Written by Ania Small

End of Class discussion at Aikido of Maine

In the first part of this article, I defined teaching on the mat, or “helping”, 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 talked about how it can negatively impact students and the dojo as a whole. I also described different types of “helping” on the mat, including verbal instruction, nonverbal teaching such as shutting down partner’s movement, and more subtle forms like pointing where to throw etc. In more extreme cases, “helping” on the mat could take form of abuse of power, or bullying, especially if there is a power differential between the partners. Although it’s a universal issue, women tend to be on the receiving end of it more often. I talked about teaching on the mat as both an individual and systemic problem. In looking at possible strategies to deal with it, I will talk about responding to teaching, making a decision in the moment whether to “help”, and about systemic strategies for preventing it.



I have personally tried different approaches over the years. At the beginning, I’d get upset and ignore it. That didn’t work, because I’d carry the bad feeling even after class, and I’d tend to avoid the “helper” on the mat. I tried saying “thank you, but I don’t learn by talking”, but that left room for “showing”, and still left me rattled. A while ago, Marsha Turner Sensei, shared with me a phrase she frequently used. It was “thank you, but I need to figure it out for myself”. I used it several times, but found that I didn’t want to thank the “helper”, and since I was upset, the sentence was too long for my voice not to show it. What I came up with is addressing it with a very brief statement such as “please stop”, or “I don’t want help”, as soon as it happens. Sometimes saying “thank you”, or “sorry” can create confusion or an opening for the “helper”. Saying it in an assertive, confident and brief way every time “helping” happened, has worked best for me. I believe that it should be done immediately, and every time it happens. Wendy Whited Sensei shared with me that her way of dealing with coaching is to start moving faster, making it impossible for the “helper” to talk. “I simply threw him every round and never gave him chance to throw me. He decided to shut up after that.”

Teachers, as well as seniors can empower students to speak up, when unwanted teaching, or abuse of power happens. Standing up to a bully can be a very valuable lesson. Being aware that the dojo culture supports that communication, can make it easier for a student to deal with the issue sooner. It would help avoid a “foot in the door” phenomenon, when a little of teaching is tolerated, which opens the door to an ongoing instruction. Another approach is for teachers to encourage the person who tends to “help” others on the mat to focus on their training goals. Sometimes a student really wants to teach, although they are not ready to do so, and it might be helpful to delineate a path for them that could help them focus on their own practice. It might highlight the reasons why they are being “helpful”. Imposing their ideas on others might be a misguided need to be recognized and admired, which might be met better by improving their Aikido.

DECIDING WHETHER TO “HELP” OR NOT. Here is what Bill Gleason Sensei told me about his approach: “when I attend seminars today, I try not to offer any help, other than good ukemi, unless I’m asked, and even then try to say as little as possible”. In other words, a rule of thumb: don’t offer help, unless you’re asked. If you do, keep it to a minimum, addressing just the question asked. I would add, check with yourself that your answer is not self-serving (to impress, feel superior, exert power, or take a break from moving when you’re tired etc.). If your partner asks a question, you can try to answer non-verbally and guide them with your ukemi, unless it’s a simple, one word answer (if the question is for example “are we doing omote or ura?”. If it’s more complicated, seek out the class teacher, especially if the class is small, or offer to work on it after class. If you practice with someone after class, keep lecturing to a minimum, and focus on the movement. So the decision tree around teaching could be something like that: am I being asked, what’s my agenda in responding to the question, could it be addressed concisely, is the teacher available, can it be addressed after class?

There are definitely some grey areas here. Sometimes we might act confused, or frustrated with a technique, or a concept the teacher wants us to apply. It might be read by our partner as an invitation to “help”, and alleviate our distress. Again, if there is no direct question, it’s better to assume that your partner can handle a level of discomfort connected to learning and applying new information, and they can do it themselves. Jumping in would be taking away that opportunity. Keep in mind that a simple question does not mean an ongoing invitation for teaching. It only applies to this specific situation.

With that said, there might be people, who are authorized by the teacher to offer help on the mat.  They are assistant teachers in the class, and helpful, especially in a large class.  I propose that it should be made clear to them and to students, to avoid others taking on the role of “helpers”.  The expectations are then clear, and the teaching on the mat does not spread, and become everyone teaching each other.

