Presenting Fighting Spirit Prize to Mukhtar Hussain.
This year’s Sir Frank Bowden Taikai took place on Saturday. As shinpan-shunin one of my duties was to work with the refereeing team to select candidates for the fighting spirit prizes.
Of course different referees have different opinions on who to choose, but this is not surprising as we all probably have different views as to what “fighting spirit” actually means. This is a subject that is seldom discussed and I can’t remember ever seeing objective guidelines as to what constitutes fighting spirit. Having asked colleagues the reasons for their choices over many years’ competitions, I get the feeling that definitions include the following.
- Being one of the most aggressive fighters.
- Overcoming the odds – small person beats much bigger person or low grade beats higher graded opponent or opponents.
- Turning things around – being in situations where you come from being a point behind to evening the score and taking one more point to win, or pulling out the stops in the captain’s match to take an evenly drawn team score to victory.
- Having the best technical kendo.
- Keeping calm under pressure.
- Not giving up.
- Someone who in spite giving it their all in every fight still shows courtesy and fairness to their opponents.
I believe that all of these are valid in their way, but I feel, and this is as subjective as it sounds, that true fighting spirit is a combination of all of these.
Of course aggression is important, but it must be controlled and shown within a spirit of fair-play. The smaller or less experience player or the individual who overcomes the odds and snatches victory from the jaws of defeat will most likely, only be a contender if he or she uses correct technique.
On the other hand correct technique will probably be admired, but not if you do not have the strength of mind and will to win to overcome your opponent.
If you can do all this and at the same time show correct reiho and generosity of spirit to your opponents, it should do even more to enhance your chances of getting a fighting spirit prize.
On a practical level, it is unlikely that you will get the first place medal and a fighting spirit award. It is generally thought that being the winner or being in the winning team is reward enough in itself.
Despite the subjectivity, I was very confident that on Saturday we picked three worthy winners – Jenny Wilding, Mukhtar Hussain and Sarfraz Aziz. All fought consistently well throughout the day and displayed the true spirit of kendo.
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I am back from a weekend of kendo. On Saturday I ran a coaching session for the British Kendo Squad and on Sunday I refereed The British Open Championships. It was an interesting combination of events as the second day allowed everyone to work on putting theory into practice.
I have written about sae on a number of occasions. This term describes the snap or sharpness necessary to turn a strike into a successful yuko datotsu. This and seme were the themes of the squad training session. Whilst we looked at a number of shikake and oji techniques, we paid particular attention to both how we made the opportunity and how we finished each attack.
Sae in theory is a product of tenouchi, (the inside of the hands), or the way you complete the cut by squeezing the tsuka of the shinai as it makes contract with the target. In practice the path of the cut also has to be correct and ki-ken-tai-itchi has to bring all the elements of footwork, posture and kiai together at the exact point of striking the target. Sae is not something than can be applied as an afterthought. If your hands are in the correct position throughout the strike then it is simply a matter of squeezing with the little and ring fingers of both hands on the point of impact. If they are not and for instance your right hand is holding too strongly, then regardless of whether or not you squeeze the shinai, it will not result in ippon.
Chiba sensei talks about making tenouchi for men once the shinai is at chin height. The concept is to hit the target and then squeeze after, so that you strike with full force and complete the technique sharply just below the point of impact. This is not as aggressive as it sounds, because if the use of shoulders, elbows and wrists are correct, the strike will be quick and sharp rather than heavy.
At yesterday’s taikai we saw varying levels of sae. There were many long encho where both fighters made numerous strikes, but few were sharp enough to make the referees raise their flags. At the end of the day we were presenting prizes and cleaning the hall at the same time. There was of course some enjoyable kendo. Mr Yamazaki, from Hokkaido University took first place, demonstrating my sae theory with some explosive techniques, including an excellent tsuki in the semi-final. I was also delighted that two of our regular Mumeishi students Alex Heyworth and Alan Thompson respectively took second and third place medals.
On a completely different subject, I had a Skype chat with a Japanese kendo friend who recently returned home after many years in the UK. He visited the Shudokan in Osaka and mentioned that he had to wait 45 minutes for keiko with a hachidan sensei. Nothing changes!
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I am now recovered from man-flu. Thank you well-wishers for your concern! I was back in the dojo last week and on Thursday had a visit from the British Army kendo team who are training for an inter-forces competition this weekend. After kihon practise we had a friendly shiai and finished with jigeiko.
