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Archive for the ‘Keiko’ Category

Without the benefit of a private dojo for toshikoshi geiko, my first practice of the New Year took place yesterday. This hatsugeiko was a great way to get back into the swing of kendo and with my wrist injury now mending, I am once again able to call on some oji waza to use against my fitter, faster juniors.

Perhaps because of the holiday break or maybe because it is a reflective time of year, a number of people asked me to help evaluate their keiko. The common theme was that we all seemed to be operating at a single rhythm, by which I mean that there was no real differentiation between the speed of approach, attack and follow through. This could of course be attributed to a surfeit of Christmas pudding, but more likely the cause is just general tension and inability to relax.

Many years ago, I was given some advice by Kikuchi Koichi sensei, former Vice President of the BKA, more recently of Shibuya dojo, that the feeling in kendo should be “like a feather in a hurricane”. This has been a constantly memorable image, signifying to me that kendo should be light and flexible but driven by a great elemental force. What sets great kendo players apart is the ability to instantly transform form a totally relaxed state to explosive movement.

Most of us will never achieve this, but there are certainly ways in which we can get closer to the ideal. Good posture and balance and a relaxed, flexible kamae are all necessities. Correct footwork too is essential, with the ability to drive off from the left foot as soon as you see the opportunity. Most importantly the cut itself must be done with relaxed shoulders, elbows and wrists. If you use too much shoulder power, it makes your attack heavy and slow. The feeling on making the attack should be as if you are being pulled upward and forward, accelerating through the strike into zanshin.

This is all very easy to describe but very difficult to do. The ability to relax, particularly in stressful situations such as shiai and shinsa, needs strict mental as well as physical preparation. You need to control your breathing and put aside the kendo sicknesses of fear doubt and perplexity. Whilst the ideal of “a feather in a hurricane” may not be achievable, you may avoid looking more like a pudding in a blizzard.

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Keiko timing

Often during keiko sessions, I am aware that there are some epic battles taking place in the dojo. In my view an individual keiko should last for 3 to 5 minutes, but I see some that go on for up to fifteen.

When you join in mawarigeiko and time is set and called by an observer, each rotation is typically short. With shidogeiko or motodachigeiko, it is left to the judgment of the teacher or sempai to control the length of the practice. A good motodachi will try to ensure that each session is intense and that concentration is maintained from start to finish. Shidogeiko takes various forms including:

  1. Kakarite starts with kirikaeshi, then moves on to hikitategeiko. Motodachi then challenges kakarite to ippon shobu (one-point match) before a brief kakarigeiko.
  2. Both parties fight to take shodachi (first point), before motodachi increases the opportunities for attack in hikitategeiko then finishes with kakarigeiko or kirikaeshi.

Whichever structure is used, if you consider the focus and energy required to do either of these well, it is unlikely that anyone but the very fittest kendoka could manage these sequences for longer than five minutes. I definitely believe that short and full-on is better than long and drawn-out. Even moving away from flat out attacking, just maintaining mind-contact and seme for two or three minutes is exhausting, so how can anyone slug away for fifteen minutes.

There are of course extenuating circumstances. For instance when a teacher is taking time to explain a technique or using repeated drills to correct a student’s faults then it will obviously take longer, but when individuals are practicing at peer level and it turns into a “war of attrition” there is clearly something wrong.

In my view short, sharp explosive keiko is the only way. You should need to stop after a few minutes to catch your breath and ought to welcome the opportunity to recover whilst you wait in line for the next teacher. Not only will you get more from each practice, but you will get the opportunity to train with more partners.

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Getting Hit!

How not to not get hit

How not to not get hit

I am back in the UK and am chasing Kendo practices where I can find them, as my own dojo is closed for August. At the weekend, at the end of a practice in London, I was asked for general advice for everyone and the first thing that came to mind was that many people were prepared to compromise the integrity of their kendo to avoid being hit.

