Posted by: balladofyoko | March 12, 2008

The Longest Plateau?

One of the members of my dojo just recently passed his 1st-kyu test. When I had asked him how it went, he had related a exchange he had with another dojo member– that the tests are not really tests. They’re more like demonstrations, to show what you know about aikido at a particular point. “Demonstration” sounded less frightening than “test,” so with this concept in mind, he said, he “demonstrated” his 1st-kyu test. I do like that philosophy.


I haven’t been writing much about aikido lately because I haven’t been feeling good about going. In the past, even if there were days when I didn’t feel like going out to the dojo, I made myself go, and I always ended up being glad I went. I got a rush from practicing. I enjoyed the close-knit community. I always learned something new and was dedicated to learning more.

Nowadays, I feel like my heart’s not in it anymore. Granted, my practice schedule lately has been erratic, due to things at work and being sick, but I’ve been feeling pretty lackluster about practice for months now. I had thought that I was just coming down from the adrenaline from working on my black belt test, but I think I would have felt more back in the swing of things by now.

I don’t want to quit aikido just yet. I do still feel part of this community, and I don’t want to leave that. But I feel like I’ve lost that something that I once enjoyed from practice.

I plan on talking with my mentor and my teacher about this, but I would appreciate any advice you all might have.



  1. I think there’s a reason why many careers, back in the day when people committed to a career for a lifetime, included the idea of a sabbatical.

    If it were just frustration, then I would suggest you try to work past it. Also, if it were still early in your training, I’d advise you to stick with it for a while longer.

    But you’ve been doing it for a while, and you find your enjoyment is absent, so I think it might actually help you to take some time off, maybe study a different martial art or take up a completely unrelated new activity or two. Eventually, you’ll realize whether aikido is something you want to return to, and go back with renewed commitment. You won’t lose all of your skill, and anything that gets rusty you can regain with a little practice. And the community will still be there, although maybe with a few changed faces and some new ones, etc. Besides, nothing says you can’t continue to spend time with your aikido friends. You may find that socializing with them outside of aikido opens up whole new aspects of your friendships with them.

    I myself am on a sabbatical of sorts from martial arts and am now feeling the itch to return to training. I notice that a lot of people who are in MA for the long haul will take informal sabbaticals–often after getting a degree or achieving a long-term training goal of some kind. I think it’s a cue to re-evaluate motivations and commitment, and sometimes you need a break to do that.

  2. Once I looked at the dojo from the outside I understood a lot. Ask yourself why so many black belts have come from there and why so many fall off the face of the Earth. And also why do none ever create anything of their own. I know what my answer is. What’s yours?

  3. Ditto what Ten Feet said. There’s nothing wrong with taking some time off from an activity or hobby. You can return to it when (and if) it is right for you.

  4. There’s often a major crisis point that happens in one’s aikido practice sometime between the 2nd kyu test and the first year or two after the black belt test (in my dojo it seems to happen most often before or during 1st kyu, although a couple of people who advanced especially quickly have had it shortly after reaching black belt).

    For some people, the crisis is precipitated when the ongoing work of deepening their embodiment suddenly brings them face to face with a motherlode of old buried trauma and emotional issues around fear and aggression and such. This can manifest as attacks of terror, panic, rage, and other such feelings on the mat.

    For others, the crisis is precipitated when they get NEAR to that motherlode of difficult material; they’re not CONSCIOUSLY aware that they’re near to it, but all of their unconscious resistances are activated. While the unconscious is terrified and on red alert, what these people experience consciously feels more like boredom, frustration, numbness, weariness, irritation, loss of motivation, and the like.

    The latter situation MIGHT be your situation. It seems likely to me, given where you are in your training and what I know of you, but I’d have to actually be there observing your practice to be able to say for sure. And even if it IS the case, I couldn’t tell you what to do about it without observing your practice at length. George Leonard’s book MASTERY is the best guide I know to dealing with plateaus in general, and I recommend it, but he doesn’t directly address the specific sort of crisis I’ve described here.

    Good luck and hugs to you; keep me posted.

