Teacher or Coach?

A while ago I was talking with my judo teacher about two primary paths judo students tend to take. As judo competition is fairly popular and particularly well suited to younger bodies, many pursue the competitive path. A competitor needs a coach to guide them to learning judo which will get them up to speed in competition in the most direct fashion. It still takes time, but the focus is on merging the student’s talent and body type with judo. Through the training process, the coach exposes the student to a wide variety of judo techniques and sees the ones the student picks up quickly and makes powerful. He continues to hone those techniques (a subset of the entire judo curriculum) to build a very strong competitor. The coach may have the student practice techniques which are not very well suited to the student or are difficult for him to learn, perhaps because other competitors are vulnerable to them, but the typical approach from a competitive standpoint is play to your strengths. A good competitor doesn’t need a vast repertoire to succeed, but what he does do he needs to do extremely well. I noticed that top competitors rarely use more than a handful of techniques, but they are extremely good at them. They have trained to make them reliable and high percentage, and are familiar with many ways to set them up. A coach guides them through getting to that point.

But what about the other techniques in the curriculum? A teacher takes on making sure students know all of the techniques in a curriculum and all the details required to do them properly. If you take the same amount of training time as the competitor, you will be of average or even sub average skill with more techniques. The only phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind. In a far greater span of time, you could get extremely skilled at a large set of techniques. It comes down to how long you want the process to take and your level of patience. This method of training is rather that of a scholar.

One edge the competitor approach has is that he gets up to speed with a useful set of tools rapidly. His repertoire may not be immense, but his chance of success at applying his art will be solid in six months to a year. A scholar will take years before any technique will have enough practice for it to be reliable and have built adequate confidence with it. The competitor will train hard at one or a few techniques over the span of months, while the scholar will take many years to get the same level of familiarity with them.

Most aikido is approached in this scholarly fashion. The result is prospective students are outright told it takes many years if not decades to become good at aikido or to have it be functional for them. We live in a world where dedicating decades to something to see results is not a very popular notion. The good news is that we need not abandon the concept of the pursuit of excellence to achieve better results in our students. Nor do we need to turn aikido into a competitive sport as judo did to get students competent in months instead of many years.

You may be curious how the competitor does if we compared him to the scholar at the say, five year mark of their training. Will the scholar have caught up or be ahead of the competitor? From my observation, no. The competitor will have built a small set of techniques he is extremely capable with, and then go on to working on other techniques to add in. Some will take more work than others, but he expands from his solid base. Rather like building a house on a strong foundation. Every floor he adds on to the building above will be well supported by what is underneath.

I’ve watched as scholars train for years, and their foundation takes a very long time to build. Sometimes, despite a decade or more of training, more often than not the foundation fails to becomes solid. Scholars remain so intent on trying to remember all the details that they lack a high level of comfort with techniques. The other benefit the competitor enjoys is that his training has he knows he must make his technique work in the competitive realm, that is under pressure at full speed and he can’t take years to do so. This urgency makes him learn an intangible yet very real skill of application. That skill is an edge that is the difference between success and failure.

Aikido benefits from adopting a coaching approach. I’ve found that students enjoy building a high level of confidence quickly with techniques which are direct, easy to apply, high percentage for success, and don’t leave one vulnerable if the unexpected happens.

We, as instructors, have the duty to build skill in our students. It comes down the question: What do you wish to build your students into and the best way to accomplish that?

It is an excellent question to contemplate. The answer will be different for each person.