Thoughts on Competition and Aikido

Bring up the word competition among aikidoka and the typical response is that Osensei disapproved of competition and that is pretty much the final word on the matter. It is a broad brush concept which seems accepted on all levels regarding competition. There are many good things about competition so let’s discuss the matter deeper instead of dismissing all of it.

Osensei was a war veteran and likely witnessed the very worst of human conflict (competition). Only a fool would ignore the fact that competition has an ugly side, especially when the ante is high enough that death is not only an option but an inevitability. One man’s direct competition in a battle for their lives is far from the only type of competition, in fact it is only a tiny portion of competition.

Perhaps Osensei’s disapproval of competition came from the thought of aikido becoming a sport such as judo had become. Certainly people getting killed on a regular basis was not the source of the objection here. Martial arts which have a sport aspect to them attract students and gives them a venue to practice rigorously and compete. Competition in this sense drives people to build greater skill and challenge themselves against committed attackers, which is a good thing.

Almost all martial arts which become sports suffer to some degree from the narrowing of their art due to necessary rules to maintain safety for the participants. This is where the rules start and then expand into making competition more dramatic for observers. Usually, the rules get so specialized over time that the art becomes extremely distorted. Perhaps this was Osensei’s objection, that the art should not lose its purity. BJJ has come the most recent casualty of this problem, which even Rickson Gracie has voiced his objection to.

Aikido lacks direct competition and virtually all training is cooperative. Uke’s role is not to make it so difficult on nage that he cannot perform technique. I believe this is a major flaw of cooperative training. While this training method is overall good, it is not perfect. All other training methods have their shortcomings as well, Each training method builds critical skills and attributes which must be put together at the time of performance.

In terms of healthy competition, you can desire and have ambition to match or exceed the skills of another without turning to the ugly side of human nature. Jealousy and envy do not emerge in someone with good character, yet the fire of ambition and determination to perform at a higher skill level must be present. This is an aspect of competition. Another person with whom you are competing can feed that fire in you. Without that fire, you will not fulfill your own potential. It cannot grow all on its own, fire does not burn in a vacuum.

This type of competitive spirit is used in a positive way, not to tear down others but to build yourself up. The very best example I’ve seen is two people who start around the same time or at about the same level of ability and train side by side. When one learns, the other tries to keep up and even do better. Like two ambitious race horses each taking the lead from the other, back and forth as they race down the track. They run alone, and neither will perform as well.

It seems the culture of aikido endorses aikidodoka each run alone. They specifically reject any competition against one another. Here is where the masakatsu agatsu (only true victory is over oneself) phrase comes up. While I believe this is concept is true and applicable in many ways, it is not so universal that one should become a narcissist who dismisses anything except his own endeavors.

We gain by not only keeping up, but by trying to go farther. This level of ambition is a good thing. It starts by being among the best in your practice group. Usually then, you branch out and experience being a ‘big fish in a small pond’. You are then faced with the challenge of increasing your skills and abilities even further and going to the next level, again by competing against those with even greater skills. The growth continues and the skills become even greater.