Turning Away Students

Before joining Ikazuchi Dojo’s traditional aikido program, we interview each prospective student. Not all are accepted. Since we’ve instituted this system, a few without detailed knowledge of our process have wondered if this is an elitist approach or in some way goes against the core philosophy of aikido. 

We wanted to take the opportunity to outline our thinking on this matter because we find the approach to be beneficial both to the prospective student and the dojo community. Not every dojo can or should follow the same path, but we wanted to share our approach and results so others can reflect on them and perhaps share their approach with us.

It’s About Specialization, Not Exclusion

Aikido is a fantastic art and can be a wonderful practice for anyone. Education in general is one of the most valuable things in our society, yet nearly every learning institution places entrance parameters on their students. Not everyone can show up at Stanford or West Point and start taking classes. Only a certain kind of individual is positioned to succeed at those universities. Not everyone can show up at their local elementary school and enroll. Elementary schools are for kids in grades K-6 and are not designed for 40-year olds.

As a dojo with finite resources, we choose to specialize and focus in order to pursue excellence in execution of our mission. We know there are many whom we can successfully lead down the path of development as an aikidoka. We also realize there are many who may benefit from aikido, but we are simply not set up to support.

Acceptance Criteria

We always keep an open mind and heart when interviewing prospective students, but generally look for alignment in a few key areas.

1. Etiquette and Manners

We occasionally interview prospective students that have substandard manners and etiquette. For instance, a parent will bring in a teen who when introduced to us, won’t make eye contact or verbally respond to a “Hello, nice to meet you.” Sometimes we encounter an individual that has a challenge with basic listening skills or perhaps has an entrenched mindset that would be an obstacle to learning “I bow to no man!”

Aikido can certainly be used as a tool to address and cultivate basic manners and awareness. However, this isn’t our focus. We’re not set up to teach remedial social skills and expect those attributes to be present in the students who join Ikazuchi Dojo.

We expect our adult and teen students to be mindful, respectful, and polite.

2. Training Commitment

We occasionally meet with an enthusiastic individual that wants to enter our traditional aikido program, but plans on training only one hour a week. Skill development in a movement art can’t be cultivated at a reasonable pace with a single hour per week of focus. Our traditional aikido program is designed for those who want to develop themselves as high-level martial artists. Our culture and training programs are aligned to support that focus. Bringing individuals into the program who can only train once a week only sets them up for failure and wastes dojo resources.

We encourage these individuals to participate in our drop-in classes (designed for casual or intermittent practice, but still beneficial for seasoned aikidoka) or to rethink their commitment to training. We’ve had a number of students in this situation who either join our drop-in classes and transition into our traditional program at a later time or adjust their lifestyle to accommodate an expanded training plan. In the end, these students are generally appreciative that we don’t just take their money and throw them into an environment where they won’t be successful.

3. Goal Alignment

There are many reasons one may decide to pursue martial arts training. Without judging others’ goals, we still understand that there are certain goals we can help one achieve, and others we cannot. For example, if someone wants to become as effective of a fighter as possible over a short time horizon (3 months, for example), we’d recommend they check out another art. Aikido can be a very effective martial art from a self-defense perspective, but the learning curve is such that it will take longer to build applied combat skills than other arts (at least the way we teach and train at Ikazuchi Dojo).

In other cases, a prospective student may be more interested in a social club atmosphere and less interested in a sincere pursuit of personal development and growth through the martial arts. While Ikazuchi Dojo does provide a supportive, encouraging, strong, and fun community for all its members, our highest priority is the transmission of the art form and supporting the necessary personal transformation it demands.

We recognize that these are all valid motivations and goals. However, we’re clear up front about our capacity to support a prospective student’s aspirations and when possible, we provide alternatives for the student to explore.

Things We Embrace

1. Students of all ages

We don’t have kids classes, but otherwise we welcome students of all ages (13+). We even teach a select group of kids in an individualized personal training format (outside of group classes) where we can precisely target and tailor instruction to best support their learning profile and current state of physical, mental, and social development.

Jim Hardison, age 77, testing for 2nd kyu.

2. Students with physical constraints

Students with temporary or permanent injuries, movement limitations, or fitness challenges are welcomed into the dojo so long as there’s no material risk or danger for them to train. As long as they’re willing to do the work to improve and are open to tailoring their movements to best align their condition, we’re ready to support them.