  5. In my school, there is often a crisis when students begin fighting (which is something we put off until students are proficient in a certain number of techniques and their bodies are fit and conditioned enough to take the stress, as we do not use padding). The gender/age/temperament of the student does not seem to play a role–some people just freak out once they experience contact fighting, and many are just as disturbed by having to deliver techniques to another person as they are by receiving them. It’s impossible to predict who will be able to work past the crisis. I think it’s because our culture does not distinguish between aggression and anger or pain and fear, and people often are unable to decouple the mechanical fight from the emotions that they normally associate with the actions/sensations involved. A lot of people are unable to internalize the belief that fighting someone does not have to mean that you hate that person, and that someone who fights you does not have to hate you.

    That said, students go through this phase before degree testing in our school, yet I still notice a dramatic dropoff after students achieve their first degrees. I think the reasons are less about MA and more about goal assessment and also about the student’s relationship to the organization.

    First off, a lot of people don’t realize how much they were in it for the degree–and once they get it, they realize that their fixation on their goal was obscuring the fact that they didn’t love the practice/training for itself. Consciously or subconsciously, their motivation drops, and they leave training. Somehow I doubt this is your case. My impression of you is that you’re the type to mark your progress internally and are not so much about external validation/certification.

    Another reason is that many MA schools start involving students with degrees in the administrative affairs of the school. Suddenly, the student has responsibilities such as teaching, etc. They are more responsible for their own progress–practicing on their own, taking the initiative to get together with fellow students to do some contact work, etc. Training can stall or plateau indefinitely, and some become discouraged and leave or take a break. Also, the bliss of considering yourself a beginner and receiving a lot of external motivation through your teachers is gone. You start worrying about where you “should be” instead of taking the beginner’s attitude of just rejoicing when you make any progress, you start getting anxious about making sure you’re “good enough” to be teaching others, whereas beginners feel less stress about the things that they have a harder time mastering.

    Also, the degree-holding student is more involved with the hierarchy and power dynamics in the school. Now the student has responsibility, and that responsibility often includes acknowledging and deciding whether or not to confront any flaws in school organization and leadership. Sometimes, those flaws (all schools have them) become too discouraging, or students feel a severe conflict between their loyalty to the people who trained them and their need to address or confront the organization’s flaws, and they leave.

    Whatever the reason, some students do come back, deciding that their school is worth it, despite its flaws. Other students decide their school is too problematic, but they realize they want to continue training, so they end up at another school or in another MA.

    And then some realize that ultimately, they’d rather do something else.

    Finally, I think that a lot of people start MA training in their mid-late 20s. By the time they are in their early 30s, which is probably around the 4th year mark at which most traditional and responsible school give out degrees (as opposed to McDojos, which often give degrees as early as 9 months) , their lives have changed significantly. They may have children, a spouse, a mortgage. Some must factor aging or ailing parents into their limited time and energy. A lot of career changes happen around this time, as people suddenly worry about building a future for their families or families-to-come. Suddenly, they realize that MA cannot remain at the top of their priorities list, their training falters, and some decide that it’s better to leave than to stick with stalled or very slowed training for the long term.

    Sorry to run on so long, and I apologize for any incorrect speculations I’ve made about you. I don’t know your school, but from the impression I’ve gathered of you through your blog, I’d say your reasons are likely to be less about confronting and processing the violence aspect of MA than about feelings about your worth as a martial artist or your feelings about your school, how it is organized, and your place in it. These are issues that often bubble to the surface when students achieve their degrees and come to a head in the year or so after that degree.

    I still think that if you need to take a break to sort this out, you will come out ahead in the end and have more direction, focus, and inspiration should you choose to return to your training.

  6. Thanks for your insight, everyone. I think Ten Feet’s assessment hits closer to the mark for me, and that I need to re-assess my motivations for continuing with aikido and the dojo. I’ve contacted my mentor, and we’re going to sit down and chat sometime soon. In the meantime, I’m taking a mini-break and cutting down on the classes I’m attending, if for no better reason than to get more rest and recover from illness.

  7. I hope you have a good meeting with your mentor. And I hope you feel better soon, too!


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