By Guy Hagen and Sharon Hainsfurther
Maybe you’ve been there: Your teacher asks you to cover class, or to take a spot on the regular instruction schedule. You say yes – but then the flood of concerns hits: Who am I to teach? What do I possibly I have to offer?
Your ego may be deflating or inflating. Why me? Why not me? You may be psychologically running from the commitment you just made. But remember, few people automatically start out as great teachers. The process of learning how to teach Aikido happens the same way we learn how to practice Aikido – through experience and reflection.
First Day On The Job – Discovering A New You
Taking on any new role is about self-transformation and moving into a new identity. This shift begins when we accept the challenge and are thrown into a wilderness of questions: Am I competent to do this? How will others judge me? Why did I say yes? How do I prepare? Who am I? This dissonance can help us loosen our grip on who we think we are and bring out new capacities in us. The key is to welcome the disruption like Musashi: “The purpose of today’s training is to defeat yesterday’s understanding.”
Getting More Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
It helps to acknowledge two competing commitments – safety and growth. Consciously or unconsciously, we are committed to actions and thoughts we believe help us feel safe with others. This includes continuity in our identity; for example, a strong sense of comfort with our role as student, as receiver and learner of what is taught, responsible mainly for our own progress. To take on the new role, we need a commitment to “taking scary steps” to explore new behaviors and ways of thinking. It is natural to feel uncertain at this time of changing roles, but it’s when we accept disruptions in our ideas of “who we are” that we grow.
Preparing Yourself To Teach – Visualization, Small Steps and Mindsets
To prepare yourself to teach, considering the following:
Visualize an Outcome
Visualize what you want as a result at the end of your first class. Include your own feelings and mental state, using positive language. Without worrying about what to teach or how to teach, visualize what a successful class will feel like. For example: At the end of the class, I will be relaxed and connected. I will feel satisfied that I provided value by giving good basic teaching and plenty of time for people to train.
Identify A Few Small Doable Steps
With the visualization in mind, start identifying a few small and doable things you could do before or during class to achieve that outcome. For example: I will get enough sleep the night before. During class I will stay self-aware about talking too much. I will focus on the needs of the students instead of my own expectations.
Don’t Take It Personally – Put On The “Sensei Hat”
One of the more disorienting experiences for beginning teachers is the sudden sense of separation from the other students and the new manifestations of respect that comes with the role. New teachers often have difficulty with, completely reject (or worse, bask in) the novel experience of students calling them “Sensei,” asking their advice, or offering to fold their hakama. New teachers may reject this as undeserved, something they are not ready for. But keep perspective; as a new teacher you are not expected to suddenly ascend to a higher level of Aikido. Pay attention to your ego and emotional reactions. Remember it’s normal to feel emotionally disrupted; just remember that it’s not about you. It’s about the role of Sensei in the Dojo. It is important for you to accept these offers of respect gracefully on behalf of the other Sensei and for the good of the Dojo as a whole.
To help new teachers deal with this role discomfort, consider the idea of an invisible “Sensei Hat.” When you teach, you put on that hat for the good of the Dojo; it is a responsibility and an honor to wear. When you end class and bow out, you mentally take the Hat off and leave it in the Kamiza. During class, remind yourself that students are paying deference to the Hat, not you. Wear it and carry it with dignity on behalf of the Dojo, and accept the symbols of respect on behalf of your school, not yourself.
You Can Give Positive Feedback
Feedback can be tricky. It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the negative – is the “wrong” in students’ technique. Consider cultivating an atmosphere in class where experimentation – and failure – is encouraged. Instead of using feedback only to correct, use positive feedback to reinforce when a student does something well within their own particular level of ability. Positive acknowledgement can help us keep focused on where we are improving and “lock in” the feeling of a technique when it is performed well.
Positive or negative, don’t flood students with feedback – it’s hard to focus on fixing more than one thing at a time. Pick just one focus in your feedback for the student that you feel will make the most difference, and give them time to explore it.
You Can Always Stick To Your Basics
Don’t feel pressured to impress students by demonstrating big flashy techniques, powerful throws, or displays of esoteric technique. However, none of us can ever study the basics –kihon – too much. If you are feeling the pressure, don’t worry about teaching: It’s OK to just demonstrate techniques from kyu (white belt) tests and give the students a chance to practice!
