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Archive for the ‘Kendo instruction’ Category

bulbAt the few dojo where I am a regular attendee, I enjoy teaching people whom I know. Each of us tend to learn in different ways, so knowing their learning style and motivation it becomes easier to transmit information in a way that appeals to them. When I teach at seminars, often in different countries, it is more of a challenge. Trying to motivate people whom you hardly know is not an easy job.

The fact that they come to seminars is an indication that they want to improve and build on their kendo. I point this out because there are many kenshi who have reached a level that they are happy with and who see kendo training as a way to enjoy exercise and fellowship, not a lifelong quest for self-improvement. Those that come to these events, come to learn, but we each have our preferred way of absorbing information.

There are people who respond to criticism and others who get the most from encouragement. Some appreciate the traditional approach of watching a technique demonstrated then being given the chance to try it themselves, others like to understand the reason behind the technique and contemplate how and when to deploy it. There are some who need to break each action down to its smallest part and then build the technique from the components and a lucky few who have the ability to see something once and then do it in its entirety.

Over the weekend I was teaching at a seminar in Brussels and all seemed to be going well. I noticed one individual who was concentrating hard and producing some good men attacks. With kote however he tended to tense up and almost crouch as he hit. I jokingly tried to give him a shoulder massage which was received with a degree of indignation.

Further into the our training, I decided to point out what he was doing and had a quite word without bringing it to everyone’s attention. I was told that I was mistaken and that he was perfectly happy with the way things were going, so I decided to keep my unwanted advice to myself.

We finished the day with mawari geiko. When we met I decided to take advantage of his crouch into kote and every time this happened I hit his men. At the end of the session he came over to bow and thanked me profusely for correcting his kote. As they say everyone is different.

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Capture yOU tUBEWe use video in a number of different ways for to help learn kendo. There are a few of Japanese instruction books that come complete with DVDs. These can be easier to follow than still photographs or book illustrations.  Many people learn by watching videos or YouTube clips of top level shiai players or of high ranked kendo teachers.

Some kenshi also like to video themselves or their students as a way to highlight bad habits that need fixing. I am in two minds about doing this. Watching yourself in action is a way to objectively understand what you are doing correctly and what is wrong, but this can have a negative effect on self-confidence.

When I look at clips of my kendo or the few keiko or shiai that other people have filmed and posted on YouTube, the disappointment at the opportunities I see myself missing or messing up outweighs any feeling of pleasure for the techniques that succeeded.  Perhaps it is a reflection of my own tendency to be self-critical, but watching a bad or mediocre performance can be very discouraging. Instead I prefer to keep an image in my mind of the quality of kendo that I aspire to and to work towards this, measuring improvement by the way I feel rather than by visual evidence.

This does not mean that I don’t like criticism. I positively enjoy advice from senior instructors and welcome input from peers if they see me doing something wrong. It is just seeing my mistakes on film that I find cringe worthy.

I am not alone in this view. I have spoken to a number of hachidan who are constantly having their tachiai and seminar teaching uploaded to the internet and have been told by several of them that they feel uncomfortable at having what they do not consider to be their best performances broadcast around the globe. Of course the rest of us less expert kenshi would give anything to be able to emulate these masters on a bad day.

To some extent this self-examination is typical of kendo, where we all constantly strive to be better. A kendoka who sits in front of the screen watching himself and whispering “Damn I’m good” or words to that effect would hardly inspire confidence.

Another interesting take on YouTube came from a hanshi who will remain nameless. He told we that he worries about the numerous uploads as they help his wife keep track of him. It is not so much the seminar and shiai posts that worry him, more the after keiko parties.

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MountainI spent this weekend at a seminar which finished with a grading examination. One of the candidates who failed asked for feedback  and when I explained that the reason was failure to actively strike their opponent, I was told that it was the fault of my co-instructor who had advised that strikes should not be heavy. The candidate had responded to this advice by just reaching forward with the shinai as their opponent came towards them.

I did my best to explain that there was probably some misunderstanding and what my colleague had meant was that they should not make heavy downward strikes but that the feeling should be one of going forward. Of course this did not mean that the hit should not be sharp. In my experience this is a common misunderstanding. We should still strike downwards but our body should move straight ahead. In short you can’t get ippon without hitting.

