Archive for the ‘Kendo for seniors’ Category

My usual blog posts are written with a degree of confidence as I at least know a little about the topics I cover. This is more a request for information, particularly if there are any medics or bio-scientists that happen to read this.

I am now 66 years old and have been practising kendo for nearly 50 years. I still work, through choice and practice kendo at least two or three times a week. I travel regularly between the UK and Spain and numerous other destinations for kendo and work and, fingers crossed, still seem to have some energy to spare. My chiropractor told me recently that I “have the bones of a 30 year old man”, which sounded as if they were something I keep in the cupboard.

In the past I augmented kendo with visits to the gym and regular runs in the belief that keeping my overall fitness level up would be of value to my kendo. I have long since given these up.  I don’t make any lifestyle concessions and despite my wife’s advice continue to eat and drink the wrong things and surprisingly still seem to feel OK.

So I suppose my question is – does kendo make a long-term difference to fitness levels and if so why?  As far as I can see jigeiko is anaerobic. We engage for short bursts of full-on activity, and then retire to a safe distance. Suburi , kirikaeshi  and kakarigeiko are closer to aerobic training but generally we don’t encourage seniors to do too much of these.

I have been witness to the numerous kenshi in Japan who train into their 70s and 80s, in some cases 90s. Many of these sensei train twice a day, 6 or 7 days a week.   In comparison to many other sports where it is unusual to see someone continue past the age of 40, kendo is highly unusual.

Obviously kendo does not make you immortal. Many of us have lost kendo friends who have passed away or who have had to stop because of ill health. I have no statistical evidence and I am sure that there are differences in the stats for professionals and amateurs and those based in Japan and Korea versus the rest of the world, but kendoka seem to keep going for longer.

I understand that as we age in kendo we replace physical strength with kigamai and kizeme. What I don’t know is whether kendo actually helps improve our health as we age and in which way it benefits us. Any illumination on the subject would be much appreciated.

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Brussels seminarI wrote this in preparation for the Seniors Seminar in Belgium which was held over this weekend,with the indulgence of the ABKF. This seminar was based on a number of posts that I have written over the years with thoughts about how we can continue enjoy kendo into old age.

Although I have a long way to go to get my keiko to the desired level, and hopefully have a few more years before I hang up my bogu, I have developed some fairly strong views on what we need do to get the most from our keiko. Some of these may appear contradictory, but please indulge me. It goes without saying that none of this work is my own. All of these ideas are borrowed from  senior Japanese sensei. The points to consider are as follows:

  • Work on your cutting action so that it is smooth and relaxed – do not use unnecessary energy by being stiff.
  • Develop strong kihaku but keep your upper body relaxed. – Learn to put your opponent under pressure and train to push power down from your shoulders to your abdomen.
  • Continue to strive to go forward with maximum speed when you make shikake waza, but work on your footwork so that you do not waste energy by lifting your right foot unnecessarily high.
  • Work on seme – making the opportunity is like baking the cake, the strike that follows is the icing.
  • Train your breathing – work on holding breath in your abdomen when holding “tame”; explode when you strike.
  • Control your footwork to take advantage of your opponent’s forward movement when you make oji waza – use hikidasu to draw him or her into your space.
  • Try kote, it take less energy than men

How can we train to achieve this?

  • Stick with the basics – practice suburi and kiri-kaeshi. Work on big correct waza, pay attention to cutting action, hasuji and tenouchi.
  • Practice oji waza drills until you own each technique, experiment with managing footwork distance to reach the target, taking the forward movement of your opponent into consideration.
  • Don’t stop kakarigeiko – do it bigger and slower with strong spirit.
  • Try seme- geiko – develop your ability to make the opportunity.
  • Sweat the small stuff – be aware of the correctness of your posture, bow and sonkyo – aim at developing kigurai, remember that each keiko starts with the first rei.

Obviously age decreases speed and physical strength. We need to continue to strive for correct technique and kiai so that we can control the keiko to our own advantage

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Wu Chin-puAn eighth dan   recently asked me about my plans for retirement and I explained that as a self-employed consultant I aim to stop sometime before I die. Unfortunately I mistakenly used the Japanese word for “give-up” rather than the one meaning “cease”, so we had a lengthy conversation about “never giving up”. We finished on the positive note that in life and in kendo, throwing in the towel is something that you should never do.

Whilst most sports talk about not giving up and “no surrender”, kendo takes this idea to a new level by applying it to the whole of your life; not just the remainder of your sporting life, but the whole of your naturally life. We all know, or know of kenshi in their seventies and eighties who continue to train as hard now as they did in their twenties and thirties.

