I had a Eureka moment this week about the importance of good kamae.
Of course we know that kamae, footwork, breathing, timing, distance and cutting action are all interdependent and equally important, but sometimes we forget that kamae not only determines how easy we are to hit but it also promotes or inhibits our ability to strike correctly.
We were using a number of drills to work on men-uchi, trying at first to make big correct kihon men attacks and then through a succession of different approaches and timing to make small, sharp men attacks. This is not an easy task as it is essential to stay relaxed, to modify your footwork so it is in time with the smaller striking action and to use the balance of both hands in the strike and tenouchi.
I am aware that many people in the earlier stages of their kendo career fall into the habit of leaving their left hand in place and making small attacks almost exclusively with their right hand, which forces them to use a pushing motion with the right arm. This usually results in an inaccurate strike, which often slips off the target. So if I am instructing I usually point out the importance of using the left hand, however small the technique.
I noticed that one individual was doing something quite different, in that at the point of impact, he was pushing his left hand above his right hand. When he hit the target the strike was weak. We tried a few things, adjusting the position of hands and arms which worked momentarily, but he kept returning to the same cutting action. As we proceeded through the drills, I noticed that his kamae was particularly low, with his left arm extended straight down and the left hand directly in front of the tare.
After I pointed this out, we spent a few moments adjusting his kamae, so that the left hand was in line with his navel. We made sure that his shoulders and elbows were relaxed and that his grip was light and hands were in the correct position and then, when he tried to hit men he was able to make an accurate sharp strike.
Thinking about this after, it occurred to me that I was attempting to do what Matsumoto sensei had done with me. Obviously my efforts were not nearly as skilled, but going through this process made me think about how keiko with sensei had consisted of him spending a long period of time adjusting my kamae before commanding me to make one single men strike and that was it, game over. Obviously his point was “you are only going to succeed if you start from the correct position”.