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Archive for the ‘Kendo Training’ Category

Hiki_tai atariWe practised butsukarigeiko on Thursday. If you are not familiar with bustsukarigeiko, it is the continued practice of men and taiatari followed by hiki waza. It’s rather like kakarigeiko but with alternate forward and backward strikes separated by body checks.

We don’t do it very often because classes are normally made up of kenshi of a variety of sizes, ages, experience and fitness levels, which can make this form of training slightly hazardous. On Thursday however we had a group of young to middle aged males all in apparently good health, so we gave it a try.

We started by working on our taiatari, ensuring that we made contact in correct tzubazeriai and used the power from our hips by dropping our weight down. We paid special attention not to push from the arms and shoulders. Moving on to men- hiki- men, we looked at how to create  correct distance as we moved back, so that we hit the target with the datotsu bu of the shinai. We then tried men-hiki-gote and men-hiki-dou. With these the challenge was to ensure that motodachi gave the correct opening, so for hiki gote the idea is to push to his right in tzubazeri, so that he pushes back and exposes his kote as you step back and release the pressure. With dou you need to push down so that he pushes up and creates an opening.

We finally added gyaku dou to the set and put them all together. Men-hiki-men, men-hiki-gote, men-hiki-dou, men-hiki-gyaku dou, followed by a shomen strike to finish and repeated the exercise for 30 minutes in mawari geiko.

I have seen and taken part in this kind of drill on a number of occasions in Japan. In fact one teacher in Hyogo uses this as the backbone of his dojo’s training. When I first saw this my first reaction was to wonder why such emphasis was put on body contact. However, watching colleagues I know well do the exercise was enlightening. As in kakarigeiko, a degree of tiredness makes people relax and use correct technique. Butsukarigeiko also ensures that your posture is correct as it is impossible to make repeated taiatari and hiki waza if you are leaning forward or backward. So any thoughts that the teacher in Hyogo was being harsh for no particular reason have now been dispelled.

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downloadWith the European Kendo Championships looming and the next World Kendo Championships just a year away, many people are thinking about the most effective ways to train for shiai.

Opinion on how to best train for kendo competition seems to be varied. I had a lengthy conversation with one of the hanshi responsible for training the successful Japanese Team in a recent WKC and although he was reluctant to give away too many secrets, he told me that National Squad Training consisted of sessions with the younger, fitter 8th dan teachers acting as motodachi and putting the squad through a rigid regime of kakarigeiko style drills. There was also a stringent programme of medical checks to ensure that members with injuries that were likely to re-occur were excluded from selection.

Japan is obviously in a different situation to the smaller kendo nations, where although team selection is also limited to the fittest and best, we do not have numerous strong competitors to choose from. Whereas the Japanese squad come together on a limited number of occasions for team building and to put a final polish on already developed skills, other countries athletes sometimes need to use national squad training to develop far more basic skills. The training needs of a hobbyist with exposure to keiko for a few hours each week are very different to those of a police tokuren, who is paid to spend 30 hours a week in the dojo.

In most cases national squads can manage a few, infrequent training days together. Making the most of this time needs a great deal of thought from the coaching team. I have seen approaches that range from learning kata, to extensive kihon training to discussing shiai tactics and motivational psychology. I am sure that all of these have a place in the training tool kit. The most important consideration is how to make the best use of limited time spent as a group, particularly for teams which need to think and act as one.

One thing is clear, no-one should expect to learn the basics of kendo through a few group training sessions. National team members need to build their own kendo through regular keiko. Anyone chosen to represent their country needs to train as often as they can, with as many people as they can. In Mumeishi dojo the seniors make a point of giving extra help to National Squad members by adding an ippon shobu and some “tough love” kakarigeiko to each keiko, but how we develop as shiai players, and kendoka generally, is the responsibility of one person – ourselves.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADuring a visit to Japan some years ago I was taken to morning practice in Sakai, near Osaka by Uegaki Isao sensei. The session was led by his teacher, the late Furuya sensei and attended by numerous 8th and 7th dan members, many of whom were at least in their 60s. Much of the session was devoted to seme-geiko, which for me was a new experience. The idea was to work together in pairs in a mawari geiko format, taking turns as motodachi, whose job was to retain a strong chudan kamae. Kakarite had to break through motodachi’s defence to take centre and execute men, kote or kote-men attacks.  The practice reminded me of kakarigeiko for seniors, where no targets were offered, but we had to use the strength of our seme to make opportunities.

I have since introduced seme-geiko to a number of keiko sessions back home in the UK and found generally that the more experienced kendoka tend to get the most out of this practice.

