You must unlearn what you have learned – Part 2

So last weekend we were visited by our Shihan, Boffa Sensei and he quite rightly took us through some basics again. I always find it really interesting how his teaching makes things so fundamentally clear. It’s like taking everything you think you know, throwing out 80% of it and then boiling it down to one simple detail. I guess this is how you learn things though. You hear a thousand different ideas and inputs and practice those and eventually it leads to one simple idea because you finally understand it. 

It was during this session on the Saturday that I had a realisation which developed over a week to make me realise that I’ve been doing something fundamentally wrong for the past 4 years. 
I’m getting that dejavu feeling again. 

This time it’s something so fundamental and so obvious to everything I can barely belive I hadn’t worked this out before. 

It is simply to do with my left hand grip. We are all told over and over to grip the Shinai with out little and ring finger, and the index and middle finger should not grip too hard. Okay got that. 

Now the part this weekend that hit a chord was when we were told that having a hole in the palm of you kote was a good indicator of where your grip is wrong as it means you Shinai is moving in your hand in some way and it shouldn’t be. 

Bing! Eureka moment. 

I’ve been doing this for the past 4 years, letting the Shinai move back and fourth in my hand. My kote hole is at the thumb joint. I’ve been allowing the Shinai to move through my hand far too much, using its movement in place of wrist movement. 

The thing is, I’ve watched people grip the Shinai straight up in a fist and told them not to. I’ve told them to soften the fingers. I’ve also told people to let it move in the hand but that’s not right. 

So last night I trained all night trying not to do this. The result is I realised how much I was compensating for my lack of grip in the left with too much in the right. I feel like I’ve just started. My left wrist and hand ache like never before and I’ve got a blister where I haven’t had one in ages. I’ve got no strength in that hand at all because I’ve not been doing it right. Extra suburi and slower cutting practice are in my future. 

So I’m finally understanding what my seniors say when they said they had to go back and rebuild their kendo. But don’t we all want to do that with all sorts of things. 

I’m an old programmer at heart and I hear it so offen that if you knew then what you know now, you would have programmed a particular thing completely differently. The thing is you can do this over and over again with kendo with new improved knowledge and experience refining every time. 

I see no problem with every night taking one aspect of your kendo, forgetting everything you think you know and rebuilding it. Why not?

There is no goal. I’m not training to win shiai. I’m not training to beat anyone in the dojo. I’m not even training to get my next grading. Then why? Well I can only speak for myself but I’m training to feel that one perfect moment when every single part of the cut goes perfectly and feels completely effortless. The timing of the push is spot on, the opportunity sticks out like a giant flashing light, the hit is perfect and you zanshin is spot on and you’ve finished the cut before your opponent or you know what has happened. It’s that moment of mushin that everyone talks about. 

So all I can say is never think that anything you do is perfect. It can always improve or be rebuilt. 
!m!

You must unlearn what you have learned.

As with many things in life (I’ve mentioned this before) there are things in life you can hear over and over again and it never makes sense. Then one day they do because you were not ready to understand.
I’ve often read various martial artists, kendoka in particular saying that they got to a point where they had done okay and then realised they knew nothing, and were doing it all wrong. I never completely understood this until now. 

After my previous nidan failure I responded myself that I had to go back to the beginning again and retrain the basic things I’ve let slip by the way a little. Yoda’s words never rang so true. 

Yet again I now feel it’s obvious to me why I did not pass but also I now know how to fix it. It’s fundamental things that I need to get right again. Pushing in properly into an attack. I’ve become static, waiting for someone to attack so I can counter attack. Great for winning a point but useless for demonstrating my kendo.

I think it’s a bit of an arrogance on my part in that I assumed I was doing the correct thing and I should pass easily. My Sensei quite rightly pointed out that this is nidan and I have to get in and attack. Control the distance and attack with an opportunity or make one. Sitting back and waiting for a good debana is not the right level I should be training. 

Yet again I feel a little more confident in my next grading because I now have some things to work on. I’m not shooting in the dark. Also it’s a bit closer to the last grading so it’s still fresh in my head. 

!m!

Something to work on.

