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Posts Tagged ‘kendo shiai’

186220813GENXmp_phFor referees the initial rounds of a mixed ability shiai can often be extremely challenging. There is a degree of subjectivity in the way we judge what is and what is not ippon and the level of severity with which we apply the rules will vary according to the age and experience level of the competitors.

With competitions that are open to both kyu and dan ranked players, outcomes are often surprising. Junior kenshi  do not do what is expected of them, or they  react to attacks in a way that more experienced players would not, so you often see skilled shiaisha having a hard time because when they go for what should be an open target, the less experienced opponent’s men is protected by a raised shinai when an experienced player would still be in chudan.

The most challenging aspect is when the newbie is gamely slugging away and hitting the target, but without correct footwork or ki-ken-tai-itchi. None of these incorrect strikes can be counted within the rules of kendo shiai, but they cause frustration and confusion for the competitor and the audience.

It is difficult to create hard and fast rules on grade level. I have seen kyu grades produce highly skilled kendo and dan grades who have not quite got their basics right, but generally, more experienced players tend to have a more established level of basic kendo technique.

Whilst not necessarily guaranteeing the highest level of kendo, these mixed ability events can be highly enjoyable and offer all dojo members a great bonding opportunity. The standard of kendo invariably improves as each taikai runs its course and the players who make it to the last eight and upwards normally demonstrate that correct technique is the most effective.

There are of course competition options other than sanbon shiai. Comparing how well players demonstrate kiri-kaeshi and a range of basic techniques against a motodachi is one approach. This is frequently used for the younger competitors in children’s competitions and is a great way to encourage competitive spirit without building a defensive attitude that might limit kendo development.

As in all things, common sense is probably the way forward. For competitors who are still building their kendo skill set, if they can come away from a taikai with the inspiration to improve, it has been a valuable experience. The key point to remember is that shiai is the tip of the iceberg that we build in our regular keiko in the dojo.

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Presenting Fighting Spirit Prize to Mukhtar Hussain.

Presenting Fighting Spirit Prize to Mukhtar Hussain.

This year’s Sir Frank Bowden Taikai took place on Saturday. As shinpan-shunin  one of my duties was to work with the refereeing team to select candidates for the fighting spirit prizes.

Of course different referees have different opinions on who to choose, but this is not surprising as we all probably have different views as to what “fighting spirit” actually means. This is a subject that is seldom discussed and I can’t remember ever seeing objective guidelines as to what constitutes fighting spirit. Having asked colleagues the reasons for their choices over many years’ competitions, I get the feeling that definitions include the following.

  • Being one of the most aggressive fighters.
  • Overcoming the odds – small person beats much bigger person or low grade beats higher graded opponent or opponents.
  • Turning things around – being in situations where you come from being a point behind to evening the score and taking one more point to win, or pulling out the stops in the captain’s match to take an evenly drawn team score to victory.
  • Having the best technical kendo.
  • Keeping calm under pressure.
  • Not giving up.
  • Someone who in spite giving it their all in every fight still shows courtesy and fairness to their opponents.

I believe that all of these are valid in their way, but I feel, and this is as subjective as it sounds, that true fighting spirit is a combination of all of these.

Of course aggression is important, but it must be controlled and shown within a spirit of fair-play. The smaller or less experience player or the individual who overcomes the odds and snatches victory from the jaws of defeat will most likely, only be a contender if he or she uses correct technique.

On the other hand correct technique will probably be admired, but not if you do not have the strength of mind and will to win to overcome your opponent.

If you can do all this and at the same time show correct reiho and generosity of spirit to your opponents, it should do even more to enhance your chances of getting a fighting spirit prize.

On a practical level, it is unlikely that you will get the first place medal and a fighting spirit award. It is generally thought that being the winner or being in the winning team is reward enough in itself.

Despite the subjectivity, I was very confident that on Saturday we picked three worthy winners – Jenny Wilding, Mukhtar Hussain and Sarfraz Aziz.  All fought consistently well throughout the day and displayed the true spirit of kendo.

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Most kendoka have heard the term sutemi. Whilst usually translated as sacrifice, the literal meaning is “throw away the seed”. The concept refers to a poem describing a horse chestnut in a fast moving stream. If left whole, it would sink. If the kernel is abandoned, the husk would float with the current. In kendo, sutemi means committing yourself one hundred per cent to an attack without fearing the consequences.

Shishin on the other hand is the state where the mind is preoccupied or dwells on a particular aspect of your or your opponent’s kendo, which makes it impossible for the body to move freely. No prizes for guessing that sutemi is regarded as a desirable element in kendo and shishin is not.