This week in my local dojo where we have a mix of mainly first to third dan kenshi, I had a request to look at ways of improving seme, so seme-geiko seemed an obvious choice. Rather than jump straight in, we started by working together in pairs maintaining an even distance between the points of our shinai as we moved backwards and forwards. Each partner took turns as motodachi and controlled the practice by varying the sequence of steps in each direction. We then looked at our breathing and how we could exert more force by retaining our breath once we engaged in fighting distance. Finally we made a concerted effort to keep “mind contact” with our opponent as went through the drill.

From this exercise we moved on to hikibana men, pushing in to take centre and then following with a men strike as motodachi stepped back.  We then tried debana men, aiming to pull our partners in with hikidashi and taking the initiative as they started to attack.

From these basic drills we moved on to seme-geiko, trying to execute 3 or four strong techniques in thirty or forty seconds. Whereas Furuya sensei took the practice on to kaeshi-seme-geiko, where motodachi responds to some of kakarite’s attacks with oji waza, we kept to the basic attacking practice before moving into a short jigeiko session.

When I asked people at the end of the session if they found it useful, several made the point that it was much more tiring than more physical training methods and that trying to maintain mental contact with an opponent for even a short period was exhausting.

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ChangeFollowing my “New Year Advice” post, Andrew commented.  ”The big question is why are so many of us unable to change?” and added a number of well thought out reasons why it is difficult to alter our behaviour. I also think that many of us do not like change because it takes us out of our comfort zone. Andrew’s contribution re-opened what for me is an interesting  area of discussion as I am currently trying to change my own kendo.

Last year Sumi sensei suggested that I should try to move less after hitting. This advice is not relevant to everyone, but increasingly appropriate to someone of my advanced years. To hit effectively without going through, requires full spirit and control, so I need to work hard to get it right.

Like most people I am better at giving advice than taking it, and although I am keen to change, force of habit frequently overrides my good intentions.  As I see an opportunity to strike men, I push off from the left foot, hit, and keep going until I reach the wall-bars. To be honest, I enjoy steaming across the dojo as if I was still 18, but I am invariably rewarded the following day with aching knees.

So as it is the time of year when we focus on doing all the things that we did not get around to last year, hitting correctly and then stopping on the spot is my New Year objective. For all of us though, kendo is about constant change, so the point I am slowly getting round to; is how can we effect change in our practice? We have looked at this many times before, and the obvious answer is to stick with kihon drills so that we are not distracted by our competitive instincts. There are times however when we need to make changes through our jigeiko. When you consider that keiko should be approached with an ”unfettered mind”, this is not easy.

The phrase “The paralysis of analysis” comes to mind from some long forgotten piece of management training. If you apply it to kendo there is a real danger that if you think too hard about what you are doing, you become unable to move. Instead I like the approach that I may have inadvertently borrowed from Timothy Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis”;   of planning what you are going to do before the session, practicing without fixing your mind on a single issue and then reviewing how you did after training. The key is not to beat yourself up for making errors, but rather reflecting on what you did right.

I am in the process of trying this out and will be interesting to see whether I make any progress, or if my good intentions go the way of the January detox and diet.

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GophersWatching the start of a recent kihon session I was  reminded of a fairground stall where the objective is to hit gophers with a mallet as they randomly pop up and disappear back into holes. People were starting to bow as their partner finished bowing; others were taking sonkyo as their opponent moved into kamae. Not a particularly unusual spectacle, but ask kendoka at almost any level of experience “when does keiko start” and they will tell you “from the first rei”. So, we have got the theory right, but we don’t always put it into practice.

In kendo as in sumo, the term tachiai is used to describe a bout or demonstration. Tachiai literally means to stand and meet and if you are lucky enough to watch high level kendo you will see that from the initial rei through to sonkyo  and kamae there is total engagement between the two partners. Some teachers describe this as “mind contact” others talk about the meeting of ki (spirit or life-force).  In fact this is the real meaning of the term kiai. At the highest level kendo calls for total awareness of each other’s thoughts and feelings and even involves mirroring an opponent’s breathing, (aun no kokkyu).

Obviously it’s extremely difficult to reach this level of harmony. Doing so may take a lifetime’s practice. If we are to stand any chance of reaching this hallowed ground, we need to start by co-ordinating our physical movements from the earliest stages of our kendo careers.

When we make the initial standing rei before keiko, we should make eye contact, raise the shinai to the hip and bow 15 degrees from the waist in unison with our opponent. We then take the  three steps forward at exactly the same time, moving as one into sonkyo; drawing the sword at the same time as we drop into position.  When in sonkyo we should try to make contact with our mind as well as the tip of the sword. Only when we feel that this contact has been made should we stand up together.

When we stand, we should either keep our position or step slightly forward, never back or to the side. This is when we should take time to read our opponent before making the first kakegoe. Most of us can’t achieve aun kokkyu, but we can ensure that we breathe in quickly and retain our breath for as long as possible. We should release half of our air on the initial kiai and keep the remainder (nokori) to expel on our first strike.