 

I’ve mentioned before about always having something to work on in Kendo and how much I feel like I’m not getting anywhere when I don’t have something to work on. As usual, just when I think I’m not getting anywhere, I suddenly realise that I’m doing something wrong. It also helps that having to take a fair few sessions in the dojo along with teaching the new comers, I’ve gained some extra insight into what I’m doing wrong. It’s not until you tell someone how to do something and then have to demonstrate it that you have to do it absolutely right.

This time its something really simple.

During training recently I fixed part of my kote strike. Probably due to the fact that I’ve been extra careful not to snap the action of my right elbow and thus further aggravate my tennis elbow, I’ve not been striking as effectively as I should. So in order to fix this, there was just a very simple thing I wasn’t doing. I wasn’t pushing my left hand forward at the moment of the strike. This is probably where the injury came from in the first place as I was compensating for the lack of left hand push with too much right arm.

So I fixed it for my kote hit and then I realised I was doing the same thing for my men cut. It’s funny how something I’ve been doing one way for so long suddenly feels much better for a small change. My shinai isn’t clacking on the men as much and I can strike from further away. Everything feels all round better.

Now once again I had another incident which fixed something. While doing a simple dou exercise, I began to demonstrate how to do a duo cut properly to someone and in doing so, I completely cleaned up my own to a very simple way of doing it, which worked every time with much less effort.
I’ve watch so many people get into the habit, and I’m guilty of this too, of swinging into the duo cut from way out to the side. This only seems necessary if the target area is not completely open. In that case, it’s not open. The beauty of a good dou cut is when it is performed with exactly the right timing when it is fully open. Dare I mention our shihan’s superb kaieshi-dou or nuki-dou. Its not just that it’s quick, it’s the sheer perfect timing. I’m reminded of a saying from Bruce Lee: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
I digress.

I now have even more to work on as I recently took and failed my Nidan for the second time.
Unlike last time I thought I had done okay, but to be honest about this, I thought I had scrapped it and done only okay. And that is why did not pass. The feedback I had from Salmon Sensei and Hideyama Sensei was a extremely useful though. And based on what happened last time, I think the feedback was an improvement on last time.

So now I have some specifics to work on, not just in my Kendo but in life. I’ve become to up tight and not relaxed about everything. I get wound up easily by small things. This is fairly big for me to admit it, but I’ve lost my cool.
It’s making my cuts too tense and stiff in the upper body, not fluid enough. Secondly, I’m not fit enough and this is making my cuts come not from my feet but from my upper body. It echo’s what my Sensei has been telling for a while, that I keep putting my left heel on the floor and routing myself too much.
No wonder I didn’t pass.

This is not a negative thing though. It’s positive. I’ve got some very specific details of something to improve. It’s not that my cuts are wrong, their just not performed in the correct way. Contradiction in terms? I don’t think so.

So it’s time to fix things in a serious way. This isn’t just my kote strike is a little off, or my foot work is a little iffy.
This is like a serious milestone. It’s not a grade milestone, or an age milestone. It’s me realising that I either train this kendo lark properly or I pack up now and not bother.
Is it just like reading the paper or am I serious about the lifelong commitment to it?
Am I happy to just cruise along? Do I really think I trained enough to pass? Well if I’m going to be brutally honest with myself, what I did was perform the best kendo I could perform for my grading. My not passing shows that I have not trained my kendo to be good enough to earn that grade. It’s an important distinction for me as it peans I pushed myself to the absolute limit that I could go to with the training I have done. As such, I do not feel disappointed.

I originally told myself I would not try and grade again until I felt ready but I now think that is a stupid thing to do. Why not grade again as soon as possible. I think I learn just as much from grading and from the feedback as from a whole week in the dojo. This time I’m not approaching it thinking that I want to pass, I want the panel to tell me what I need to improve.

And just to finish off, I want to thank all the Sensei who ran and took part in the Watchet Seminar this year. It was a superb weekend that I gained a lot of extra insight and titbits to take back to my dojo with me. I also made a few new friends in the kendo community. I look forward to training with them again another time.

 

!m!

 

 

Injuries, failure, responsibility and the absence of doubt.