It is not surprising that people get muddled on this point. In kendo we talk about oshigiri or push cutting, but to do this we have to deliver the datotsu bu of the shinai to the target area before we continue to cut forward with our body movement.

To do this you have to learn to relax so that you can deliver a downward strike whilst pushing forward from your left foot. You can then make a sharp strike using your shoulders, elbows and wrists, whilst at the same time accelerating forward using our feet and hips and as we discussed last week, the force of our kiai.

This type of confusion is common in our kendo careers when we tend to swing backwards and forwards from one extreme to another. We are told to make our big strikes smaller by one teacher and the next sensei tells us to make our small cuts bigger. We are advised to attack less frequently and then told to increase our work rate. Incredibly most of this advice will be relevant, but it is based on what the advising sensei sees on the day. There is some good news, in my experience this conflicting information starts to slow down as you develop your kendo.

There is of course a difference in the approach of various instructors and as the saying goes “there are many paths to the top of the mountain”. When you attend seminars or visit dojo, the advice you may receive is based on what the teacher sees on the day. Of course kendo reigi dictates an answer of “yes thank you” rather than a discussion of what the last guy said. However it makes sense to take the new information away with you and reflect on how it will affect your kendo before incorporating it into your keiko.

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Nagamatsu senseiAs well as escaping a week of the British winter for the sunny south of Spain I had the pleasure of meeting Nagamatsu sensei from Hyogo Kendo Federation who was on the second stop of his teaching tour of Spain, which takes in Madrid, Malaga, Valencia and Santander. Nagamatsu sensei is a hachidan, former Hyogo police instructor who is now shihan of Kwansei Gakuin University.

I was able to take part in the first of his teaching sessions in Malaga which took place at Shion Dojo’s Estepona location. After an introduction where he talked about correct rei , sonkyo and posture, sensei spent much of the two hour session looking at everyone’s basics and made a number of very interesting observations after watching men suburi.

He stated that the weight of the cut should be in the shinai’s monouchi and that we should aim for maximum extension using the shoulders, elbows, wrists and tenouchi in that order. He also made the point that the feet and abdomen should play a key part in the striking process, using the analogy, ichi-gan, ni-soku, san-tan, shi-riki. (first sight, second feet, third abdomen, fourth power / waza).

Sensei was emphatic that the shinai should be raised to only at a 45 degree angle and not allowed to go back beyond that. I have heard this many times before and always try to give the same advice myself, but Nagamatsu sensei’s explanation of why was enlightening.  His view was that 45 degrees is the natural extension angle of the shoulder joint and that if we reach back beyond this point then we have to change our grip.

By keeping to the 45 degree rule we are able to lift the shinai and strike in the timing of one (ichibyoshi). If we go beyond that point, we follow a timing of two, as the movement is broken as we rearrange the positions of our fingers on the tsuka.

We then had a jigeiko session where sensei took great trouble to work with people on their individual strengths and challenges. Some tired but happy kenshi then headed for some very welcome beer and tapas at a local bar. Unfortunately I only had the chance to attend one of the three sessions before my own travel schedule took me in a different direction, but for me it was a much appreciated learning experience and I am sure that my friends in Malaga will make some real progress on the back of Nagamatsu sensei’s teaching.

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Copy of P1010028It is easy for kendo teachers to get into a rut. We all have our favourite drills and exercises and there is a very real danger that every kihon session is a repeat of the last. The obvious argument against this is “if it works why change it”. I would suggest however that by varying our training routine we stop students from getting bored and therefore keep them more engaged.

An example is suburi. Many clubs regularly follow warming up exercises with the same suburi every session. They do the same number of repetitions of the same sets of jogi-buri, naname-buri, shomen-suburi, zenshinkotai-suburi and hayasuburi. As a result I often see people coast. They just go through the motions of swinging the shinai backwards and forwards without concentrating. To my mind it then becomes just a continuation of the warm-up and misses out on its main purpose, which is to improve ki-ken-tai-itchi , posture, tenouchi  and  hasuji.