Mind-reading may take a lifetime’s practice, but we can at least start by moving as if we can read our partner’s actions.

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Hasegawa senseiWe had a Hatsugeiko session at my local dojo on the evening of January second. Luckily this coincided with a visit from Hasegawa Makoto sensei, former JICA teacher to Nepal. He had contacted Holt sensei during a sightseeing visit to London and ours was the one practice that fitted in with his schedule. 

The session format was the one I normally suggest when we have senior visits. We started with kihon geiko, had a brief interlude for keiko between the kodansha and then finished with motodachi- geiko. We had a glass of sake to toast the New Year and then moved to the pub for a chat.

We asked Hasegawa sensei for a critique of everyone’s kendo and the point that he made was that people tended to use too much shoulder power. Many individuals made a cutting motion with their arms moving in parallel. Instead he suggested that they should rather push up and out with the left hand and pull up with the right, so that the shinai makes  an even arc as they raise and strike. He also commented on the need to grip only with the middle, ring and little fingers and not the forefinger and thumb. This applies to the grip in kamae, when striking and when making tenouchi on the point of hitting.

Good observations, but not revelations. They are exactly the same points that local instructors and other visiting sensei make repeatedly. The big question is “why are so many of us unable to change?”

I have often heard theories about westerners having different physical characteristics and that Japanese tend to concentrate more strength in their core and lower bodies because of “tatami lifestyle”, but to be frank I find these hard to believe. Most young Japanese people now use chairs and sleep in beds. I also see Korean and Japanese people who have started kendo outside their own countries, develop the same heavy hitting style as their Caucasian chums.

I believe the remedy is in the quality and quantity of basis practice we should do. Chiba sensei once said that leading up to his All Japan Championship peak; he did 3000 continuous suburi per day. Not only does repetition lead to perfection, but working at that level of intensity teaches you to relax and save energy. In the same vein if you regularly practice flat-out uchikomigeiko or kakarigeiko you learn to conserve energy by not being unnecessarily tense. The other point to consider is that correct breathing helps you to relax, so by practising multiple strikes with one breath in kirikaeshi or kakarigeiko you learn to use the power of your tanden instead of your shoulders.

Old advice, but certainly worth taking into account for this year’s training.

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MountainI was told many years ago by a Japanese 7th dan in his 60’s that he found kendo increasingly challenging, particularly from the perspective of producing kendo that set a good example for his juniors. At the time, I was surprised to hear that someone who had reached his level still had concerns about his ability. I foolishly imagined that on reaching the kodansha ranks it was simply a matter of enjoying the benefits of past hard training.

Kendo continues to provide a challenge throughout our kendo lives, from learning to move our hands and feet together as beginners, to trying to gain some semblance of jiri-itchi when we reach the higher dans. As we progress, we face a series of barriers that we must overcome before we move to the next level. These often reflect the requirements for our next grading examination, such as renzoku waza for nidan and seme and tame for 4th and 5th dan, but they would still exist with or without a formal grading system.

Unfortunately these barriers have a way of getting higher and taking longer to overcome as we progress. It is often during these periods when people decide that it is easier to quit than to continue to strive. Kendo very quickly polarises those who appreciate  the value we gain is from the journey itself and those who expect instant mastery. The latter tend to leave at the end of each beginners course, but even for the most dedicated kenshi, long periods without tangible improvement can be frustrating and disheartening. On the other hand it seems that higher the “wall”, the greater the improvement you make when you eventually climb over it.

Practically, the solution is wherever possible, to go back to basics and increase the amount of kihon geiko in our training schedules. This should be done in a way that focuses on, or reflects the elements that we need to change. It helps to share and to have the guidance of your teacher or seniors when you are working on correcting faults or developing new skills. Sometimes however this is not possible and you need to collaborate with your peers rather than try by yourself. You may well find that they are facing the same difficulties and that working together provides a win-win solution.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now appreciate the point that sensei was trying to make. The biggest improvement you can make is to reach a level where you become conscious of how much you have to learn.

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Chudan Feet 2With my recent exposure to both Sumi sensei’s renzoku waza drills and Inoue sensei’s take on kirikaeshi, I am starting to think more and more about the importance of being instantly ready to attack at any stage in our keiko.

There is a tendency, particularly amongst senior, older kendoka to walk away and start again after exchanging a single attack. Although this allows you to conserve energy, it is long way from the ideal of being “constantly in full spirit”. Keiko should be short, sharp and intense. Far better to do 30 minutes of full-on keiko than two hours of leisurely posing.

The key technical requirements are that your back foot needs to be in the right place for you to attack throughout the practice and you need to keep within attacking distance. When you attempt to strike men going forward and your movement takes you past your opponent, you should turn quickly, bringing your left foot into position with hikitsuke and attack again. If you make a failed attempt on kote, push off immediately while you are in front of your opponent and go for men.

