In my first several years of training I worked to be “stronger” - pushing harder into my partner, doing more bunny hops, sweating through suburi, trying not to be last in the arm drag. I also had to build up a kind of “armor” to protect me from Sensei’s demands and reprimands. I grew stronger physically - my body changed noticeably. And I could (usually) present a stoic face when being yelled at.
As time goes on I see that this was a very limited way to look at things… though I think it is a necessary stage. Now I tend to think of strength more in terms of a spirit that can meet whatever comes without flinching or backing away. I often think of Lyons Sensei saying, “Present yourself!” On the mat you can see and feel when someone grabs or strikes or invites an attack with his or her whole self… well, I won’t say “whole,” but more of his or her self.
I’ve been feeling a lot of the men in the dojo getting “stronger” - they can grab so hard it hurts. And slowly I see the other strength growing in them as well - getting up again with fire to grab Sensei after they’ve just been thrashed. But what I notice particularly in those that I would call “strong” is a steady center - physically and spiritually. Attacking or throwing from one’s center, standing solid and rooted to the earth, one’s whole body working as a unity to do what needs to be done.
Along with developing that physical center, that core of rooted strength, comes the development of an inner strength to face one’s fears and one’s self and not flinch. It seems to me that those two things grow together and feed each other. I have told beginners to “fake it ‘til you make it” because in my experience it seems that by presenting a steady posture and perhaps silently “daring” uke to attack, one can slowly build up the true confidence that is really needed. Eventually you can move away from the flimsy competitiveness of false bravado and dares. Then maybe you can grow closer to something like O Sensei’s instructions to: “Fill yourself with ki and invite your opponent to strike” (my italics).
In aikido we are asked to give and receive techniques equally and therefore must develop a center that can deliver power and flow with it too. Our strength on the mat lies in this center and also in our ability to meet each situation with as much of ourselves as we can call to attention in the moment.