is really very simple, and can be easily uncovered if we reword that question a little. Consider this one instead, how does an average amateur fighter consistently defeat highly skilled professional teachers that have never had to fight?
Suddenly it doesn’t seem so radical. Ultimately, traditional martial artists are stepping into a ring for a competitive fight without any real knowledge of how to actually fight. Worse still, they believe they have the knowledge of how to fight. This is not a new thing. It has happened to many martial artists in many styles over many years.
It took less than 5 seconds of my first attempt at muay thai sparring to learn that the guard I had been taught in aikido sucks for fighting. Depending on how you deploy it the aikido guard is pretty good for self-defence, but self-defence is not fighting. The standard aikido guard is extremely open and the first thing that happened was a hook punch connecting to the side of my head. Lesson learned, get a better guard when fighting.
There were numerous other lessons I learned that night, all of them relating to stand up fighting. All of them valuable. Very few of them are applicable to aikido. My reasons for going to muay thai are very different from the reasons many other people do. I have no desire to become a striker and no need to enter competitions to prove myself (I’m 40 years old, I’ve already proven myself. Arguably just stepping onto their mats as a complete novice at my age proved it all). I have no wish to incorporate ‘modern’ methods into my aikido. I certainly don’t believe aikido needs pressure testing (because I think it already has it), or any of those other standard reasons. No, I went there to learn to spar so that I could then safely spar with my students. That may seem like an odd thing but it really isn’t. I think all aikidoka need to learn what it’s actually like to be under a sustained assault by an individual that is actively trying to hit you and there is no avenue of retreat. When we do this nobody tries to use aikido. That’s not important. The primary lessons are how it feels in that situation, how tiring a fight is, how much faster you need to move, and that getting hit doesn’t actually hurt.
Those are all valuable lessons but don’t have a lot to do with aikido. They have a lot to do with fighting though. At the heart of this is the reason that traditional martial artists can be routinely defeated by halfway decent amateur fighters. Traditional martial artists do not train for a fight. Fighters train for a fight.
This has nothing to do with the martial art. Contrary to a lot of popular opinion, in this case it doesn’t even have anything to do with the individual. We’ve all heard ‘it’s not the art it’s the person’ when analysing these things, and that can be true. It’s not true here though. What’s at fault here is the very simple concept that the training method is the art. People believe that what they do in the dojo is the art.
It is this misconception that has led to the eroding of confidence in many traditional martial arts. It’s not that the practitioners don’t test themselves, it’s that when they do they are wholly unprepared for what they are about to experience. It’s the equiavalent of being made to study History for an Maths exam. The art doesn’t fail, neither does the individual. The training method is what lets them down. The training method is not the art.
This is such a simple concept that it’s amazing more people don’t realise this. Think about what goes on in a boxing gym. There is bag work, movement drills, fitness, speed work, power generation, ring craft. Many aspects go into training a boxer. If the method was the art then what would a boxing match look like? It would be pretty weird if it involved the method.
The same is true of all martial arts. In aikido we turn up and practice numerous techniques over and over, but these aren’t the art. These are just the training method. That training method is appropriate to certain things but not to others. It is wildly inappropriate for preparing for a competitive fight. That doesn’t mean aikido is inappropriate, or even that it is ineffective. It merely means that the training method isn’t suitable for learning to fight.
As an example, having spent time in a muay thai class, learning to do that, I am now reaching a stage where I can begin to use aikido when sparring. Good aikido as well, not some sloppy nonsense. Aikido’s training method has prepared me for one thing, to do something else I needed a different training method. I went to muay thai for one specific reason, I’ve stayed for others. A side-effect is that it has prepared me for a different situation. I have no intention of bringing these things back to my aikido dojo, because I simply don’t see the point. That said I fully recognise that aikido does not prepare you for the same thing as a competitive art does, and vice versa. Try getting a competitive fighter to step off the line of attack and give up space if you don’t believe me.
For some strange reason people don’t seem able to make this mental connection. As a result they end up watching some random aikido video and saying stupid stuff like, ‘that’s not a real attack, you’d get crushed in mma’ or ‘that wouldn’t work in a real fight, so aikido is useless.’ One of the problems with statements like this is that nobody is trying to use aikido in professional mma yet anyway. I suspect that may change in time though (yes I am well aware of all the people you’re about to name). The second problem is that they’re looking at the method, not the art. They see a yokomen but not a hook, a tsuki but not a jab. They see an irimi nage but not a balance break and takedown, etc.
A personal favourite of mine is that people complain when they see aikidoka perform something like irimi ashi to avoid a strike and then say it’s just not possible. There is compelling evidence to the contrary, for example the world champion boxer Vasyl Lomachenko uses that exact motion to duck under hooks in professional boxing matches. When fighting, a lot of Lomachenko’s movements will seem very familiar to an aikidoka. The difference is that he has trained to do that when fighting, aikidoka generally have not.
That doesn’t mean that aikido is at fault though, it means that the teaching method is. If people actually want to improve the perception of aikido as a combat martial art this is, in my opinion, the most effective way to do it. We don’t need to create some barely recognisable hodge podge of random martial arts crap. We simply need to alter the training method to reinforce the principles of the art to make it more applicable to fighting. The method is not the art, the art is effective, the method is not.
Keep the art, change the method.