Aikido Leadership - An ITP Perspective by Natalie Vakulin

Posted on by Sensei Steve Erickson

The "Aikido Leadership - An ITP Perspective" blog series serves to outline the benefits to daily life of participating in the BigRock Aikikai Instructor Training Program


I am the type of person to work incredibly hard to reach my goals, specifically in school. I enjoy studying, spending hours preparing for exams and planning for the future, or at least my idea of what I want my future to be. I have been like this for as long as I remember, though I am very much a lazy person I will work hard for myself. I think this is my best, but also my worst, quality. I would call myself a very selfish person. 

When I joined the ITP program, I barely remember what I was thinking, I had recently become a blue belt and I was now asking sensei if I could come in an hour earlier and help with the younger classes, as was almost customary for new bluebells to do. ‘ITPing’ as we call it, quickly became my favourite thing to do. Probably because I didn’t have to do the physically challenging drills that I did in my class, but I was still on the mat. 

I remember looking up to the senior instructors, wishing that one day I might be just like them, sitting on the opposite side of the tatami, leading groups and sometimes even opening class. It finally struck me what a difficult job they had the very first overnight camp that I helped at. Instead of a short one-hour block, here I was, stuck with a bunch of six-year-olds for hours on end. Not only helping them on the mat with their Aikido, but off the mat helping with meal prep, game supervision, and trying to stop a group of pillow-fighting kids from running into the kamiza.  The feeling of mushy Fruit Loops and milk mixed in with bowls and plates in a disgusting mess, but unfortunately that’s what you get when you mix thirty young kids and breakfast together.

I was unbelievably happy during that camp but I also realized that ITPing was not just a fun thing that I could do every once in a while. If I really wanted to get good at teaching kids I would have to work hard and take it seriously, and by taking it seriously I would have to invest hundreds of hours helping someone other than me.

When the pandemic hit, ITPing was still relatively contained for me, I mean that I would come to the dojo and help teach the two classes before mine and then go home. Everything that I did for the dojo I did at the dojo, and that was mostly helping with the simpler tasks that it takes to run a class. But suddenly, when we were all at home I began receiving emails from sensei. The simple tasks I would do at the dojo turned to simple tasks I would do at home, then to more complicated things like teaching online classes and miscellaneous writing projects. By the time that we hit the second wave and were forced to go back to online teaching, I was on various ‘committees’ (groups managing certain dojo projects) and spending hours upon hours at my computer doing as much as I could to help the dojo. My little hobby of ITPing had long ago changed to something much more serious, a deep love for helping the dojo, the families in it and especially the young kids who would run onto the mat. 

I would still call myself a selfish person, but when it comes to the dojo I love helping other people, and though I still have far to go, I think that this has also affected my life outside the dojo. Making me a more grounded, considerate person. This being said, I know that the dojo, especially the ITP program has given me much more than I can ever offer it, from friends to life lessons to memories and experiences that have made me the person that I am.

~ Natalie Vakulin