As an antidote I started the New Year practice at Sanshukan with an idea borrowed from Chiba sensei. This time we worked in pairs with motodachi receiving on a shinai held above his head and counting to two hundred. Kakarite delivered that number of strikes whilst working on making the attacks both relaxed and sharp. The fact that we were doing something different was as valuable as the exercise itself and the next set of drills looked better than usual when performed by kenshi with tired shoulders. It is my opinion that we should regularly vary all of our drills. Kirikaeshi can be performed fast or slow, with suriashi or fumikomi-ashi. We can change the number of strikes, do it backwards and forwards across the length of the dojo, even swap men for dou strikes or combine them both.

The same goes for most drills. Rather than always following a set pattern of shikake waza  and ojiwaza, vary the routine. Have a session where you just try kote attacks and work on the relevant counter techniques, then devote another day to practise only men and oji waza against men. The objective with all these exercises is to focus on each technique and for everyone to develop and perform it to the best of their ability. There are techniques that some people will find harder than others, but even if it is not their favourite, they should work on it and earmark it for more effort in the future.

Everyone wants to improve their kendo, so as instructors we need to make training interesting to keep people engaged.

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Repetitive Reiho

ritsureiI have touched on the subject of reigi numerous times in this blog and I am prompted to make it my topic again after a conversation that I had last week with a student who helps teach a regular beginners’ lesson. One of his colleague instructors defers to him when it comes to teaching the rules of kendo etiquette on the basis that “he likes reigi”. As he explained to me, he has no particular like or dislike of the subject, but having originally been taught by Japanese instructors and regularly nagged by me on the subject, he sees reigi as an integral part of kendo.

In my view the level to which reigi is displayed in the dojo is not open to discussion. It is a fundamental expression of our regard for others and without it kendo turns into a brawl with sticks. The rules of reigi, or more correctly reigi saho (the outward expression of etiquette) are not negotiable and are either correct or not.

From day one beginners should be taught how to behave in the dojo, how to bow correctly, how to treat the shinai as a sword and how and when to speak in the dojo. The latter point is best summed up by “as little as possible”. The instruction of etiquette should be delivered as a basic part of kendo teaching. The physical elements of reigi saho should be absorbed by the student from day one. If someone is capable of delivering a great men attack but cannot bow correctly, what they are producing is not kendo but a pale imitation.

I regularly hear the argument that kendoists outside Japan should not have to be part of a behaviour system that was formulated in the Japanese feudal period. I believe that the answer is that kendo is above all, a vehicle for personal development and that by physically observing and perfecting its courtesies, the practitioner develops an understanding that will have a long-term effect on his or her relationships with others, both in and outside the dojo.

The way you bow and stand in the dojo, the way you put on and take off your bogu and the way you thank people before and after keiko should be repeatedly polished. When these are correct and become a natural part of your behaviour they automatically improve your kendo technique and maybe make you a nicer person.

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Sueno senseiMumeishio dojo was fortunate to receive a visit last tuesday from Sueno Eiji sensei, hanshi  hachidan and former All Japan Champion.

Sensei instructed a kihon session before taking on all comers for jigeiko. He made a number of important points over the course of the evening and as per previous visits commented on the importance of correct cutting. After giving everyone the opportunity to try the ojiwaza of their choice against men and kote, he demonstrated how to control body movement so that they benefitted from the attackers forward momentum. Although most oji techniques are delivered moving forward, there is no need to continue across the dojo for numerous steps as in the case of shikake waza , instead it is enough to make a sharp attack and then to immediately assume zanshin, letting your opponent do most of the hard work.

Sueno sensei also talked about the preparation for ojiwaza and compared the difficulty of waiting and trying to counter your opponents timing rather than using seme and hikidasu to make him attack at a time when you are ready for him. He demonstrated applying and releasing pressure so that the attacker is drawn into your space and timing and therefore is unable to escape your trap.

Hi final comments after jigeiko however were much more concerned with basics. “The movement of our hands in kendo should be up and down”. He moved his open hands in a straight line from the wrists so that fingers were angled first up then down. He then showed us how many people were using their hands, and that the right hand was either pushing over to the left, or the right wrist was twisting inwards so that the shinai was either at an angle or turned to hit with the side edge. He also inferred that using our right hand in this way was likely to spoil our posture and balance.

So simple but extremely valuable advice – hands should be soft and flexible and like our elbows and shoulders move in a straight up and down motion, allowing us to hit the target accurately and sharply without wasting energy.

Thanks from all at Mumeishi to Sueno sensei. We look forward to your next visit.

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