About Ways of Learning

This is taken from my reply to a blog post on AikiWeb:

We all learn at different speeds, and in different ways. We are supposed to be doing our best, but beyond that there’s no set amount of progress that can be expected of anyone. People who have studied Aikido for many years still feel that they haven’t mastered many things. You’re very new at Aikido (as am I – I started in May). Keep looking for the best ways to learn and retain information and techniques, but don’t be too hard on yourself.

Have you talked to Sensei, and explained how you learn best? It can be frustrating for a teacher to try everything they can think of to “reach” a student, and still see the student struggling. It may look like you aren’t giving it your best, to someone who doesn’t understand the way you need to learn things.

I hear the name of one technique in class, and try to remember it, but when I hear the name of the next technique, the first one escapes me. I find it very hard to learn words and facts just by listening. If I don’t take notes in classes, I won’t be able to recall much of it at all. It’s like having to organize the information enough to write it down (outlined, bulleted, mind-mapped, whatever) helps me remember it. When I remember it, I don’t recall hearing it, I recall writing it – where it was on the page, or in an outline hierarchy.

At my dojo we are given a list of Japanese words that we will be hearing. This was a huge help, but just “studying” the list didn’t help me. It was in alphabetical order. What helped me to remember better was to rewrite the list with the words grouped together by meaning. So words about teachers and students all go together: Sensei, Shihan, Sempai, Kohai, and Deshi, for instance.

I work on remembering them in the same way I work on remembering song lyrics – I get a few in my head (like counting to 5: ichi, ni, san, yon, go), and then repeat those over and over while I’m doing other things, like cleaning the horse pen or getting dressed for work. Don’t try too many at once – maybe even just 2, like Uke and Nage.

Has anyone helped you with the pronunciation? Japanese could be easier for you than English, because (when it’s written in Roman letters) each letter has one sound, and only one sound. It’s not like English where the letter “i” might have several different sounds. Maybe someone at your dojo would be willing to spend a few minutes after each class working on a few words (not too many!)

Asperger’s, as I understand it, can make it difficult to figure out social rules, but once you know them, following them is easy, Right? The social rules in martial arts can be very consistent, but sometimes hard to figure out by observing subtle cues alone. I think I made a stupid mistake in a recent class, and I didn’t figure it out until a few days later. I thought someone was just “being moody” but realized that maybe I had been disrespectful, and was getting a kind of cold shoulder to clue me in that what I’d done was not OK. (I’m not good at subtle hints…) It might help if someone could directly tell you all the things that are expected. Once you know them, it should be (I think, if I understand Asperger’s) pretty easy to follow the rules.

Some resources that have been a huge help for me:

#1: A book about all the things in a dojo, and about the etiquette expected there: “In the Dojo – A Guide to the Rituals and Etiquette of the Japanese Martial Arts” by Dave Lowry. This could be a good starting point for you to understand the social rules. It’s a very interesting book to read.

(By the way, there’s another book you might enjoy about regular social rules: “The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism” by Temple Grandin and Sean Barron.)

#2: A computer program that shows, in 3D motion-capture, a lot of the techniques we need to know. It’s called Aikido3D. You can buy and download it immediately at www.aikido3D.com. It’s about $55, but well worth it. Of course rely on your own Sensei for exactly how to do the techniques. What this program offers that might be a particular help to you (as it has been to me) is the ability to watch one technique over and over, from different points of view. You can listen to the explanation a hundred times in a row if you need to. There’s written information and spoken, including the name, and how to execute the technique. You can watch from the front, top, and one other point of view. You can slow it down, go frame by frame, and really figure out “OK, when my hand is reaching for Uke’s elbow, my feet are supposed to be this way.”

#3: Just go watch some classes. I have an injury, so I’ve been sitting out some classes, and just watching and taking notes. It’s very valuable, and you can pay attention in a different way than if you are trying to do the techniques. You can also study the social interactions by observing. Ask your Sensei if you can just observe some classes.

That’s probably enough rambling from me. Main points: Tell Sensei about your challenges, and ask for specific help you need. Find additional resources that support the way you learn. Go easy on yourself – you’ll get there when you get there, there’s no set schedule for learning.