For referees the initial rounds of a mixed ability shiai can often be extremely challenging. There is a degree of subjectivity in the way we judge what is and what is not ippon and the level of severity with which we apply the rules will vary according to the age and experience level of the competitors.
With competitions that are open to both kyu and dan ranked players, outcomes are often surprising. Junior kenshi do not do what is expected of them, or they react to attacks in a way that more experienced players would not, so you often see skilled shiaisha having a hard time because when they go for what should be an open target, the less experienced opponent’s men is protected by a raised shinai when an experienced player would still be in chudan.
The most challenging aspect is when the newbie is gamely slugging away and hitting the target, but without correct footwork or ki-ken-tai-itchi. None of these incorrect strikes can be counted within the rules of kendo shiai, but they cause frustration and confusion for the competitor and the audience.
It is difficult to create hard and fast rules on grade level. I have seen kyu grades produce highly skilled kendo and dan grades who have not quite got their basics right, but generally, more experienced players tend to have a more established level of basic kendo technique.
Whilst not necessarily guaranteeing the highest level of kendo, these mixed ability events can be highly enjoyable and offer all dojo members a great bonding opportunity. The standard of kendo invariably improves as each taikai runs its course and the players who make it to the last eight and upwards normally demonstrate that correct technique is the most effective.
There are of course competition options other than sanbon shiai. Comparing how well players demonstrate kiri-kaeshi and a range of basic techniques against a motodachi is one approach. This is frequently used for the younger competitors in children’s competitions and is a great way to encourage competitive spirit without building a defensive attitude that might limit kendo development.
As in all things, common sense is probably the way forward. For competitors who are still building their kendo skill set, if they can come away from a taikai with the inspiration to improve, it has been a valuable experience. The key point to remember is that shiai is the tip of the iceberg that we build in our regular keiko in the dojo.