Do you have aspirations of becoming a martial arts badass? Aikido is not your best choice, by Stanley Pranin

“A single person, regardless of his martial skill level, cannot hope to compare or prevail against the overwhelming force and strategies that can be brought to bear by today’s military and law enforcement personnel, or even members of an armed street gang.”

I published an article recently about the decline in the number of aikido practitioners which I believe to be accurate based on an abundance of anecdotal evidence. I don’t think anyone has produced any confirmable statistics on the subject that would refute what I wrote.

I would like to direct this blog to the subject of young people, mostly males, who are contemplating the study of a martial art and their motivations for doing so. Given the current martial arts scene with the plethora of options, aikido will likely not be their first choice.

I have touched upon this topic from time to time and would like to first mention the subject of motivation. I believe that fear, the desire to safeguard one’s physical well-being, and unrealistic illusions of becoming invicible fighters fueled by action movies, video games, and such material are among the common reasons for young people embarking on the path of the study of a martial art.

Being young and inexperienced, most of these youngsters are incapable of following long, complex chains of reasoning that place such an important life decision in perspective. Thus, they set out on their journeys with a present orientation and fail to weigh possible long-term consequences of such a decision.

A few observations…

  • Few beginners will follow through with their training for any length of time due to lack of discipline
  • The amount of physical effort, pain, and overall discipline needed will overwhelm most
  • The focus of instruction may be less on self-defense and personal development, and prioritize rapid advancement in ranking primarily for financial purposes related to the operation of the school
  • Those who persevere will be encouraged to enter into competitions to represent their schools, often motivated heavily by financial considerations of the school owners
  • Those who become competitors will fail to forsee the pain, frequency and long-term effects of injuries they are likely to incur during their preparation and matches

Surely, many other factors along these lines could be mentioned, but I think this list will serve to illustrate how different the methods and mentality of the violent fighting systems offered today differ from the spirit and reality of aikido training.

I believe many young males are at least partially motivated by the desire to be strong, standout martial artists who exude self-confidence. It is the modern day version of the image of the knights of old, the invincible gunfighter of the Old West, the soldier-hero of the non-stop wars infesting our world, and so on.

If those who practice martial arts, particularly those who engage in competitions, regard themselves as the strongest warriors of society and brethren of the modern military hero, they are seriously deluding themselves.

The elite fighters of the modern age, be they members of the military, police or government agencies, are of an entirely different breed. Their skills exhibit rapidly increasing sophistication both in terms of weaponry and strategy.

A single person, regardless of his martial skill level, cannot hope to compare or prevail against the overwhelming force and strategies that can be brought to bear by today’s military and law enforcement personnel, or even members of an armed street gang.

Today’s elite military and law enforcement officers operating in the field are veritable bionic men connected to computer networks. By comparison, the study of martial arts by the general public can be viewed as a casual pastime to learn limited self-defense skills, for exercise, and social interaction.

In such a rapidly changing competitive environment, prospective students of aikido should reevaluate their thinking. No one will become invicible through the study of aikido or any martial art. The benefits of serious practice will take the form of character building, good health, improved powers of observation, the exercise of courteous behavior, sensitivity to others, the ability to remain calm and compassionate under duress. Such are the tools of survival and success in today’s violent world.

The fighters among us will pay heavily both physically and mentally for their fascination and romance with power and violence. They will serve as the tools of others who wield power behind the scenes and may be discarded at any time and easily replaced.

The serious aikidoka will find in the art a peaceful lifestyle, seldom find himself in a violent altercation, and avoid confrontational behavior. Not very exciting, to be sure, but a receipe for success and happiness in life.

P.S. Stanley Pranin has practiced aikido for 54 years. The above article is a sample of his writing. His aikido looks like this.

Categories: Contributed,Stanley Pranin

20s Comments

  1. After several years of studying Aikido and talking with young men (I am a middle aged gal) I find that when they say “street effective” they usually mean “bar fight effective”. Which is OK I guess but hardly anything like being attacked by someone who wants to kill or rape you.

    Most folks taking martial arts where I live in the suburbs and almost always when I here about a young man’s fighting experience it involves alcohol and/or a bar. Which, interestingly enough, Aikido is perfect for seeing as how you will most likely not break someone’s face and face an assault charge or losing your house because someone sued you. It has happened.

