Happy New Year!

Well it’s January, which is usually a time for reflection and for looking to the future. In our case it seems odd to do a retrospective of the year, given that the club hasn’t yet seen its first birthday, but the holidays are still a convenient time to look ahead and plan for the year ahead. I think this year’s going to be an exciting one for the club; we’re out of the “just getting started” months but we’re still growing and maturing, we’re not yet at the “business as usual” stage. Here’s a glimpse of what we’ve got planned:

More beginners

One thing we’d like to do this year is continue to take on more new members. We have a strong core of members, enough to have a good mix of training partners, but there’s always room for more! We’ll be running a new intake in February, plus a few more as the year goes on.

We’d also like to apply for some grant money this year, to buy a couple of sets of club armour. If we can do that, it will allow people to start kendo much more easily and cheaply. Even if it’s only a couple of sets, that would still be a huge difference for the club.

Men-Peter-Caz-Blur

Competitions & Gradings

Many of our members have been in armour for a little while now and are starting to get reasonably comfortable with the sparring side of kendo. I consider competitions to be a very useful tool for improving and learning, so this April (one year after the club first opened its doors) we will be taking a team to our first-ever kendo competition! I don’t imagine we’re likely to win or do particularly well, but it’s a huge milestone in the development of the club and I can’t wait. Hopefully this will be the first of many!

As well as competitions, we have a few members who will likely be ready for their first official grading this year. We run in-house gradings every few months but after a certain point, the only way to progress is through BKA-run grading events. There are a couple this year that I’ve got my eye on, depending on when our members are free. Everyone’s put in loads of good work and made great progress so far, it would be great to see all that work recognised.

Travelling

I have my own new years kendo resolution this year, which is to travel a lot more for training. Last year a lot of my kendo “thinking space” was taken up by getting the club established and running so sometimes my own kendo got a bit neglected. This year, at least once per month, I will travel to other clubs or to events and make sure I’m getting training with people better than me. Not only will this help me on the road to Yondan, it will also help me to steal drills or training methods from other sensei – which will be good for the whole club.

 

-Dave

Jigeiko or Shiai?

We’re at the stage now in the club where some of our members are doing jigeiko, and starting to get used to it. And we also have several people still working their way towards bogu (soon, I promise!) who often act as spectators during the jigeiko, so they can see what they have to look forward to. Often after jigeiko, someone will approach me and say something like “who won?”, and I usually end up mumbling some non-answer that’s not very satisfying.
The reason I have difficulty answering is: no-one wins in jigeiko. Jigeiko is not shiai, shiai is not jigeiko, and I think it’s worth spending a bit of time outlining the difference between the two.

What is shiai?
Shiai is competition kendo. The word “shiai” means “to test together”. A shiai refers to a situation where two kenshi test out their kendo by trying to apply it to someone who’s trying to stop them. Often, shiai happens at a tournament so there’s an incentive to win – if you win you get more fights, and possibly even a medal! In shiai we keep score. We need to know whose kendo was stronger on the day, so we keep score and by the end we know exactly who has won.

What is jigeiko?
Jigeiko is sparring. Keiko (or -geiko if it’s used as a suffix) means training or practice, so jigeiko is not a competition. If I’m in jigeiko and I attempt a men cut, I’m not trying to beat my partner – I’m trying to practise men. In the same vein if my partner catches me by surprise and is about to land a solid cut on me, I won’t block in jigeiko. Why should I? If all I can do is block then I’m as good as admitting that they had the advantage over me. Better to let my partner practise finishing the cut rather than preserve my ego by blocking last-minute.
Jigeiko is when we work on the bits of our kendo that need work. If I treat it like shiai, if I just try to win, then I’ll only use the techniques that I’m good at – what’s the point of that? Far better to try things that I’m rubbish at, to hopefully be less rubbish next time.
So you can see why I struggle to answer the question “who won”. If both people are pulling out their weaker techniques, and both are accepting strikes that they technically possibly could have blocked, the question “who won” starts to become very difficult to judge.

 

Now, that’s not to say there’s no crossover between the two! Shiai-geiko is competition practice, and it’s exactly as it sounds. Two people fight as if they were at a competition, including keeping score. Sometimes there’s even a whole mock tournament taking place, so you have the same incentive to win and continue fighting. This is usually done in the run up to a competition, with the intention of practising our shiai-style kendo before the event. It’s unlikely to be the norm in most dojo.
But what about enjin-geiko? This is something you’ve seen before and will hopefully continue to see at most of our sessions in the future. During enjin-geiko we fight each other, and as soon as a point is scored the “loser” steps out and is replaced. This might lend itself to a shiai-geiko mindset, but at our level it should really just be done as jigeiko. The score-keeping aspect isn’t a reason to start trying your hardest to win, it’s more of a system of immediate  feedback – this cut was good enough, that cut wasn’t.

Jigeiko and shiai are both very useful training tools, but we need to approach them correctly. Treating jigeiko like shiai (or vice-versa) is just going to slow your progress. Don’t mix your exercises – know what you’re doing and do that.

 

Feedback

A beginners’ course has just ended, which means we’re now moving into a new phase in training. Those of us who started in this intake in July will be moving into a new phase of training – rather than just trying to get things right, we’re now trying to do it well. This will mean that you’ll start to get more individual feedback on your kendo, and often it’ll be feedback that takes a little while to really absorb into your kendo.

Why/when do I give feedback?