Over the past couple of months I’ve neglected my writing somewhat mainly because I feel like my mind has not properly been on my kendo.
What with holidays and diy work, I managed to injure my right arm. I pulled one on the tendons in the elbow and despite trying to be careful, only training once a week, it’s got worse and worse.
When I finally went to the doctors, it turns out I’ve got tennis elbow, a fairly typical thing for us kendoka. The thing that has annoyed me the most about this is that instead of being able to focus on my actual training, I’ve been focusing on not ago sting it anymore. I I clipped on just the right point, the pain is pretty bad.
I guess this is just another thing to go through like anything else in kendo. I’ve had the Plantar Fasciitis which I fixed with a simple change of foot wear.
How the hell do I go about fixing my right elbow? Despite being told to rest it I find that nearly impossible. Unless I immobilise my right arm, I end up using it all the time. Obviously what I should do is, take a break from kendo for a while but my own stubbornness about it says that I shouldn’t. There is something I need to change and/or fix in order for this to to away.
That being said, over time it is slowly healing and causing me less and less problems.
I think this is a good analogy for many things in life. Problems arise that you have to deal with and despite feeling like they are going to mess you up for ages, you learn to either cope with it or work through it until it doesn’t matter anymore.
I learnt a long time ago, that no matter how you think something will turn out, it never does and it is never as bad as you think. The really bad things hit you out of the blue and you could never prepare for them anyway.
That’s how I learnt to move away from the fear of everything. I don’t get nervousness or scared about anything really anymore.

This has helped a lot with the latest issues from the dojo. Our sensei has injured his hand quite badly and as such had been unable to even hold a shinai so myself and Chris have been taking the classes. Good thing we did our coaching courses recently.
Taking a class regularly is a bit of a new experience and possibly a daunting one. Up till that point, I’d been helping out with teaching the newbies and tweaking peoples kata but I’d not had to run a full class before or come up with a specific lesson plan.
I find myself doing what I believe I should do being only a lowly shodan. I try and teach the new people what my sensei would teach. It comes quite naturally and I find myself speaking sentences that I have heard a hundred times before from my sensei and others that have taught me.
On another front, I’ve found that I really enjoy doing it. Actually having some new students and watching them improve is close to intoxicating.
I don’t feel like I want to tell people what to do, I’m doing it because I want to keep the spirit of my dojo alive. I’ve never felt this level of connection and commitment to club ever before.
Back when I was in school I originally wanted to be a teacher but I got a quiet little IT job instead. Maybe I made the wrong choice.
It’s a complete honour in all honesty to be trusted with the up keep of the dojo and something that I will not forget easily. It’s improved not only my kendo but also my confidence. There’s no denying that on the first night when I stood in front of the whole class and they were all looking to me for direction, I felt a little like the proverbial rabbit but I just let my training take over and channelled my sensei. It went okay.

Now I hate to finish off on a down point but now I have to admit my failure. I went all guns blazing for my nidan last month thinking that I would be okay and pass fairly easily. This was not the case. I did not meet the require standard.
Now I could get annoyed about it and blame all sorts of things, but the fact is I did not do what was required to pass.
I had some extremely helpful feedback from Holt sensei and Salmon sensei at the end and I totally understand why. Now like any good human I need to learn from my mistakes. I need to sharpen up my kendo and clean up my kendo to the point where I am demonstrating cuts correctly which I did not do on the day.
The one thing I took from the day was that another kendoka who I meet when I passed my shodan was there attempting his nidan for the third time. He failed his when I passed shodan over a yeah ago. Seeing him pass made the whole experience much better.
There were a lot that did not pass that day and I think I agree with what Salmon sensei said recently in his own blog post that the gradings are getting harder. I think this is true so the only thing to think is to be better.
We all need to train ourselves so that we are doing the best kendo we can do so that not only are you more likely to pass but also that if you do fail, you are not left with the feeling that you could have done more. Also don’t try and get to the point of thinking that hopefully you will pass if the panel see you do one thing right. Leave no doubt that you deserve the grade.

Clearly I have some more work to do and need to continue on my path of learning.

I think that maybe I was in too much of a rush to get my grading and as such I was not focusing on what I should have been focusing on. Maybe I’ve been in too much of a rush over all, during kendo and life in general.

I have to train so that when I go for an attack I have no doubt about landing the cut. I have to perform so others have no doubt in my abilities and award me the grade my abilities deserve. My kata needs to be performed to the level that I do not make a mistake and I know exactly what I need to do at every point.
It should all be second nature to me.

