There is a Japanese term, “atogeiko,” which refers to individually-driven training before or after formal class training. Atogeiko holds a long tradition in Aikido history, and every renowned Aikido shihan has stories about how atogeiko during their student years helped define and accelerate their training.
I’ve previously published a list – “10 Rules for Seminars” – which is posted inside our dojo, and Rule #2 is “Before And After Counts Double.” This rule directly refers to atogeiko at seminars, because I’ve seen over and over again how students who take the initiative to train in between classes attract extra, special and individualized attention from the seminar Sensei and other senior teachers. At home, in the dojo, I can also tell you that is how instructors identify students who are working extra hard, show promise and potential to “go the distance”, and merit such extra attention.
Atogeiko for the Student
While attracting extra attention from teachers may seem to be a pretty good reason for atogeiko, the real value for student atogeiko is in the extra training itself. Atogeiko is qualitatively different from class training:
- It is self-paced
- The student can focus on whatever aspect or problem interests them the most
- The student can repeat what they are working on as long as they want
- It tends to feel more like play and puzzle-solving
- It tends be very collegial training (equal, relaxed, stress-free training between peers)
- It has the ability to “cement in” concepts and feelings discovered during normal keiko (class) that the student wants to keep and remember
Students tend to be especially motivated to initiate atogeiko when they are preparing for a test, or are just beginning Aikido. However, it should be encouraged at all times; “atogeiko” shouldn’t just mean “before and after seminar training” or “before testing.” The enemy of atogeiko is the little internal voice that lets us check the little “I trained” box and tell ourselves that the effort we gave during class is plenty for one day. Overcoming that voice, and reminding ourselves that the real prize was only revealed during class, but it takes extra effort to claim that prize and make it our own, provides a priceless reward every time we succeed. I don’t remember a single time that I took the extra effort after class and ended up thinking “well, that was a waste, I could have just gone home.”
Atogeiko for the Sensei
As important as extra training is for the student, I’m beginning to discover the real importance of atogeiko for the lifelong growth of my own technique and Aikido career. I recently set goals for myself before, after, and during every class I teach, and I have been surprised to discover how quickly I can still gain measurable new skills even after more than 36 years in martial art training. While I had continued to improve my insight, my ability to perform technique against strong and very senior partners, my ability to teach without much regular in-dojo personal atogeiko, I have found that my renewed commitment has lit a fire in my personal growth. I’ve discovered that a strong pre-class outpouring of effort changes the quality of the class itself, and my own alertness, energy, and insight as a teacher. It has definitely made a big impact on my health and endurance, and I am rediscovering reserves of energy and strength that I had neglected for years. So, at least in my experience, I have found that atogeiko doesn’t stop giving rewards no matter your age or how long you train.
Atogeiko for the Dojo
I’ve always found a great measure of the current health and spirit of a dojo is how much atogeiko consistently happens before and after class. There are few more pleasing sights to me than to walk into our dojo and see the mat full of students already exploring, training, throwing well before class is to begin – or when the mat is still full an hour or more after class is over. These things indicate that students are feeling motivated and rewarded, and presented with challenging and interesting instruction. It means that the quality of the dojo is increasing, as well as its ability to produce higher-level, and more talented students. Most importantly, it means the collective spirit and energy of the dojo is high; that the shared, invisible heart of the dojo is alive and growing and getting stronger. When one pair of students are training after class, it often attracts one or two more. When several pairs of students are training after class, the enthusiasm and excitement is palpable and it’s almost impossible for every other student to not join in. When a visitor or potential student walks into the dojo and encounters collective atogeiko energy, they may not know what is happening – but they will stay to try to get a piece of it! Group atogeiko energy is infectious, self-reinforcing, and rewarding for everybody. It bonds the dojo community, it helps senior students reach new levels, and it helps junior students leapfrog their performance and understanding far beyond their level.
I have also observed that there is a direct relationship between dojos that have a lot of collective atogeiko, and whether or not those dojos are growing, holding steady, or shrinking.
… And Atogeiko for the Sensei Again
So how does one cultivate dojo-wide atogeiko? I have found that the key, like the key to the message of O Sensei’s vision of world harmony, is personal dedication and leadership. It doesn’t help to tell all the students they should train more. I have found that my personal atogeiko – before and after every class (unexpected other responsibilities notwithstanding) – sets a pattern that draws students to do the same. Of course I am not personally responsible for motivating and energizing every student in our dojo, but my commitment to pouring energy onto the mat before and after class has had direct, observable impacts on the number and consistency of students doing atogeiko around my classes, the energy and enjoyment during my classes, and the size of my classes. Energy in, energy out. Or rather – energy out, energy returns stronger. Kokyu.
This has taught me that my responsibility as a teacher is not limited to what I teach, but that the growth of our dojo is tied to my own personal growth on a level that leaves no room for physical complacency. If I cherish my students and the future of my dojo, I can’t ever listen to my own little voice that lets me check the box “class successfully taught” and “the effort I gave during class is plenty for one day.”