During jigeiko the newest member of the Army squad stood there waiting for me to hit him. I am not keen on conversation in keiko, but thought a few words might be in order, so suggested that it might be a good idea for him to try attacking. He then expressed the view that it would be better if I went first. I then politely asked how long he had practised kendo, to which the response was 17 hours. I then did a quick calculation along the lines of an average of 8 hours keiko per week, over 50 weeks per year for 43 years, gives me about 25,000 hours, so perhaps he would like to attack first and catch-up.
Talking to the rest of the squad in the pub after training, it was obvious that our friends in the forces have very different challenges to us civilian martial artists. With members being deployed at short notice to Afghanistan and Iraq, it is difficult for the same group to train regularly together, and with an emphasis put on “competitive sport”, forces teams are made up of experienced players and those who are just keen to give it a try. They then go through short periods of concerted training leading up to competition. As a good team member my reluctant attacker was practising “not getting hit”, with team strategy in mind.
It is good to know that kendo is now officially recognised by all three branches of our armed forces and many British universities including Oxford and Cambridge. Whereas kendo in the UK used to be practised only in unofficial clubs, it is now starting to gain more establishment acceptance. The trade-off is that these institutions expect to see a healthy level of competition along the same lines as other more established sports. Oxford and Cambridge have their boat race and their varsity kendo competition. In the same way the Army, Navy and Air Force have regular inter service competitions, as they do for Rugby.
So Army Team, I hope you were successful on Saturday and that kendo continues to increase in popularity. As for the man with 17 hours experience behind him, he was doing brilliantly under the circumstances.
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Posted in Kendo shiai, Kendo Training, tagged Chiba Sensei, Jodan, Kendo basics, Kendo kihon, Kendo Training, NiTo, shiai, William Smith-Clark on September 17, 2012 |
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I am no longer surprised by beginners who after a few weeks in armour, are bursting to take up nito or jodan. Everyone who starts kendo does so with a vision of the kenshi that they wish to become. Of course having a goal to aim for is totally worthy. William S. Clark’s parting words to the students of Sapporo Agricultural College “Boys be ambitious”, became common currency in Japan, and are still quoted a hundred and thirty years after he said them.
We live in an instant age. Whereas singers and musicians achieved fame after years of learning their trade by gigging in pubs and clubs, todays “superstars” reach their dreams by appearing on talent shows. Clearly this view is slightly coloured by my status as a “grumpy old man”, but as a member of the “me” generation, I am probably as much to blame as is Simon Cowell. To face facts, there are no instant gains in kendo. Skill is built on years of hard training.
I have discussed the challenges of building patience into the kendo learning process with a number of my betters; particularly Chiba sensei. His view as a jodan player is that until you can invariably produce accurate waza from chudan with correct ki-ken-tai-itchi you should not move on to the more esoteric aspects of kendo. If you can’t control one sword then you are doubling the difficulty with two and if your feet and hands don’t work together then you will not solve the problem by reversing your foot position when you take jodan. In my humble (and Chiba sensei’s less humble) view, good kendo is built on the foundation of following good instruction and repeatedly practising basic techniques in chudan.
The stage at which people should embark on a shiai career follows similar logic. It is admirable to want to test your skill in competition against others, but unless you can do basic techniques correctly, you risk developing bad habits that could spoil your further development. One or two early exposures to competition will probably help confirm your place in the kendo universe, but without a good basis of accurate fundamental kendo, continued training with shiai in mind will harm rather than help your future development.
So far it all sounds rather gloomy, but to my mind, the joy in learning kendo is in training for its own sake and when something falls into place then the pleasure of achievement is enormous. Of course when you have assembled your kendo tool-kit then you can go on to become a great shiai player, whether in chudan, jodan or nito. As good old Bill Clark might have said “Boys be ambitious, but give it a bit of time”.
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Helton asked for my thoughts on why it is so hard to score ippon from hiki dou. Wearing my referees hat (or blazer), I would say that of course every case is different, but more often than not it is because few hiki dou have sufficient sae or snap to justify ippon. If that is not the case, then it is because hasuji (angle of the blade), is incorrect.
When you make a hiki men, you do so in a straight line, stepping back to give yourself enough distance to strike with the datotsu bu of the shinai. You also strike in an up/down motion so it is quite simple to generate the momentum to make a strong, sharp cut. With hiki dou you need to ensure that the target is open, lift your hands up to strike, then adjust the hasuji and hit the dou with the correct part of the shinai whilst making one quick step back. In my view it is not easy for many people to do this, hence the poor ratio of successful attacks to attempts.
Dou in any direction is a difficult target. Most shikake or oji dou are unsuccessful because the attacker hits the dou whilst moving across in front of their opponent so that the strike is made with bent arms and is therefore weak. As we have discussed before, a good dou strike should be made directly in front of your opponent, with your right hand pushed forward. If you think about this applied to hiki dou, you have not only to be clear of your opponent from tsubazeriai, but you must give yourself enough room to punch forward with your right hand as you make the attack. So you need to generate significant propulsion from a standing start to do this in one step.
Gyaku dou is even more frequently doomed to failure. Whilst not classed as a hiki technique, the strike is usually made as you step back. With this waza referees are looking for a more powerful cut. The reason behind this is that samurai originally wore daisho (two swords) in their belt and that when the long sword was drawn; the kodachi usually remained in their belt. That meant that a cut to the left dou needed to be strong enough to cut through the hilt before it reached the target.
The only tip I can offer on hiki dou is to start in tsubazeriai by pushing your opponents hands down. He is likely to react by pushing his hands up in a reflex action, exposing the target. You should step back as far as you can starting with your left foot, keeping in a straight line and strike dou as hard as you can by pushing the hands forward, turning your right wrist so that your palm is parallel with the floor. Take another step back after hitting, keeping your shinai tip pointed at your opponents nodo to complete your zanshin.
The last step is to hope that at least two of the three shinpan like dou.
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I was asked to give some advice on performance at shiai training in preparation for this weekend’s London cup. I won’t say at which dojo or on which day this took place, otherwise I might give away the secrets of their shiai preparation. During most of the shiai, the one single element that made the difference between achieving ippon and failing was hikitsuke. So in the interests of fairness, I will share some advice on this with all prospective competitors; well at least those who read my blog.
In kendo hikitsuke means to pull the left foot up to the correct position (left toes in line with the right heel), in readiness to make an instant strike. In everyday Japanese it can also mean to attract or fascinate, but that is another story.
Coming back to the point, when you move forward in kendo your left heel should be off the ground so that your foot is at a 15 degree angle with the floor. 70% of your weight should be on the left foot and 70% of that weight concentrated on the ball of the foot. You push from this foot to move, sliding the right foot forward and instantly bringing the left foot into position to repeat the action.
When you attack, you should use this action to push off instantly and strike as soon as you see or make an opportunity. In theory simple, but most people at shiai practice were not doing this; instead either their left leg trailed impotently behind, because the left foot angle was too high, or the left foot was flat on the floor so the left leg remained in place as the right foot moved forward. The repercussions for both of these mistakes was that it was not possible to make sufficient forward distance to hit men cleanly with the datotsu-bu of the shinai, or because of the need to compensate by leaning forward or turning the body to make distance, the attacker was not able to strike with good posture and zanshin. End result – no ippon.
This lack of left foot traction was also evident when some fighters stepped back, allowing the heel to sink down to the ground. This action mades them an obvious victim to hikibana man.
As I have repeatedly been told, successful shiai depends on good basics. Good basics depend on lots of keiko, so that when you see the golden opportunity to hit the target that wins your shiai, you do not have to think about it. You just let your left foot decide.
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I was gratified by the high level of feedback to the article on “The Aim of Kendo” by Matsumoto sensei. I know that many of the people that commented are active shiai participants. This bolstered my view that an understanding of kendo philosophy is a natural bedfellow for hard training and ambition to do well in shiai.
Sometime ago when I was making one of my uncharitable rants against Iai, I received a good natured comment from Scott along the lines of:
“Iai keiko – “did I manage to cut kasso teki? Did I incorporate kankyukyojaku when attacking? Did I exhibit fukaku throughout my embu?”
Kendo keiko – “did I go commando today?””
I certainly take his point, but to be honest I would assume that in the true spirit of zen martial arts you either exhibited kankyukyojaku and fukaku or you didn’t and in the same way you either went commando or you didn’t; and if you didn’t you should be ashamed of yourself.
The point I am trying to get to is that as Matsumoto sensei said “It is the true aim of kendo practice not only to try to improve your technique, but also to train your mind and spirit to find the rightness of mind (“no mind” / mushin), so that your mind, which is the source of the technique; will not be bound by anything.” So in short, we should train without being overtly analytical, but should reflect on how we achieve correct kendo attitude.
So where does shiai fit in? Surely it is the opportunity to test how you have progressed, both in the development of technique and the strength of your mental attitude in as close a situation to “real” shinken kendo as can legally be engaged in. When you are under pressure in shiai, that is the time when the conscious mind shuts down and the reflexes gained through hard training take over.