    But better yet, why not learn verbal deescalation tactics and situational awareness. (Or just stay out of bars, but good luck telling that to men in their early 20’s.

  2. Interesting article.

    However we have to keep in mind that martial arts were made with the intention to kill and/or incapacitate an opponent.

    I have to disagree with your comparison to today’s military forces versus any martial artists, as you won’t find any modern martial arts dojo teaching field strategy, survival, battlefield terrain, formations or even the correct use of fire guns.

    Comparing both is like comparing photoshop against ancient painting techniques, as with the flow of time, ancient fighting arts such as kendo, naginatado, sojutsu etc. have become obsolete in the battlefield.

    All that remains today of those arts is the fighting spirit, which can be compared between any martial artist and any soldier or police officer. I seriously belive that any martial artist from any repectable doojo could stand a chance against any soldier, in a one-on-one hand to hand combat.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m against mma as well, as it favours glory and materialistic goals, over discipline and achieving a great fighting spirit, however, we should always remember that people died and fought using these ancient martial arts we practice nowadays, in the battlefield.

  3. In my article I’m not talking about a martial artist engaging in combat against an armed and trained law enforcement officer. I refer to the delusional way of thinking of competitive martial artists that think they have reach the pinnacle of skills and regard themselves as invincible in the ring. The fighting skills apply primarily to the ring and rules of engagement and have little to do with the real world where no rules exist. The young male is often not able to make such distinctions and is seduced by the glamour, excitement, famous and prize money. He is willing to subject his body to intense abuse and runs the risk of permanent, serious injuries.

  4. ”Do you have aspirations of becoming a martial arts badass? Aikido is not your best choice, by Stanley Pranin”

    I agree, if you train like most people, two or three times a week, one hour per class, then if you add all the completely unrealistic ( and by that I mean ineffective) attack scenarios in Aikido, well, yes, you will get demolished by almost anyone with the minimal fighting skill, there’s a Musashi quote that says ” you fight like you train”, what if you trained like Mas Oyama, with that level of dedication and yes even obsession, against realistic resistance, and attacks that are random, nobody will ever attack you with shomen uchi, or even yokomen, nobody will run up to you with arms extended for the perfect bypass ( oh and let’s not talk about those high falls). Aikido works, but it’s incomplete (excuse the blasphemy), with the right add ons it can be downright amazing, but by itself, the way it’s taught, it comes up short. But again I quote ” You fight like you train.”

  5. Pranin Sensei, perhaps it will be a shift in the kind of person who seeks aikido as distinct from those who seek martial arts training. Martial arts share the goal of eliminating the ability of an aggressor to destroy or control the martial artist. Most martial arts seek to accomplish this goal by destroying or controlling the aggressor. Aikido can be used for the same purpose but it can accomplish this goal more effectively when the aggressor is neither destroyed or controlled as the energy expressed is grounded in a way that no one is hurt.

    By understanding how intention determines energy flows in conflict situations one can see how limbic system defense responses are born from the intention to deal with a perceived threat by fighting back (spear), holding the ground and defending (shield) or by withdrawing from the conflict (retreat). Any of those intentions can produce action that insures survival but they could as easily insure defeat. With aikido we find that when we enter the unification with our partner with an open heart the fields of energy created by the intentions coupled with the movements of aikido merge and define a unique path. In this unification, the expansive nature of the energetic fields produced by the intention that all benefit from the interaction makes it possible for not only the physical energy of the attack to dissipate but also for the desire to attack to be emptied.

    As this kind of unification is not possible when one views one’s attacker as an enemy, perhaps the warriors-to-be who choose aikido are honing a different set of skills other than those used to conquer an adversary. If opportunities to exercise our skills in overcoming our fighting minds during a physical assault are thankfully limited, it seems that there are ample opportunities to practice aiki principles in daily life. Furthermore, these skills are skills that can be continually gained through the entirety of a life, not diminishing with old age.

    Those seeking invincibility through superiority are not aikidoka!

