Archive for the ‘Kendo footwork’ Category

stampThere seems to be a tendency amongst newer kenshi to lift the right foot too high when making fumikomi. This results in a seesaw motion and makes it difficult to equalise the balance between the feet and to bring the back foot up quickly in hikitsuke, ready for the next move.

There are lots of exercises designed to fix this fault, ranging from traditional footwork patterns up and down the dojo to lunges, with or without suburi. Some teachers use the idea of standing behind a line or court marking and throwing the right foot forwards as far as possible without moving the left.  In this way they encourage the flexion of the right knee. As I mentioned before, there is currently a very strong focus being applied to the practise of kihon using suriashi, (sliding footwork).

Everyone aspires to make a nice sharp slapping sound as the front foot hits the dojo floor and I suppose that there is certain logic in “the higher the drop, the louder the slap”. Only too often though, the end product is a sickening crunch as the heel hits the floor. In my view, the answer is to keep the foot close to the ground and strike the floor at a low angle. Pilots correct me if I have got it wrong, but it is a bit like bringing the pointy end down first.

If you bring your foot down at a shallow enough angle, you make maximum contact with the ball of your foot expelling the air between foot and floor and you then get a nice slapping sound. Remember to immediately bring your left foot up and you are ready to do it again.

A good way to set yourself up to make correct fumikomi is to first ensure that you start with your feet in the correct position and keep tension in the back of your left knee, at the same time have a slight bend in your right knee so that you are in a position to skim the floor with your foot. Immediately bring the left foot up so you are ready for the next step. Once you can do this, your hands and body come into play so that you can achieve ki-ken-tai-itchi and it’s job done.

On a slightly different tack, I had a bout of paranoia this week about the state of my kendo feet. I was offered and gratefully accepted a reflexology foot massage as part of some other medical treatment. I felt it was immediately necessary to explain away my kendo hooves to the charming lady doing the foot rub. To her credit she did not bat an eyelid and told me that as a keen dancer hers were pretty rough too.

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Matsumoto sensei copyIn the light of some very interesting comments on ashi-sabaki following last week’s post, I wanted to take some thoughts on footwork from Matsumoto sensei’s teachings. However, the way he explained the whole process of kendo movement makes it almost impossible to separate the actions of different parts of the body, so I have taken the liberty of re-posting some lecture notes which I first posted in 2009. I have shown the text relating to foot movement in blue, but as you can see, these instructions are an integral part of of describing how the whole body should move.

Correct Chudan Kamae and Attack Action

A lecture by Matsumoto Toshio Hanshi 9th Dan

Delivered on March 6th 1980 at the 44th Meeting of

Nishinomiya Matsumoto Kenshyu Kai

Recorded in Japanese by Sakagami Takashi, Kyoshi 6 dan

Translated into English by Yamamoto Hisami Kyoshi 7dan

Chudan Kamae

The left forearm should be at 45 degree angle to the ground and the thumb of the left hand should point to a spot about 30 – 40 cm in front of the big toe of your right foot. The thumb of the right hand should point forward almost at a horizontal angle.

The left foot should touch the floor at the point between the ball of the foot and the plantar arch and the heel. The toes should touch the ground in the way that is called, “a cat walking” * as if a very thin sheet of paper is placed between the toes and the ground. By raising the left heel from the floor, the distribution of weight becomes 70:30 between the left and right leg and 70:30 between the front and back of the sole of the left foot. The back of the left knee must be tense.

Attacking Action – Primarily against Men

The left heel which is now raised, should be slightly lowered. This will redistribute the weight 50:50 to the back and front of the left sole. The toes of the left foot which have so far pointed slightly to the left should point straight ahead. Now with the motion of stepping out from the left ankle, you should push your right foot forward.

Now the tension behind the left knee moves to a point of about 6cm above the back of the left knee and tension is applied to a slightly lesser degree to the same point above the right knee, the left hip can then be pushed forward.

Step within easy reach of your opponent, without changing the position of your hands. The left hand is then raised with the right hand following in a natural movement in line with the path of the shinai. This action will cause your right shoulder to draw back. At this point the right hand is acting as support to the left and it is wrong to apply force with the right hand in order to raise the shinai. It is important that you raise the right hand with the feeling of squeezing in which will protect your kote against counter attack as you raise your hand.

You should strike at the same time as you draw the left foot towards the right foot. At this point, the right hand, which so far has not been used to apply force is given the work of hitting together with the left hand, making use of the right elbow to indicate direction. Make maximum use of the power and flexibility of your wrists and use the integral power of your waist, back, shoulders and arms. (You should pursue the correct way of hitting so that it becomes possible to concentrate all your physical force into one strike*) When you make the strike the distribution of weight between your left and right legs will change to 40:60.

When you strike men, the thumb of the right hand is directed to the front as if to poke into your opponents eyes. For tsuki the thumb naturally angles downward.

