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Do lions compete?

Updated: Feb 6

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Kids and Competition in Aikido

On another awesome day of training, I was about to play a game with my students when one of them asked, “Can we play the game without winners?”

This little girl had no idea about the philosophical implications behind that question. My mind said yes, and of course, I reinvented the game a little, not to include winning, but that got me thinking deeply about how ingrained competition is within our human nature. Is it natural? Is it because of social conditioning? Is it because of our desperate need for approval from our peers?

What about lion cubs? They wrestle in nature with their siblings, yet there is no winning or losing between them. No one gets their feelings hurt, and there is no “us against them” mentality.

So many questions ran through my head.

I organized my thoughts by writing this article.

O’Sensei, the founder of Aikido, did not believe in competition.

A famous quote from him said: “There are no contests in the art of peace. A true warrior is invincible because he or she contends with nothing. Defeat means defeating the mind of contention that we harbor within.”

Aikido is defined by many as the “art of peace,” which we all joke about on the mat, but at some level, we were all attracted to the principle that Aikido held. Ai-Ki-Do loosely translates as a way to harmonize energy. As a Sempai and Teacher of our youth, I clearly make this the main subject and focus of most of my classes, reminding them what Aikido is about. I tell them that I don’t see the word “Aikido” as a name for a martial art, but more to sum up the principles and instructions of how to live your life in harmony with the natural flow of things.

How can you Harmonize with any energy coming at you or around you? Whether physical energy or verbal, aggressive or not.

We practice this by working together in the relationship as Uke (attacker) and Nage (thrower).

Uke gives the name a controlled conflict, and Nage has to redirect that conflict (energy) with correct timing and technique so that both participants come out unharmed.

This is where Aikido gets a lot of heat from the martial art community because it seems unrealistic to fight with someone without there being a victor or a loser.

O’Sensei didn’t like the idea of competition, but not every Aikido practitioner agrees with the founder.

Kenji Tomiki, a student of the founder, created a style of Aikido with a form of competition in it. Other branches and federations asked Kenji to change the name as that is not the embodiment of Aikido.

Tomiki isn’t the only person who believes this either; many Aikido practitioners all around the world join him.

I, on the other hand, stand somewhere in the middle.

I believe that competition is alive and well in many people's practices. Some compete with themselves to advance their skills, always striving to improve the way they practice. Others ask for their Uke to try and “win,” aka resist, in a safe way. After all, it is Uke’s job to provide a controlled conflict for their partner while practicing their own Aikido with their Ukemi (falling); it all depends on your intention going into any situation, but that intention could easily be polluted with social conditioning from years of “fighting the world” or just competing in sports. I believe there is a way to “not fight in a fight”. That doesn’t mean being completely passive; you still have to practice maintaining your center (balance of the body and mind).

How can we be more like the lion cubs wrestling with each other, completely non-attached to the idea or outcome of “winning”? Can we just play like the lion cubs do as a way to improve their skills and body? There has to be a balance between passiveness and assertiveness, a yin and yang ideal. Can we, in our practice, learn to play Aikido? I had a Tai-Chi teacher who said when we “play,” we remove the need to win, and instead, we just have fun.

So how do we help our Aikido Kids in this struggle?

To rephrase a Shakespeare quote, “To compete or not to compete, that is the question.”

I say we try our best to impart the teachings of Aikido in the most playful way possible. If a student seems a little attached to the idea of winning and losing, we simply get on their level and remind them that the game is played to play, have fun, learn new skills, and make yourself the best possible version of yourself. Whether we win or don’t win, that doesn’t mean we don’t have fun!

Aikido is about being at peace with not winning. Once you are at peace with losing, you yourself can never lose.

As I continue to learn more about my own unique intention during my practice, I will continue to relate the meaning of Aikido, to harmonize with energy. No matter what energy, I will remind my students that we must find a peaceful resolution to any conflict that comes our way, even if the conflict comes from within us.

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