One of the benefits of writing this blog is that I get feedback from kendoka in other dojo and other countries about the way they do things and the challenges they face. This often stimulates ideas which I use when physically teaching kendo. Thomas Sluyter’s comments on kirikaeshi following my last post helped me refine the drills for our group at Sanshukan.
One thing that is becoming obvious as we go through these sessions is that the theory is relatively easy to explain, but that it takes constant practice to develop motodachi skills. Hikitategeiko in particular is an area where experience is essential. No matter how well you understand the theory, unless you are able to read your opponent and build and relax the tension between you, it is unlikely that you will reach the desired outcome.
Just to reiterate, hikitategeiko is jigeiko between a senior and junior partner. Motodachi uses the opportunity to practise his own technique whilst encouraging kakarite to do his best. It works if the more experience player sets the standard reasonably close to the junior’s level, so that he acts as if he has only half a dan grade advantage. By this I do not mean that his technical kendo standard should be lowered, more that the competitive advantage is narrowed.
At the beginning of every keiko you should treat each opponent with the same level of respect. I therefore think that it is your duty to face him earnestly and to try for shodachi or the first point. You may be surprised that the junior player is the first to achieve this. No matter who takes the first ippon, this is a chance to study your opponent; how he moves and his strengths and weaknesses. You should continue to make your own opportunities using seme to penetrate his centre and maintain kizeme (mental pressure) to put him at a disadvantage. When however he makes a strong attack you should allow it to connect.
This is the ideal opportunity to practise your oji waza, so use hiki dasu to invite his strikes and then respond with suriage or kaeshi techniques. Do not however break his spirit by countering every attack. It goes without saying that you should not block, physically stop him with the point of your shinai, or resort to miss timed or sneaky waza to make a point.
Depending on kakarite’s level there will come a point in the keiko when the tension between you breaks down. This is normally because his level of concentration and focus is starting to diminish. By now you should have evaluated any bad habits or mistakes, so make the transition to uchikomigeiko; making opportunities for him to strike. Do this in a way where you use pressure to control distance and opportunity so that he strikes with correct timing and maai. Use this chance to make him correct any errors. You may have to demonstrate how to do the technique yourself, but do so quickly and keep conversation to a minimum. If it requires a long debate, have it in the pub after training.
If kakarite is relatively skilled, then perhaps uchikomigeiko should be reduced to just one or two techniques at the end of the keiko. It may even be that you finish with ippon shobu, but if kakarite is that strong, we are moving into the realm of gokakugeiko.
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Motodachi illustration by Katsuya Masagaki from my new book
My local dojo is looking at ways to help new kendoka make the transition from beginner’s course to taking part in regular keiko sessions. To this end I am running several motodachi training sessions for the more experience members so they can help and encourage their newer colleagues.
Many people who start kendo do so through structured beginners’ courses where they have the comfort of learning new skills as a group and where they are are not expected to go one-on-one in competition with experienced players. After graduation from a brief period of learning basics they are trussed up in unfamiliar bogu and left to take their chance in jigeiko, often with inexperienced motodachi, who are more concerned about improving their own technique than helping the newbie.
This invariably results in loss of confidence and adds to kendo’s exceptionally high attrition rate. The kendo diary of many aspiring kenshi runs along the lines of: week 1 -start beginners course, week 6 – buy bogu, week 7- decide not to go to dojo, week 8 –advertise bogu on Ebay.
Thinking about the effort involved in starting such a challenging hobby as kendo it seems a shame that we lose so many students through our own lack of empathy or knowledge of how to best develop them. Traditionally in Japan, most kendoka started as children and there is a natural progression through the school system. Teaching adult beginners is a relatively new aspect of kendo, but it is particularly important in the west where people begin kendo at all ages.
For new kendoka kihon drills in or out of bogu are not particularly threatening. It is when they begin to line up for motodachi geiko against their more experienced dojo mates that the experience can make or break them. One of the biggest problems is that most of us are not taught to be motodachi and we learn through trial and error. There are correct ways to receive kirikaeshi, uchikomi geiko and kakarigeiko and we need to learn these to get the best out of students. Most importantly we need to learn that jigeiko is not a “one size fits all” activity and that we can break it down into gokakugeiko, which takes place between partners of equal level and hikitategeiko, where a senior leads a junior .
