Problem-First Training

When we’re learning a new technique or a new approach to a waza we already know, I don’t like to just jump straight in and start practising it. I prefer a “problem-first” approach, where we start by taking some time to identify and understand the “problem” we’re trying to solve. For example if we’re learning how to make attacks work against an opponent with a very stiff kamae, we’d start by just trying to attack a motodachi with a stiff kamae. No advice or instruction, just grappling with the problem. Or if we’re learning an oji-waza such as kote-nuki-men, first we would just receive kote for a few repetitions.

What does this achieve? We only have a limited amount of dojo time, so this approach needs to provide something. For me the main benefit is so we really know the “why” behind the technique we’re practising. That understanding helps us to remember the technique itself, and lets us judge if we’re doing it correctly. It also makes it much easier to bring the technique into jigeiko, since we know what the “right time” to use the technique looks like. In the case of an oji-waza like our kote-nuki-men example, receiving kote a few times lets us study the timing and shape of the attack before we start trying to counter it.

And once we’re used to this it can benefit the whole rest of our kendo. If we’ve done kote-nuki-men, and we’re used to watching another person’s attack to pick up their timing, then what happens if we practice basic kote cuts? Each time our partner cuts kote we get to watch their timing and distance, and little by little we practice how to see an opportunity for nuki-men. Once we’re used to this problem-first approach, every exercise we do is more effective and we can pack so much more kendo into each training session.

What actually is “skill”?

It has been almost a year since we’ve been able to train “normally”. Last summer we trained in the park, and we briefly managed to run some distanced indoor sessions in October last year, but regular sessions are starting to become a distant memory. In the meantime I’ve been using my time learning more about teaching and running sessions, and planning out some changes to how we do things in the dojo. With no kendo to talk about, I plan to use this blog to share some of my thoughts and discoveries.

This time I’m talking about myelin. I’ve been re-reading a book called The Talent Code, which discusses the physiological mechanism behind “skill”. A substance called myelin features heavily.

Myelin is a fatty substance that lives in your brain. It is the reason that when you’ve practised an action a lot you can do it faster and more consistently than something new. When we perform a certain movement, neurons fire to carry the signal from the brain to the muscles. Every time that happens, a thin layer of myelin wraps around the neuron – the more that movement is performed, the more myelin layers we get. It acts like insulation around a wire, allowing the signals to travel faster and more strongly to the muscles. When we build muscle memory, what we’re really doing is growing more myelin.

But we can’t just repeat the same motion hundreds of times and expect to become an expert. It’s like going to the gym every day for years and always lifting the same weight – you’ll improve at first, but eventually you’re just going to stagnate. If you want to improve, you need to constantly give yourself a challenge to adapt to. So how do we maximise the skill growth we get out of our training time?

We need to make sure we’re always working near the edges of our abilities if we want to make the most of our time. I like to aim for a 60% success rate when I’m doing drills. That is, if we do a particular move 10 times then I should “fail” at 4 of them. If I succeed all the time, I’m not learning. If it’s too difficult, I probably don’t have enough context or underlying skill to understand what I’m missing. And this can be done with any drill or exercise. I don’t have to always be doing techniques that I’m ok at but not great and chase that 60% success rate. If we’re just doing men cuts on a partner, I can get myself to that 60% zone by being picky with my own kendo. I choose one element of a “good” men cut and I focus on that, and set myself a high standard for what I consider to be acceptable. A high enough standard that I can only reach it around… 60% of the time. The beauty of this is that you don’t need anyone’s help for it, it’s something you can do all by yourself. And once you’ve got the habit there, you’ll find your training becomes so much more effective every single session.

One other way we can help build skills is by a process known as “chunking”. Instead of trying to learn a new exercise or technique in one go, we break it up into chunks and get good at them. Then, we learn how the chunks fit together and hey presto, we have a complete technique. We’re focusing the myelination into specific areas one at a time, rather than reaching too wide from the start. For example when we learn kiri-kaeshi for the first time, we learn sayumen and tsubazeriai separately first, before joining them up and learning the pattern. We don’t try to learn all of the parts at the same time as learning the sequence, we take it one bit at a time and join it up at the end. This is something I try to take into account whenever I introduce a new exercise to people.

Next month, I’ll talk about a problem-first approach to training and what that means.

Doors Opening

It’s official – we’re back! You may have seen us training outdoor in the sun, wind, and rain over the last 6 months but Autumn is here and so it’s time to go indoors once more. This is one more step towards resuming normal training, and a very welcome one!

We’re shaking up the way we do things. We’re offering a free taster session to anyone interested, just sign up to book a day! Kids’ sessions are on Sundays at 1pm, Adults’ sessions are Thursdays from 7pm and Sundays from 2pm.

All training is organised in line with the government’s COVID-19 safety guidance.

Taking on new members – one week to go!

There is just one week to go until we start accepting new members at our training sessions in the park!

Starting on Sunday 2nd August we will run beginners’ sessions every week in Ford Park, Ulverston. Every single session will be free of charge until we get back into an indoor venue, so until then just come along, have fun and learn something new at no cost to yourself.

Children’s classes are 13:00-14:00 and teens/adults are 14:00-15:00.

If you’re interested or curious, sign up here!



I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone, but we won’t be training for the next while. We had a week of agonising whether to close the doors or keep training, but in the end caution won out. Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt. When we come back we’ll be ready to accept a new beginners’ intake, do an in-house grading, and try out whatever wacky training methods my cabin-fevered brain has cooked up in the meantime.

Stay safe!