When your opponent is in Nito or Jodan, his posture is referred to as floating and therefore is different to chudan. A chudan player must raise his hands a little to fight against Nito or Jodan to be in concert with the opponent’s floating posture and movements.

* “A cat walking”, means the way of walking without making a sound. In the case of pushing from the left foot to attack, it is recommended to ease the force in the toes with the feeling of bending them slightly upward. This will increase the power of your forward step.

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SevensKendo is unusual in that we use fumikomi-ashi, “stamping footwork” instead of a more natural walking gait as part of our technique. I don’t know how this developed. Older styles of kenjutsu take a more natural left-right approach, cutting on either foot, whereas modern kendoists believe that for an attack to succeed the right foot has to slap the floor at the exact moment of striking.

Followers of the many original ryuha explain that in a battle situation on rough ground, stable walking footwork is the only option and I would not for a moment disagree with them. Somehow as kendo moved onto wooden floors, we have adopted a stamping style which has become an integral part of the modern sport. Fumikomi-ashi dosa, or movement, is in essence okuri-ashi footwork with an added stamp. Okuri-ashi is the process of pushing the right foot forward using the power of your left leg and it is used for attacking movement. There are though other footwork options in kendo.

We use ayumi-ashi (walking footwork) to cover long distance outside of attacking maai. Tsugi ashi lets us bring the left foot closer to the right foot than in okuri-ashi to gain a more explosive forward movement and hiraki-ashi allows us to step diagonally to make oji-waza.

Many of us become addicted to okuri-ashi and fumikomi-ashi. Beginners find it almost impossible to do these correctly, but insist on using them for every circumstance. I have often seen okuri-ashi used to receive kirikaeshi whereas the natural way to do this is to use ayumi ashi.

Contrary to popular misconception, it is not mandatory to stamp to make a successful attack. Nippon kendo no kata does not use stamping footwork and any of the seven odachi techniques if done correctly, would score ippon in shiai. Ki-ken-tai-itchi does not always depend on your right foot slapping the ground. In fact in many oji-waza the cut is executed as the back foot moves into place.

Fumikomi-ashi is a key element of kendo, but it is reserved for making forward shikake attacks, so we can’t afford to ignore the other footwork variations. It is unlikely that many of us will get involved in a swordfight in a paddy-field, but were we to do so; the only value in fumikomi-ashi would be to splash your opponent. In the dojo we need to move at different speeds in different directions, so we should study and practice all the kendo footwork forms.

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Chudan Feet 2We concentrated on men-uchi last week. We started by hitting men from a static position then progressed through taking just one sliding step, to stepping into distance and striking, through to hitting with fumikomi ashi and then moving into zanshin.  We finished with debana men practice during which a dojo member asked for my advice on why he was having difficulty pushing off to make the strike. Instead of being able to launch an attack at will, all of his weight was moving to the left foot and he needed to readjust his foot position before he could move.

Watching his practice it was obvious that the heel of his left foot was too far off the ground, to the extent that he had no traction to push himself forward.  Instead he had to move his left foot forward each time that he needed to attack. To my mind a lot of energy was being wasted on unnecessary action.

Matsumoto Toshio sensei talked about the sole of the left foot being at a 15% angle from the floor, with the left leg being almost straight and keeping a feeling of tension behind the left knee. If you follow this advice then it is possible to move instantly from any spot. You of course need to keep the distance between your feet constant throughout your keiko, moving the left foot into position whenever your right foot moves, but you should be able to stop at any given time and instantly launch from the back foot.

How far apart your feet should be is open to debate. Conventional kendo wisdom suggests that the big toe of the left foot should be in line with the heel of your right foot and that there should be a fist’s distance separating the width of your stance.  In reality some All Japan class players have a much bigger gap between the forward and rear foot and they have the leg strength to make much longer steps than us amateurs.  I also believe that the fists distance in width is only a guide. In most sports, feet and knees should be in line with your hips. So your feet should be far enough apart for you to be stable and balanced.

The final piece of the jigsaw is to ensure that as you push with the left the right foot moves forward and not up. By keeping a slight bend in your right knee you should be able to make fumikomi with a big slapping sound and not damaging you knee or heel in the process.

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Most of the comments on my last post dealt with the subject of making good fumikomi. Andrea is not unusual in having problems with this and everyone who came back with suggestions added a lot of value to the debate. I touched on fumikomi in previous articles and talked more generally about footwork in http://wp.me/ptBQt-gZ  but I think that it is worth exploring this a little further.