You Can Share The Focus Of Your Own Training
The word “sempai” – and to an extent “sensei” – means “ones who have come before.” Remember that everyone is “a work in progress.” Students don’t need you to be an infallible master. If you share your own goals and what you are working on, it can help students bridge to their own goals and struggles. It can help them set more reasonable expectations about their rate of progress and feel less alone in their challenges. Don’t be afraid to explain what your challenges are, and how you are working on them. Students will benefit. It can help them learn how to learn.
You Can Reveal What You Find Wonderful And Amazing
Nothing is more compelling than another person’s enthusiasm. By showing what aspects of Aikido you find fun, interesting or fascinating, students will be drawn to find the same curiosity in their own training – even if you are not masterful in your ability to demonstrate them! More importantly, students are encouraged to explore and celebrate the joy in Aikido, and you can connect with your own curiosity and delight in training. Junior teachers can be much better teachers in some ways than older and experienced ones who may have lost their enthusiasm or innovation along the way. As Saotome Sensei says, “When the teacher stops growing, the students stop growing.” Playful learning and joy create a feedback loop that makes class more enjoyable and addictive for everyone.
You Can Explore The Power Of Metaphors
Each person learns a little differently. Some of the ways you think about technique, and the mental breakthroughs you ‘ve had will be helpful to students; many will not. One of the gifts of teaching is the opportunity to hone your perception to really “see” each student. Step back and take in each student’s movement, as well as your perceptions of their emotional and mental state as best you can. Remember they have a whole personal history that informs their Aikido training. Try to see that history and how it manifests in their emotional expression, thought, and movement.
Connecting with their experience in other disciplines may help: Do they have a background in fencing? Put your teaching in terms a fencer might understand and use. Is the student a dancer? Try talking in terms of body knowledge, mechanics, balance, and leading/following.
For many students, concrete observations about body mechanics and physical structure work well. For others, the right analogy or metaphor may be more helpful. Don’t be disappointed if an analogy seems to fail; sometimes a new concept takes time to grow and evolve in a student’s mind. As you spend more time teaching, work on getting better at thinking about and reaching each student as an individual.
You Can Look Forward To Understanding Your Own Technique Better
Einstein said that if “you cannot explain something simply, you probably do not understand it very well.” The act of refining and improving your explanation and demonstration of techniques or principles is one of the great gifts of teaching. Your first attempts can feel a little awkward and unsuccessful – just like your first forward roll. Challenge yourself to make each instruction or explanation simpler and more consistent than the last. You may find yourself tapping into your subconscious for inspiration, with part of your mind asking “Wow, do I really think that way about this technique? Where did that surprising explanation come from?” Over time, your efforts to reintegrate and restructure how you think about a technique or principle will give you much deeper insight in how to perform that technique or principle better too. Initial and occasionally ongoing awkwardness is part of the process. Look forward to the moments when little nuggets of inspiration come from inside you and reach students in a way they understand.
Building Your Teaching Toolbox
Much of the martial art world absorbs pedagogy (the methodology of teaching) through uncritical osmosis and repetition. New teachers recreate the teaching behavior they observed as students. This can create a dogmatic, ritualized teaching role for teachers with little consideration for effectiveness. In the Aikido community, we inherited a certain teaching model from Hombu and the post-WWII Japanese culture. The teacher silently shows the technique four times (left and right), then adopts what we can call the “Wandering Sage” mode, walking around the Dojo and dispensing corrective wisdom among the students. Wandering Sage mode is great for the Sensei’s ego, and while it is effective on some levels, it can encourage instructor laziness and cultivate a “kata” like training atmosphere.
Look beyond the default teaching you experienced as a student. Build up your own teaching toolbox of different roles and structures you can on take as teacher. Explore the different roles that are possible between sensei/student during class. Experiment with different class and exercise structures.
Keep in mind: There is nothing written down anywhere that says you have to teach things just the way you were taught – it is your responsibility to eventually learn how to teach better than your predecessors. This attitude is not disrespectful; it’s a call to action to accept your new responsibility by maximizing the tools at your discposal.
Below are consistently useful teaching techniques that we’ve compiled over the years. Experiment with them, create your own variations, and try to examine the situations in which they are most effective. Think about the times you have been exposed to these techniques yourself, and give yourself permission to use them.
- The Hombu Tradition. Demonstrate a given technique 4 times, and then observe the students as they practice. Try to touch, or encourage, every student at least once. Over the course of a class, show 2-4 similar techniques this way. This method does generate a certain gravitas for the teacher, and applies well to particularly large audiences (like seminars and large dojos). In this default method, keiko is defined by one-on-one training between partners (sometimes the same partners for the entire class, sometimes changing partners between each technique), and usually four times (ura omote, right left) before switching.
