I promise you, I mean it. In order to do aikido well you need to act with total confidence. A confidence that your aikido skills are so magnificent, so unassailably wonderful that they absolutely cannot fail. A confidence so mind-bogglingly vast that it really does amount to arrogance.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this might be misplaced confidence. Just because you believe your technique cannot fail does not mean that it will not fail. But nevertheless in the moment when you do that technique you must be completely and utterly certain that it will succeed. Only with this absolute confidence can acquire the quality, the softness and the fluidity that makes for really good aikido. If for one split second you doubt that you will succeed, you will surely put in some unneeded effort, add an extra little bit of strength, or fall back on the crutch of basic technique.
Let me give you an example of what I mean.
Years ago I was lucky enough to see the great operatic tenor Nicolai Gedda give a solo recital at Covent Garden in London. The opera house was packed, all eyes and ears were focussed on the very unremarkable-looking man who had just walked on stage. I remember thinking that Gedda looked like someone to whom you wouldn’t give a second glance if you saw them in the street. He looked rather small and, well, ordinary. He stood next to the piano and seemed to shuffle his feet as though he had no idea what he was doing there. Or, if he did, then he was perhaps too nervous to sing… and when he opened his mouth, what would come out? A tuneless croak perhaps?
And then the piano played the notes introducing the first aria and, in those moments, Gedda grew visibly. He actually seemed to expand, to become taller. Suddenly he was clearly filled with complete confidence. Before our eyes he had transformed from a nonentity into a great operatic tenor. Even before he opened his mouth, we could see that he was going to sing magnificently. And, of course, he did.
Nicolai Gedda – flawless technique, of course - but his greatness lay in his ability to transcend technique. He was not an especially striking-looking man when not singing but as soon as he opened his mouth he was utterly transformed.
I feel sure that Gedda in those moments prior to singing had become filled with precisely the sense of confidence – of arrogance – that I am talking about. If he had for a moment doubted his ability to sing that aria he would have struggled, put in effort where effort was not needed, reverted to basic technique rather than sing from his soul and his heart.
And that is what I mean by arrogance in aikido. Once you have studied long enough to have mastered the basic techniques you have to let go of them. They were once a help but now they are a hindrance. What you should now be looking for is quality – fluidity, harmony, blending, softness. But if you are worried about failing, you will be too focussed on using technique to ensure success. And when you focus on technique alone, you will not be fluid, you will not be in harmony, you cannot really blend. And worst of all, you will be tempted to use strength rather than softness.
And so it is my strong belief that an experienced practitioner of aikido needs to internalise a sense of absolute confidence – yes, arrogance – a certainty that the technique will work because we already know that technically we can make it work and now we need to find an ever greater quality to make it work more truly in accordance with the principles of aikido.
But what if it doesn’t work?
Then we need the humility to admit it. The arrogance only needs to be there for those moments when you need total self-confidence in order to avoid spoiling your aikido by struggling to make it work at all costs. But if you fail even so, well, that’s all a part of the learning process. Very few of us can realistically expect to achieve in aikido what Nicolai Gedda achieved in operatic singing. Think of it this way: we can be simultaneously arrogant in our belief in the power and beauty of the art of aikido and humble in our knowledge that we have a long way to travel in trying to master that art.