It’s time to remove all doubt not only from myself but other people as well.

!m!

Fixing kamae and unspoken words.

kamae-captureOn Monday night, I think I fixed a very important element of my chudan kamae. Not that I do anything else except maybe a bit of gedan after sensei did it to me but I realised something about my right kote position. Yet again, this is something that has probably been told to me over and over again but I never made the connection until now. You are told to make sure that your left hand holds the shinai with that very bent wrist position, the hand straight down the kensen, so that when you strike, the arm is straight with the shinai. All good, got that, but what about the right? That’s the one that gets attacked all the time, or at least in my case it did.

I realised that my right hand has been drifting round quite significantly and exposing my kote to attack. Sensei attacks it all the time, obviously highlighting it with me. He’s never told me not to do it, but by always attacking the exposed kote, he’s been telling me another way. Once I moved my hand around, my kote was attacked less.

This took me think back to when we were visited by Sensei Bell who fights nito. I came back with my right wrist about twice the size it was when I left. Because kote was completely exposed.

So despite that fact we are always being told not to use the right hand to move the shinai, it still needs to be adequately thought about in terms of position and movement. This also made me realise that it’s not just about the words you tell someone when you teach them things, it’s also about the physical feedback and methods you employ that communicate just as much. Kendo is physical, communicate physically and well as verbally.wrist_bruise

 

!m!

 

 

Kirikaiesh, tai-atari and consistency.

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There seems to be some sort of issue around tai-atari at the moment. All over the place I see people saying that it shouldn’t be done or it should be done during kirikaiesh. The thing is that this is coming from higher level sensei and it makes it very confusing for newer kendoka.

One of the things that gets hammered into you about kirikaiesh is that it is meant to be a complete demonstration of your kendo. So if you’re not meant to be doing tai-atari then how is it a complete exercise any more?

My sensei and shihan always have taught a proper tai-atari and for those of you that do expect a proper response to it from motodachi will know how annoying it is when you don’t get it.

The 3 main men cuts in kirikaiesh are meant to be done at full speed. This is why on the last one, motodachi moves out of the way so kakarite can go through. So if you don’t get a proper tai-atari response on the first 2 it screws up kirikaiesh.

The best person to do kirikaiesh against should feel like hitting a brick wall. They take the men cut and resist you with everything they can. If they step back there’s nothing to stop you properly, the distance and timing gets all screwed up and the rest of the kirikaiesh is rubbish. It also encourages people to step back too much and another thing that gets hammered into you is to not step back when facing an opponent.

So, for the sake of helping the training of your fellow kendoka and for consistency, do a proper tai-atari.

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Survival, hypocrisy, childhood lessons and dead badgers.

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I try not to watch too much TV but there are a few programs that just will garner my undivided attention. On the flip side of this there are programs I dislike fairly passionately but have become quite popular and also I find myself compelled to watch. Reality shows, which to be honest are anything but, are simply compelling. I’ve always loved to people watch wherever I go. Sat in a street side cafe, watching people go by. One of my favourite places for this was the cafe in The Lovre. Typical. Go to the most well known art gallery in the world and I spend the time people watching.
Anyway, I digress.
The show I’m fascinated by at the moment is The Island with Bear Grylls. Anything with Bear in it gets my vote. He’ll do anything, eat anything and go anywhere. His wife must panic every time he nips out for a pint of milk. I always have this scenario that plays out in my head of Bear Grylls and Ray Mears going camping together. Bear is off running down mountains, looking for the worst things to eat he can, deliberately doing dangerous stuff just for kicks. Ray is just chilling out, making a shelter out of a tree and brewing tea with some lovely herbal leaves he’s foraged, shaking his head and trying to get Bear to sit still for 5 minutes.

I digress.