By this, I mean that they were obviously blocking an attack without the intention to respond, or breaking there own timing mid-attack to avoid a counter attack. Whilst I understand the motivation behind this, even in shiai, it is not a good idea. Firstly an experienced opponent will have ability to hit another target, so if you block men, he will attack tsuki or dou, secondly you deprive yourself of the opportunity for your technique to flow forward to become renzoku waza and most importantly you sacrifice your own posture and balance.

Of course we are all human and therefore competitive, but keiko, both kihon geiko and jigeiko are learning experiences and as such, give the opportunity to learn from being hit as well as hitting. That’s not to say you should become an uchikominingyo type punch-bag. Of course you should start each keiko with full spirit and the intention of making shodachi, (the first strike), but whether you do or not, if you are hit, so what! Just carry on and try to take the next point.

Should you acknowledge your opponent’s strike? Yes to the extent that you should go back to safe distance and not attempt some irrelevant muri-waza directly after being hit, but unless you are teaching, overtly bowing or waving the bit that has been hit, is unecessary. This is particularly true when you are training with a significantly more experienced opponent. Telling someone who is four or five dan grades above you “that was a good men”, will generate the (hopefully not vocalised) response, in the words of Eddie Murphy “Tell me something I don’t know” .

Instead get to good distance, fill up with air, re-centre your ki and try again.

By the way, if you are competing in the upcoming 14WKC, you are allowed to duck a little bit. Good luck to all the competitors

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Freshly inspired by Chiba-sensei’s thoughts on seme, I taught at a pre-grading seminar over the weekend. I made sure that every shikake and oji waza drill we practiced, started from making the appropriate opportunity, either by breaking the opponents centre or by inviting him to attack and taking away the point. Many of the students there visibly bought into the concept that you win in Kendo by creating the opportunity and that the strike is just the completing statement. So far, so good.

On the afternoon of the second day, we had the grading and the ikkyu and shodan candidates did a great job of demonstrating their ability. When we got to the 2nd and 3rd dan candidates the pass rate dropped dramatically. The reasons for failure were those I listed in a similar post after the last grading. Mainly people did not pass second and third dan because they did not hit anyone.

By hit, I mean strike the target correctly with clear intention and opportunity.  Taking it on one level, they did not make opportunities by using seme. Instead they waited for a reasonable interval before rushing in and attacking without breaking the opponents centre or coaxing them out of centre. This resulted in various strikes that missed or at best achieved ai-uchi.

This was disappointing because the grading panel needs to see clear evidence that the candidates can stike with correct timing and opportunity before they can put their circles in the box. Most of the failures had been making and taking perfectly good opportunities at the previous day’s seminar, so I can only assume that nerves or adrenalin overdose were the problems on the day.

Many senior Japanese instructors talk about the grading requirement as “having done sufficient keiko”, this does not mean turning up twice a week and having fun beating all comers, it means practicing kihon and waza until they become instinctive.

So guys, more kihon drills starting from seme and the next examination should be a piece of cake.

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Does size matter?

 

Stretching for men

Stretching for men

I enjoy kendo in Japan. One of the reasons being that at the modest height of  1.73 m or 5 feet 7 inches I can hit men, at least with my own pre-McDonalds generation.

Back home, I more and more frequently have to revert to kote and dou against kendoka who are a good 20cm taller than me. There is nothing as disappointing as the clack of shinai against mengane when you expect the satisfying smack sound when you hit the top cushion.

It is of course possible to strike men correctly against taller opponents. I have seen this demonstrated beautifully several times by Saito sensei of Shibuya dojo in Tokyo. Saito sensei is very small, probably not much taller than 1.30m. When he takes men it almost looks as if he levitates or ascends in an invisible elevator to a height where he can make the maximum impact. He then smacks the cut in and then gently descends. This may all sound a little too metaphysical, but really comes back to posture and correct cutting.

Chiba sensei continually urges people to hit with relaxed hands and wrists and to make the tenouchi after striking, not on or before the cut. Even then tenouchi should be a gentle squeeze with the last two fingers of each hand, not the shibori wringing or chicken strangling motion that used to be taught some years back. This causes the shinai to stand at too steep an angle so that you cannot hit the menbuton.