With hiki-waza, there is even more of a tendency to reverse into the distance. You should work on learning to keep you balance between  your feet so that if you take one step back you can instantly take one step forward, by pushing off from your back foot. That’s not to say that you should always do it, but if you see an opportunity, you should be able to take advantage of it even though it might mean a lightning fast change of direction.

To do this your left heel should at all times be slightly raised so that the sole of your foot forms a 15 degree angle with the floor. If it’s much higher that, you will lose traction as your left leg will slip out behind you when you try to move. If your heel is on the floor, you will stay firmly rooted to the spot.

Here’s the bad news. The best way to educate your left foot is through lots of kihon. Footwork drills, suburi, kiriaeshi, uchikomi geiko, kakarigeiko; they all play their part. Your objective when you do get into the short intense jigeiko sessions that we are talking about, is to become an effective kendo machine that can see it and hit it, all in a fraction of a second.

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Sumi sensei at MumeishiSumi sensei stopped over at Mumeishi dojo on his way from Edinburgh to the Ukraine. He spent the first hour of the two hour session taking everyone through a kihon lesson that yet again demonstrated his unusual, creative approach to teaching the basics.

This drill was geared to taking the students through the permutations of distance and timing for shikake and oji waza. With everyone working in pairs with shinai and without men and kote, he started with what he called “shadow hitting”; both partners facing each other from opposite sides of the dojo and moving forward with a big approach step and striking men with fumikomi footwork, This was done at a distance where neither partner came near to each other.

The exercise was then repeated with a small approach step and then a medium size step. The size of the cut was then changed to reflect the approach step; big step, big cut; small step small cut and so on.

After both partners had worked through these permutations in turn, sensei brought them together and had motodachi run through the sequences from the necessary distances to strike men correctly. Kakarite was asked to respond with nuki dou. Emphasis was put on striking the correct part of the target and using hiraki-ashi.

The drill was then expanded to include oji-kaeshi dou, men suriage men and men suriage kote. As people tried this it was pointed out that an active right hand was important to make the suriage effective and that suriage only works if your hands are in the centre of your body and you do not bring the point of the shinai back towards your face.

Each pair was then instructed to move into issoku ito mai and shown how to make kote kaeshi gote. This is a particularly difficult technique to achieve because of the need to create distance between blocking the cut and making your own strike. Sumi sensei made the point that you need to show your kote to prompt the attack and then block and return. If you start by showing the omote side of your shinai your opponent will not attack.

It is a lesson that takes a lot of concentration and on a hot evening people were sweating heavily even before putting on their bogu for keiko.  There was an obvious improvement in most of the participants in the hour that they had been practising. With Sumi sensei’s permission, I may steal this drill and use it in some of my own lessons.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith the Easter holidays here and many of our kendo friends taking advantage of the school break to escape the British winter weather, attendance at keiko sessions has been a bit thin. This has led to the need for some creativity to ensure that the few people who have made the effort to get to the dojo enjoy their training as much as in busier times.

We had a grand total of five people at the dojo on Thursday and although it took a bit of extra effort to get psyched up at the start of such a practise, once we got going everyone agreed it was worth putting our bogu on.

The minimum number of people required for kendo training is two. I have been made aware of this on several occasions when I have visited Uegaki sensei in Yoshino and he has opened the dojo for just the two of us. There is something very rewarding and at the same time terrifying in having your own private eighth dan teacher for an hour. Come to think of it if you are prepared to settle for just suburi and footwork exercises then you can train alone, so in comparison five is quite a crowd.

Our Thursday sessions usually last for two hours and we normally spend at least half of that time on kihon and waza geiko allowing about 45 minutes for jigeiko. I believe that all keiko should be intense. If you spend too long in jigeiko with one partner you soon lose your focus and momentum, so on this occasion we cut the session down to just over an hour. We devoted forty minutes  to kihon and twenty minutes to jigeiko with another ten or fifteen minutes for warm up and suburi. Both the kihon and jigeiko elements were practised as mawarigeiko and as we had an odd number, on every fifth turn we each got to take a break and watch the others.

Just through working on kirikaeshi and uchikomi-geiko, we  put as much emphasis as possible on achieving our best technique. I tried to get people to consciously slow down the speed of their attacks so that they could concentrate of correct posture and cutting action. Only when this was achieved did we build back up to normal attacking speed.  When we moved into the jigeiko session we also took special care not to compromise on the technical elements of our keiko.

So we came away with the feeling that we had put the evening to better use than we would have if we had just gone to the pub instead of training and then going to the pub and it was a lot less scary than an hour’s one on one with Uegaki sensei.

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