We’ve had overweight students join the dojo, slowly make adjustments to  their diet, and embark on a training routine that allowed them to take ukemi and move well on the mats. We’ve had students come in with permanent joint injuries or constraints like hip replacements. We welcome all these individuals and enjoy the challenge of performing biomechanical analyses and developing training and movement strategies to maximize their performance as martial artists.

3. Diversity

We welcome students of all races, cultures, religions, genders, and backgrounds. Diversity is a key pillar of Ikazuchi Dojo. We seek diversity and see the ability to train and develop ourselves in harmony with others as a great way to polish and elevate our aiki spirit.

Group photo at Jeff Imada’s “show and tell” session at Ikazuchi Dojo.

The Results

Since we’ve begun formal student interviews and made selective admissions, we’ve reduced our student drop-out rate, strengthened our community and culture, and seen healthy growth in our students’ learning and enjoyment on the mat.

Our approach won’t be right for every dojo. Some schools may feel the need to take on every student they can in order to keep their dojo running. Others may have a different focus or specialization and have a more broadly inclusive approach. We don’t believe our approach is superior to others, but we do believe that any dojo or learning institution should reflect carefully upon how they define their mission and focus, and what kind of students they can best serve in pursuit of that mission.

20 Comments On “Turning Away Students”

  1. As a long time Aikidoist and aikido teacher,I have come to a similar place in my student acceptance policy. I’d be interested to see your interview questions and learn more about how you go about your interview process.
    Thank You

    Reply

    • Hi Jennifer,

      Nice to meet you online. I’d be happy to share our questions with you and we’d also be interested in your approach. Feel free to email us (dojo@ikazuchi.com) and we can communicate by email or set up a short call to discuss.

      Best,

      Josh

      Reply

  2. A great approach & I 100% agree with this. Quality training.

    Reply

  3. Your criteria for evaluation is, of course, impeccable. However, I personally think if someone wants to try out the training, despite not meeting your standards, they should be accorded that request. They will, as they are observed in such training, be evaluated and true suitability ascertained. In fact, they may learn something to change those negative qualities first observed in an interview. An interview is a good thing however, the presumption of meeting ‘your standards’ is elitist by the very choice of words.

    Reply

  4. Your criteria for evaluation is, of course, impeccable. However, I personally think if someone wants to try out the training, despite not meeting your standards, they should be accorded that request. They will, as they are observed in such training, be evaluated and true suitability ascertained. In fact, they may learn something to change those negative qualities first observed in an interview. An interview is a good thing however, the presumption of meeting ‘your standards’ is elitist by the very choice of words.

    Reply

    • Hi Patrick-san! Thanks for sharing.

      We do allow anyone to try our drop-in classes, which we offer 3 times per week and allow people to observe as many of our other classes as they like. So really anyone can spend as much time on the mat as they like in the drop-in class format and can even work individually with a senior student and ask questions before or after those classes.

      However, we now do want people to go through an orientation before coming into our core / traditional program. We just had too many people come on the mat unequipped to succeed in those classes or with expectations we couldn’t fulfill.

      We find this structure to be a good compromise and since we’ve instituted it have not had any issues. I would also respectfully disagree that having standards to meet is not necessarily elitist. For example, I wouldn’t call an elementary school elitist if they would not accept me (in my 40s) into their school. They’ve just set parameters that allow them to focus their efforts in a certain area.

      Always great to have a good dialogue about this stuff and I’m happy to hear your wisdom and feedback. We’re also always looking for ways to improve our process and value input like this.

      Reply

  5. Hmmm… If the Aikido Dojo that I first went to 35 years ago had done this, my life would be very different today. I would not be teaching Aikido. I would probably be a professional equestrian.

    My intention was to do Aïkido once a week for only one month. I had a one-month Christmas vacation starting the next day and figured I’d be bored if I didn’t do SOMETHING.

    Obviously, I changed my mind. And my reasons/goals for doing Aikido have changed SO many times through the years.

    I completely understand your reasoning for doing this, Josh. And if you’re getting the results you want, then good for you! I was tempted to do this at one point. But then I thought back to when I first started Aikido.

    Now I have a separate time slots for people at different levels – not just different skill levels, but different intensity levels. I don’t really spell it out for them. I just call it a beginners class or an intermediate class. And I make exceptions where I see fit. For example, if someone has only been training a month or two but they never miss class, I’ll give them permission to join the “intermediate class.”

