Why the Olympic Athlete Quit Aikido

An Olympic gold medalist showed up at the dojo excited to learn aikido, George Leonard shares in his terrific book The Way of Aikido.  

He quit after three classes.

How come?  He certainly didn’t lack athletic prowess.    

Rather, the Olympian didn’t like the feeling of not making enough progress.

“Nobody – I repeat nobody – is going to look good after only a few classes,” George writes.  

The pattern is predictable and it applies whenever we try something new.  Initially, we may experience a blip of success.  Then, the progress slows and we get frustrated. 

With aikido, less than 50 percent of those who begin will be there a month later.

What gets in the way?

George identifies two mindsets that work against us.  First, when we show up as “the dabbler,” we love the shine of newness, the honeymoon, the first flush of new things, new experiences.  We are enthusiastic about the first wave of progress.  But, when the wave doesn’t continue, we become restless: “Well, maybe aikido isn’t right for me after all…  It’s too physical.  Or, too spiritual.  Or, too philosophical.”  With that, we’re off to something new and different.  

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with trying new things.  Experimentation is a good thing!  But when the pattern becomes habitual, it prevents a long-term journey towards mastery.  For some, the dabbler’s pattern pervades all areas of his or her life – it’s constantly off to another job, another relationship.

A second mindset that can trip us up is when we show up as “the obsessive.” This approach is different from dabbling.  Here, we enter the dojo on an urgent mission: “How long will it take to master aikido?” we ask.  At the end of the first class, we want to know, “Can I stay afterwards and practice?  Are there books I can read or videos I can watch to learn faster?”

All too often, the obsessive drops out because of frustration or injury.  We are derailed by the “endless peak moments” fantasy where we expect constant progress.  George writes, “So much overreaching, so much forward energy, can lead to catastrophe – physical, psychological, relational, and financial.”

Again, there are times in life when we can be appropriately obsessive.  When we are on a tight deadline.  Or, in an emergency situation.  But when this mindset becomes habitual, our behavior works against us.

The secret to mastering anything in life?

Understanding the plateau.

 More tomorrow.

________________

Reflection:  Think of examples in my life when I’ve shown up as a “dabbler” or an “obsessive.”  Do I see any patterns?

Action:  Choose one part of my life where I would like to achieve mastery.  Commit to engaging in deliberate practice.

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