Posts Tagged ‘kendo shiai’

 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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Theoretically, good kendo is good kendo and there should be no difference between the attitude and the technique displayed in keiko or shiai. Every keiko should be approached with sincerity and the objective of taking shodachi, (first point).  You would therefore assume that shiai kendo at every level would look like the competitors’ everyday keiko – but it seldom does.

The obvious difference between keiko and shiai, is that in shiai there is more to lose, so intentionally or unintentionally; competitors become defensive. This does not just apply to less experienced players, but becomes even more evident at All Japan or World Championship level. Scan YouTube for kendo shiai content and you will lose count of the number of times that you see top-class kendoka holding the shinai above their men or in a modified kasumi no kamae to avoid being hit. Now you know that is wrong; I know that it is wrong; and believe me, they know that it is wrong, but they are not there to lose.

You can however see examples of shiai that totally reflect the principles of kendo that we try so hard to master. Typically, but not always, the competitors in these are older, more senior kendoka. The All Japan 8th dan championship and the final day of the Kyoto Taikai normally contain inspirational contests that typify all we try to achieve in kendo – good posture, strong zanshin and points won on seme and timing. If one of these competitors makes a successful attack then the other receives it with humility and good grace. I have a clip from a long ago Kyoto Taikai, where one kendo meijin acknowledged a point from his opponent before it happened. The other sensei had made a successful seme that clearly stole the centre, so rather than waste time by hitting men, they both bowed and continued to the next point.

Understandably, once kendoka ascend to the heights of hachidan and particularly hanshi, they acquire the obligation to display pure, honest kendo to the rest of us. Interestingly enough, these paragons are often the same people we saw ducking and blocking 10 years before.

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Training for Shiai

Tomorrow is the day of the British Open Championship and during the past few weeks several people have asked me about the best way of training for shiai. Other than the answer that ” it is too late” if you are asking now, I am not sure if there is any training that is solely specific to shiai. If you train to make your everyday Kendo stronger and faster then it will improve your shiai.

In my view, what sets strong shiai players apart from the rest of us, is the confidence and ability to remain calm under pressure and of course, the more you train and the more shiai experience you have, the more confident you become. There are, of course, tactics that will help maximise on shiai performance, but these are of no use without kendo skill. Arguably, concentrating too early in your kendo career on winning shiai can be counter-productive, with too much emphasis being put on not being hit and not enough concentration on correct technique.

Newer refereeing guidelines point to the need for correct distance, cutting, posture, strength of strike and zanshin and if you think about it, these are best developed through kirikaeshi, uchikomigeiko and waza geiko. Of course you need to find or make the correct opportunity to attack or counter-attack, but again these can be learned in keiko as well as shiai.

The only elements that are exclusive to shiai are the way you manage the space of the shiai-jo and the time allotted to the match. I recently saw a competitor lose by two points by accumulating four hansoku for stepping out of the area. Whilst this is an extreme case, many players would gain from having more awareness of how close they are to the line. The same applies to understanding where you are in the three, four or five minutes allowed for the match and ensuring that you do not peak too early or wait too long. If you are in an individual match or a team daihyo sen, then the stamina and the patience for a long encho are also important.

So I suppose the same advice goes for shiai as passing gradings. The more kendo you do (correctly), the better at it you become.

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