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.