- The Koryu Tradition. In many historical Samurai traditions, the Sensei was always uke; attacked, always received the technique, always demonstrated proper ukemi. The same technique can be shown right and left, ura and omote. This method is excellent for putting emphasizing the importance of the role of uke, and for demonstrating, celebrating and encouraging the development of advanced personal ukemi. A variation is for the Sensei to teach techniques as nage, then to train with one or more students as uke (perhaps, being uke for each of the students during class). This method is also useful for giving extra attention and positive experiences for new beginners, and for giving high-level training attention to more senior students.
- The Teaching Student. In this method, the Sensei presents a technique with a partner, but immediately joins the class and trains as if they were just a member of the class, taking turns as uke and nage. This is a good method for helping the Sensei stay active, and for building up a body of more senior students in a Dojo where there is only the teacher and beginners. However, Sensei is still responsible for the entire class, and should always pay attention to the safety, comprehension, and progress of the entire class. This is not a way to “escape” from the role of being a teacher. It’s a way to pour energy into room, especially if it is becoming too static or stuck on static movement.
- The Pressure Cooker. We know of a few Aikido Shihan who, inside their own Dojos, use variations of a method we call the Pressure Cooker. It is used to focus on a senior student getting ready for black belt testing, to push their limits physically and mentally, and to improve their conditioning. Overall, the Sensei teaches class using one of the other methods. However, they use the same uke for demonstration during the entire class. In between demonstrating techniques, the Sensei continues training with that student, and continues being nage during the entire keiko. For the entire class, the selected student is uke for the Sensei, only getting a break when the Sensei answers questions or helps the other students. The purpose is to concentrate the training of that student and accelerate their growth toward testing.
- High Repetition Keiko. While traditional keiko focuses on each partner practicing a technique four times before switching, modern research shows higher repetitions are more effective at building skills. Encourage the students to increase the speed of their training, and to perform the technique 8 or 12 times before switching with their partner as nage. While this can dramatically change the timing and dynamic of a class (and tire out ukes quickly), it can help students feel they really had a chance to explore a technique or principle in depth.
- Uchikomi (Partial Repetition Training). This is a form of keiko practice common in Kendo and Judo, with applications in Aikido as well. Nage repeats the technique from point of connection (attack or grip) up to but not including completion of the throw. This repetition continues 3-5 times until the off balancing, blending, and energy feel “just right” and uke takes/completes the ukemi. While in practice this may look like an abortive, “start-stop” method of training, uchikomi can be very valuable in helping students to not force techniques and to experience what optimal, natural kuzushi and nage feels like. It can help them effectively practice hundreds of repetitions in a single class, and to overcome tendency toward static, overly analytical practice. In this form of keiko, ikido ukes have a special responsibility to make clear, manageable attacks, to remain relaxed, and take good (spontaneous) ukemi when the uchikomi completes. With every “reset” the uke must rewind to the beginning of the attack, especially any footwork – exactly as if one was “rewinding” a video clip of the training. This is especially important if there was a tenkan as part of the technique.
- Line Drills. Instead of one-on-one training, the room is set up for sequential, high speed one-after-the-other partner changes. Set up 1-3 nages, and line up all the students to attack them one at a time – thrown ukes then circle back to the end of each line. When all students in a line are thrown, the nage role rotates out to the next person in line. This approach gives students a rest break while in line introduces a variety of ukes for each nage, and can encourage higher-speed attacks.
- Working The Circle. Instead of demonstrating a technique on one student do the same technique once or twice on every student around the room. This encourages each student to step up and give the strongest (most sincere) attack they can, and pressures the teacher to keep their game sharp and not just cherry pick students that will make them look good. A variation on this method has one or two student nages “work the circle”, rotating out with new nages after they have thrown everyone into the room (being very careful about where ukes are thrown).
- Same Attack, Different Techniques. Have ukes use a single attack for the entire class duration (for example, “shomenuchi”). Shows different technique responses for that attack over the duration of the class. This method encourages cultivation of variation (jiyuwaza).
- Same Technique, Different Attacks. Show the same technique response to ukes using different attacks throughout the class. This fosters finding the “core” aspects of a given technique, and encourages students to abandon rote by-the-numbers performance of technique.
