I was told many years ago by a Japanese 7th dan in his 60’s that he found kendo increasingly challenging, particularly from the perspective of producing kendo that set a good example for his juniors. At the time, I was surprised to hear that someone who had reached his level still had concerns about his ability. I foolishly imagined that on reaching the kodansha ranks it was simply a matter of enjoying the benefits of past hard training.
Kendo continues to provide a challenge throughout our kendo lives, from learning to move our hands and feet together as beginners, to trying to gain some semblance of jiri-itchi when we reach the higher dans. As we progress, we face a series of barriers that we must overcome before we move to the next level. These often reflect the requirements for our next grading examination, such as renzoku waza for nidan and seme and tame for 4th and 5th dan, but they would still exist with or without a formal grading system.
Unfortunately these barriers have a way of getting higher and taking longer to overcome as we progress. It is often during these periods when people decide that it is easier to quit than to continue to strive. Kendo very quickly polarises those who appreciate the value we gain is from the journey itself and those who expect instant mastery. The latter tend to leave at the end of each beginners course, but even for the most dedicated kenshi, long periods without tangible improvement can be frustrating and disheartening. On the other hand it seems that higher the “wall”, the greater the improvement you make when you eventually climb over it.
Practically, the solution is wherever possible, to go back to basics and increase the amount of kihon geiko in our training schedules. This should be done in a way that focuses on, or reflects the elements that we need to change. It helps to share and to have the guidance of your teacher or seniors when you are working on correcting faults or developing new skills. Sometimes however this is not possible and you need to collaborate with your peers rather than try by yourself. You may well find that they are facing the same difficulties and that working together provides a win-win solution.
With the benefit of hindsight, I now appreciate the point that sensei was trying to make. The biggest improvement you can make is to reach a level where you become conscious of how much you have to learn.