Correct tobikomi men is a practical illustration of sutemi. We enter our opponent’s distance and launch ourselves forward with full spirit and no thought other than hitting men. If our opponent moves away or counters, it doesn’t matter. Once you start a technique you should complete it with all your energy.

In uchikomi-geiko or kakari-geiko it is easy to take this do or die attitude, in shiai or jigeiko  it is more difficult. Very often we worry about our opponent’s reaction to our attack. For some people this causes a general fear of attacking. For others, it results in them stopping mid-technique rather than giving away the point. This “stopping” is my pet hate in keiko. Not only does it strangle many potentially successful shikake waza at birth, but it also robs the stoppers opponent of the opportunity to practise oji-waza.

Many people take the view that shiai is about not losing, but surely the reason for taking part is to win. It could be argued that both equate to the same thing, but the mind-set of winning is about courageously exploiting any opportunity with all your mental and physical power.

In keiko we talk about utte-hansei, utarete-kansya (reflection on how we made a successful strike and gratitude for being hit). This does not mean that we are masochists, but that we learn as much from our opponent’s success as we do from our own.

Of course we do not start any keiko with the intention of being hit. Our objective is to strike first or to break our opponents attack with a successful counter attack, but we can only do this if we have an attacking spirit from the outset

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I am now recovered from man-flu. Thank you well-wishers for your concern! I was back in the dojo last week and on Thursday had a visit from the British Army kendo team who are training for an inter-forces competition this weekend. After kihon practise we had a friendly shiai and finished with jigeiko.

During jigeiko the newest member of the Army squad stood there waiting for me to hit him. I am not keen on conversation in keiko, but thought a few words might be in order, so suggested that it might be a good idea for him to try attacking. He then expressed the view that it would be better if I went first. I then politely asked how long he had practised kendo, to which the response was 17 hours. I then did a quick calculation along the lines of an average of 8 hours keiko per week, over 50 weeks per year for 43 years,  gives me about 25,000 hours, so perhaps he would like to attack first and catch-up.

Talking to the rest of the squad in the pub after training, it was obvious that our friends in the forces have very different challenges to us civilian martial artists. With members being deployed at short notice to Afghanistan and Iraq, it is difficult for the same group to train regularly together, and with an emphasis put on “competitive sport”, forces teams are made up of experienced players and those who are just keen to give it a try. They then go through short periods of concerted training leading up to competition. As a good team member my reluctant attacker was practising “not getting hit”, with team strategy in mind.

It is good to know that kendo is now officially recognised by all three branches of our armed forces and many British universities including Oxford and Cambridge. Whereas kendo in the UK used to be practised only in unofficial clubs, it is now starting to gain more establishment acceptance. The trade-off is that these institutions expect to see a healthy level of competition along the same lines as other more established sports. Oxford and Cambridge have their boat race and their varsity kendo competition. In the same way the Army, Navy and Air Force have regular inter service competitions, as they do for Rugby.

So Army Team, I hope you were successful on Saturday and that kendo continues to increase in popularity. As for the man with 17 hours experience behind him, he was doing brilliantly under the circumstances.

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Following the 15WKC referee’s seminar in Japan and the Paris Taikai and in preparation for the WKC, I am in the process of crystallising my thoughts on what is and what isn’t ippon.

As with any other element of high level kendo, be it scoring the point yourself or validating the successful strike made by another, there is a large amount of “mushin” involved. Whilst there are clear objective criteria for what makes a point, the action happens at a speed where an instantaneous, subjective reaction is required from the referees. The only question that there is time to answer is – Is it ippon?

Of course the elements required to make a point are documented in the rule book. To achieve ippon a player must have the intention to hit the point. He must strike the correct target area with full spirit and correct posture, the strike must have sae or snap and zanshin must be shown after the attack. From a referee’s perspective these points are law; however in the time it takes an athlete to reach the target, the referee has no time to go through the check-list. He must make an instant decision.

A referee’s evolution is similar to a child’s. He starts copying mum and dad and his flags dutifully go up with those of the other referees. He then moves into the rebellious teenage period, where his decisions are most likely the opposite of his two peers and finally on maturity, he aims to harmonise with his team mates, (but not at the expense of truth as he sees it).

With experience he learns to move so that he is better situated to see the competitor’s movements and the reactions of his colleagues, even to anticipate the player’s actions. Nevertheless when an attack is made, an instant decision is required, and it is what fills your eyes and ears at the time that dictates whether the flag is raised.

With that in mind, waza needs to be sharp, accurate and delivered with purpose. Zanshin should be full of spirit without celebration, otherwise you risk withdrawal of the point with torikeshi. Above all ippon should be delivered with 100 per cent commitment. If the player does not believe in his actions, it is unlikely that he can convince the referees to do so.

So, referees and shiaisha gambatte.