Some dojo will tell you “we do not teach shiai kendo. Our approach is based upon traditional kendo”. This seems to me to be based on slightly strange reasoning as kendo developed as a means to settle “life or death” contests.
I have a view that what these “traditionalists” are really against is the use of cheap tricks to win in shiai. This is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree, but I also believe that in high level shiai it is the kendoka who has invested in thousands of hours of grueling basic practice and who avidly reads about the experiences and philosophy of previous generations of sensei who triumphed in the shiaijo.
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I spent last weekend in Brussels for the European Referees Seminar. This event is always a good opportunity to catch-up with old kendo friends from across the European Zone and to practise refereeing in a more analytical way than is possible at “live” events.
This year the seminar was led by Matsunaga sensei supported by Nishide and Nakata sensei. Nishide sensei was responsible for our group and watched the initial matches with a critical eye, stopping the shiai regularly to point out errors. As the two day session progressed, the whistle was blown less often allowing everyone to gain as many practise opportunities as possible. I felt however that the real value came from the question and answer sessions. I personally came away with three completely new pieces of information on the interpretation of shiai rules. It seemed that they were not just news to me, but to most of my peers, so I thought it worth sharing them with other referees and competitors.
1. Hasuji for tsuki – Most people know the rule about referees telling competitors once if their shinai is turned so that the tsuru is not correctly on top, then ignoring any potential points made with the shinai in that position. This does not apply to tsuki. The shinai can be turned to any from 1 degree to full circle, as long as the kisaki strikes the tsukidate correctly, it is ippon. There was also a misconception amongst some people that there needs to be backward movement from the person being struck with tsuki. This should not influence the decision.
2. Competitors position on the white line – Every shiajo is marked in the centre with a cross and two white lines. It is an infringement for a player to start the shiai if his or her toes are over the front of the line, but not for a player to take sonkyo from a position behind the line, (unless it is a ridiculously long distance). The rationale is that a small individual may be at a disadvantage against a tall opponent who can reach him in one step from the starting position. He has the option to place himself in a distance that is not immediately vulnerable when hajime is called. It was also pointed out that an attack made from sonkyo is not valid. The competitors must stand and settle before an attack.
3. Referee positioning – On several occasions during the weekend, the three referees failed to maintain the triangular position around the fighters, leaving all three on one side and one side of the action “blind”. We all know that this is incorrect and the judges need to move back to correct position quickly. This should be done by fukushin moving up to replace shushin and then shushin moving to the other side of the competitors. There is nothing new here, but the instruction that I received for the first time, was that if the positioning cannot be resolved quickly, then shushin should stop the match and return referees and fighters to the original positions before continuing.
So although it is never comfortable to be under sensei’s scrutiny, it was a valuable opportunity to train with people of a similar level and to get a great insight into how the rules are currently implemented in major taikai in Japan.
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Posted in Kendo shiai, tagged kendo shiai on November 22, 2010 |
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Theoretically, good kendo is good kendo and there should be no difference between the attitude and the technique displayed in keiko or shiai. Every keiko should be approached with sincerity and the objective of taking shodachi, (first point). You would therefore assume that shiai kendo at every level would look like the competitors’ everyday keiko – but it seldom does.
The obvious difference between keiko and shiai, is that in shiai there is more to lose, so intentionally or unintentionally; competitors become defensive. This does not just apply to less experienced players, but becomes even more evident at All Japan or World Championship level. Scan YouTube for kendo shiai content and you will lose count of the number of times that you see top-class kendoka holding the shinai above their men or in a modified kasumi no kamae to avoid being hit. Now you know that is wrong; I know that it is wrong; and believe me, they know that it is wrong, but they are not there to lose.
You can however see examples of shiai that totally reflect the principles of kendo that we try so hard to master. Typically, but not always, the competitors in these are older, more senior kendoka. The All Japan 8th dan championship and the final day of the Kyoto Taikai normally contain inspirational contests that typify all we try to achieve in kendo – good posture, strong zanshin and points won on seme and timing. If one of these competitors makes a successful attack then the other receives it with humility and good grace. I have a clip from a long ago Kyoto Taikai, where one kendo meijin acknowledged a point from his opponent before it happened. The other sensei had made a successful seme that clearly stole the centre, so rather than waste time by hitting men, they both bowed and continued to the next point.
Understandably, once kendoka ascend to the heights of hachidan and particularly hanshi, they acquire the obligation to display pure, honest kendo to the rest of us. Interestingly enough, these paragons are often the same people we saw ducking and blocking 10 years before.
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