In the first part of this article, I mentioned that teaching on the mat could sometimes be just a case of lack of knowledge of dojo etiquette, and expectations of what being a good training partner entails. ASU handbook has following guidelines regarding this topic: “Respect those less experienced. Do not pressure your ideas on others. Do not attempt to correct or instruct your training partner, unless you’re authorized to do so. Keep talking on the mat to absolute minimum.” Going over these with new dojo members may be a way to make sure everyone is familiar with the expectations. I used to be hesitant to enforce the “one teacher on the mat” rule, thinking that it might be perceived as an “ego trip”. After all, I’m saying the only one who’s allowed to teach during my class is me. Perhaps explaining why, and highlighting the difference between being truly helpful to one’s partner by taking good ukemi, and teaching, would help make the message more clear.

Mary Heiny Sensei told me, that when she opened her dojo in Seattle she “worked to establish a culture of everyone doing what the teacher did, without talking, during class. Then, after class students could work on what they wanted. If a nage was getting stopped over and over by uke, I encouraged everyone to get the attention of the teacher to get help. Worked mostly but not always. It is an ongoing issue”. She suggests that if speaking up to a person “helping” doesn’t stop the behavior, there should be a clear procedure to follow, for example: “the affected person talking to their partner, talking to a senior student, mediated interaction if necessary, and finally, the chief instructor “laying down the law”. As she said “we are westerners in America, not Japanese in Japan. We can do this type of thing.”

Senior students can play an important role in creating a positive dojo culture, since they are the models for newer people. A healthy dojo environment is where senior students are focused on their own learning, challenge each other, and support beginners by being good training partners, and offering practice, when asked, after class. Dan Messico Sensei, at the end of his seminars encourages the senior members of the dojo to be an example to their juniors by taking good ukemi for everyone. It is a much better way of helping newer students to grow, than verbal instruction.

Teachers are also models of behavior on the mat. We need to examine our own interactions with students, to ensure they are respectful and facilitate learning. Teaching gives us a certain degree of power. We demonstrate the technique or talk, while students sit seiza and look up at us. We need to be careful to not take advantage of it. It requires an ongoing awareness and introspection. Is what and how I’m teaching helping a student to grow? Should I let them work through it before I offer a solution? What is my agenda in correcting someone? The list can be pretty long. I used to say something while teaching, and then say it again in a different way (maybe since English is not my first language), to make sure it was understood. I’m trying not to do that now, so I won’t model over-explaining and talking on the mat. I want to respect students’ ability to figure things out and ask questions when needed. I’m also avoiding showing what not to do, which suggests the “right” and the “wrong way”, and could be disrespectful to class participants.

I believe that a teacher, who models a fluid mindset in learning, rather than presenting himself or herself as someone who’s gained mastery, can be more successful in facilitating exploration, and discouraging students from imposing their “fixed” knowledge on one another. I look up to teachers who are students themselves, and who talk about their learning process, including even mistakes they’ve made along the way. Peer feedback between the teachers within the dojo or organization could be helpful in accomplishing better insight and model fluid mindset. Asking students what they find more and less helpful in our teaching could be another manifestation of mutually respectful teaching relationship.

I became increasingly aware while writing this article how important and upsetting the issue of teaching on the mat was to me. Although venting to my Aikido friends over the years helped me feel supported, it has not brought me closer to a solution. Writing this article created an opportunity to reach out to different Aikido teachers and friends, including Mary Heiny, Wendy Whited, Dan Messisco, Bill Gleason, Guy Hagen, Lee Crawford, Penny Sablove, Gary Small and Rob Morrison, who provided me with helpful feedback and information. I hope that I was able to communicate why teaching on the mat is problematic, and to contribute to finding ways to address it. As Penny Sablove said to me: talking about it IS part of the solution. I hope we can continue the conversation.

I’d like your thoughts on this topic. I’d love to hear how others deal with this, and would really appreciate your reactions to some solutions I’ve suggested. Hopefully the dialogue can help us address the issue of “helpful” training partners. Thanks for reading.

Ania Small teaches at Aikido of Maine and holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology