I’m back teaching Aikido regularly at Zenshinkan Dojo. In the last two classes I’ve taught a new potential student came to try out the class. We let new potential students step on the mat and try a class. Most people that show up at our doors (and possible any dojo’s doors) have already done some research on Aikido. Their decision to join the dojo is almost already made, however, they haven’t experienced Aikido first hand, so they’re not 100% sure if they will like it. Therefore, I feel the responsibility to offer potential students a thorough sample experience of what their lifelong training will be. In a sense it’s like creating an Aikido trailer for them; you show them bits and pieces of what Aikido offers without spilling all the juices and surprises.
Unfortunately, I find that some instructors hand these new potential students to a senior student with instructions to show them how to roll and what not; practically babysitting them for the entire class. The instructor then proceeds to continue teaching the class to the other ongoing students virtually ignoring this new potential student wearing sweat pants. I think this is a mistake. A new potential student trying out a class needs to experience a bit of everything. Once they decide to join, then they can spend a entire class learning the basics of ukemi (falling techniques).
A new potential student has zero Aikido experience. However, I want them to leave the class feeling like they learned something. In order to accomplish this I have to teach two things: a simple technique that they can learn within an hour, and a easy fall that they could take from such technique.
Like I mentioned earlier, for two Friday nights in a row, I had a new potential student on the mat. Both nights I followed the following method in order to give this student a thorough sample of Aikido on their first class.
1. I start the class with basic ukemi drills. In Aikido, ukemi is the term we used for the skill of taking falls during practice. Ukemi is practiced by the receiving partner, or the attacker. You can’t do Aikido by yourself, you need a partner in order to practice. Therefore, there are always two roles; that of the attacker (uke) and the defender (nage). In order for a new potential student trying out the class to get a good feel of what Aikido training is, they need to experience both roles. They need to throw, and be thrown. Of course they’re not going to be able to do any dynamic front rolls or aerial break falls. But they can learn a simple back or front fall, slapping with both hands gently to lay their bodies on the mat. Ukemi drills, a series of repetitive falling exercises, are great for quickly learning a specific body movement. After a few minutes, a new student can get the hang of it and confidently move on to a technique.
2. The second thing I teach is the attack. There are many types of attacks in Aikido. With new potential students is always good to start with grasps: they are easier to learn and less aggressive, so there’s less chance for them to feel intimidated on their first day. I let them work in partners practicing how to grab each other properly while nage makes the first initial movements of blending with the attack. Even though we’re practicing a simple grab, it is important to stress a good one. Each attack is to be done with full intention. A new potential student may not yet be comfortable touching and grabbing other people, so their grabs may be soft and uncertain.
3. Next is body movement. I then move on and have them practice a technique minus the take down. This gives them a chance to figure out where their body is going and how to handle their partners without worrying about throwing someone yet. At first they’re not going to know where to step, turn, or pivot. They’re going to get confused when you say “step forward” or “slide back”. It’s always a good idea to have them figure this all out before moving to the actual throw.
4. Last thing I have them do is throw. By now they should have a good idea of how to move away from the line of attack, re-direct their partners and take down their balance. Before they begin, though, I review the ukemi drills practiced in the beginning and explain how they’re going to apply that specific fall to this technique. I let them practice both roles: the attacker and defender. A lot of times you can see in their eyes that they feel excited and ready to go. They feel comfortable because by this point they’ve done every component of the technique. Now is time to just put it all together.
5. Demonstration. By the end of the class they’ve learned a very basic Aikido technique. But what could they do when the get more experience? At the end of the class I demonstrate three to four advanced techniques derived from the basic technique that we just practiced. I demonstrate them, with an advanced student serving as uke, at full speed and energy. When I’m done with the demonstration I say: “these techniques are the same that the one we just practiced. I connected with the uke the same way. My body movement is the same. What changed is the amount of time I’ve been practicing,” to make the point that it takes time and dedication to get good at Aikido. This last demonstration is super important. Most students will go back home and only remember the last thing they did or saw. If the last thing they saw was me demonstrating Aikido at its full potential, then they will dream about what they can do if they join and start practicing.
I’ve used this method of teaching a class with a new potential student for many years. However, it’s been a while since I’ve had the opportunity to do so until these last two weeks where both days I’ve had someone trying out a class. I followed this method and at the end of class they say exactly what we want to hear:
“How can I join?”
When I teach a Shodo seminar or workshop I follow the same principles as when teaching Aikido to new students. In this video I go over the method I used to teach my last Shodo seminar in Brooklyn, NY.