UNWANTED “HELP” ON THE MAT
By Ania Small
As a woman training a martial art, I’ve been on the receiving end of teaching, or what I will also call here “helping” on the mat, many times. I will define it as offering verbal or non-verbal suggestions to a training partner, when you are not a teacher of the class, and when you are not asked for them. I decided to write about it, after noticing some subtle forms of “helping” even in our own dojo in Maine. I’ve talked to others over the years, who find teaching on the mat personally upsetting, and problematic on a larger scale. Being frustrated with an interaction on the mat can influence how we feel about our partner, the dojo, or even the art of Aikido, therefore I think it’s an important problem to address. I’m writing this as an Aikido student, a woman who experienced being taught on the mat, and now a teacher, partially responsible for creating a healthy atmosphere at the dojo. My goal is to better understand the phenomenon of teaching on the mat, and to find some solutions. Part one will focus on exploring the “helping” and different forms it takes, and part two will be dedicated to possible strategies of dealing with it.
Mary Heiny Sensei shared with me her experience of training in Japan. No one taught on the mat other than the teacher. When early on she was having a frustrating time with Shihonage, and asked her training partner for help, in her words “the poor man looked surprised and alarmed. Then he swung his own arm in the direction I should go and said nothing. The time to ask for help was after class.” Even though there was no verbal instruction, the other forms of exerting influence on the partner were present. She recalls that sometimes her partners, frequently more experienced and male would try to shut her down, and she had to struggle out of it. “I learned from this, that doing that to an uke just prevented anything useful from happening. It was a form of bullying.”
Wendy Whited Sensei said: “”One can teach or one can train, you cannot do both. You either focus on yourself and what needs to be improved, or you focus on worrying about what the other person is doing. Coatings mostly done so you can convince yourself you know something. It is really not about helping anyone else. At Hombu there is no coaching allowed”. Uchideshi would say “Only the teacher is teaching here. Not you!”
Here, in the US the rule of “one teacher on the mat”, and “no talking” are not as obvious and grounded in the culture as in Japan, which opens the door to all forms of teaching on the mat, including verbal instruction. There is also confusion around what it means to be a good training partner, because of our cultural beliefs about helping others. For that reason, I believe that it’s important to explore and clarify the difference between a GOOD and a “HELPFUL” partner.
GOOD TRAINING PARTNER provides an honest ukemi (receiving the throw or a pin), with their energy dedicated to the moment of the interaction, and appropriate level of challenge. He or she is focused on their own practice, while adequately responding to their partner’s movement. The honesty of the ukemi is both physical and mental. Good training partner is focused on the movement and staying relaxed and connected to the person they’re working with. Their goal is to work on improving their own practice. As Dan Messisco Sensei says that ”the best way we can help others is through working on ourselves.The quality of our ukemi allows space for our partner to discover for themselves the appropriate path of reconciliation”.
Kevin Choate Sensei had a “shape nage” approach, when working with beginners. It was a non-verbal way of using your ukemi to have nage feel the shape that they were trying to get in the technique. It doesn’t impose teaching, but helps newer people experience the technique, and allows them to feel successful, taking away the stress and pressure of “making it work”.
“HELPFUL” OR TEACHING TRAINING PARTNER focuses on evaluating the other person, in order to give instruction. This can take many forms. One of them, unfortunately pretty common, is talking and giving advice on how to execute technique. Another is stopping other person’s movement (Kevin described it as “being attacked by a castle”, which in our dojo we now call “castling”), and moving only when the partner does the technique the way the “helpful” uke thinks it should be done. That description, I believe really captures the lack of usefulness of that kind of ukemi. Sometimes, “helpful” partner stops the technique, and suggests that their partner does the movement by themselves very slowly, mirroring the movement of the person “helping”. Personally, I find that form of teaching on the mat very frustrating. I remember being new to Aikido and having to stop my movement to look and copy another person. I found that it interfered with my learning process and didn’t match my style of learning through movement. Some of the forms of teaching could be very subtle, like gently placing partner’s hand on the elbow, where one thinks it should go, or pointing to the direction, where the “helper” thinks he should be thrown.
