The Price of Excellence

I met Donovan Waite when he was in his mid-30’s

Donovan was single and supported himself by giving Aikido classes to other students. He lived in the “dojo” where he paid rent for a tiny, spartan-like room yet with with no real privacy.

His back story was that he had achieved the level of black belt by age 14 and spent the next ten years mastering his craft before moving to the New York Aikido dojo.  He then spent 5 to 7 hours per day training at his craft. Aikido is hard, arduous and time consuming. Injuries are common. Bones are broken, knees are decimated and backs are wrenched yet over a 25 year period he never missed one day of practice.

He would show up before practice began and stretch for thirty minutes then stay after practice to do the same. I know this first hand because I used to copy his stretching routine.

He was a paradox: violent yet humble. If pushed, he could be violent. Yet he always adjusted his training to meet his partner’s ability so as not to harm them .

On one occasion, a former student came in and was bragging that he had recently completed Navy Seal training and how hard it was. Donovan walked up to him gently and asked if he could use him in the next class to demonstrate a few techniques. Donovan moved to the front of the class, affording him use of the entire length of the dojo. Within minutes,  he began throwing the Navy Seal from one side of the room to the other!   He repeatedly “launched” the seal over 10 yards in the air until the Seal was spent.

The point had been made. Stay humble.

He and I weren’t friends; but, by watching and training with him I learned more about personal excellence than anyone else I’ve ever met.  Never have I met any as proficient in their field of endeavor as Donovan was in Aikido. I have read books on Warren Buffet and the single minded vision that he had. But for me, Donovan was a  something first hand experience that exemplified a focused and unwavering commitment to a goal. He sacrificed his youth, finances, family, personal health and well being for one goal: to master aikido.  And while I practiced aikido for many years, and was good, I was never jealous of Donovan’s ability. He made sacrifices I was simply unwilling to make.

Interestingly, in aikido these is no end. For Buffett, the tangible gain of his massive effort was wealth. Donovan would never get to experience that. There are no riches on the other side of the  aikido rainbow. There is no payday when he could expect reward. Donovan pursued excellence pure and simple. Nothing more.  In fact, I’d be surprised if he ever made more than $1,000 a month during the 10 years he spent at the dojo.  Today he travels the world and runs his own dojo. I’ve heard that, with age, he now occasionally takes a day off. But, even as he ages, his Aikido techniques are a thing of power and beauty.

I am happy to have trained with him. I took with me 10 things I learned from Donovan Waite:

  • Practice Every Day.
    • Not only did he practice every day, he worked out for multiple hours at a time.  He showed what it means to be a professional.
  • Stretch every day.
    • His stretching sessions were lengthy. He stretched to take care of his body so that it would not get hurt. That preparation made him stronger and more flexible…able to affect throws that most men would never attempt.
  • Push yourself every day.
    • He was forever challenging himself. He would work out with men much bigger and stronger to refine his technique. Alternatively, his practice was slow and deliberate as he tried to break down every part of the move so he could later put it back together…at twice the speed.
  • Teach every day.
    • Donovan took many classes during the day, but he always taught. The teaching helped him become a better student and he used teaching to help him better understand the intricacies of techniques.
  • Clean every day
    • Every day the students in the dojo had to wash the mats. It was a ritual and never missed. A messy and sloppy environment was not conducive to training or excellence!
  • Adjust your technique every day
    • He knew Aikido so well that each and every move had a different and varied adjustment he was able to make. Never satisfied, he was forever experimenting, tinkering and playing with technique.
  • Be a good Ukemi.
    • Ukemi is the art of being a good partner. In boxing, they are called sparing partners. To learn a technique requires someone to receive and take your blows so that you can see if your strikes are effective. In Aikido being a good ukemi is also meant to help you protect yourself from other combatants.
  • Be relentless
    • He never quit. He always showed up and was always on time. He was was always “here.” He was fully present for the task at hand. Some people can do something hard for a few months or even a year. Donovan trained hours, every day, for years.. If he was hurt, he would work on techniques to protect himself or train very softly, but he always trained.
  • Never give up.
    • By the time he was thirty, Donovan was already one of the greatest Aikido practitioners in the world with hardly a peer. He could easily have gone off on his own. But he continued to push to bring his skill set to a place unseen before in Aikido
  • Be willing to sacrifice everything for greatness
    • He gave up everything for mastery. All of his time and all of his resources were spent on one thing: to be great at Aikido. By the time I met him, he was already great; but, he kept on pursuing.

If you are ever in New York City,  try and visit one of his classes because they are truly inspiring. A small part of you will be forever uplifted by seeing something so graceful yet powerful.

Excellence crosses all disciplines. It’s attainment and ultimate achievement require the same steps regardless of the goal. I  strive to apply what I’ve learned to many aspects of my life, not just Aikido.