Even when stretching for the most stratospheric men, the left hand should not come up above the right or you lose control of the shinai. On a few occasions I have seen this sort of grip result in hansoku for a dropped shinai. Soft hands and wrists, correct grip and tenouchi have to be the way to hit men at any height.

Of course not every technique works on everyone. It is extremely difficult to make kaeshi men or suriage men on the ura side of a taller opponent and likewise some dou techniques are harder to effect on someone much smaller than you.

In shiai you owe it to yourself and your team mates to pick the most effective waza against each opponent, but in keiko you should try men against everyone. It is the key target in kendo and I believe as long as your fundamental technique and handwork is correct it is purely a matter of timing and opportunity

 

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Change

ChrysalisYesterday was my first keiko of 2009. We held a kangeiko practice as a preliminary to the year’s first taikai, so it was an opportunity to practice with quite a few new people as well as some old friends.

In the spirit of “start as you intend to go on”, I tried throughout the practice to incorporate the kamae and posture changes suggested by Chiba sensei before the holiday and became immediately aware of how difficult it is to change your established technique. In my experience, the longer I have been doing something, the harder it is to change.

Of course this is not the first time I have made radical changes to my kendo practice. Kendo is all about continual improvement and development. Very often you realise that the only way to improve is to break down your whole approach including posture, balance and timing and to build again from zero. Sometimes I have been glad to do this, particularly when my practice has “hit the wall” and I have spent frustrating months, even years realising that what I was doing was not working. Between the last time I failed 7th dan and passing two years ago, I spent a year practicing kihon men and re-learning ki ken tai timing. This time though, I was feeling slightly smug because everything was working, so to go into major change mode, on the suggestion that things can work even better is quite daunting.

Kendo requires an holistic approach. As soon as you change your posture, you alter your balance. When you change your cutting action, your footwork needs to adjust to keep pace, so usually, when you embark on change, you are committed to at least a few months of work. Most importantly, you need to put your ego on hold, because typically you become weaker whilst you are making adjustments.

Through teaching, I am aware that many people are conceptually able to differentiate between what they are doing and what they should be doing, but they are unable to take the necessary steps to bring the two together. In most cases, they are not prepared to sacrifice the advantages that their current level of technique gives them, for future improvement.

We all know that part of the objective of kendo is to lose our ego and to attack with the feeling of no-mind. In reality however, it is not easy to give away the advantage that we have worked hard for and to allow ourselves to be beaten by lower ranking players. Nevertheless, this is what we have to do whilst we experiment with different elements of our kendo.

I believe that the answer is not to worry about timing and opportunity in gikeiko, but to get back to basics through kihon geiko. We build our best kendo through constant repetition of basic waza and we need to make adjustments and changes in the same way.

So two New Year resolutions for me. 1, More kihon geiko. 2, More patience with students who do not change their kendo instantly just because I ask them too.

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Keiko kai

Chiba in Canada

Chiba in Canada

Anyone following my blog has probably gathered that I have strong views on the type of training session that builds effective Kendo. Having not run my own dojo for a year or two, I was interested to learn that the college close to my home has a gymnasium with a decent floor for hire.

Rather than jumping in at the deep end, I decided to rent the hall for an initial training session next Wednesday evening. It looks as if a good number of like minded people are coming, so I am putting together a plan for the practice. The session will be limited to one hour and will consist of kiri kaeshi, waza geiko, uchikomigeiko and kakari geiko, even butsukarigeiko if people can manage it without breaking their posture.

Gigeiko time will be limited and the plan is to start and finish each practice with more focused, strenuous activity. My intention is to get people to concentrate on doing each technique to the best of their ability with full spirit.

If the everyone agrees that a practice like this is of benefit, I will roll it out as a regular weekly event.

More excitingly, we are hosting a seminar for Chiba sensei to bring his expertise to bear on what we should be doing to pass higher dan gradings. We are inviting candidates for 4th to 7th dan to attend a weekend event in Reading from the 12th until the 14th of December. The members of Reading Kendo Club are doing a great job in organising the event and I am sure it will be a seminal learning experience for many of us.

Here is Chiba sensei in action in Canada.

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