Andrea’s sensei’s point that a cut without audible fumikomi is not ippon, I imagine, was made to emphasise the importance of ki-ken-tai-ichi. Technically you can score ippon without fumikomi by sliding your right foot into place with as you strike; you can also successfully make a strike from chudan when you pull your left foot up into position. Footwork is the device you use to ensure that your body is in the right distance and posture to strike correctly, after all it is ki-ken-tai-ichi or mind, sword and body as one; not mind, sword and foot as one. Still it is true that a loud slapping sound made on the point of cutting is satisfying and it certainly helps confirm to shinpan that all the necessary elements are there.

David’s comment about the quality of dojo floor was insightful. Training in custom built kendojo in Japan is kinder to the feet than some of the hardwood and composition floors we have to make-do with in other countries. I see more Japanese visitors wearing heel pads than I do locals, who are used to slamming their feet down on un-sprung oak over concrete.

I also liked Ken’s suggestion about training with a slipper or flip-flop. I confess that I got a bit fixated on this and went on to extemporise about the possibility of borrowing from the sub-aqua club and trying it with flippers. Taking my over-vivid imagination out of the equation, it clearly pays to practice how to make correct fumikomi.

Like Andrea, I also have a very high instep, but do not find that it affect s my footwork if  I do things correctly. My favourite tip comes from Chiba sensei. This was taught as part of the drill to strengthen seme, but has a highly beneficial effect on fumikomi. Starting from long distance you step into issoku ito maai and then whilst holding your opponent in a state of tame, you slightly bend your right knee. Your opponent suspecting that you are about to launch an attack will start an attack of his or her own, giving you the opportunity to make debana men.

The side effect of bending your right knee is that the sole of your foot is now parallel with the floor and if your weight is focussed on your left foot, you simply push off from the left and throw your right foot forward, (do not lift your right knee up). As your right foot remains parallel throughout the movement, you make contact with the floor with the maximum amount of foot area and even if your heel hits, it should not hurt as you create a cushion of air between foot and floor. It is the expulsion of this air that makes the slapping sound that should wake up the doziest of referees.

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The principle in most martial arts is that you use your opponent’s force to defeat him. In Judo or Aikido you make him push and then use minimal effort to break his balance and throw him. Many people seem to forget that this also applies to kendo.

Because in kendo we set out to strike our opponent, we think about using footwork that gets us to the target as quickly as possible. This for many people means one thing – big steps. What many people often ignore is that there are two of you involved in keiko or shiai and you need to adapt your distance and timing to reflect that of your partner and that you can take advantage of his effort to beat him.

This was demonstrated very clearly in a seminar last year by Chiba sensei and is something that I have become increasingly conscious of. I have noticed however that a number of people seem to take a “one size fits all” approach to footwork.

If your opponent is static or going backwards, you need to first move into your own attacking distance and then take a further step as you make the technique. If he retreats as you make your initial seme, you may well need to cover a distance of up to a metre before making contact. On the other hand if he is moving forward, he is doing most of the work in getting to a distance where you can make a useful attack. To take advantage you need to make only a slight forward movement.

It all seems fairly straightforward and logicall but I see many situations where both players take big steps towards each other at the same time, resulting in an invalid strike made towards the tsuba end of the shinai, which as we all know, is invalid.

By stepping in, not only is your opponent supplying most of the forward motion for your technique, he his supplying much of the forward energy, so typically your technique needs less force than an attack against an immobile partner.

Typically you would use debana or oji waza in this situation. Using debana men as an example, you need to be ready to move with pressure on the ball of your left foot. As your opponent steps into distance, you just push off from your back foot and make a small crisp men cut. In these circumstances, your step probably needs to cover a distance of no more than 15cm. The force of the attack can stand to be 50% lighter than a shikake attack, as your opponent is supplying the forward movement. As long as your technique is finished cleanly with good tenouchi, it should be judged as ippon.

For degote, distances are even closer and you may need to make fumikomi on the spot without moving, to maintain the correct distance.

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I do not often teach beginners, but I do notice from time to time that individuals who are now well past the first stages of learning kendo, still have problems in making correct fumikomi.

Teaching at the last seminar in Ireland was illuminating as there were a number of new kendoka who were working very hard to establish the basis of good kendo foot movement. This made me reflect on how important it is to perfect the basics before you can move on to learn more complex kendo technique.

Certainly from a western perspective the concept of suri ashi, (sliding feet) and okuri ashi, (moving the foot facing the direction you move in) is alien: We learn to walk heel- toe, lifting the leg from the knee and transferring the weight from the back to the front of the foot. Kendo foot movement developed in Japan at a time when people were used to wearing geta and zori and needed to slide their feet forward.

The repercussions of heel toe walking are still obvious, with many beginners instinctively pulling from the front foot rather than pushing from the back foot.

The key points to remember are that the back leg should be tense with the heel only slightly raised, (just 15 degrees). The knee of the front leg should be slightly bent and the foot should be parallel to the ground, as if a thin sheet of paper were between it and the floor. In the words of Matsumoto Toshio sensei, the movement should be, “like a cat walking”.