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I was happily browsing through the new Official Guide for Kendo Instruction; nodding sagely at the explanations of things I knew, when I reached the section on yuko datotsu. Having refereed internationally on many occasions and attended all the regional referee training courses, I like to think that I have a fairly clear idea of what constitutes ippon. My confidence started to waiver a little when I read the description of yuko datotsu for nito, particularly the explanation of ippon for the shoto.

Forgive me if I do not give the exact quote, as I am travelling without the book at the moment, but to score with the shoto the daito must be holding down the opponent’s shinai whilst the arm holding the daito (the long one) is fully extended. Now just to clarify this point, it means that the opponent’s shinai is being suppressed at a distance equating to the length of the arm plus a 38 shinai when you strike with the shoto (the little one). Now I am very far from being a nito expert. I have never tried it and have no intention to do so, but if I am not missing something, the rule makes it impossible to score with the shoto unless the player has a two metre arm or a telescopic kodachi.

I wrote about nito before http://wp.me/stBQt-nito and mentioned that I have never seen ippon given to a kodachi strike. I have also heard a variety of explanations from referee instructors and shinpancho about the difficulty of making yuko datotsu with the kodachi, because nito is “different from mainstream kendo”, but this makes it patently clear that the shoto is not meant for scoring with.

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Gyaku dou

Helton asked for my thoughts on why it is so hard to score ippon from hiki dou. Wearing my referees hat (or blazer), I would say that of course every case is different, but more often than not it is because few hiki dou have sufficient sae or snap to justify ippon. If that is not the case, then it is because hasuji (angle of the blade), is incorrect.

When you make a hiki men, you do so in a straight line, stepping back to give yourself enough distance to strike with the datotsu bu of the shinai. You also strike in an up/down motion so it is quite simple to generate the momentum to make a strong, sharp cut. With hiki dou you need to ensure that the target is open, lift your hands up to strike, then adjust the hasuji and hit the dou with the correct part of the shinai whilst making one quick step back. In my view it is not easy for many people to do this, hence the poor ratio of successful attacks to attempts.

Dou in any direction is a difficult target. Most shikake or oji dou are unsuccessful because the attacker hits the dou whilst moving across in front of their opponent so that the strike is made with bent arms and is therefore weak. As we have discussed before, a good dou strike should be made directly in front of your opponent, with your right hand pushed forward. If you think about this applied to hiki dou, you have not only to be clear of your opponent from tsubazeriai, but you must give yourself enough room to punch forward with your right hand as you make the attack. So you need to generate significant propulsion from a standing start to do this in one step.

Gyaku dou is even more frequently doomed to failure. Whilst not classed as a hiki technique, the strike is usually made as you step back. With this waza referees are looking for a more powerful cut. The reason behind this is that samurai originally wore daisho (two swords) in their belt and that when the long sword was drawn; the kodachi usually remained in their belt. That meant that a cut to the left dou needed to be strong enough to cut through the hilt before it reached the target.

The only tip I can offer on hiki dou is to start in tsubazeriai by pushing your opponents hands down. He is likely to react by pushing his hands up in a reflex action, exposing the target. You should step back as far as you can starting with your left foot, keeping in a straight line and strike dou as hard as you can by pushing the hands forward, turning your right wrist so that your palm is parallel with the floor. Take another step back after hitting, keeping your shinai tip pointed at your opponents nodo to complete your zanshin.

The last step is to hope that at least two of the three shinpan like dou.

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 I was asked to give some advice on performance at shiai training in preparation for this weekend’s London cup. I won’t say at which dojo or on which day this took place, otherwise I might give away the secrets of their shiai preparation.  During most of the shiai, the one single element that made the difference between achieving ippon and failing was hikitsuke. So in the interests of fairness, I will share some advice on this with all prospective competitors; well at least those who read my blog.

In kendo hikitsuke means to pull the left foot up to the correct position (left toes in line with the right heel), in readiness to make an instant strike. In everyday Japanese it can also mean to attract or fascinate, but that is another story.

Coming back to the point, when you move forward in kendo your left heel should be off the ground so that your foot is at a 15 degree angle with the floor. 70% of your weight should be on the left foot and 70% of that weight concentrated on the ball of the foot. You push from this foot to move, sliding the right foot forward and instantly bringing the left foot into position to repeat the action.

When you attack, you should use this action to push off instantly and strike as soon as you see or make an opportunity. In theory simple, but most people at shiai practice were not doing this; instead either their left leg trailed impotently behind, because the left foot angle was too high, or the left foot was flat on the floor so the left leg remained in place as the right foot moved forward. The repercussions for both of these mistakes was that it was not possible to make sufficient forward distance to hit men cleanly with the datotsu-bu of the shinai, or because of the need to compensate by leaning forward or turning the body to make distance, the attacker was not able to strike with good posture and zanshin. End result – no ippon.