- Dissection and Reassembly. Take a technique and attack – for example, shomenuchi iriminage – and breaks it into component parts. For example, nage could perform the technique with no hands, just stepping/tai sabaki; then with just her leading/inside arm, then with just following/outside arm. After making the technique work with each of these isolated elements, the students then work on reintegrating what they discovered as the complete “normal technique” with new insights. Do the reintegration steps slowly so the student can “feel” all the previous lessons. By improving each part independently, theoretically the whole can be greatly improved.
- Building Up From Foundations. Start with a foundational concept such as walking through the footwork, or rowing exercise, or ma-ai. After giving students a chance to hone each part, add another part, and then another, so that the full technique is not revealed until nearly the end of class. For example, a sequence for shomenuchi iriminage could be studied “from the ground up”:
- Footwork (irimi, rowing exercise, deliberate foot placement)
- Touch (moment of connection; internal composure and posture)
- Kuzushi (off balancing, blending/aiki)
This method has a lot of advantages, and helps students understand all the important parts of good technical performance without being overwhelmed with too much to fix at once.
- Today’s Theme: Using any format (Hombu tradition, line drills, etc.), but focus the students not on the specific techniques being taught, but on a special theme identified for the class. Techniques can be selected randomly, or selected in particular for their effectiveness in exploring the theme. The theme can be any important Aikido principle or attribute – ma-ai, de-ai, kuzushi, posture, proper breathing/kokyu, rowing exercise, centering, mental stillness, relaxation, etc.. Show different techniques (waza), but constantly bring attention back to the theme. For example, if the theme is breathing, you can start the class with some deep, rhythmic breathing in a seated position, and then encourage the students to focus on the quality of their breath for the entire class, working on not allowing it to waiver or be disrupted whether they are uke or nage . This method gives a sense of purpose to a class, which can carry on as homework for students to practice off the mat until the next time they train. It also helps students explore how to set their own goals and targets during training, which becomes more valuable as the students advance and become more responsible for their own progress.
- Pushing The Comfort Zone. Any technique can become effective if practiced in the right way. Conversely, a martial artist can train for 30 years and never become very good if they do not push themselves out of their comfort zone. A safe and fun way to explore keiko is to take any technique (including weapons), and practice it through completion very slowly at first then gently picking up speed with each repetition until both partners are pushing their physical and mental limits. For this practice, uke and nage should not switch until 8-12 repetitions have completed. Encourage students to find partners about their same skill/fitness level. Cultivate safety by encouraging students to stop and take a mental break whenever they feel they are starting to get sloppy, or the energy level just becomes too much to handle.
- Visualizing The Path Of Energy. Saotome Sensei has a series of calligraphy where he illustrates the path of energy of each technique. This can be an effective visualization tool; the teacher can bring the class’ attention on the attacker’s hand, hara, or balance from the beginning of the attack, uninterrupted through the completion of the technique. For example, if uke were to hold a lit road flare or glow stick while striking into yokomenuchi shihonage, the observers would see a clear path through the air illuminated as a bright, flowing line of light. Emphasizing the curve, speed, and shape of that line can help students focus on what has to happen inside uke rather than themselves.
A martial artist demonstrates the path of a glowing rope dart weapon during an attack.
- Origins of Technique. Consider demonstrating the “Samurai” origins of a technique before showing the open hand version or show how the technique was originally applied for weapon retention (for example, uke grabbing a wrist to keep a sword from being drawn) or for weapon takeaway. You can show the battlefield applications of a technique to help students better understand the safe applications we usually practice. With a deeper understanding of the techniques and how they evolved, students often gain a deeper appreciation of how the modern, safe version should look and feel.
- Spirit Keiko. Keiko can be a medium for exploring the spiritual aspects of our art in addition to just the physical. You can start a spiritually-focused class with a discussion, perhaps a reading from one of O Sensei’s books (Budo or The Art of Peace). Present students with a goal: perhaps the cultivation and maintenance of inner stillness or the awareness of the link of emotions to physical movement, aggression, attacks, and instinctual reactions (“fight, flight, or freeze”). Select techniques to challenge the students on this level. For example, pain control techniques (nikkyo, sankyo, yonkyo), high-energy shinai and open hand strikes are useful to bring out emotional responses. Constant-pressure environments (fast attacking ukes, high-speed drills, randori) are useful to challenge inner equilibrium. Instruct students to focus not on their body or even execution of proper technique, but rather the quality of the emotional and spiritual landscapes in themselves and their partners during this training. After-training discussion is usually quite lively after these sorts of sessions!
