Where are you? Where are the young people in Aikido? I am talking about the 10 – 15 year olds but even more so the 16 – 25 year olds. The life of a dojo or anything for that matter is dependent on the youth in society to fill in the space behind the grown ups. Aikido never had the popularity of Karate or Judo and certainly not the MMA stuff that is floating around these days but it had a solid following of its own. In the last 20 years it has taken quite a bashing with less and less young people joining in. My own dojo, Aikido of London, while having a small group of teens, 14 – 19 year olds still struggles to draw in the youth on a regular basis pre – lockdown. A few years ago I collaborated with London Sport in conjunction with Sport England. They were on a mission to assist any sport or activity groups to help foster health and well being in the community amongst young people. Their particular concern was 16 – 21 year olds. My concern on the other hand was getting youth into the classes to build a strong base for the future of the dojo and to have young energy around. They wanted the youngsters to gain the benefits of training and we wanted good and dedicated Aikido students. We knew that the training was beneficial and would meet London Sport criteria and they knew that in order to succeed we needed people to not only join but to stay for the long term, willingly and enthusiastically. Both objectives were I am sorry to say a failure. A lot of energy went in to it from our side. Whether it was support from the senior students assisting in class or promoting through the community and youth centres in the area and even the local schools. Social media and even advertising in FaceBook and Google didn’t do the trick. When I relayed the limited interest to the London Sport personnel who liaised with me he was not in the least surprised. Apparently it has become an extremely difficult thing to achieve, the inertia being stronger than the momentum. He explained that they could not even get a running club going for the said age group. They wouldn’t turn up on the premise that the meeting place was too far away from home and they couldn’t afford it. The response by the team was to make the classes free, provide a team leader and gather close to the community. Still no serious uptake. As a final recourse they bribed the teens with a Pokemon chase game to finally make them turn up and do a bit of jogging. When I stopped laughing, half amused and half in wonder, I couldn’t help thinking that there is something wrong when you have to go to them while they, the teens, won’t even meet the people making an effort half way.
A far more creative and interesting project followed soon around the same time when The British Museum asked us to do a round of mini work shops for the museum sleep over. The annual summer exhibition was no less than the art of Hokusai in the Great Wave Exhibition and for the sleep over the nearly 300 kids with guardians or parents would have Japanese cultural activities to occupy them late into the night. Between Shodo calligraphy, Kodo drumming, Japanese ghost stories and Aikido, the kids would get a good round of education of sorts before finally sleeping overnight at the museum. 4 groups of 60 to 75 and their ages from 7 or 8 yrs old upto 15. The buzz was palpable and my job was to squeeze in a little bit of everything, from meditation to callisthenics, basic break falls, 2 or 3 solo moves involving foot and hand work and finally partner practice. It worked very well but only after working at calming them down from the adrenalin running through their bodies. The feedback from the youngsters was positive, the same from the parents and the museum organisers. We were permitted to use promotional material and let everyone know where we are and when we teach. A few weeks later one parent with his 2 daughters turned up and that was it. Once more after what looked like positive PR for the dojo, nothing more came of it.
The last and potentially the most important of these collaborations was another Sport England undertaking. They had designed a program to get grass roots activity to grow in the community but this time they were offering a significant grant over a sustained period. The idea was good and the long term view and support meant we could work with a couple of London boroughs to really open things up. A meeting was arranged and I went the Ealing in west London to meet the Sport England team responsible for the project. After a 45-60min exchange of who we were and in particular who I was and our aim, we addressed what they were looking for in order to give their backing. They wanted us to find partners, several in fact before considering the grant. The type of partnerships were varied but youth centres, community groups, charities working on youth mental health and well being and others. Once more the task was to relieve mental well being in society at a young age 16-25 years old and they decided sport groups were well suited for this. My energy and commitment to Aikido was plain to see and a willingness to meet part way was there. However, it seemed that they wanted us to establish the partnerships first and then decide to back us with no guarantee. Even if we were to succeed gaining good partners it seemed from the outset that they wanted someone like us to “get them into shape, off their arses” so to speak. It did not sound like a positive project and my thoughts turned to the earlier work with London Sport. We are asked to chase around to get people to work with us and maybe we will help you but only if you get these young people going. I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was looking in the wrong place. This was not the right place and I don’t mean that disrespectfully to get Aikido to young people. For me the sense of a Japanese system of training is its more holistic outlook in approach. It is not a therapy or a Yoga like system of well being. Again I say that without judgement or disrespect. It is Aikido and has so much to offer on its own merit given a chance.
The question remains. Where are the young people? Now that we are all well into the era of Covid and with everything that entails will there be a sea change in the publics attitude to physical activity? Has it already happened and is it busting at the seems waiting for lockdown to go away?Have people begun to realise that we are not well designed for staying still and need to keep moving in someway? Which brings me to Aikido. Come on guys check it out and give it a good go, it’s a fantastic system of training. First and to be straight up, there are no trophies or contests in Aikido. It looks very different from most of the other martial arts you see around. That difference is where the magic is in Aikido. It challenges you to see what’s behind it and work hard to get that for yourself. So you need your brains as much as your muscles. It has an incredible energy that once you tap into it will keep you going and that buzz will make you want more. It’s obvious that you will get fit, strong and much calmer. It won’t be immediate as in all good things, it takes some time to get used to it but once you do you won’t stop, you will want to do more. So once more where are you young people?