  6. Dear Stan,

    I agree with your conclusions about the decline of Aikido, and your reasoning behind it. As one who was fortunate to be exposed to Aikido at a young age when times were different, and when Aikido had just arrived here in the US via Honolulu, Hawaii, my indoctrination and motivations were very different. Everything was traditional martial arts back then, and Aikido had to prove itself to be valid. My first Sensei was an Ex- Military police, Judoka, and Karateka who was recruited into Aikido. We learned good ukemi first, because we kohai were all used as mops to clean the mats. Good falling led to good understanding of throws, and the ability to throw hard without hurting each other. Attacks were sincere, and included effective punching and kicking. There were no delusions of what worked or what did not work. Through randori we discovered this.

    You know of my training outside of Aikido into Karate, Judo and BJJ, three arts that have a tournament competition component. I have trained and competed enough now to know first hand about that which you have discussed. Consequently, my understanding comes from having been in the ring, in the dojo, and having developed relationships in these worlds. Long story short, Competition in martial arts turns it into a sport. When that happens, then the moral fabric of the art is eroded, and there is no more “martial” and no more “art”. There are, however, gems inside this chaos that one can harvest and keep if properly grounded. For me, tournaments are an extension of my training, and an opportunity to put myself on the line, and to make my techniques work under maximum opposition. It is inside this kind of extreme conflict where we find out not just if we are good enough to make the techniques work, but also the depth of our character and fighting spirit is tested. We rarely are pushed to the edge of our limits in this way, and the tournament ring is the best place to discover this part of ourselves. The problem is that there are so many misguided souls leading the charge, and the growing masses are following them in a feeding frenzy of ego, greed, and narcissistic obsession.

    Aikido has taken the high road, but in doing so has gotten soft and lost the edge it once had. Was Charles Darwin right that the strong will survive? Or will the “meek inherit the earth”. Mochizuki Sensei was advised by O Sensei to develop 3 things….”Be Strong, Be Kind, Be Free”. Our art has a beautiful philosophy of life. However, we must first be strong in order to carry out the rest of it.

    People are amazed at my ability to pick up skills and use them effectively in randori. It is because of my Aikido training that this is possible. My hope is to bring back all I am learning to help bolster our art and to win back the respect in the martial arts community that we have lost.

    Thank you for all you do as the beacon light to the Aikido world. Keep up the great work.

    Warmest Aloha,

    Ken Teshima

  7. Dear Pranin Sensei.

    I agree with your opinions and the basis of the article you have written (and many of your recent ones as well). I realised as a child studying Karate that I just didn’t enjoy hurting other people. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I went into medicine and discovered Aikido – spending my days trying to be aggressive and hurt others is not the way I want to spend my life

    Aikido offers so much on its own terms. It has given me friends, it has inspired me to learn Japanese, travel internationally and delve deeply into the customs of a foreign culture – all of which have been enriching. To me it is a martial art in the literal sense – an art form based on the martial techniques of the Samurai culture. However – I believe it should be precise and technical (much as ballet is an ‘art form’ and yet the discipline and precision required is beyond that achieved by almost any martial artist).

    My only concern is the extreme focus, whether implicit or explicit, on the the role of tori in training – particularly as modern discussions continue to revolve around ‘effectiveness’. One of the more unique aspects of Aikido is the constant switching of roles between both partners. However – the focus clearly seems to favour one role over the other. If you compare Aikido to Tango, for example, with truly equal focus on the roles of lead and follow I wonder how much further we could go if both roles really were given equal attention during training rather than, as I often feel, people seem to wait for ‘their turn’ to throw their partner and the instructor primarily focuses on one side as well

    Please continue writing on your fantastic blog


  8. Agreed.

    Fighting involves, as Terry Dobson observed, consent. That sounds paradoxical and I didn’t get it, even though I had read Clausewitz who said the same thing about battles. Let me try to restate this. In a competition each fighter has a corner and comes out fighting at the bell (consent). That robs either of aiki, the ability to foresee and forestall attack, timing. The usual prelude to a bar fight is some exchange of insults. The objective is to lure the other party into a rash attack. Attacks are necessary in a fight to disable or dispatch an opponent, but are inherently vulnerable and dangerous.

    Even bar fights have rules. The basic rule of fighting is confrontation. While the orientation of fighters may change the central tendency is to square off to the opponent just out of range, then move into range from time to time to exchange blows or grapple. If you try to do aikido techniques from this orientation it will be difficult at best, and usually unsuccessful.

