Aikido as an Elite Sport

To help improve his golf swing Tiger Woods reputedly used to hit hundreds of  golf balls a night into the dark without seeing where they went . This is called 'error free learning' and is just one of the many 

techniques used by elite athletes to help improve their performance. Today sports teams and institutes routinely employ specialist coaches for specific activities and increasingly a skill acquisition specialist is often part of the team. How to learn a new skill and how that skill performs under the stress of competition is important to the athletes, their teams and even national pride.

There are many similarities between striving for excellence in the martial arts and elite sport. I am somewhat privy to both worlds through my professional work as researcher in elite sports monitoring. Many good things about traditional practice were affirmed for me, a few things were easy extensions and just the act of naming why certain things are done a certain way was helpful too. 

Quite a few new ideas were helpful, though some I'm not quite ready to use in my aikido practice. I hope the following bag of ideas might be as interesting to you as they were to me when they gave me  the odd 'aha' moment. 

The Development of Specialist Skills

Scientists and talent scouts have long understood that specialised skills are developed over a long period of time and through rigorous training and a diversity of experience. Diversity is often gained whilst an athlete is in developmental stage through an exposure to a broad base of different sports prior to specialisation. Specialisation in a skill is then developed in order to gain mastery of a particular sport. Early experiences are among the most powerful contributing factors in long-term mastery of a skill

 and can shorten that time significantly. The scientific literature suggests that around 4,000-10,000 hours is generally required to gain expertise.

Doing the math on the minimum time to mastery of ~5,000 hours. If you are training a 2hr classes twice a week for 50 weeks of the year  its going to take about 25yrs get there, compares well with the often cited "25 year technique". 
Early experiences are powerful, as instructors we must be careful to give our best to new students (even though the revolving door of new students is frustrating) and to provide plenty of diversity.  Fortunately the aikido syllabus as something of a modern sogo bujutsu (composite martial art) is already rich and varied  and might provide the diversity of experience within a single school.

Learning and tradition

Modern sports used to be highly bound in tradition and coaches were often successful sports stars themselves, tending to teach the way that they were taught.   Certainly that was the experience in Australia until the formation of the Australian institute of Sport and the state based institutes that were developed to provide added information of modern research. Out of this some old ways of learning sports have been reinforced and others fundamentally changed.

Martial arts are tradition based and thus markedly similar in that respect. Some would argue that the traditional arts have been through the cauldron of battlefield success as a scientific (darwinian) method of improvement. Others feel that competition (e.g.MMA) have also been able to inform on best practice. Where does aikido sit in this? Preserving the battlefield of success practices or drawing on modern innovations like the systema method and ukemi specialists like Donoan Waite?

Training Practices

In modern sport the relationship between structured training and competition varies somewhat. There are strengthening and conditioning aspects and specific skill based practices. Some skill based runningtechnologypractices are un-pressured and some are game based that are designed to broaden the skill base.

Its a widely held maxim that variability in training leads to more robust skill development and hence better performance.

Much of what is done in the dojo is drills that fit the requirements of the above practices. Naturally students ask 'but this wouldn't work in the street' . Just like a footballer doing dodge and weave drills and tackle bag work - its not meant to work. Being able to separate what we do into what is game (the street) based and what isn't at a cognitive level helps us understand our own practice. 

Blocked vs. Random Drills

Blocked drills are the name given to repetitive exercises performed over and over as a core practice of learning a skill while random drills are just that, and have a lot more variability in them. While the evidence in favour of blocked drills for early learning of a skill is overwhelming recent studies have found they may actually hinder progress at higher levels.

The studies have found that single focus, same task drills may engender the athlete with a false perception of expertise through the comfort of drills they have been doing for years and can take short cuts in.

 By contrast random, multiple task, multiple focus drills lead athletes to having a poorer perception of their ability but they actually perform better. It is thought that it encourages better focus for higher level athletes as it keeps the cognitive load high.

In my own school we have 20mins of waza performed to a rhythmic count. Its a great way to get in sync and learn the basic moves and increase the repetitions quickly.  Its famous for seniors sleep time, losing focus and mentally nodding off in. Its classic blocked learning which leads to quick success but hindering higher level learning. Multiple repetitions of incorrectly performed footwork (in particular Maruyama sensei's moon shadow lizard legs) that occur in several waza will see 50 repetitions of incorrect movement before paired practice begins. The student will be very lucky to not be going backwards in some aspects. Other schools that focus on kihon (blocked learning) for a long time seem to produce powerful yet wooden aikidoka that struggle to evolve beyond the kihon and just get stuck.

