Several months ago the Bu Jin Design newsletter staff received an inquiry from a Florida teen, who has been studying aikido continuously for nine years since the age of seven. We asked Mike Bowen sensei, the developer and instructor of Boulder Aikikai's, Boulder, Colorado youth program to respond to her question. Our thanks to these two dedicated aikido practitioners for their thoughtful question and answer.
Look for more articles and on the programs, issues and opportunities concerning young people in the martial arts in upcoming newsletters, and if you would like to feature your program here, or if any of your students have comments, please send them to email@example.com
I was wondering what advice you could give to a younger aikidoka, say a teenager, to take full advantage of their surroundings in this adult dominated martial art. Being younger can be an advantage by starting to learn so young but what steps can I take to take full advantage of starting this martial art at a young age? Thank you for your time.
Mike sensei's reply:
It is important for all aikidoka to understand that the real future of the art lies with young people and children. So your question is not only timely but also very important. As you say, the art is dominated by adults, and few dojo have fully developed programs for youth and especially for teenagers.
Dojo which do provide children's and youth classes seem to be able to keep students up until they are about 15 years old, but after that many students tend to drop out. This is only natural, because of the many demands of high school and the increased social and sports activities, which draw the attention of teenagers. Older people become satisfied with practicing aikido both because they recognize the need to do something to stay in shape, and also because they are comfortable with their practice. That is to say they have become good enough to train with most of their peers, and that is enough. Young people, on the other hand, live in a school and social environment that is for the most part competitive and "achievement" oriented, so the fact that aikido is non-competitive and repetitious might make it seem dull and stuffy - and oftentimes it is. It is also very difficult for most young people to have personal, individual, inward-looking goals during this period in their lives when everything else is filled with team/group/grade goals set by others. At the same time, the correct method and attitude for teaching of children and young people is very different than that for adults, and the instructor is constantly challenged to keep that training fresh and inspiring.
Talented young aikidoka learn quickly. Very talented young aikidoka learn amazingly fast. These students, almost by definition have great dedication and focus, and usually enough athletic ability to perform most techniques with ease. Very good students absorb skills as fast as their teacher can instruct them and reach levels of proficiency much faster than most adults. This means, however, that they may soon reach a point where they are able to do most anything, and nothing seems new and fresh. They might find that adults are even jealous of their ability, condescending towards them, or training with them in a hard and abrasive manner - all unacceptable behavior in the dojo. This is especially true for young boys because they might be big and strong, but not as strong as a 20-30 year old adult. Often a boy's enthusiasm and skill is mistaken by an adult for an opportunity to show him "how it's done" with inappropriate severe practice. Once hurt either physically or spiritually, the boy stops his training, and aikido is the loser.
What to do? Recognize the problems with training in the adult setting, and find a setting that suits you. If possible, speak to your sensei if you have concerns. Find a group of the adults with whom you are comfortable, and concentrate your training with them. Later on you will need to seek out training partners who, as Saito sensei says, " are in conflict with you, who are not your friends, and who will constantly challenge you," but in these teenage years, surround yourself with friendly and happy partners. If you have children's and youth classes in your dojo, be a part of it - assist the instructor, become the instructor. Children learn best from those who are young of mind and heart. You will even find that in teaching others you learn more about aikido than you ever knew before.
Learn from the best - take every opportunity to attend seminars taught by the great shihan who are traveling around today. Do this for yourself. An hour spent in their class might be worth a year spent in ordinary daily training. It is these teachers who will give you the inspiration to continue your journey in aikido.
Also, do not be afraid to wash your dogi, fold your hakama, and put them away for a while. Aikido will always be there for you, growing every day but needing and welcoming your energy when you return. Furthermore, the good things aikido has placed in your body and spirit are there forever to help you and others in daily life. The physical power it has developed in you is limited, but the ki it has awakened within you is limitless.