    Trying to bend aikido into the form of fighting is to miss the point. Aikido is a way to deal with aggression, even physical aggression, without going down the road to a fight. As Terry Dobson put it, Little John waited on the bridge for Robin to go cut a staff. He could have gone to the pub or even crossed the bridge and helped Robin in his selection. Robin could have gone off into the woods… and found another way across. If he had been really bloody minded, he could have shot Little John from cover, a medieval version of the drive-by. This is not to advocate lethal outcomes, but I’ll bet it took O Sensei some time to move beyond them.

  9. I agree, you will not become an invincible badass. However I have tended to observe that the most common reaction of the untrained to being physically attacked is to freeze in denial, and the attack is finished as quickly as it started.

    In the event of a real world assault ANY response, ANY training, be it boxing, Aikido, Judo etc, is better than staring, shocked as the assault comes in, saying to yourself “this can’t be happening, this can’t be……”

    If asked “what is the best martial art?” – my answer is “the one that you enjoy and can get access to”. If you enjoy it, you will continue it, and that it after all the ONLY secret to learning martial art – keep turning up.

  10. @ Juan Rodriguez

    “nobody will ever attack you with shomen uchi, or even yokomen”

    Please, let’s not start this again. If you have ever seen people get in to a fight in a club, pub, bar or whatever the name is a night out place you have been to, you would have seen fights ending pretty quickly with a nice beer bottle yokomen to the temple of the head or even shomen to the top of the head. Not to mention that in 90% of those situation the initiation of those attacks involve a katatori menuchi grab for the shoulder so you can’t dunk or evade the attack with a normal reflex. Get a nice stick, about 30-40 cm in length, put some styrofoam on the top (15-20cm of length) and start executing techniques with intention. That should get you started.

    As for the article, i have to ask you to make a definition of what is means to be a “martial arts badass”. Is it somebody who can jump up one day and decide that he want’s to go to a war and be victorious, maybe a ring fighter who in undefeated in the ring or just an average man who seeks to find means of protecting himself from bodily harm?

  11. I think Lynne, way up at the top, said a bunch with her statement. They want something effective for the bar. The guy that said nobody will ever come at you with a shomenuchi or yokomenuchi is not thinking about a beer bottle. My first Karate sensei bartended on the side and he said most fights usually start with a lapel or shirt grab. Nikyo, Sankyo, Yonkyo, Udeosai, any will do. Who teaches those besides us? Not many places.

  12. Aikido can be effective in a combative (bar fight) situation. Shomen uchi should be seen as an strike one would attempt to execute with a bottle or yokumen uchi can be viewed as a hook lunch. Nevertheless practitioners of Aikido should not only learn the techniques and train for effective execution, but also try understand strategic dynamics of a confrontation/fight. Jabs, punches, grabs, kicks basically won’t change because of the human anatomy and its obvious limitations, but adapting techniques to address, counter and overcome these attacks is crucial to the credibility to the art of Aikido as a martial art.

    Part of my Aikido training is watching MMA bouts and trying to figure out how I would successfully engage such an encounter. Aikido has plenty of techniques that would allow you to successfully engage any assailant, whether they’re trained or just an angry drunk, the key is navigating the encounter (before/avoidance, during/effective execution & after/escape).

    Anytime an activity needs credibility ( viewed as a “sport”), it always evolves into a competitive dynamic, then eventually money & sponsorship are involved. Aikido does not need this type of evolution to survive.

  13. Stan:

    “What a piece of work is a man!  
    How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! 
    In form and moving how express and admirable! 
    In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! 
    The beauty of the world. 
    The paragon of animals. 
    And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? 
    Man delights not me.”

    ~ Hamlet


    Among his many observations, Napoleon said:

    –  “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”
    –  “A man will fight harder for his interests than for his rights.”
    –  “An officer can do no wrong if he rides to the sound of the guns.”


    “First principles, Clarice. 
    Read Marcus Aurelius. 
    Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? 
    What is its nature? 
    What does he do, this man you seek?”

    ~ Hannibal Lecter

    So, … why do we do what we do, the way we do it?