This show prompted a debate that I’ve had before. The guys on the island caught and killed a crocodile for food. They’d had nothing but coconut for days and did what any good hunter gatherer would do. Now some of the guys were seemingly a bit emotional about killing this not so defenceless animal. My wife said that people she knows and works with have categorically said that there is no way they could kill an animal for food.
This might be an unpopular opinion but if you are not prepared to kill something for food, you shouldn’t be eating meat. That pre packed chicken on the shelf in Sainsburys was alive and it was killed for you to cook and eat. It’s hypocritical to eat meat and not be prepared to kill it for yourself.
As a culture we are being removed from the unpleasant things in life. Unless you live on the streets or you live in a country that does not support you, survival is not a big deal. We all have plenty to eat, our water is clean and safe to drink. We have warmth and shelter.
If you strip that all away you should still be able to survive. Are you going to just eat nuts and berries, or are you going to hunt, trap and kill an animal too?
My wife put it quite simply. Imagine your 4 year old child is cold and hungry, properly hungry to the point of crying about it and growing weak. You’ve given them everything you could even so you will go hungry. Are you going to try and explain to them how you don’t want to kill something to get something to eat?

This brings me to my last little mental conundrum that I had the other night. While taking the dog for a walk, we happened across a dead badger in the woods. Not the nicest of things to come across but it was quite fresh and not all injured. The dog wanted it but I was less worried about him than I was my son.
This is a point where I could say that it was just sleeping and it will be okay but why? Why sugar coat the truth of life to a 4 year old. I have done so before when the dog has caught a bird and I’ve told him it flew away after I got it off the dog.
He went through quite a few ideas on how it would be okay before he understood that it was actually dead. He didn’t cry about it and he didn’t act like he didn’t understand. The funny thing was he started trying to work out what had happened to it. We suggested it got hit by a car and died on its way back to its home. Probably true. He was picking apart possibilities. Detective in the making, I don’t know but it was a good honest lesson.
This is the same thing as eating meat. My son is in no doubt about where meat comes from and if he decides he doesn’t want to eat it for that reason then good on him. I do question my own belief in this area too and always tell myself that if I had to, I could kill and gut and animal for food. I’m not saying that I want to but I could if it meant my family didn’t starve.

I think that this is a great analogy of how life is now anyway. Our basic needs for survival are all covered so physical evolution is taking more of a back seat. Mental evolution and survival are our key factor these days. There are those of us who are the creators, the ones who go after what they want and try hard. Those who don’t give up and will meet things head on, doing things because they are a challenge and because they are hard and necessary for the survival of what you perceive to be the fittest mentally.
Then there are those who don’t try for anything and just give up. They expect everything on a plate to be handed to then. That’s the scavengers and the bottom feeders and they are not at the top of the food chain (mentally speaking.)

So, which do you want to be?

!m!

Kendo coaching, familiar faces and reaching milestones.

It’s funny that the older I get, the more I seem to recognise people that I’ve not met before. It sounds a bit stupid but I get this all the time now. I meet someone who I have no connection to, have never met before, not been to the same schools or anything but they look familiar. Maybe I’ve just lived in the same place for too long.

This happened again last night when I was teaching our latest batch of newcomers to the dojo. 3 guys who all seem very much up for doing kendo. As seems to happen, one of them does karate and they’re not the only one, we now have a 3rd dan karateka who has been with us for about 4-5 months now and is loving every minute of it.
These 3 new guys all look familiar to me. No idea how or where I might have met them before but I suspect that I haven’t. I could get all metaphysical about it and suggest that it’s just myself coming more in tune with the collective consciousness of the world or that we are old souls who met in a previous life and now that I am doing something I really love doing, I’m meeting those people again.
I’m not sure what it is, but needless to say, these guys were students to my first proper coaching session.

Myself and Chris did our L1 coaching on the 19th April and it feels pretty good to be on the kind of terms as an officially recognised coach for Kendo. Sensei asked me to give them a go over the basics of reghi and then some basic suburi. Now I know this stuff and I do it without thinking now, but suddenly I’m teaching it to 3 new guys. Okay one had been last week, so it was a bit of revision for him, but they were all in the same boat, stood there, looking at me for guidance and how to do EVERYTHING.
It was also interesting that they arrived just before Sensei, so I gave them a little welcome to the dojo, this is a shinai, it’s really a sword, it’s your soul, you treat it as such.
It all made me realise why sensei feels a little frustrated maybe and possibly a little upset when people come into the dojo to see what Kendo is about, stay for a few sessions and then don’t come back. You make a student teacher connection with them straight away. Yet again, I was not expecting this. I’m not trying to take away from Sensei being the dojo leader and him being the main teacher of kendo, but afterwards when we were doing suburi with the whole dojo, he was telling them the same things I’d been telling them just a few minutes ago. So there it is, first coaching session and dropped in with very little teaching experience I just went with what I would know and what Sensei would do. I guess that’s the cycle that it should be. That’s how dojo styles are passed on. As a junior coach you are just an extension of you Sensei.