Obviously the big answer to that question is – I give feedback to try to improve your kendo! Usually I’ll aim to give each person only one or two things to think about. More than that and you end up not really taking it in properly. So even if you have four or five things you could be working on, I’ll just pick one at a time to look at and improve.

The important thing for this is the time scale – if you get some feedback then that’s something to work on for a few weeks, not just a few minutes. We need to make sure that when you improve something in your kendo you really build it in to your muscle memory, so it stays improved even when you start thinking about something else. The best way to do this is to incorporate it into your suburi at the start of training. Suburi is when good habits are built, so we may as well build them!

What if you don’t get feedback?

Firstly, take it as a compliment! If I see you do some kendo and don’t immediately jump to fix something, that’s a good thing. Perhaps I’ve given you some advice previously and I can see that you’re still actively working on it, so I’m happy to just give you space to work. Maybe you’re at a stage of kendo where you just need to get the physical motions nice and fluid so it’s more important to just get the reps rather than over-thinking. Either way, a lack of feedback doesn’t mean I’m ignoring you and it isn’t anything to worry about.

What if you get conflicting feedback?

If I look at your kendo and think you’re using your right arm too much, I’ll probably tell you to straighten your left because that forces you to use the left arm for power. If a visiting sensei thinks that your shinai is too vertical when you strike, they may recommend that you bend your left elbow a little bit to get better extension on your blade. That sensei and I don’t really disagree on anything, but from your point of view it can certainly look like we do! The best thing to do in this scenario is just ask for clarification. Either at the time or after the session (or at the pub), just explain the situation to the sensei and ask their advice. Chances are you’ll get told of a different way to work on something so we can remove any conflicts. Even if not, at least you’ll get a bit more insight into why different sensei give the advice they do.

How to deal with group feedback?

This happens a lot. We as a group do a drill all together, and I’ll see an issue that applies to about 50% of the group. It’s not worth me giving the same advice to all these people individually, so I give the advice to the whole group – but how do you know if it applies to you?

The simple answer is: it always applies to you. Even if you’re not one of the 50% that I originally spotted, you can still benefit from focusing on whatever aspect in detail. When I give out advice to the group, I make sure I spend some time focusing on that in my own kendo afterwards – we can always benefit from some conscious practice.

What if you want more feedback?

Just ask. You don’t have to just wait for feedback, you can always ask for a bit more advice or pointers. We always have time after training (or at the pub!) to have a chat about your kendo and share some advice. If you prefer though, feel free to ask for advice just after we’ve done a drill (“was my footwork okay there?”) or just before (“would you mind checking my footwork during this?”).

 

Ultimately, it’s up to you to improve your kendo. I can help to highlight the areas of improvement and guide you on how to improve them, but you’re the one who has to put it into practice. Make sure you’re taking on board the feedback you get and applying it in every session, and you’ll definitely see your kendo improve.

Transitions

I have decided to use this section of the website as a news/blog page. Club related news will of course still be posted here, but I also want to have somewhere to type up thoughts on our kendo. Too often in training we don’t have time to talk in depth on anything, and a topic that deserves 10 minutes of discussion only gets two sentences. Of course it’s important to use our time training and not just talking, but the talking is valuable too. Why do you think I invite people to the pub every week?

 

That said, I am not a natural writer. Or very experienced at it. Still, I’m hoping that with time and practice my muddled thoughts will start to become a little more useful. Or if not useful, at least coherent.

 

Right now everyone in Ko En Kai is going through some kind of big transition. I myself am moving from student to teacher, something I have only dabbled in before now. The challenge is to try to maintain my own learning and kendo while also running sessions and advising others. It’s a balance that I struggle with, and I expect I will for a while yet! 

 

Our April intake, the club’s very first members, are just starting to wear bogu. We’re not quite wearing men yet, and we’re a few weeks away from Jigeiko, but just do and kote is enough of a change! When wearing kote, there are two things that always get thrown off unless we’re careful. The first of these is our grip when in chudan kamae. And the second is tenouchi, at the moment of the strike. Wearing gloves that are bulky and stiff can be a big distraction, but the best thing we can do is consciously practise kendo the way we want our kendo to be. This will help to reduce the negative impact on our technique from wearing kote, and of course it’s just good practice in general! Then once we start wearing men everything changes again. The air is hotter, our shoulders are restricted, and we’re getting hit on the head now. The most important thing here is to focus on keeping the fundamentals correct. We spent three months getting the basics right, now we need to keep them right even though there’s so much else going on! This transition is, in my opinion, the most exciting time in kendo; jigeiko is the point where someone goes from “kendo beginner” to “kendoka”. I hope you agree.

 

And of course, we can’t forget the people who started in July! Going from “never done kendo” to “doing kendo” is obviously the biggest change that you’ll see in kendo. The first month is always hectic, with at least 5 different things to think about at any time! It’s important to make the most of this time and build a solid foundation, but it’s also vital that we don’t burn out. Kendo is lifelong, and you have months before you’ll wear armour. Do what you can now, but don’t worry if it takes a little while before things start to feel solid and comfortable. 

 

In my experience, kendo is full of transitions like this. You incorporate something new into your kendo, you get a month or so to enjoy it, and then it’s back to working on something else! Any time your kendo is going through a transition period, here’s my advice: accept that things will feel difficult while you adjust, make sure you don’t lose too much of your old kendo while you bring in something new, and don’t be in too much of a rush to reach the other side.