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Interview with Rick Stickles (2)

by Derek Steel

Aikido Journal #103 (1995)

O-Sensei’s aikido as a Twelve Step program? That’s one insight Rick Stickles has picked up along his “Way.” Stickles relates more of his personal aikido odyssey and describes how he makes his efficient and growing “satellite dojo program” work.

Rick Stickles in action

AJ: When did you decide to become a professional aikido instructor and how did you go about it?

Rick Stickles:I knew after about three weeks in the dojo that aikido was my calling. However, it also became apparent that in order to devote myself to it I would have to make enough money at it to support myself. Now, sometimes we aikidoists can be somewhat high-minded about the aims of aikido, and it was a widespread opinion in the seventies that any money you made from aikido was like dirty money. People thought you weren’t supposed to get money for it.

But I knew from the beginning that I wanted to teach, on the one hand because it would allow me to continue my own practice, but more importantly because teaching becomes an essential part of the process of aikido training. You don’t necessarily have to become a professional aikido teacher, or even teach a class; what I mean is simply that you have to develop an ability or some technique to give what you have to others, to empty your own cup, both to give the contents to someone else and so that you can receive more yourself.

One of my teachers has emphasized that teaching, in whatever form, helps you to clarify things for yourself as you struggle to communicate techniques and principles to others.

I agree. After I had received the rank of third kyu, every night Yamada Sensei would have me give the new students their first lesson. The other students would pity me saying, “Too bad… Rick’s stuck in the corner with the new guy,” but actually I learned a great deal from that experience and it became part of the early formation of my teaching technique.

I understand that Aikido Schools of New Jersey now has four successful dojos with quite a few students. What has been your formula for success as a professional aikido teacher?

Well, before I talk about my success, I should fill you in on the situation prior to it. In the beginning, between 1976 and 1984, the Union County Aikido dojo was really only a part-time venture, since I was busy training and teaching at the New York Aikikai, traveling to seminars, and making frequent trips to the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo.

But around 1984 or 1985 I went through something like a mid-life crisis. I was thirty-five years old, with not a lot happening, and my life consisted of little more than training hard and partying hard. I had been hanging out with the up-and-coming young shihans, who at that point were still out sowing their wild oats—out on the seminar circuit the deal was that you trained hard and then got crazy.

But in ‘85 I took a look around my crummy little dojo and found it was a mess, which was exactly what I was, and it dawned on me that the partying had become almost more important than the training. My lifestyle lacked any commitment to integration of life on and off the mat, and I had only been doing things here and there to support what had become little more than an “aikido habit.” I thought to myself that if the principles underpinning aikido and its techniques are real and valid, then they should be able to be integrated into life off the mat. I decided I really had to make a commitment to that integration.

Like myself at that point, I’ve seen a lot of people in aikido who bow in on the mat saying one thing but then do something quite different when they get off the mat. But I think you can’t talk about one thing on the mat and then go spend half your time drunk or chasing women or wasting all your money or abusing people. Many people come up with some sort of justification for it all—but I couldn’t.

So you felt that aikido should be a life-permeating endeavor, with one’s behavior and approach remaining consistent both on and off the mat?

Exactly. There has to be some integration of life on and off the mat, and I realized that that integration wasn’t happening. Anyway, I started making a lot of changes in my life. For starters I stopped training for about eight months. I just disappeared and let the chips fall where they would as my senior students struggled to continue. I seriously considered quitting aikido altogether.

Finally, on February 16th, 1985 I hung up my beer mug for the final time—retired the party trophy, so to speak—and got involved in a different kind of self-improvement process—The Twelve Steps. Perhaps you’re familiar with Twelve Step programs?

The Twelve Steps are a “do” or a way of living. Through aikido, O-Sensei outlined a self-help, self-improvement system that bears striking similarity to certain aspects of the Twelve Steps. Many of his writings correlate well with the Twelve Steps. The concept of “inventory talking,” in which you ascertain your character defects and eliminate them, is an important one. Like aikido, the steps are very physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual.

I don’t think anyone has ever thought of O-Sensei as a Twelve Step program before.