Here are a few simple motodachi tips:
- For kirikaeshi make sure that you receive the strikes close to your men. This way you encourage kakarite to attack the correct target.
- In uchikomigeiko wait until kakarite enters the correct distance and try to build “mind pressure” before making the opening. If you show the target when he is out of distance he will develop the habit of running in, rather than learning to make one step one cut.
- In kakarigeiko keep a relaxed , soft chudan and allow kakarite to make his own opportunities.
- In hikitate geiko try to keep only half a dan’s difference in level between you. Keep your own seme and pressure and by all means go for the first ippon “shodachi”, but encourage kakarite by allowing good strikes to connect.
Acting as motodachi is not just a one sided act of charity, you can develop your own kendo whilst helping others, please see my earlier post on the subject http://wp.me/ptBQt-gx .
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I was talking to a friend in Japan who on starting at a new dojo was advised by an 8th dan teacher that he needs to learn to relax. He went on to explain that the harder he tries the more tense his kendo becomes. He was also told that his cutting action is too big and he needs to make it smaller. Of course, unless you are totally relaxed small cuts lead to overuse of the right hand which adds to the tension.
This reminded me of Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch – 22”, where the harder his soldier characters tried to prove they were insane, the more they were judged to be mentally fit for service.
My friend has two distinctly different but related challenges. The first is that when you are practising with a senior teacher you are expected to try your hardest and to many people this means doing everything in your power to beat your opponent. This is seldom possible and needs to be replaced with a desire to show your best technique, even if it means making repeatedly unsuccessful shikake waza. In most cases keiko with a strong 8th dan very quickly becomes kakarigeiko and the only option is to ”go with the flow” and do your best. If you are lucky enough to get some advice afterwards, then think about it and try to change accordingly.
The second challenge is the need to make small cuts in a relaxed but effective manner, without relying on the overuse of the right hand. This is best achieved through repeated practice which comes through suburi and uchikomi geiko, where you can correct basic mistakes without the pressure of trying to beat an opponent.
It is not however always a straightforward matter of doing suburi to replicate the cut you wish to develop. Some teachers advocate starting with large suburi, touching your own buttocks with the shinai on the backswing. This is not to say that you should strike your opponent with such a big movement but the objective is to train yourself to develop a soft relaxed shoulder action which after time you make smaller and smaller, allowing you to use your wrists and elbows in an equally smooth fashion.
With uchikomi geiko you can then put this into action, adjusting for timing and distance whilst still not having to worry about being countered or beaten to the point. Hopefully when you take this improved technique into hikitategeiko with your instructor, you can then focus on getting it right rather than beating him two nil. The chances are that the session will still descend into kakarigeiko, but it will be better quality kakarigeiko.
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Most kendoka have heard the term sutemi. Whilst usually translated as sacrifice, the literal meaning is “throw away the seed”. The concept refers to a poem describing a horse chestnut in a fast moving stream. If left whole, it would sink. If the kernel is abandoned, the husk would float with the current. In kendo, sutemi means committing yourself one hundred per cent to an attack without fearing the consequences.
Shishin on the other hand is the state where the mind is preoccupied or dwells on a particular aspect of your or your opponent’s kendo, which makes it impossible for the body to move freely. No prizes for guessing that sutemi is regarded as a desirable element in kendo and shishin is not.
Correct tobikomi men is a practical illustration of sutemi. We enter our opponent’s distance and launch ourselves forward with full spirit and no thought other than hitting men. If our opponent moves away or counters, it doesn’t matter. Once you start a technique you should complete it with all your energy.
In uchikomi-geiko or kakari-geiko it is easy to take this do or die attitude, in shiai or jigeiko it is more difficult. Very often we worry about our opponent’s reaction to our attack. For some people this causes a general fear of attacking. For others, it results in them stopping mid-technique rather than giving away the point. This “stopping” is my pet hate in keiko. Not only does it strangle many potentially successful shikake waza at birth, but it also robs the stoppers opponent of the opportunity to practise oji-waza.
Many people take the view that shiai is about not losing, but surely the reason for taking part is to win. It could be argued that both equate to the same thing, but the mind-set of winning is about courageously exploiting any opportunity with all your mental and physical power.