Everyone is taught that the toes of the left foot should be in line with the heel of the right and that there should be a fist’s distance in width between them. I think that this can vary. If you have sufficient leg power, then there is no reason why your feet should not be further apart. The width between them should also depend on your own body shape and size.  What I am trying to say is that your feet should be in a position that feels comfortable and stable.

In my view, the most important element is hikitsuke, the process of drawing the back foot to its relative position with the front foot as soon as you move forward or make fumikomi to strike. In this way you maintain balance and the ability to move forward instantly.

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Men Drill

Men Drill

Since my last post, several people have made the point that it is fine to say what they did wrong, but it might be more helpful to tell them how to fix it. So here goes – do more kihon practice.

OK, let me be more specific. I highlighted three problems: 

  • Not using the left hand
  • Not being able to push off instantly from your left foot
  • Not hitting your opponent

The first two are the easiest to resolve and in doing so there is a good chance number three  will go away, so I will save that for another day.

The left hand problem is relatively simple, given that you want to change. Most people can cut correctly when doing basic exercises and drills, but stiffen up when they get into jigeiko.  To my view this suggests that we all should do more kihon and less free practice, but back to the point in hand! You get the cutting action right through practicing correct suburi. Try the following:- Stand in front of a mirror, (or get someone to video you), and make sure your posture is correct – back straight, with your balance just slightly forward from perpendicular, feet well spaced and shoulders relaxed. Now look at your kamae. Your left hand should be in line with your navel and your right hand directly in front, touching the tsuba with your knuckle. The point of your shinai should line up with the throat of an imaginary opponent of your own height. Your arms should be relaxed and close to your body but with elbows and wrists relaxed. You should also allow space for your arms to move freely without sticking on your dou.

Make sure that you are gripping correctly, hold the shinai  with your little finger and ring finger with the rest of your hand loose. Now start suburi with the feeling of pulling up with the left hand to just above your men. The point of the shinai should not go back too far, 45 degrees at the most. When you make the strike, ensure that your left hand always stays below your right, but that you extend your right wrist so that the eventual destination of the shinai is the chin of your opponent, squeezing gently with your right hand just after reaching the top of the men. Ensure that you lift and strike in one continuous movement and that your hands are turned in rather than out. Finally come to a complete stop after each cut and ensure that your balance and posture is right before the next.

This can be done in pairs, taking turns to hold the shinai above your head and stepping backwards and forwards for your opponent to make renzoku suburi. Chiba sensei suggests doing this in a set of 200, so you keep relaxed from the outset.

To my mind the best way to fix the drive from the left foot,  is to work in pairs, wearing men and kote. Face each other in issoku, itto maai and build pressure between you with strong kiai and kamae. Ensure posture and kamae are correct, then kakarite should move his weight from 50:50 to 70:30 left foot : right foot and also 70:30 between ball of foot and heel on the left foot. When motodachi feels that pressure has built to a maximum, he or she should make a small step forward on the right foot, opening their kamae and inclining their head forward. Kakarite should instantly push off from the left foot and strike in one action.  Practise this in sets of four or five changing motodachi after each set. Now you have the perfect debana men – which should keep you going until you make hachidan.

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Kata on the beachI touched on the fact that Kendo footwork is very different from that of other martial arts in my last post. Thinking about it, the whole left foot / left hand idea is alien to most sports. I think this is one of the reasons why beginners find it so hard to learn Kendo.

Successful kendo attacks must have ki-ken-tai-ichi or spirit /energy, sword, and body (read hips and feet), working together and whilst this can be done with sliding footwork, most people rely on strong fumikomi, (stamping footwork) to make the point. Watching many students practice, I beleive that quite a few find this to be particularly difficult.

The most common errors are to lift the right foot too high, not to maintain a correct distance between the left and right foot, to keep one or both heels too far off the ground or even worse to keep the left heel on the ground.

Poor footwork used to be expected from westerners by some sensei, who rationalised about “tatami seikatsu” or the fact that Japanese kendoka had stronger legs based on a lifestyle of sitting and sleeping on tatami mats. This is now largely irrelevant, as most Japanese now sit on chairs and sleep on beds. My personal theory is that bad footwork stems from hard gym floors, incorrect training and instruction and also from low expectations.

If we concentrate on our footwork in training, it will of course get better. To practice we should ensure that when we move into distance, the left foot should immediately follow the right. The left heel should be about 15 degrees of the ground. There must be a slight bend in both knees, not too great in the left, otherwise we lose pressure from the left foot and of course the left foot drives us forward. Once you are in position, be careful not to move either foot until you start the attack and then just throw the right foot forward so that it lands on the ball of the foot as you hit the target. Simple!……..OK it needs a bit of practice.

On my trip to Norway, we tried practicing Kata on the beach, not good for footwork, but great fun! see above.

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