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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Good old days?
Many old timers speak fondly of the days when Kendoka took an “everything goes” approach to keiko. Mukaetsuki, leg sweeps; even following an opponent down to the ground and using kumiuchi techniques to gain a submission. I believe that most of these practices disappeared in Japan after the reintroduction of Kendo post-war. However you can see a good example of “all in” Kendo on Mori sensei’s demonstration for “You asked for it” on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TWQlx6CZMOo
Because people knew no better; or because they just liked a scrap, boryoku Kendo survived in the UK through the sixties and seventies and like surviving soldiers on a desert island, whom nobody told the war was over; there are still one or two people who go for a crafty ankle sweep or elbow to the men.
I have to admit that there is something satisfying about taking your opponents feet from under them and I did not worry too much if it happened to me, but now I am older and a bit more brittle, I do not relish the idea of landing on my butt on a hardwood floor. Now as a referee, I would immediately award hansoku to anyone dishing out this sort of treatment in shiai, so it is hard to condone in practice. Defenders of this kind of Kendo make the point, that it fosters fighting spirit, but viewed that way, so does road rage and excessive alcohol.
I believe that one of the biggest reasons for refraining from violence in our practice is that in these days of “no win no fee” lawyers, increasingly stringent health and safety laws and rising insurance costs, we are frightened of the legal repercussions of rough play. Now perhaps I am being perverse, but it seems a shame that we have to modify our behaviour because of people who want to protect us from ourselves, or through the fear of opportunistic litigants.
In my own view, we should not do anything that spoils the flow of our own correct kendo. If you have to break your posture or sacrifice your balance for any technique, legal or illegal, it has to be wrong. Some sensei will occasionally resort to the odd trip or sweep, but that is normally a sign that kakarite is putting him or herself in an awkward situation. So, whilst I am a total believer in “full spirit” Kendo and of the value of the odd strategic push, if you really want to go for it, try Valle tudo.
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Sumi sensei at Imperial
I am trying to recover after 4 days and 5 nights of keiko with Sumi, Uegaki, Tashiro and Mori sensei.
We have just finished the annual Sumi seminar and by the final day there was a clearly visible improvement in the standard of Kendo for all participants. On the last day we held a grading examination to 5th dan level and for the first time in my experience, 100 percent of the candidates passed. Of course the sensei worked on improving technique and posture and a lot of focus was put on correct footwork, but in my view, the biggest improvement made to everyone’s kendo was through improved kiai.
I sincerely believe that in the UK, we fail to teach beginners the importance of correct breathing and strong kiai and that this has a major impact on the ability to finish waza correctly. Whereas if correct breath control is taught, the technicalities of finishing a technique tend to take care of themselves. Ideally, you should breathe in sharply and hold the air in your abdomen, then let out a small amount of this air as kiai or kakegoe before you enter cutting distance. You should then expel the rest of your breath sharply as a loud kiai at the point of striking. The difference between Kendo with and without this is similar to comparing a bout between two professional heavyweight boxers and a friendly slapping match.
As we get older and move up the grading ladder, kiai or perhaps more appropriately kihaku (the strength of our spirit), becomes more important. Muscle power decreases, so we need to resort to the strength of our mind or spirit to break an opponent’s centre as we make an attack.
Watching people like Sumi sensei, who I have had the privilege of knowing for many years, you can see this transformation. Whereas twenty years ago I feared the speed of his attack, one is now transfixed by the strength of his ki.
So, coming back to our more immediate kiai concerns, what is the best way to train? The answer given loudly during the seminar was kirikaeshi. Deep breath, kakegoe, shomen and 5 yoko men with kiai without breathing in again – then stretch to shomen and seven yoko men. When you can do that go on to the whole forward and back sequence in one breath. It hurts! but, it will make one hell of a difference to your Kendo.
Post seminar practice at Imperial College – Sumi sensei in the second row center.
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