Five critical questions for self-reflection and progress evaluation

How is your training going? Can you even begin to answer this question? What do you use to judge? Many people travel through their life’s endeavours without a thought to how best to assess how they are actually going. Or they may offer themselves a cursory ‘good’ to satisfy their ego before moving on without any true reflection or introspection over the quality of the skill/behaviour/attitude they are exhibiting in the endeavour they have undertaken. Is this you?


Here are five critical questions that can help you to assess how well you are going in anything, especially your aikido training. They are critical in the true sense of the word because they provoke metacognition (thinking about thinking) to move your learning/training forward.

1. What are you learning (and why)?

This question is not as simple as it looks. It is not the obvious task at hand, but the enduring conceptual learning that can be applied to novel situations, otherwise known as transferable knowledge/skills. In other words, ‘what are you learning?’ is not the same as ‘what are you doing?’ And in your daily aikido training for instance, this does not simply mean the technique – for example, shomen uchi ikkajo osae 1 (front strike #1 control lock). This question actually asks you to understand the conceptual learning that is taking place. In this case, for shomen uchi ikkajo osae 1, the question is asking you whether you know that you are learning to,

  1. strike in a pre-emptive manner to pressure your attacker before they pressure you;
  2. control the shoulder by rotating the elbow out and away from Uke’s centre of balance. This action of controlling the shoulder allows shite to control the whole body and take uke’s balance through the basic foot movement of shumatsu dosa 1.

So, in response to this question ‘what are you learning?’, in this technique you are learning i. how and why to strike pre-emptively, and ii. how to control an attacker’s body through controlling the shoulder in a rotational movement started at the elbow. If you engage in metacognitive reflection during and after training, this is the concept that you can transfer into any situation. In other words, this is your deep learning/skill development.

2.  How are you going? 

As I mentioned above, it’s easy to trick your ego into thinking you are doing well without scratching the surface and digging deeply into the quality of your performance. People do this every day by responding to this question with a simple ‘good’. But what does ‘good’ actually look like? Do you know? Has ‘success’ been shown to you clearly, and have you taken note of what it takes to demonstrate ‘success’?

This second question asks you to reflect and evaluate your training according to a success criteria and exemplar that is clear, specific and increases in complexity over time (stage appropriate in your level and development). If we go back to our earlier example shomen uchi ikkajo osae 1, how might you judge how you are going when practicing this technique? Here you will need to be able to articulate or show evidence in your practice of whether you are demonstrating the 2 conceptual points in the earlier question according to the way they have been shown/demonstrated and explained in class by your instructor.

In your training on the mats (during your practice and afterwards), are you frequently thinking about how your technique is or isn’t reflecting the conceptual learning in the manner it’s been shown to you? If not, you are not fully engaging in the learning process of your art!

3. How do you know?  This question is closely connected to the earlier one but assumes you are responding to feedback relating to the example or ‘success criteria’ demonstrated to you. Feedback in this sense in the dojo can come in many ways. For example,

  • thoughtful consideration of the instructor’s demonstration and explanation of the technique
  • awareness of higher belts’ (sempai) display of the technique with others around you in the class
  • awareness of what you feel as uke when you receive the technique from higher belts (or even the instructor if needed)
  • verbal advice from your instructor or a senior student partner (sempai). I.e., ‘place your foot there…’ or ‘place more weight on your front leg…’ or ‘your angle is not 45 degrees in your cut down and therefore you are not generating enough power’ etc..
  • kinetic data or messages from uke. I.e., when your technique has not worked or aspects of it are not effective or consequential on your uke. For example, in shomen uchi ikkajo osae 1, you may not have off-balanced uke in the initial shomen uchi strike and shumatsu dosa 45 degree cut down with slide; or you might have moved only with your arms and not with your whole body and uke wasn’t effected in the shumatsu dosa movement, etc..

4. How can you improve?

When problems or mistakes are faced in your training – and let’s be honest, there should be mistakes as this is learning – you should have mechanisms at your disposal to self-regulate and find your way forward. This is what we term, ‘failing forward’. When you ask yourself this fourth question, I want you to be able to articulate what you need to do next based on what you’ve been shown or feedback you have been given specifically to improve your technique. For example, you might say to yourself ‘here is where I am with this technique and here is what I’m going to do next to get better based on what I’ve seen and been told to do.’

5. Where do you go for help?

Finally, the last question you need to be able to address for metacognitive awareness of your learning effectiveness is ‘where do you go for help if you’re stuck?’ In other words, how might you access the necessary information to get back on track with your training at a high level? It’s easy to say, ‘I go to sensei when I get stuck!’ But what’s important to me is that you have strategies beyond me as your teacher too. Of course I want you to come to me for help, but I also want you to be able to be really resilient about where you go when you may not have access to me for advice. Your training/learning does not have to stop when you step off the mats! You may choose to,

  • research online and study into others performing the technique on YouTube etc. You might ask yourself, how does the uke receiving the technique here seem to be affected? Is it similar or different to the way I feel when I receive the technique? What is shite doing well that I might not be doing? Just be mindful that many poor examples exist online, and you will need a certain level of proficiency to be able to discern these.
  • canvass your peers (sempai) in the dojo for their input, especially if you can discern certain students who have greater proficiency in specific areas or techniques on which you are looking to focus your improvement.

Hopefully you have taken something from this to enhance your training and even better, enhance your learning per se.  After all, this model is well researched, and I find it highly useful and effective in the work I do inside and outside the dojo. But most importantly, I apply this to my personal learning or skill development in everything I do so that I can be the best learner I possible can be.

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