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Friday, October 21, 2011

'Sport' is a Four-Letter Word

There are many martial artists (and I used to be one of them) who take real offense at their arts being called sports. They believe they are practicing something more noble, more real, and more valuable than sport.

I don't know whether or not George Ledyard Sensei takes such offense, but he exemplified the kind of high-minded sentiment I'm talking about in a recent post to his blog George Ledyard's All Things Aikido. Here's an excerpt:
Aikido is a form of Budo. Budo is basically the use of the martial arts for personal transformation. Aikido as Budo is a "Michi" or Martial "WAY" (the "do" in Aiki-do). O-Sensei, the Founder, actually believed that through Aikido, the whole world could be brought into a state of harmony; he called our art "The Way of Peace". For him, Budo was a life and death matter. Given the right level of commitment one could truly become a better person, less fearful, stronger, braver, more compassionate. One could, in his or her own Mind and Body understand that everything in the universe is essentially connected. His creation of Aikido represents a radical transformation of how Budo was viewed historically. It is a unique art. It is not a "hobby", it is not a "sport", it is not a "workout", it is a Michi, a Way.
Before I go on, I would like to make aboundantly clear that I greatly respect and admire Ledyard Sensei and recommend his blog. I have never met Ledyard Sensei, but his online writing alone has been a tremendous influence on my fledgling foray into the martial arts. No small part of the credit for my decision that aikido is a real martial art worth my time and effort should be given to him. He is an icon of American aikido and a treasure of the martial arts world.

All that said, I, humble sixth kyu that I am, am about to disagree with him.

It's not that I doubt Ledyard Sensei's claim that aikido changes lives. I certianly believe it is changing mine. What bothers me is the hard dichotomy he is drawing between martial art and sport on the grounds of his art's life-changing potential.

He is not the first to do so. The world is full of martial artists claiming, "My martial art is not just a sport; it's a way of changing lives."

What I want to know is, whoever said that sports don't change lives?

There is no question that martial arts training can make us "less fearful, stronger, braver, more compassionate". We gain courage and confidence when the martial arts make us face our fears and insecurities. We become stronger as the martial arts hone our bodies and minds. We become more compassionate as we learn that others' pain, joy, failure, and success are the same as our own. The martial arts can teach us discipline and perseverance, and can be a tool for the cultivation of mindfulness (in the Buddhist sense of the word).

But as I see it, all these things can be said just as accurately of ice hockey.

The hockey player has ample opportunity to face his fear and insecurity, to hone his body and mind, to feel pain and joy and learn the pain and joy of others, to learn discipline and perseverence, and to develop mindfulness and awareness. I suspect many have achieved changed lives on the hockey rink.

I even once saw a television documentary about how ice hockey brought together families of different creeds in parts of Northern Ireland torn apart by sectarian conflict. Could it even be that through ice hockey "the whole world could be brought into a state of harmony"?

Alright, maybe I'm pushing it a bit.

We have all heard the martial arts called "a way of life". The more I train, the more I come to see martial art as an activity, something I do rather than something I am. The "way of life" perception, I think, stems from the observation that people can make real positive changes in their lives through martial arts training. But unless a lot of other things--like ice hockey--are also "ways of life", I'm not sure those changes qualify the martial arts for that lofty distinction. No doubt, for full-time professionals like Ledyard Sensei (or Sydney Crosby, in the case of hockey), it really does become a way of life, but the rest of us, I think, are best described as sportsmen, or even (gasp!) hobbyists.

To admit this doesn't mean conceding the point of changing lives. It means recognizing that the capacity to change lives is everywhere, not just in our chosen discipline. It means recognizing that there is nothing shameful or inauthentic about sport.

Those of us who train in pajamas-and-colored-belts martial arts studios these days are aware of a large section of the postmodern world that thinks we are engaging in childish playacting and nonsense. Until we stop insisting that we are better than than the rest of the world's athletes by virtue of our choice of activities, I'm afraid they might just be right.


Normally I would have ended there, but I'd like to add a little extra in reference to Ledyard Sensei, with whose words I have just taken liberty. As with most of my posts, this one will be copied onto AikiWeb, which means there is a very real chance that Ledyard Sensei himself will see it. I hope not to offend him.

To his credit, Ledyard Sensei prefaces the passage I quoted above with these words: "I have decided to explain what I believe about Aikido, and what I see as the mission of [my aikido club]. Folks can decide what these things mean to them, personally." In so saying, Ledyard Sensei opens up his remarks to interpretation and separates himself from most of the people this post is intended to critique, so I beg his pardon. His words, in this case, were just too perfect to pass up.

Domo arigato gozaimashita, Sensei.

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