Sensei always tells us that the dojo is not really his and it’s not a dojo until we all show up and train. We make the dojo and by actually coaching people, it can only help the dojo and build more dynamic to the sessions. Having the official coaching qualification just makes me think that no matter what happens, that Meirinkan will continue with Sensei Marley teaching as long as possible. Us taking over when he no longer can.
I have these vague visions of being in my eighties, slowly wandering round the dojo, helping people improve their kendo. No matter where I go or what happens, Meirinkan is my home dojo and I’ll make a point of going as much as I can for as long as I can.

And just to add to the end of this, the 25th of April marks the beginning of my 40th year on this planet (I’m 39 if that doesn’t make sense). As usual I try not to dwell on the fact that I’m getting older, I simply try to reflect on how far I’ve come. A lot has changed for me in last 10 and 20 years, even in the last 5. I’m married now, with a nearly 5 year old son and I feel like I’ve achieved more in the last 5 years than I did in most of my life before. My wife is a very good motivator.
As I reflect these things I just hope I have another 40 years on this planet and every year that follows will have as much diversity as the previous ones.

General theory of hiki-waza.

IMG_2166Hiki-waza is often a very difficult thing to get your head around. You spend a lot of time learning how to cut going forward but suddenly hiki-waza turns that around, literally, and make you do the same thing backwards.
There is that point you reach in jigeko where you cut and go through or you hit taiatare. At this point you can easily be stuck into that mind set of wondering what to do now. Push your opponent back, move to the side, try to get out without being hit.
As with all situations in kendo if you run into something that you don’t know what to do, you should concentrate on that thing, ask sensei what to do and develop a game plan.

So first the foot work. You are meant to push into you opponent and at the moment they push back, lift your left foot and fumikomi with your right, backwards while striking.
Your choice of strike is the next thing to consider.
The theory goes something like this. If you push down, your opponents reaction is to push up, thus you strike dou. If you push up you opponent will push down, thus you strike men. If you push straight forward, they will push straight back thus opening kote.

This is the theory but executing it is another matter. The important thing is that you actually have a game plan to perform hiki-waza instead of striking randomly. This won’t always work of course.

Lastly, don’t hang a round waiting for the right push or pressure. Get in and get out as quick as possible. Choose quickly and don’t give you opponent a chance to think about it because then the instinct kicks in and they will not be able to consciously prevent your cut.

!m!

Better fumikomi revisited or how to make your toes sting.

There is a kendo saying that says as a kendoka you should concentrate and persist at one thing.
Just like any good scientist, a good kendoka is always looking for new insights into already established theories and methods and as such this is something I hold on high regard throughout my training.
Previously I have focused on my kiai to great effect. It improved dramatically but also made me focus on breathing as a whole and now am finding myself much less out of breath.
Recently I’ve revisited my technique of fumikomi as I’ve always felt a little lacking in that area. This came about during a session when we were watching each other perform a cut going through and watching our fumikomi technique. Now mine has always been a little soft in terms of sound but I know that I do not land heel first. Someone very helpfully pointed out that I was lifting my toes at point of impact and was not bending my knee enough.
As usual with these small subtle changes, it requires a whole rethink of the technique. As such I am now trying to bend my right knee a little more and now my fumikomi is much louder and feels better, apart from making my toes sting like hell. Apparently this is a good thing. It means I’m actually doing the fumikomi properly and landing more flat footed. More work is required.

On a final note, Chris and myself are attending the Level 1 coaching course this weekend, which means I’m learning how to teach people. Initially we went in for this just so we can provide backup if sensei cannot make it one evening, but it’s made be think quite heavily about how to teach people kendo. I’m usually pretty good with the newbies, one on one, offering helpful advice but when it comes to talking to a whole room of people, I get a little tongue tied and nervous.
Sensei has been very helpful with tips and methods and I’m quite looking forward to it despite the course being iado and jodo lead. Sod’s law I’ll come back wanting to learn iaido as well.

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