Maybe not [laughter]. The Fourth Step reads, “[make] a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” If you think about it, every time you practice aikido you are working a Fourth Step of sorts. In O-Sensei’s terms it would be misogi, which involves getting rid of impurities. If you’re addicted to alcohol, drugs, overeating, or whatever, you get rid of them because they’re an impurity. Once this process is in motion, you have to start fine-tuning your character, delving into every aspect of yourself—diet, honesty in relationships, everything. I think that’s what O-Sensei was doing on a daily basis through his aikido and misogi.

I talked about it earlier in reference to what Sugano Sensei said [in part one], but aikido works toward a connection, which in the Twelve Steps is called the “realization of your Higher Power.” The Eleventh Step says, “[seek] through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand Him, seeking only for the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” I think that’s exactly what O-Sensei was doing.

From ‘85 I began examining my life and eliminating a lot of the garbage from it. I left a lot of things behind—even a marriage—and committed myself wholeheartedly to making a go at a career in aikido.

And with that newfound commitment you set out to become a successful professional aikido instructor?

Right. On one level an aikido dojo is a business, requiring discipline, correct business procedures, organization, and the development of an effective administrative machine. To succeed as a professional aikido teacher you have to apply correct marketing techniques and do demographic studies of your area to determine if there’s a population base that can support your activity. You also have to come up with the right look, which takes a long time.

I’m very thankful to my first student Greg O’Connor, who has become my partner, for sticking with me through thick-and-thin and helping me get through this process of going professional. In ‘85 when I sifted through the rubble, Greg was one of the only good things that was still around. He’s a talented professional graphic artist and designer. He’s also just finished writing The Aikido Student Handbook [North Atlantic, reviewed in AN99]. In the beginning we worked together, with me doing much of the thinking and him doing the graphic implementation. But gradually, like an aikido technique, we blended together to assume aspects of each other’s roles.

We cleaned up the dojo, put together a brochure, bought a computer to help develop mailing lists, and generally applied diligent business practices to the whole thing. By ‘87 or ‘88 things were beginning to take shape. Greg had become my chief assistant instructor and we decided to expand.

We began developing up what we call a satellite program. We started eight or nine satellite dojos, which have yielded four permanent dojos. Each has a look similar to this one in Elizabeth.

This dojo has quite a nice look and fee! to it.

The look is important. When people see our logo they immediately associate it with Aikido Schools of New Jersey. It’s kind of like the MacDonald’s Golden Arches [laughter]. In a way that’s what you want. It’s marketing. A lot of people think that through marketing I may be compromising the standards, but that’s not the case at all. I think part of O-Sensei’s message was that aikido is accessible to anybody, so that’s what we’re trying to realize. I once told somebody, “The word ‘aikido’ should be as common as the word ‘hamburger’.” Of course they said, “No, no, you can’t say that!” Well, why not? You have to work harder to maintain standards, but it should have that sort of broad appeal.

Could you elaborate on your “satellite program”?

We have a database filled with the thousands of names of people throughout New Jersey who have called seeking information. We use that to determine where there might be possible interest. An ideal location usually includes urban and suburban, as well as corporate and university elements—in other words, a certain degree of diversity. This dojo in Elizabeth is great because its diversity of races, ages, sexes, and so on reflects a wonderful cross-section of the surrounding society.

Anyway, to begin a satellite program we find a core of people interested in starting the project and we find a temporary location in an otherwise dead space that we can use in exchange for a percentage of our gross. Then, we either start a six-week introductory course or do a large, free public demonstration, or both, using a mailing list from the database to direct publicity. We reach enough people that way to start a satellite dojo in the space, which meets twice a week. If it flies and we have a group of thirty or forty people, then we find a better space. Then we scrape together a few thousand dollars (at the low end) and put some sort of a dojo together. From there it grows naturally.

We started creating satellite dojos in 1988 and the program was taking off by ‘90 or ‘91. We apply the same formula wherever we go. Many haven’t worked out for one reason or another, but we now have four schools; Greg has two and I have two. We probably have almost four hundred students at this point. It’s a great association.

How have you maintained the quality of what you do in light of such relatively rapid expansion?

Between ‘86 and ‘89 I actually relaxed standards just a touch to build up some numbers, but I immediately tightened them again once that was accomplished.

Two issues in aikido demand our attention regarding quality. At one extreme you have people who seem to want to bypass aikido technique and get right into the flowery, esoteric aspects of the art. They tend to spout off all kinds of philosophical stuff, but they have no solid technical foundation. This sort of approach makes the movement completely empty and worthless, which negates the entire process.

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