I don’t often teach beginners kendo classes. In both dojo that I frequent there are a number of people who do a very good job of getting people started. I usually only run the sessions for more experienced kenshi, which frankly is less difficult than taking people from zero to a level where they can join the main group. Those of us who have been training for a while have shared terms of reference, so that although it might be hard to change ingrained habits, we at least are aware of what we should do to achieve change. The instructor’s job is one of reminding people what to work on. With beginners the instructor is laying the foundations for their future kendo lives. With this in mind, I recently took on a six week beginner course at Sanshukan, my local dojo.
I am now three weeks in to what can be no more than a “taster” programme with 16 keen new kendoka of various shapes, sizes, ages and levels of physical ability. My challenge is to create an interesting experience for them, while at the same time trying to build a correct base which avoids creating habits that will have to be unlearned in the future.
In the past in Japan, the solution would probably have been to force them to spend a year practicing suburi in a corner of the dojo before grading them shodan. In the UK in 2015, we have as much an obligation to keep everyone engaged as we do to foster good kendo basics.
My first surprise with our new intake was that with the exception of one student, who tried kendo briefly in Japan, no one in the group had actually seen kendo. To remedy this, on week one I called on senior members of different ages to demonstrate what we are aiming for. This seemed to make most people more interested, although we lost 2 whose expectations may have been more Ninja Turtle than FIK.
Since then I have been trying to provide a balance of education and entertainment. Of course we have been involved in the serious business of drilling on kamae, footwork, posture, correct cutting and tenouchi etc. Suburi plays an important part, but It is very difficult for a first-timer to judge the sharpness of a strike just by cutting air, so they are also hitting uchikomi-bo and shinai.
I have also persuaded some of the seniors to put on their bogu and be used as targets for attacks made with differing levels of control. A number of the newbies have expressed their enjoyment in hitting real people. We ran a mid-term customer satisfaction survey and people who did not drop out on week one seem to still be engaged . They also appear to be picking up some rudimentary kendo skills.
Whether anyone will stick at it once motodachi start hitting back is is anybody’s guess.