Reflecting on the start – Our kohai, ourselves.

Reflecting on the start – Our kohai, ourselves.

In the days around my 5th kyu test, which was exactly 1 year and 1 day after I signed up for my first 6 months at the dojo, I went through a lot of self-reflection.

The night before, I searched my email for my student handbook. One thing that was holding me back on my test techniques was just remembering the names. I’d received a bit of advice that if I recorded myself saying the techniques out loud it might help with my recall.

The welcome email from Weiner Sensei with the etiquette guide and the student handbook pops up. The date on the email? Exactly a year ago that day.

I was shocked. Had it really already been a year since I started? It felt like just a few weeks ago that I sat in just watched a class at the dojo. I remember thinking how beautiful it was.

But after my test I realized just how long it had really been. Even just a few months ago when Manny was preparing for his 5th kyu test, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I distinctly remember wishing I knew more so I could be a better uke for him, but the 5th kyu techniques seemed far away and beyond my grasp.

But while I was testing, I felt like I was in control. I felt like I knew what I had to do, and that I could do it correctly.

After my test, Franz-san (a very new student at the time) came up to me and complimented by technique. He asked me how I had learned all of that. He asked me for advice on how he could learn better and memorize the techniques. I was taken aback. Someone was asking me for advice?! At first, I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t feel like I really knew enough to advise anyone. But I stopped and thought about what I had just done. What I had been doing in the months and weeks and days leading up to my test.

I’ve always been involved in sports movement based activities (I’m looking at you marching band), so the techniques I use for learning and trying to make little improvements are things that I take for granted.

Fast forward to a few months after my 5th kyu test to February of 2018; a week after our 30th Anniversary Seminar, Brent-san’s excellent promotion, and the days leading up to his first class as a black belt. I was practicing some of the seminar techniques Weiner Sensei had us reviewing with Matt, one of our newer students. It was a nikkyo technique with multiple steps – complicated by my standards for sure. Luckily my muscles seemed to have a vague memory of the technique from the reps I had gotten on the previous Saturday. That being said, it was a very slow start and I wasn’t sure I was getting it completely right.

As Matt and I switched roles and he became nage, I felt him hesitate. He started to move and then asked something like, “is this right?”. I told him I would be doing him a disservice by correcting him, since I fully acknowledge I’m no expert. But he was very apologetic for not knowing, as though he thought he was somehow wasting my time. We got the attention of Weiner Sensei and he helped us through it.

The rest of the night training with Matt, and our other new students Jeff and Jay, I felt a kind of déjà vu in the back of my mind. I noticed things in them that felt very familiar – a kind of frustration at not feeling like you know what you’re doing. The hesitation when you aren’t sure of a movement or technique. I could tell they wanted to just know and be able to do it well.

As we ended class and we circled up we moved into etiquette points and launched into a brief discussion of why it’s so important to train with the hakamas and other senior students. That was when Matt expressed a thought I had had many times – like he had plucked it right out of my brain. He was talking about how he didn’t want to slow anyone down, that he didn’t want to interfere with or get in the way of the practice of the other students.

Again, my eyes opened. That was me one year ago. Wanting to know, desperate to improve, and constantly frustrated when I couldn’t get it right. I wanted my technique to be like that of my Sempai – smooth, flowing and soft. Instead I was crashing around, falling horribly incorrectly; bruising my knees attempting awful back side falls and hurting my back doing front rolls.

I remembered dreading doing an ukemi line before class because my ukemi was so terrible. I couldn’t go fast, and what I was doing was NOT proper form. I’d always gravitate to the back of the line (though that would backfire when my slow ukemi put me in the spotlight alone on the mat attempting to fall correctly). Did I mention I sprained my collar bone doing a really bad forward roll? Good times.

I remembered the brain-body disconnect I’d get when Sensei would say step or slide and I didn’t even know what to tell my legs to do. Feeling lost in a technique (though I’m sure I’ll have more of these moments to come).

I remembered those first few months when everything is brand new, and what you learned yesterday you might not remember next class. When every movement is a struggle. When you look around and your fellow classmates seem to be getting it, but you still aren’t sure. And you just want to know already. You just want to know how to do it correctly. You don’t want to “slow down” your sempai. You don’t want to get in the way of their progress.

And I recalled how patient my Sempai were with me. Never making me feel foolish or bad when I couldn’t remember a technique, or when I fell incorrectly. Giving me little pointers, and advice. Giving me the connections or light bulb moments they’d had with a technique. Imparting their wisdom onto me so that I could improve and grow as a student.

My kohai hadn’t seen those months and months of struggle, determination and practice that had brought me to and through my 5th kyu test. They were seeing the product of over a year of work, getting stronger and learning more with each passing class. It took me a long time to really grasp something that Demko Sensei articulated at the seminar which was “…if you want to get good at Aikido, do Aikido”. As in – the best way to improve is by coming to class and training. Without coming to the dojo and making small (sometimes VERY small) improvements over time– I would still be where I was on my first day.

Today I attended Brent’s first class as a black belt where I was one of the most senior students (behind Dan who was also there). The now Goodroe Sensei called on me to help demonstrate and had Dan and I work with Jeff and Matt to help them feel the technique. Again I had a strange déjà vu – a sense of seeing yourself and your experience while looking at someone else.

After class we reflected on how sempai and kohai learn from and mutually improve each other. Dan-san brought up the point that being the most senior student in the room makes you really think about your technique because you want to set a good example for your kohai. He was absolutely right! Brent and I reminisced after class on the days I was the unsure mukyu. Wasn’t it just yesterday begging for extra help with forward rolls? And now look at me a year later trying to set a good example for my kohai with my technique.

It may be cliché to say but the truth is this: all things take time. Some of the advice I gave Franz that night after my 5th kyu test was to just come to practice as much as possible, especially in those first few months. And to not expect it to happen all at once. We’ve all been where they are. We’ve all experienced that struggle. I think as a new student it can be very intimidating surrounded by your sempai and knowing your technique just isn’t there yet.

To my kohai remember this: when your sempai look at you and work with you, no one is judging you. No one is going to make fun of you for doing a technique wrong. When we look at you it’s through a lens of reflection. You are a reminder of our own aikido journey – the place in our we were but aren’t now. We’ve all been humbled by the learning process. We are rooting for you to succeed. None of us knew it all at once. If you stick with it, you can do it. If you practice, you will improve. Not in a day. Not in a week. But in many days, and in many weeks. And a year later, maybe your own kohai may be asking you for advice after your 5th kyu test.

P.S. Don’t be in a rush, enjoy the start- you won’t ever get it back. You’ll wonder where all the time went.

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