In Aikido, rank is awarded and progress is measured by testing performance of techniques. The techniques, however, do not in themselves contain the essence of Aikido, neither the underlying principles nor the skills and attributes necessary to demonstrate them. By the time a student tests for black belt, they are expected to manifest many skills like posture and dignity, responsive ukemi, sharp weapons handwork and footwork, a deep knowledge of distance, timing, blending, and a clear expression of zanshin and etiquette. The student is expected to pick up these skills and many more, but rarely are these skills made articulate or formally taught. The Chuseikan Skill Tree is being developed to provide a well-rounded, clear path to acquire the skills our instructors consider necessary demonstrating a high-quality skill that represents our dojo well, and to recognize and reward when those skills are attained.
The skill tree currently consists of the following ten “branches”. Each branch has 10 levels of increasingly difficult skills to master and demonstrate.
Attainment of a given level in any branch is accomplished by demonstrating the stated requirements in front of Guy Sensei, Don Sensei, or Julie Sensei. The exercises necessary to learn them, or explanations, can be obtained from these instructors or any student with a higher skill rank. While they must be demonstrated in order, there are no fees, age, time or rank requirements for attaining skill levels in the skill tree system. Theoretically, a dedicated but unranked student could test through all ten levels of a branch within a few months of joining Aikido for the first time.
Eventually, we will publish expectations of minimum skill tree levels required before we recommend students test for various black belt ranks. We will establish a leaderboard where students’ skill tree achievements can be recognized, and we will formally recognize higher skill level achievements with certificates or some other reward. Participation in the skill tree system is entirely voluntary, and some branches will be optional (e.g. the “no breakfall ukemi” branch is considered equal to and alternative to the other breakfall branches).
This system is still under development and testing; please be understanding as the skill tree details may evolve over time. Please contact Guy Sensei if you have any questions, wish to request requirements or “homework” for your next skill level, or wish to demonstrate your skills to attain your next skill level.
The objectives of ukemi include learning to protect yourself, learning to move so that your partner does not have to “hold back” their power and can practice their technique at full speed, and most importantly removing your own limitations of movement. Links to video tutorials are provided to help you visualize your goals at each level, and to provide exercises to help you prepare; however, your best bet is to have an instructor or sempai work with you in the Dojo. If you find better video examples, please let us know!
The first ukemi Skill Progression focuses on forward (“zempo” or “mae”) rolls, breakfalls, and feather falls – the most common ukemi practiced in Aikido. The objective of this track is to prepare students to be able to take spontaneous, high-level forward ukemi by the time they reach 1st kyu, and to take “shihan-level” forward ukemi by the time they reach nidan.
All levels must be demonstrated with consistent ability, right and left side, in Level order, even if the student has gained “higher Level” ukemi skills. Initially, all testing for Level promotion must be performed with Sensei Guy. The first few students to reach Level 10 will have a custom metalwork gift made for them by Sensei Guy. Students are encouraged to request assistance from any student with a higher level in this skill progression for instructions on how to practice and prepare for their own next Level. There is no “seniority” (sempai/kohai) within a Level; the skill tree is completely based on effort and ability!
The second ukemi Skill Progression focuses on rearward / back (“ushiro”) falls, rolls, breakfalls, and feather falls. The objective of this track is to prepare students to be able to take spontaneous, high-level back ukemi by the time they reach 1st kyu, and to take “shihan-level” back ukemi by the time they reach nidan.
The Randori Skill Progression / tactical series is currently available at this page, as well as links to videos containing tactics and instructional exercises as they are completed. Students are encouraged to monitor and practice the randori skills presented there in preparation for the formal publication of the sequence as part of the Skill Tree.
I am a firm believer that Aikido is a michi study, which should mean that if we approach our practice with the right attitude, we should be able to train and become stronger in some way every day until the very end of our lives. No matter how softly we learn to fall, even feather falls require some agility, flexibility, athleticism, and strength – attributes which will decline as we age, no matter what. If we do not build an effective practice of ukemi that do not rely on these attributes, we are effectively excluding a very significant portion of our training lifespan, and just as importantly, we are effectively excluding a significant portion of our potential student base who are older, injured, or simply will never be healthy enough to take any form of breakfall. My goal is to develop a skill tree with the following goals:
This system is very much under development and exploration, although we do have some initial principles and exercises that have been very promising. We are drawing heavily upon lessons from Feldenkrais, Yoga, Primal Movement, and Systema for insights in new ways to consider ukemi, as well as the teachings from Aikido instructors such as Sensei Dan Messisco. Some of the initial principles we are developing for this tree include:
Aikido, as shared by its founder, is a martial art with a powerful basis in ethical change and spirituality. We are presented with a system that aspires to “healing the world” and providing lifelong spiritual growth. Unfortunately, the art itself provides no tools and very limited terminology (borrowed from Shinto and Ko To Dama religious sects). As a result, spiritual growth is far from automatic for its practitioners. Nonetheless, decades of training and teaching have shown me there are many ways, and tools, for making the Aikido Dojo a “secular temple” for personal spiritual growth, independent of any religious belief. I’ve enumerated and described several exercises for mindfulness and structured internal perception and change that can be practiced in conjunction with regular Aikido practice, and written them up in a detailed article here: Ten Steps to Michi, Practical Spirituality In The Dojo. In brief, these exercises – and skills – are listed here. Of course, spiritual / emotional / self-awareness skills are less “constructive” than most physical skills, so unlike the other skill trees they do not have to be practiced in any order.
The Skill Tree System is a creative work, and is Copyright © Aikido Chuseikan of Tampa Bay. The Chuseikan Skill Tree System by Aikido Chuseikan of Tampa Bay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, based on work at https://tampaaikido.com/skill-tree/. This means that so long as you do not do it for profit or commercial purposes, you are encouraged to share it in whole or in part, to edit it and create derivative works, so long as you give credit to the source and provide a link back to us. We are sure that many teachers will want to make adjustments to our Skill Tree System based upon their own experience and objectives, and we want to encourage that; please give credit and feedback where appropriate!