Teaching Skills

"To hear is to forget , to see is to remember and to do is to understand" is I think a Confucian quote that sums up learning methodologies and today is backed up by good science.

Its sage advice and a healthy reminder to beware teachers that talk to much,  demonstrate only a few times and leave too little time for practice.

We live in a world of visual, verbal and kinesthetic communicators. Although different people favour different methods to communicate, both the trainer and athlete need to be using the same medium. Good coaches and trainers understand this and adapt to that of the athlete. Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) can be used to assist in discovery.

In some schools the instructor just demonstrates and doesn't talk and while its great for the visual learner not so  good for the auditory learner. The instructor that grabs everyone's wrist is great for the kinaesthetic learner.


Demonstrations for learning a for new movement are a great way to teach and a staple of any sporting context.  Demonstrations should highlight cues for athletes and provide positive feedforward for learning. Watching others perform is also a great learning tool.

Demonstration by sensei is probably the most prominant method of learning aikido.  Our students also get a big kick out of watching sempai and kohai doing tanninzugake/randori/jiyuwaza with more than a few 'aha' moments

Damien Farrow Skill Acquisition Specialist

How To! Damien Farrow an internationally renown skill acquisition specialist from the Australian Institute of Sport. There is a lot of focus here on the different aspects of skill acquisition, whilst some of the focus is on team sports there is still plenty of  good food for thought


Feedback is a vital part of coaching, traditionally it comes from a coach but today a whole host of feedback strategies are used. 

Traditional feedback is vital for learning from an expert, but beyond the traditional methods today a variety of modalities and mechanisms exist. We can define feedback as being about providing sensory information to the athlete, not just errors.

Intrinsic feedback

This is  natural feedback  or consequences of actions. These include success or failure at a task, internal feelings and other measures of success.

There are multiple types of  intrinsic feedback built into our aikido practice, from not whacking ourselves with a bokken in solo practice, to a feeling of effortless technique, to that feeling of being jammed or slowed up during a technique.  Teaching students to be aware of and learn to use these methods helps them be their own best teacher.

Extrinsic feedback

This feedback is provided from an external source, usually it includes knowledge of the result and is the traditional coach model in its simplest form. Other forms very popular included video playback to athletes, real time or slow motion. Its interesting that coaches can say something over and over again but sometimes when an athlete sees themselves on video there is understanding for the first time

In our own dojo we have video feedback most often from grading days but also at other occasions.  In all cases where it has been employed the response from students has been fantastic and some real progress of personal obstacles has been greatly helped

Verbal Feedbackmartial arts technology

Some points on giving verbal feedback; it's not rocket science but it is much more that "do this, don't do this".  The following are general advice:

Give only 1-2 points of feedback, any more leads to frustration

Try  questioning feedback, this engages the student in active rather than passive learning

Withhold detailed instruction early on. Detailed instruction can lead to over specificity.  By withholding instruction implicit learning is favoured (see later). It also allows generalisable skills to develop.

There is a tendancy for some athletes to over focus on the mechanics of a skill. It can be important to redirect this analogy or external effects of movement.

In traditional martial arts its common to have very little feedback from an instructor and to be left to one's own devices somewhat to discover the path and develop skills.  Some modern schools can go completely the other way focusing on service delivery.

Feedback, Biofeedback and guidance

Biofeedback is most well known where people with an awareness of their heartbeat can control it - this is usually accomplished with the aid of a heart rate monitor. It is seen as amazing because we are controlling some autonomic part of our body, the feedback is immediate and yields good results.  The principle of biofeedback can be applied to learning a skill as well. 

The timing and many other aspects of feedback are vital to the learning of a skill.  Immediate feedback can bring instantaneous change but is difficult to do in the middle of a 100m dash. The frequency of feedback can be faded as expertise is acquired. Careful attention must be paid to avoid a dependency on feedback. Bandwidth feedback is to provide feedback on performance in the extremes. Feedback should be a balance between error based (skill improvement) and correctness (motivational). Watching others is a strong tool

Boart learning cricket

How not to! Its funny because its true. I  think we have all been 
a) this poor over corrected and increasingly frustrated student 
(parodied nicely by fictional character Borat) at one stage 
b) perhaps also even an over helpful instructor providing a frustrating amount of detail

Cognition and the Mind

Some of the following information comes from skill acquisition specialists, some from sports psychologists. Mind power is a much vaunted term and it tends to be talked about in a less dramatic way in sport than in traditional martial arts such as aikido, however i was reassured to find what we think of as modern best practice already present in our teaching methods.

Error free learning

Error free learning is a term for learning that does not engage the athlete in failure but in continued success, to help build positive pathways in the body. It engenders in the athlete:- 

 -  a feeling of success

 -  a way to practice the entire motion of a skill

 -  a way to release mind from lower order mechanics of movement

Most famously the example of Tiger Woods reputedly hitting hundreds of  golf balls a night into the dark without seeing where they went helped groove his golf swing.

Feelings of failure and over thinking movement are thought to lead to stilted movement and collapse of skill at high pressure times, like competition. Error free learning can assist is getting robust overall skill in place, of course it still needs fine tuning through explicit instruction

Aikido is a two person kata designed to be completed from start to finish rather than contested to failure. Its a great form of error free learning that helps students help each other to learn initially their part. Technical correction is of course important but the teacher that regularly stops the technique 1/2 way through or the competitive uke that blocks the movement can be detrimental to learning and the error free learning method.

signal processing

Implicit/ Explicit processes

Mentally there are two main ways to learn a skill: Implicit and Explicit.

Implicit learning happens below the level of consciousness. Through action an underlying concept or simple cue is learnt. Many use the example of riding a bike as an implicit process, beyond some simple mechanics of steering there is little in the way of 'instruction' to ride a just do.  Implicit skills have been found to be a lot more robust under stress

Extending Ki, flow and other imagery are powerful implicit learning cues that we see in aikido. Through thousands of technique examples the core of aiki is learnt.  In our school these core principles might be talked about but are actually learnt  implicitly whilst the brain is learning some technique of other. These implicit skills might be keeping good posture, not fighting, using aiki,  cutting the opponents center etc...

Explicit learning are skills taught and learnt through detailed process.  It's an essential way to learn some things and more suited to modifying an already acquired skill base. Explicit skills are found to be less robust under stress.

We all need explicit instruction to improve but if its the only modality it can all fall apart come tanninzugake/ jiyuwaza/ randori. For beginning students particularly too much explicit training rather than letting them get on with it can paralyse and frustrate them. By using implict methods early on the felling of success is improved and they are less likely to be the  50% of new students you never see again in the dojo

Cognitive effort

Cognitive effort is the amount of brain power or thinking required to carry out a skill based activity.  To learn a skill requires cognitive control of the whole body and fine motor skills in many muscle groups. This is an enormous cognitive load on the brain and it can respond by reducing the amount it has to do by locking up 'unused' joint segments to focus on the new skill. Once a skill is acquired it can be relegated to the autonomic nervous system.

The big take home messages are for when working with beginners or learning a new tweak on a technique yourself. Its important to understand that movement is going to be blocky, you are going to have 2 left feet for a while as you brain copes with the cognitive load by shutting down some movement.
The other big thing I learnt was when you have expertise, if you focus on the skill like you were learning, you return to that blocky state.  Attentional focus is what can get you around this.

Attentional focus

To keep the brain busy athletes are introduced to a 'dual task', with a secondary task placed alongside the sporting activity to act as a distractor and prevent cognitive load impeding the execution of a learnt skill. This distractor task might be as simple as repeating a phrase, visualising something or counting.

This  one  was an exciting find, suddenly a rationale for the oft repeated 'Extend Ki', the use of mudra visualisation and 'imagining youerself as a swordsman holding a weapon and making repeated cuts 

Technologies for skill acquisition

Many of these new learning methods need modern technologies to facilitate them; including motion capture systems, cameras, wearable monitors  etc.  It's a new world and my professional area of interest is wearable monitoring for feedback post activity, during activity and sometimes in near real time. I have had some limited success in training complete novices using an instrumented sword and biofeedback.

While the world of elite sport offers some clues and validation on training and learning methods there is no escaping the hard work and ' bump and grind' of daily training on the way to mastery.


This article was recently featured on the Aikido Journal, you can read or leave comments here