    I also have a teens leadership team, which is by nomination only. I nominate them, then an interview with them, then have an interview with the parents, etc.

    I’m launching my Deshi programs for adults and intend to make the sign-up process similar to what you describe. I.E.: being prepared to pay tuition is not enough. The candidate and I make specific commitments to each other for a specified length of time.

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m always interested in these types of forums to see how other people are running their dojos.

    Looking forward to seeing you guys for the March Friendship Class with Matsuoka Sensei!

    Reply

    • Hi Sensei! Thanks for sharing.

      I totally see your point and will reflect on it and how we might be able to adjust our process in the future.

      However, we do allow people to come in and train once a week, they just do so in our drop-in class format which we offer multiple times a week. So it sounds like we have a similar approach to you in that we’ve segmented our programs to target different types of students with different objectives and skill levels – we just have a different set of programs that we’ve focused in a slightly different way. For us, we use our drop-in classes for people interested in training once a week. Many of them end up loving the practice, expanding their commitment to their training and then transitioning into our full aikido program.

      I like how you’ve built and structured a teen leadership program. That’s a great idea and I’d love to learn more about your experience with it next time we talk.

      Thank you again for your insights and feedback and we look forward to seeing you for the March Friendship Class as well!

      Josh

      Reply

  6. I’m in total accord with interviews. The last interview took over 1 hour at the potential students’ home over coffee – mother, father and 10 year old. They’ve been with me for several months now.

    My Dojo has a small membership but I’m fine with this.

    Potential members can watch as many classes as they like before committing to membership. I do not provide free intro lessons – on this, I am old school. My time is better spent on existing members.

    Cheers

    Reply

  7. Thank you for allowing visitors the opportunity to drop in! I’ve been very fortunate to visit the LA dojo on several occasions, and I look forward to visiting the OC dojo sometime! Osu!

    Reply

    • Tom,

      Good to hear from you! You’re always welcome to visit and train with us anytime. I’d love to meet and have the opportunity to train with you.

      Josh

      Reply

  8. Hi,

    interesting post. I’m just an Aikido beginner and to to me it boils down to
    “does the human fit into Aikido” vs. “does Aikido fit into a humans life”?
    I hink you take the first approach with ist totally ok for me and i see the benefits but i wonder if it has to be that way? Or am i getting something completely wrong?

    Regards, Werner

    Reply

    • Hi Werner! Great to hear from you and welcome to the world of aikido.

      I think I see what your point is here. There are many ways people can enjoy and follow the path of aikido, but as a dojo with finite resources, we have to specialize so we can serve one part of the aikido world as well as we possibly can. For example, we don’t have kids classes so we are not positioned to help more than a few young kids (via private instruction). However, there are a number of other aikido dojos in our area that do offer kids classes and we can direct them to the dojos that focus in that area. We’re not saying kids shouldn’t do aikido, just that we are not specialized to do an excellent job teaching them in group formats ourselves.

      We do have programs and pathways for many though – old, young, athletic, or physically challenged. However, we’ve found that if we, as a dojo, try to cater to everyone, we end up diluting our focus.

      We believe everyone can benefit from aikido, just like everyone can benefit from education. However, one educational institution can’t be effective at supporting everyone. They tend to specialize. You can’t have an effective school that has classes for K-12, special needs kids classes, advanced PHD programs, military studies, etc. all under the same roof. We’ve come to the conclusion that we are just one part of the larger aikido world and want to focus on serving that one part as well as we can.

      Thanks for joining the dialogue!

      Josh

      Reply

      • You’re doing a great job with the dojo, that’s clear. Just a detail in the interviewing process and evaluation that gave me a negative vibe. You’re very organized and developing new venues. I applaud your efforts and success.

        Reply

        • Thank you Patrick-san! Would like to hear about which component of the process gave you a negative vibe. If you get a chance, please email or call me. We’re always looking for ways to improve….Hope to see you soon.

          Reply

  9. Aiki is about the intuitive interpretation of Energy and the proper response to it . Sometimes one can tell a person’s Energy will not yield to the teachings and way of Aiki .
    I do the same , it saves energy for everyone ..
    It is actually the epitome of Harmonizing Energies that could be oppositional before negative Energy can even develop ..

    Michael Tan, Sensei 6th Dan

    Reply

  10. Thumbs up on your Dojo policy!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *