With personal development being advertised as a training goal in Aikido and other martial arts, the question of its usefulness does come up. If our primary training goal is self-defence, do we still need personal development and philosophy? Are they useful towards that goal, or a secondary consideration at best? The answer as usual is the entirely unsatisfying “it depends”.
Personally I think they are useful, even necessary to some degree for one simple reason: While some people show up to class and only really need martial skills and knowledge to defend themselves, this is not the case for everyone. Many people who starts a martial arts class do not already possesses the mental and emotional skills that are essential to self-defence. To a large degree, self-defence is a mental skill. It requires us to have the emotional capacity to take the necessary actions, whether that is to not get sucked into a conflict, de-escalate an argument, or put hands on another human being and use force to stop them. Therefore, if we want to teach self-defence, we need to be able to help people develop those skills as well as tactics and physical techniques.
Let me first explain what I mean by self-defence being a mental skill. In order to protect ourselves, it is likely that we will have to take action in a stressful situation. We need to be able to be under stress and still make good decisions. We can have the best technique in the world, but if for example someone screaming insults in our face throws us completely off our game, it’s not going to help much. We might know what to look out for, but without the ability to control our attention and maintain focus, we might not notice a potential danger. We might have good situational awareness, but if we do not possess the ability to resist peer pressure, we might not act on that awareness when we’re about to be pressured into something unsafe. Without the assertiveness to set good boundaries, we might end up being manipulated into a situation of such disadvantage that no degree of physical skill will save us. There are some people for whom even the fundamental thought “I am worth defending” is a goal to reach, rather than a reality. This is not even taking into account creeps and other low-level predators that are most effectively dealt with by using soft skills, and who prey primarily on people without the emotional capacity to deal with them decisively.
Additionally, a lot of the skills we are taught in self-defence run counter to our social conditioning. Many of us have been taught all our lives not to be rude to strangers, not to hurt people etc. While in normal circumstances, these may be appropriate, there is no magic button that makes all of this conditioning disappear in a self-defence situation where we need to be rude to the predator circumventing our boundaries, or to hurt the person attacking us. One of the great things about martial arts in general and Aikido in particular is that they provide a fun and comfortable environment to practice dangerous physical skills with friends. It is a very different thing to use the same skills outside the dojo, and the emotional difference needs to be addressed in training.
Lastly, the flipside of the above is that some people, young men in particular, might have trouble walking away from a confrontation. We’re naturally inclined to fight other young men for social status, a tendency that can be reinforced with social conditioning. Things as utterly trivial as an insult to our favourite sports team can suck us in and escalate into physical confrontations. For many of us, even if we avoid the fight, unless we can blame it on external circumstance – friends holding us back being the most common – we feel the pull of an unfinished script from the fight that didn’t happen, and it bothers us. A natural consequence of good training should be the disappearance of the insecurity that drives this, and the ability to walk away unbothered.
These are just the martial considerations, of course good personal development through training should also make our lives better in general. Better mental health and happiness, plus the ability to deal with difficult situations that fall outside of self-defence are very real benefits. For most of us in fact they are far more valuable than self-defence skills as such. But even from a purely martial perspective, unless a school has serious preselection of students – which almost always excludes those people who actually need the skills – these aspects of training are really important.