This lack of left foot traction was also evident when some fighters stepped back, allowing the heel to sink down to the ground. This action mades them an obvious victim to hikibana man.

As I have  repeatedly been told, successful shiai depends on good basics. Good basics depend on lots of keiko, so that when you see the golden opportunity to hit the target that wins your shiai, you do not have to think about it. You just let your left foot decide.

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I was gratified by the high level of feedback to the article on “The Aim of Kendo” by Matsumoto sensei. I know that many of the people that commented are active shiai participants.  This bolstered my view that an understanding of kendo philosophy is a natural bedfellow for hard training and ambition to do well in shiai.

Sometime ago when I was making one of my uncharitable rants against Iai, I received a good natured comment from Scott along the lines of:

“Iai keiko – “did I manage to cut kasso teki? Did I incorporate kankyukyojaku when attacking? Did I exhibit fukaku throughout my embu?”
Kendo keiko – “did I go commando today?””

I certainly take his point, but to be honest I would assume that in the true spirit of zen martial arts you either exhibited kankyukyojaku and fukaku or you didn’t and in the same way you either went commando or you didn’t; and if you didn’t you should be ashamed of yourself.

The point I am trying to get to is that as Matsumoto sensei said “It is the true aim of kendo practice not only to try to improve your technique, but also to train your mind and spirit to find the rightness of mind (“no mind” / mushin), so that your mind, which is the source of the technique; will not be bound by anything.” So in short, we should train without being overtly analytical, but should reflect on how we achieve correct kendo attitude.

So where does shiai fit in? Surely it is the opportunity to test how you have progressed, both in the development of technique and the strength of your mental attitude in as close a situation to “real” shinken kendo as can legally be engaged in. When you are under pressure in shiai, that is the time when the conscious mind shuts down and the reflexes gained through hard training take over.

Some dojo will tell you “we do not teach shiai kendo. Our approach is based upon traditional kendo”. This seems to me to be based on slightly strange reasoning as kendo developed as a means to settle “life or death” contests.

I have a view that what these “traditionalists” are really against is the use of cheap tricks to win in shiai. This is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree, but I also believe that in high level shiai it is the kendoka who has invested in thousands of hours of grueling basic practice and who avidly reads about the experiences and philosophy of previous generations of sensei who triumphed in the shiaijo.

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I spent last weekend in Brussels for the European Referees Seminar. This event is always a good opportunity to catch-up with old kendo friends from across the European Zone and to practise refereeing in a more analytical way than is possible at “live” events.

This year the seminar was led by Matsunaga sensei supported by Nishide and Nakata sensei. Nishide sensei was responsible for our group and watched the initial matches with a critical eye, stopping the shiai regularly to point out errors. As the two day session progressed, the whistle was blown less often allowing everyone to gain as many practise opportunities as possible. I felt however that the real value came from the question and answer sessions. I personally came away with three completely new pieces of information on the interpretation of shiai rules. It seemed that they were not just news to me, but to most of my peers, so I thought it worth sharing them with other referees and competitors.

1.       Hasuji for tsuki – Most people know the rule about referees telling competitors once if their shinai is turned so that the tsuru is not correctly on top, then ignoring any potential points made with the shinai in that position. This does not apply to tsuki. The shinai can be turned to any from 1 degree to full circle, as long as the kisaki strikes the tsukidate correctly, it is ippon. There was also a misconception amongst some people that there needs to be backward movement from the person being struck with tsuki. This should not influence the decision.

2.       Competitors position on the white line – Every shiajo is marked in the centre with a cross and two white lines. It is an infringement for a player to start the shiai if his or her toes are over the front of the line, but not for a player to take sonkyo from a position behind the line, (unless it is a ridiculously long distance). The rationale is that a small individual may be at a disadvantage against a tall opponent who can reach him in one step from the starting position. He has the option to place himself in a distance that is not immediately vulnerable when hajime is called. It was also pointed out that an attack made from sonkyo is not valid. The competitors must stand and settle before an attack.

3.       Referee positioning – On several occasions during the weekend, the three referees failed to maintain the triangular position around the fighters, leaving all three on one side and one side of the action “blind”. We all know that this is incorrect and the judges need to move back to correct position quickly. This should be done by fukushin moving up to replace shushin and then shushin moving to the other side of the competitors. There is nothing new here, but the instruction that I received for the first time, was that if the positioning cannot be resolved quickly, then shushin should stop the match and return referees and fighters to the original positions before continuing.

So although it is never comfortable to be under sensei’s scrutiny, it was a valuable opportunity to train with people of a similar level and to get a great insight into how the rules are currently implemented in major taikai in Japan.

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