Posts Tagged ‘Kendo Beginners’

Beginners2I don’t often teach beginners kendo classes. In both dojo that I frequent there are a number of people who do a very good job of getting people started. I usually only run the sessions for more experienced kenshi, which frankly is less difficult than taking people from zero to a level where they can join the main group. Those of us who have been training for a while have shared terms of reference, so that although it might be hard to change ingrained habits, we at least are aware of what we should do to achieve change. The instructor’s job is one of reminding people what to work on. With beginners the instructor is laying the foundations for their future kendo lives. With this in mind, I recently took on a six week beginner course at Sanshukan, my local dojo.

I am now three weeks in to what can be no more than a “taster” programme with 16 keen new kendoka of various shapes, sizes, ages and levels of physical ability. My challenge is to create an interesting experience for them, while at the same time trying to build a correct base which avoids creating habits that will have to be unlearned in the future.

In the past in Japan, the solution would probably have been to force them to spend a year practicing suburi in a corner of the dojo before grading them shodan. In the UK in 2015, we have as much an obligation to keep everyone engaged as we do to foster good kendo basics.

My first surprise with our new intake was that with the exception of one student, who tried kendo briefly in Japan, no one in the group had actually seen kendo. To remedy this, on week one I called on senior members of different ages to demonstrate what we are aiming for. This seemed to make most people more interested, although we lost 2 whose expectations may have been more Ninja Turtle than FIK.

Since then I have been trying to provide a balance of education and entertainment. Of course we have been involved in the serious business of drilling on kamae, footwork, posture, correct cutting and tenouchi etc. Suburi plays an important part, but It is very difficult for a first-timer to judge the sharpness of a strike just by cutting air, so they are also hitting uchikomi-bo and shinai.

I have also persuaded some of the seniors to put on their bogu and be used as targets for attacks made with differing levels of control.  A number of the newbies have expressed their enjoyment in hitting real people. We ran a mid-term customer satisfaction survey and people who did not drop out on week one seem to still be engaged . They also appear to be picking up some rudimentary kendo skills.

Whether anyone will stick at it once motodachi start hitting back is is anybody’s guess.

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IMG_0985The past weekend I had a very enjoyable two and a half days in Dublin. Together with Terry Holt of London’s Mumeishi dojo, Yoshi Inoue from Kenyu in Paris and Steve Bishop of Edinburgh University, I went to help the Irish Association run a kendo seminar and grading. The weekend format should be familiar to most kendoka – keiko on Friday night, seminar on Saturday and grading examination on Sunday. Activities were of course separated by evenings of Guinness and craic to give the event a truly Irish flavour.

Unusually, the weekend attracted people with a wide range of experience levels from beginner to fifth dan, so we separated the seminar into groups, reinforcing the basics for the junior members and working on more technical elements with the seniors.

The grading examination included an “open kyu” session to give the less experienced attendees the opportunity to be assessed by instructors from outside their usual dojo group. For the newest members, this meant taking a test without wearing bogu where the objective was to demonstrate a number of kihon waza and kirikaeshi against armoured motodachi.

It has been a while since I was involved in a grading of this type and I found it interesting to see how much more relaxed and uninhibited candidates were when they did not have to worry about what their opponents were doing. People with only weeks or months of experience were able to deliver waza to a level that a dan grade would be proud of. As the examination moved to the next group it was obvious that it becomes much more difficult to execute techniques in keiko when you have the complexities of distance and timing of an opponent.

This made me think about the optimum period for beginners to train before they put on armour. If it is too short, they start to develop bad habits by becoming competitive before they build good kihon foundations. Do it for too long and they become bored and quit. I have heard stories of beginners left to do suburi on their own for a year before being brought into the group. I also know of clubs where newbies are allowed to wear bogu after 2 weeks. Typically the induction period varies from 6 to 12 weeks in UK clubs.

An added complexity is that many newbies who seem to enjoy learning the basic techniques lose their enthusiasm when they join the main class. This may be because the reality of training in uncomfortable, heavy bogu and being hit instead of just hitting makes them realise that the kendo path becomes increasing steep and difficult.

I would be interested to know how you structure beginner’s courses. What do you think is the ideal period before introducing them to bogu and how do you structure the transition from one stage to another.

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Picture 13 (3)

Motodachi illustration by Katsuya Masagaki from my new book

My local dojo is looking at ways to help new kendoka make the transition from beginner’s course to taking part in regular keiko sessions. To this end I am running several motodachi training sessions for the more experience members so they can help and encourage their newer colleagues.

Many people who start kendo do so through structured beginners’ courses where they have the comfort of learning new skills as a group and where they are are not expected to go one-on-one in competition with experienced players. After graduation from a brief period of learning basics they are trussed up in unfamiliar bogu and left to take their chance in jigeiko, often with inexperienced motodachi, who are more concerned about improving their own technique than helping the newbie.

This invariably results in loss of confidence and adds to kendo’s exceptionally high attrition rate. The kendo diary of many aspiring kenshi runs along the lines of: week 1 -start  beginners course, week 6 – buy bogu, week 7- decide not to go to dojo, week 8 –advertise bogu on Ebay.

Thinking about the effort involved in starting such a challenging hobby as kendo it seems a shame that we lose so many students through our own lack of empathy or knowledge of how to best develop them. Traditionally in Japan, most kendoka started as children and there is a natural progression through the school system. Teaching adult beginners is a relatively new aspect of kendo, but it is particularly important in the west where people begin kendo at all ages.

For new kendoka kihon drills in or out of bogu are not particularly threatening. It is when they begin to line up for motodachi geiko against their more experienced dojo mates that the experience can make or break them. One of the biggest problems is that most of us are not taught to be motodachi and we learn through trial and error. There are correct ways to receive kirikaeshi, uchikomi geiko and kakarigeiko and we need to learn these to get the best out of students. Most importantly we need to learn that jigeiko is not a “one size fits all” activity and that we can break it down into gokakugeiko, which takes place between partners of equal level and hikitategeiko, where a senior leads a junior .

Here are a few simple motodachi tips:

  • For kirikaeshi make sure that you receive the strikes close to your men. This way you encourage kakarite to attack the correct target.
  • In uchikomigeiko wait until kakarite enters the correct distance and try to build “mind pressure” before making the opening. If you show the target when he is out of distance he will develop the habit of running in, rather than learning to make one step one cut.
  • In kakarigeiko keep a relaxed , soft chudan and allow kakarite to make his own opportunities.
  • In hikitate geiko try to keep  only half a dan’s difference in level between you. Keep your own seme and pressure and by all means go for the first ippon “shodachi”, but encourage kakarite by allowing good strikes to connect.

Acting as motodachi is not just a one sided act of charity, you can develop your own kendo whilst helping others, please see my earlier post on the subject http://wp.me/ptBQt-gx .

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