- Tire the Body, Tire The Mind. Nothing leaves the impression of a fulfilling and comprehensive class more than one that leaves students both physically and mentally wiped. To do this, focus for half or more of the class on large throwing techniques (lots of ukemi, lots of getting off the ground). Discourage talking and encourage ukes to quickly reconnect and re-attack. When students start getting tired or sloppy, switch to something requiring a lot of mental focus but not physical exertion, like learning a new weapons kata or practicing subtle body movements intended to break an opponent’s balance. Students can get sloppy and burnt out on too much mental training too, and this “switch-up” technique can be used when you need to re-energize the class.
- The Scientific Method. We are often given the idea that there is a single right way to do technique. However, each person is an individual, and every interaction is unique. Without an understanding of the underlying principles, we limit our growth and understanding. To encourage new perspectives on technique, and developing insights, encourage a “scientific mindset” in class. Present students with a situation – an attack and opportunity for the beginning of a technique – and a goal (e.g. off-balancing, throw, or pin). Have them come up with hypotheses of how uke’s body and reactions will work in response to the beginning of technique, and experiments to test those hypotheses from different angles, approaches, and applications. Encourage them to treat failures as interesting “scientific observations.” After they have had time to explore, ask students to discuss their observations, or to demonstrate them. Then the teacher can introduce technique or situation variations to challenge the students’ observations. This method is great for encouraging personal innovation, a tolerance for risk taking in learning, and approaching technique from fresh eyes. New teachers can also use the scientific method for observing and exploring their effectiveness in reaching their class goals.For example, if teaching foot sweeps, start by having ukes walk or make an attack past the nages (who are in seiza); the nages observe the mechanics of how ukes’ bodies walk and move, and try to adjust or interfere with the ukes’ structures according to their individual hypotheses. Then encourage the nages to stand, face their ukes, and try to apply their insights; for example, perhaps by stopping the forward foot, making uke overstep, or interfering with the placement of the ankle during the strike. By taking a thoughtful, exploratory approach like this, you can encourage students to break out of their patterns and look for solutions not available by just “feeling” uke.
- The Evolving Uke. In this situation, class is structured as an ongoing narrative that begins with a very simple uke with a very simple attack. After practicing each technique, the sensei describes uke as “getting smarter,” learning from the last attack and attacking in a more martial and responsive way – thus requiring more sophisticated technique from nage, or adaptation and response. This could manifest as a simple sequence (e.g., irimi nage evolving out of ura nage, as uke learns to turn into the attack rather than fall down), or an introduction to reversals or henko waza. “Evolving uke” classes are great ways to deal with “what if” scenarios and build up to complex techniques and scenarios in a fun and easily understood way.
- The Opportunist. A time-honored way to structure a class is a form of renzoku-waza (freestyle continuation), but for the teacher! Start by showing one technique and letting the students play with it. Then observe the class, and when you see one of the students doing something interesting (perhaps a technique variation, or exploring an interesting principle), teach that as the next round of instruction. Continue this until the end of class, creating a very spontaneous and natural progression that does not require pre-planning.
As you visit other Dojos, or participate in seminars, try to observe not just what is being taught but also how it is being taught. Continue building your own insights, tricks, and techniques for reaching and inspiring students – as well as igniting your own training. Becoming a teacher does not have to mean an end to your own progress, or an end to good workouts!
Have a vision and a plan, but as in Aikido, be ready to improvise and let go. Be sensitive to your students’ needs and goals and adjust accordingly. A little instruction goes a long way. Demonstrate and give the students room and time to explore. Try to make your interventions simple and brief.
When you teach something, it becomes yours. You don’t have to cite your teachers all the time; if you share what a concept or teaching means to you, it becomes uniquely yours. Don’t be afraid to claim it, build upon it, change it or refine it without citing where you heard it from the first time.
Be willing to step into the disorientation of your new role and the self-awareness it can bring, all the while keeping perspective that it’s not personal. Remember the Sensei Hat; wear it with respect then put it back where you got it. The more you wear it, the more comfortable it will fit you!
This article was written as a collaboration between Guy Hagen and Sharon Hainsfurther. It is the result of over 20 years of Guy’s personal observations and notes regarding class structure, content, and instructional tactics in many martial arts environments, and Sharon’s expertise and insights regarding coaching and leadership development. Guy Hagen is a co-founder and co-Chief Instructor of the Aikido Chuseikan of Tampa Bay. Sharon Hainsfurther has a global leadership coaching practice and trains at Aikido Shobukan Dojo in DC.