I received a text this morning from a sensei who is well into his seventies explaining that as he has a heavy cold he needed to miss a single session. In most sports, if someone of that age were able to turn up to train, he would be met by the national media and a marching band. The difference is obvious, most kenshi expect to continue throughout their active (and not so active) lives whereas in sport, you usually stop once you pass your physical peak.

The reason for our refusal to give up is simple. Kendo is a shugyo, a path to self- improvement. To give up would be tantamount to admittance that you had achieved perfection and that there is nothing left to strive for. None of the late 10th dans ever felt that they had attained kendo enlightenment. Mochida sensei famously talked about the immovable spirit taking over once the legs and body weakened, but admitted that his mind still strayed from time to time.

There is always a special display of affection for the final senseis’ enbu at the Kyoto Taikai and the last candidates in court eight of the 8th dan grading exams in Kyoto and Tokyo. Other kendoka respect the determination and persistence of these senior role models as much as they admire the technical ability of younger, fitter All Japan Champions; in fact in many cases the two are the same, at different stages of their kendo lives.

So next time my knees ache or I have the sniffles, I will think of the words of Winston Churchill (and Thomas the Tank Engine), when they said ”never, ever give-up”.

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Matsumoto sensei

Matsumoto sensei

I recently received an invitation from the Belgian Kendo Federation to run a weekend seminar next June for kenshi aged over 50. I am really excited about the prospect of doing so, as over the past few years I have put quite a lot of thought into how we can get the most out of our kendo as we get older.

The seminar will be held between the 19th and 21st of June and on the final day there will be a competition for participants. My aim is to share the information that I have gleaned from various sensei on how to make keiko meaningful and enjoyable, even if our physical powers are staring to wane.

As we get older it is tempting to take our “foot of the gas” and use less energy in our kendo. Conserving energy is essential, but at the same time our intensity should not decrease. We should relax, but be able to explode when we see an opportunity. The “feather in a hurricane” analogy that I have mentioned in previous posts, is a good summary of how we should relax, but at the same time be able to concentrate energy at the crucial moment. To achieve this we need to continue to practise kiri-kaeshi and kakarigeiko, but in a very different way to our younger friends.

Kihaku and good posture need to take over from work rate. We should relax but stay in what the ZNKR defines as “high spirits”, so that we are able to use what power we have when there is a real opportunity to attack.

The other crucial element is to use your experience to make the opponent do the work. If you can invite the other person to step into your distance, you have less far to travel to make your attack. The concept of hikidasu, or “to draw in“, is the way to conserve your own energy whilst making him or her come to you.

Basics are increasingly important as you age. If your footwork is incorrect, it is tiring, and worse still, potentially damaging to aging knees.  A recent study by Imafuku Ichiju looked at t the “piston” method of pushing off from the left foot used by younger kenshi and the way to swing the right foot forward  as you push off from the left  being more appropriate to older kendoka.

The one piece of advice for making the most of kendo as you age that I have not acted upon, came from Kawase sensei, who suggested that it is best to keep slim.  Still, I have a year before the seminar to lose a few pounds.

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Kendo for senior citizens

Nakakura sensei

Mochida sensei

Many kendo clubs advertise kendo as “suitable for people of all ages”. Whilst I do not disagree with this, I think there are some serious caveats. Those lucky enough to start at a relatively young age, have had the luxury of adapting kendo over the years and to paraphrase Mochida sensei, allowing physical speed and strength to be replaced by technique and later by kizeme, based on strength of mind. For people who take up kendo in late middle, or old age it is more difficult. There are exceptions of course, but in most cases, late starters lack the strength and flexibility to start with “young kendo” and it is impossible to cram decades of experience into a short beginner’s course. Even seasoned kendoka can have problems after a long break from training. I recently met an experienced Japanese player in his 30’s who returned to kendo after a 10 year interval. Within minutes of reverting to university level footwork, he experienced Achilles tendon problems. So what should the more mature kenshi do to get the most gain without too much pain. Firstly find a sympathetic instructor who understands the limitations of his students. Work on correct technique and cutting and keep your posture correct. Try to make good fumikomi, but do not take such big steps that you strain your Achilles tendon. Always bring your left foot up quickly so the toe is in line with your right heel. Above all relax. If you feel any sudden twinges stop! Being prudent however does not mean you should not practise with full spirit. It is not all bad news for us oldies. Someone told me about his dad who started at 60 and reached 5th dan without failing a single grading. I also have a friend who restarted after a 27 year break and reached 7th dan. So give it your best, but do not overdo it.

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