    ‘Tis important to consider and appreciate how we, as a species, have come to “think” (mentate and cognate), “feel and emote”, and “behave” the way that we do.

    – The brain stem (reptilian) part of our brain is 500, 000,000 years old.
    – The limbic system (mammalian) part of our brain is 150,000,000 years old.
    – The cortex (higher mammals / primate) part of our brain is 40,000,000 years old.
    – The neocortex (human) part of our brain is 3,000,000 years old.
    – Our species, Homo sapiens is at least 300, 000 years old.

    The synthesis of these processing systems in a holistic and integral way is not something that human kind has had much opportunity to develop yet. Much less, integrate with high intention, broad understanding, and deep wisdom in a truly heartfelt and soulful context .

    Each element contributes to the mix … by means of its own “language”. Just as in the United Nations, where it is very rare that every nation agrees completely with every other nation and then is able to generate a thoroughly unified and cohesive position, so too do our different levels of awareness seldom line-up in unambiguous accord.

    There is a lot of wrangling, vying for attention, and sometimes out-right internal cerebral food fights.  Who should have the floor when, and who should shut up when, and who should listen to whom … and when is it necessary to just chill out and learn to “get” each other’s perspective and groove with it for a while.

    As a species, we are just too young. Haven’t had enough time yet.

    But that is not to say that we can’t go a very long way down the road of integration and higher development as individuals. In fact, that is the call of higher consciousness; of the more, better, finer of spiritual growth.

    One of my favorite takes on this …

    “But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides.  And so what shall we wonder at?  Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments?  Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished.  The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.”

    ― Robert Ardrey

    Oh, something else Nappy said … worth considering:

    “There are only two forces in the world, the sword and the spirit. 
    In the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.”

    “The more I study the world, the more I am convinced of the inability of brute force to create anything durable.”

    Thank you Stan.

    ~ David Brown

  14. As I child I very much enjoyed “play fighting” as we called it, friendly wrestling between friends, perhaps with some controlled striking. It rarely degenerated into real “angry” fighting. I think that friendly competition can be good training for actual combat, and that there is a place for such friendly competition in the martial arts, including Aikido, so long as we keep a good attitude. In Aikido we use jujutsu technique and timing, not strength; we want to succeed, but safety is more important than winning; we don’t want to be seriously hurt, and we don’t want to seriously hurt (or humiliate) our opponent; we strive to improve and we strive to help our opponent improve; and it should be good fun for everyone. Even if partners are mismatched, a good-sport can allow (or help) his opponent to prevail sometimes, in order to maintain a happy balance, and so that everyone can improve, and everyone can enjoy a taste of victory!

    BJJ and MMA and karate and boxing competition can also be done in this spirit if we wish, but prize money, gambling and such could take the fun and the friendliness out of it, so I wouldn’t want to go there. I like the sounds of kudo, they have a good idea to use protective gear which can prevent the most serious injuries. I would never pridefully “refuse to tap” and suffer a serious injury, or inflict such an injury on someone else. I would never continue a “play fight” after taking or giving a hard strike. If I’ve taken a serious strike that would injure me (if I wasn’t using protective gear), or if my opponent has me in a “check-mate” lock that could cause me a serious injury, then the fight is already over.

    To be honest, I do want to be an “Aikido bad-ass” to some extent. I want to improve my Aikido until I am very confident in my ability to protect myself, and until I can fight at a high level if necessary. But it’s not my goal to dominate or even to excel over other people. Many of the Aikido and Jujutsu masters we admire were and are extremely capable fighters. Of course, no one can expect to defeat a squad of armed police or a gang of bloodthirsty thugs on their own, this is simply impossible in reality, although it might be fun to try our luck in a controlled simulation of such. If a marital artist needs to engage in such serious battles, we had better bring some armour, weapons, and fellow soldiers along, and must be willing to suffer injury or die for that cause if necessary.

    My approach to thugs and thieves is generally “let him have your cloak as well”. Give them what they want and more, without fear. They will take it but maybe they will be embarrassed, and you’re much more likely to avoid receiving or causing an injury. If combat is forced on me, I’m confident that my Aikido will give me a better chance to survive and avoid injury, and a better chance to avoid seriously hurting the other person. I’d be a whole lot more confident if I practised sparring and play fighting more often.

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