For this priceless wisdom I am forever grateful to Donovan Waite.

 

Steve Clark

sleeclark@gmail.com

 

Focus on The Process

“There are no winners here. The point of Aikido is to train and focus on the process of getting better.”

Trust The ProcessIt took me about five years to learn this lesson from my friend, Brian, who helped me with my training. It was a hard concept for me to grasp. The sports I had formerly played were based upon a performance score that would determine the winners and the losers.

With Aikido, I trained religiously for years, going every day, hardly ever missing a practice.  I realized that the only way to get good at the art was through consistency.  It was doubly hard for me because there were very few tests, and very little feedback.

I sucked at the sport for years! It was only through grit and perseverance that I finally attained a high level of mastery by focusing on one thing:  trying to get better every day. By the time I tested for my black belt, it wasn’t really a test at all. I had been doing Aikido so long –  with so much consistency –  that the results took care of themselves.

While I didn’t learn this invaluable lesson until I was in my mid-thirties, I am able to pass this knowledge and training on to my kids. Three of my daughters now play competitive soccer and they train every day. Come rain or shine… they put their time in on the ball to improve.

Understanding mastery takes a long time and so I rarely get mad at the outcome of their games. As long as the effort is there, and they are learning, I know that eventually they will reach their potential. My goal for them is not to be the best soccer player in the world but rather the best soccer player that they can possibly be.

Rick Barry, the former basketball player for the Golden State Warriors, used to shoot the ball underhanded at the free throw line. He was mocked his entire career for shooting in this manner.  His method was seen as too feminine and dainty for the rough and tumble world of the N.B.A.  Yet, Barry became a Hall of Fame player and retired with the highest free throw percentage ever! When he retired, he acknowledged that he was not the best basketball player ever but shooting free throws in this manner helped him become the best basketball player that he could ever be. For him, that was enough.

Contrast that with his peer, Wilt Chamberlain, who was considered the best basketball player of his generation. Chamberlain was a terrible free throw shooter. Even after being coached by Rick Barry and using his technique to improve his shoot, Chamberlain always reverted back to shooting overhand with the same disastrous results. The reason? He did not want to be seen as shooting in a sissy manner. When asked about Chamberlain, Rick Barry said “Although he was a better basketball player than me, Wilt was never the best basketball player he could have been, and for that he will have to live with that gnawing feeling that he came up short.” ( The insights from the Rick Barry story come from this podcast by Malcolm Gladwell)

Youth sports today are indescribably competitive and getting more so for younger and younger children all the time.  The need to win is so great by parents that the events become tortuous.  Just a few weeks ago, I witnessed an indoor soccer game where the parents came close to blows over the fouls the kids were committing. The behavior of the parents was truly sickening. Mind you, the players were eight year old girls!  It was sickening to be a witness to such twisted values.

On other occasions, I have had parents tell me that my daughters were not good enough or lacked certain skills. It seems most parents have forgotten that kids make mistakes and, in order to get better, they need to make these mistakes.  While its never easy, or desirable, to have other parents criticize my kids, for me its more important that they develop the core discipline that they will then be able to replicate in other areas…on and off the field.

In the seminal book, The Inner Game of Tennis, by Timothy Gallwey , Tim  walked away from his professional tennis career…get this… to focus on becoming a tennis player. He stopped playing competitive tennis and just focused on becoming a better player. What he realized was that his need to win short-circuited his ability to actually win.  Seeing everything through the lens of “winning” or “losing points” actually impeded his growth as a tennis player.

Once he jettisoned his need to win and focused instead on the outcome of his shots, adjusting accordingly without judgement, his tennis game took off.  He became a much better player.  He came to realize that by solely focusing on winning you actually lose more.

Gallwey’s book on peak performance is considered required reading for many professional sports teams. The Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks actually make all players read his book to improve performance.

Bill Walsh, the legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers, was another coach who believed winning was secondary to the process. Walsh, who guided his team to four Super Bowl wins, was almost fired after his first two seasons because of his record: 8 wins / 24 losses.  In his book, he tells the story of how, in the beginning of his career, it got so bad  that one of his assistant coaches complained to the owner that Walsh did not care about winning because he never talked to the team about it.  But Walsh did care about winning. He knew the results were secondary. Before you can win, you have to do things in the right manner that eventually leads to winning. The foundation has to be built first before you can pile up the wins.  The wins are a result of the foundation. It doesn’t work in reverse.

For example, I am fluent in Spanish. However, every day I practice to improve my fluency. There are no guarantees in life, but doings things in the “right way” while staying committed to the process has greatly increases my chances of success in life. In my personal journey thus far, having experienced the highs and lows of life, it is the process that has repeatedly saved me.

Everyone’s process is different; but, for me, getting better every day in every way is the core of my daily practice.

Steve

sleeclark@gmail.com