In keiko we talk about utte-hansei, utarete-kansya (reflection on how we made a successful strike and gratitude for being hit). This does not mean that we are masochists, but that we learn as much from our opponent’s success as we do from our own.
Of course we do not start any keiko with the intention of being hit. Our objective is to strike first or to break our opponents attack with a successful counter attack, but we can only do this if we have an attacking spirit from the outset
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The kendo referee’s rulebook describes zanshin as one of the necessary elements of a successful yuko datotsu. In simple terms zanshin is the mental state and physical posture that allows you to respond to a counterattack after you make a strike. If zanshin is not present after an attack in shiai, the point is either ignored by the referees or results in tori keshi, where ippon is awarded and then taken away.
Typically zanshin is the process of going past your opponent after an attack and once you are in safe distance, turning to face him or her in chudan. If you are unable to go through then you need to have the tip of your shinai pointed firmly at their throat or centre.
Most kendoka are aware of the need for zanshin, but many of us do not incorporate correct zanshin into their basic kihon training or in some cases jigeiko. To work it has to be practiced an essential part of each technique and not occasionally switched on when required. I often see examples where after a good men strike, the attacker will relax as he or she moves through after striking. You can almost sense a feeling of relief as chudan is dropped as they move past their opponent. I have even seen players release one hand from the shinai after striking.
More often this lack of zanshin is manifested by a slowing of pace and loss of posture after the attack. Another clear indication that zanshin is not present is where a player takes a number of steps forward past their opponent, turns and takes chudan kamae whilst stepping backwards. This is obviously a weak position and he could be easily overwhelmed if his opponent made a strong forward attack at this time.
To ensure that zanshin is there when you need it, you should practice it as an integral part of each technique, even in the most basic of drills. So for example in men uchikomi geiko you should step forward into your opponents distance, strike men, take 3 or 4 steps past your partner, keeping the tip of your shinai forward, then turn, stepping forward in chudan into correct distance. This forward movement should be assertive to the point of becoming your next seme.
Correct kakarigeiko is a great way to develop zanshin as you work on a pattern of seme, strike, go through with correct zanshin, turn, move forward into seme and strike again. If practiced this way zanshin becomes an integral part of each technique, not an additional element for use in shiai or grading examinations.
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Most kendoka know the difference between uchikomigeiko and kakarigeiko – in theory. Very few of us do enough of either to be able to perform them correctly. Both form an integral part of Japanese school, university and police training sessions, but in the UK we may do the occasional bit of uchikomigeiko, but seldom push ourselves to do kakarigeiko.
Just to remind ourselves, uchikomigeiko is the practice where motodachi offers kakarite the points to hit, either at his own discretion or in a pre arranged sequence. The objective of the exercise is to build the ability to attack correctly, immediately an opportunity arises. Kakarigeiko on the other hand requires motodachi to stay in chudan, forcing kakarite to make his or her own openings. Kakarigeiko calls for rapid, continuous attacks and if done correctly, cannot be sustained for much more than 30 seconds to a minute.
Motodachi’s role in kakarigeiko is to allow only effective strikes to hit. This can be done just by maintaining and relaxing kamae, or motodachi can take a more proactive stance by punishing unsuccessful attacks; normally using your own harai or osae techniques to knock or push the attackers shinai down, or to the side. This tough-love can be ratcheted up by the use of tai sabaki (moving the body out of line) as kakarite attempts to strike, or by responding to some of the attacks with ojiwaza. Other options are the introduction of taiatari (butsukarigeiko) and the ultimate tactic of responding with your own full on attacks, turning the practice into aikakarigeiko.
Both uchikomigeiko and kakarigeiko can be done in mawarigeiko format, with similarly graded players taking turns as motodachi. The other option is to make them part of shidogeiko where teachers or seniors continue to take the lead role throughout the session.
In Japan, free practice sessions between junior grades and senior instructors invariably finish with uchikomigeiko or kakarigeiko. The rule used to be that as the junior, you do your best to take a creditable ippon or two, but once sensei has swatted you four or five times, it is your signal to move into hyper mode and attack non-stop. Teachers do of course use discretion over the intensity and length of these sessions and will push a young fit advanced player much harder than they would a less experienced or older player.
Whereas in my twenties I was expected to exhaust myself before the end of every keiko, the hachidan sensei that I am now occasionally privileged to practice with me, let me off with a few token men-uchi.
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