WOMEN ARE MORE OFTEN ON THE RECEIVING END OF HELPFULNESS THAN MEN. Although not all men, and not only men tend to teach on the mat, women often call it “mansplaining”. I’ve experienced “mansplaining” first hand even when I was teaching a class. After offering a simple suggestion to a male student, I was met with “let me tell you what I’m working on”, followed by a lengthy description. I believe, that sometimes men truly try to be “helpful” to women without realizing that it might be patronizing or unwelcome. It’s called “benevolent sexism”, and it’s based on perception that we need help. Some of us might reinforce it by looking unsure or thanking for help. Even when we try to ignore it or communicate that we don’t need the guidance, some men might not notice that the teaching is unwelcome. Sometimes it is really difficult to speak up when it seems that someone just wants to “help”. After all, we are socialized not to be confrontational. Sometimes it takes a while to realize that the teaching is upsetting to us, and at that point the pattern is established, and we have reinforced the behavior by listening, or even thanking our partner. In over thirty years of training, I’ve only witnessed women teaching on the mat twice. Both instances were in the dojos where the culture of instructing one another was quite prevalent, and a belief in “one right way of doing the technique” very strong. Maybe one of the reasons women tend to not teach on the mat, is that we are conditioned not to be too confident, and assume we are “right”, which works to our advantage in this case.
BEING TAUGHT ON THE MAT HAPPENS TO BOTH MEN AND WOMEN. Even though women might experience being taught on the mat more frequently, it is a universal issue, and many men end up on the receiving end of “help” as well. Most of the instances are between students of varied degree of experience, with more senior students teaching newer people, but “helping” peers happens as well, leading to uncomfortable feelings during practice. Seminars can be especially difficult, since you might not know your partner, and people can assume, especially if you’re a woman, that they have more experience. Some people don’t hesitate teaching anyone, beginner or instructor alike. Several years ago, I was training with Gleason sensei during an aikido camp. At some point, we were joined by a young guy, who immediately started instructing me. My first thought was, that he was “helpful” to a woman. When it was his and Gleason sensei’s turn to practice though, he continued his instruction. One of my high school teachers talked about dangers of reading only one book. It seems that beginners sometimes are faster to assume that “they know” how to do the technique correctly. Since the guy must have seen Gleason sensei teaching a class prior to the exchange, I often wondered how he thought about this, and what made him come to a conclusion that teaching in this situation was appropriate.
HOW DOES ONE DECIDE TO “HELP”. To decide to teach another student on the mat one probably needs to think “I know it”, my partner needs my “help”, and “my teaching is welcome”. There are a few problems with this line of thinking. Knowing a technique in aikido is not that straightforward. What might work for us, might not work for our partner. As Saotome Sensei says, application of aikido technique depends on a situation, space, the size and shape of our partner, and our own physicality. As far as deciding that another student needs help, assuming responsibility for one’s partner’s learning could be disempowering and patronizing. Offering “help” and not checking with the partner to see if they want the input is a real omission. Certain people, based on their personality, or set of beliefs might be more inclined to make an assumption that they know better, and therefore need to teach others, without making sure that their help is welcome.
BOUNDARY ISSUES. Teaching on the mat, without being asked for help, could be seen as a form of boundary violation. Some of the “helpful” behaviors, such as more advanced student shutting down beginner’s movement, a man instructing a woman without her asking for help, giving a little massage while doing a pin, or in more extreme cases, physical retaliation or disengagement (week attacks and lack of attention), when the “help” is not appreciated, to name a few, are an abuse of power. I think that it is really important for all of us, students and teachers to be aware of that. That awareness can help create a healthy dojo culture.
CHALLENGING VS SHUTTING DOWN. Sometimes, challenging and even testing one’s partner in an honest way can be confused with shutting down. While the first one is a necessary part of practice, especially as people gain experience, the second is a form of power play, and bullying. The challenge should not come though from an agenda of teaching the other, or trying to dominate or impress, but from a strong and honest and connected ukemi. That form of challenging each other is mutually agreed upon, while shutting down is one-sided. Focusing on proving that one’s partner technique does not work, rather than on own training, can create bad feelings in the dojo, and can slow people’s progress. If the “helper” focused on their own practice, and allowed their partner to learn in their own way, it would help them both grow.
INDIVIDUAL AND SYSTEMIC ISSUE. In talking to several Aikido teachers and friends as well as practitioners of other martial arts, I started looking at the problem of teaching on the mat as systemic, as well as individual one. In other words, some of the “helping” could be a problem of the system, in this case the dojo, a larger organization, or society in general, where that behavior is tolerated or even encouraged.
I hope that in our own dojos we can start working on transforming the culture, and eliminating the unwanted teaching. In Part Two of this article I will focus on looking for solutions on both the individual and systems level.
I would love to hear your reactions and comments. Thanks for reading.
Ania Small teaches at Aikido of Maine and holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology