Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Spokane Kendo Camp 2010 pt. 2 - War!!










Some shots of the dojo we had for the weekend.

Well I covered a bit of the training that we had during camp, and the overall message of keeping a connection with our partner. Sensei also explained how this permeated everything that we did, and that we also practiced keeping connections with the group/team as a whole. We hung out together this weekend. We ate together. Slept as a group together. And played together.

Sunday morning, after breakfast, we all gathered up for a game of War...well, everyone with bogu, that is. If you don't know what War is, let me explain real quick. War is a game that we play in teams or as a free-for-all. We tie balloons to various valid strike points on our bogu, and the object is to pop everyone else's balloons. Doing so will make them "dead" and they are out of the game. The winner is the one left standing with balloons at the end. They then get beat up by everyone else that played the game until their balloons are gone, as well.

We had eight people that joined in the game, so we started with a 4 vs. 4 team match, and then a free-for-all for the winning team. Our team consisted of Dan, Matt, Mark, and myself (red team), against Andy, Rik, Marek, and Makayla (yellow team).


Some free time before the game started










Sensei explaining the rules and boundaries










The teams discussing strategies










Game on!!



















Our team strategy was to use the buddy system, and Matt and I quickly paired up to fight Rik and Andy while Dan and Mark took on Marek and Makayla. I fought hard against Andy, finally taking all of his balloons, and then ran over to help Matt take out Rik.










Matt and I dispatched Rik, last year's free-for-all champion, and went to join Dan and Mark, who were still fighting against their opponents. With us it made the fight 4 on 2. We all worked together to take out Marek, which left Makayla as our last opponent.










We took Makayla down together, but not before she popped one of my balloons! She fought really hard, but in the end numbers overcame her. At this time the game became free-for-all, last man standing. I quickly turned on Matt and popped his last balloon to put him out of the game, leaving the game with Mark, Dan, and myself.










After a lot of feinting and striking, we all found ourselves down to one balloon each; our Do balloons. Sensei had us all switch to Jodan at this point to finish out the match.

I fought both of my opponents and Dan and I were finally able to take Mark's last balloon, leaving the game between the two of us, both still in Jodan.










I fought bravely and fiercely, but in the end Dan's technique overcame me, and he took my last balloon. His prize? Being mobbed by everyone that "died" before, until his balloon finally popped.










We all had a great time, and I think I did pretty well for my very first game of War. Our team won, and I took second in the free-for-all. I hope that next year we can get some more people in on the game, and I'll definitely be gunning for Dan!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Spokane Kendo Camp 2010 pt. 1 - Making and Keeping Connections

For the second year in a row I was able to participate in the Spokane Kendo camp, and it was a blast. We had about 10 or so people that camped the whole weekend with us (Friday through Sunday), and about 16 people that showed up for the training on Saturday. We had good food, good training, good fellowship, and it was definitely a weekend to remember.

Things kicked off on Friday when we all arrived that evening to set up and get everything in order. We started off the activities with a "fling sock" fight. They are basically bean bags that are attached to long tails, so you can whip them around and toss them. Being the group that we are, we decided to toss them straight at each other. There were some hits, some misses, and some very close calls, and we actually ended up getting a lot of the kids that were camping in on it as well (I wish I had pictures of this!).

After dinner that night we all huddled around the campsite, talking and sharing stories and getting to know each other. There were a few new people that showed up. A couple of girls from the valley dojo, and a beginner from downtown. We all did our best to welcome them into the group so that they could fully enjoy the weekend. I know that last year when I came I didn't really know any of the people I was camping with, and I really appreciated the efforts they took to include me in activities and get to know me, so I also wanted to do my best to help them out and talk with them and try to include them in everything we were doing.

Saturday brought on our training for the weekend, and Sensei talked extensively about making and keeping a connection with our partner/opponent, both physically and mentally. He explained a few steps that we should take to form these connections, with the first step being our physical movement. We should strive to have good basics and body carriage and footwork (tai sabaki = body movement). We started off the training with warmups, and then Kihon and Nihon Kata, with the emphasis being on keeping that connection with our partner throughout the whole kata. We should not break this connection from the time we step in to bow in, until the time we step back after bowing out.

Next were some drills that were designed to help us keep a good, straight posture throughout all of our movement. Sensei explained that we should have the same upper body posture throughout all of our movement, so that if we took a picture of ourselves from the waist up it would look the same whether we were walking or sitting or getting in/out of seiza.

Once we had that, we worked on Fumikomi steps (first fumikomi with three steps, and then two steps, one step, and finally fumikomi every step). This eventually built up to us performing this drill with our shinai, doing Men strikes with each fumikomi (alone and the with a partner's shinai as a target). By this time we had worked so much on our footwork that most of us were not even thinking about that part of the drill, which helped us all to keep better posture and freed us up to concentrate more on our shinai swing.

We grabbed our Bogu at this point and jumped into Kirikaeshi. Sensei stressed the importance of keeping the connection with our partner. Keeping our kamae up so we were ready, even after they hit and go through, and also working on finding the correct distance to step into after our partner turned around. This led straight into our next drill, which had the Kakarite performing Men strikes and the Motodachi striking Men as the Kakarite turned around. We were instructed and practiced hitting our partners when they were at about a 45 degree angle from us. Too soon and we would have an invalid strike. Too late and our partner would see us and be able to block and/or counter in some way. I had mixed results with this drill, but for the most part it went well. I was able to hit my partners while they were just turning, although I think I could have started even earlier than I did. I was also working on bringing my left foot up as fast as possible. I think that if I shorten up my fumikomi a bit it might help me to bring the left foot up fast. Once I have this down I can start lengthening the fumikomi step. I'll try this tonight at practice.

We broke up into Mudansha/Yudansha groups at this point, and finished out our training time with waza-geiko. I worked mainly on Debana Kote, with my focus on hitting and going forward (either to the left or right), and also on anticipating my opponent's strike and acting before they moved. Again, most of the time I was able to hit correctly, but here and there I felt like I was a bit late on my strike. With this technique I'll work to try and "control the situation" a bit more, so I'm able to strike before they are, and almost force them into the position that I want as I move. It'll be interesting to see how this goes.

The most important thing that I took away from training was that a connection with our partner/opponents is one of the most important things that we can develop. If we are able to build and cultivate this as we grow in our physical Kendo, we will soon to able to surpass kenshi that have quite a bit more experience than us, but never took the time to build this mental aspect of Kendo. With a proper connection we can learn to read our opponents and their movements as if it were a second a language, and act/react accordingly. To do this, we should have the proper "readiness" (coming to kamae as soon as they hit and go through so that we are ready to act), set the proper distance, mentally strike at our opponents, and finally using all of that to physically strike, as we did in the 45-degree drill.

Be sure to check back later on for a recap of our game of War and pictures!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Kote-Men

So I ended up taking an unintentional hiatus this week. I felt like I was very, very busy with work and Kendo and everything else that goes on in my life. It's a real shock to go from unemployment straight back into full-time work, so I've been trying to adjust to that again and get myself back into a rhythm. Hopefully soon things will settle down, and I'll at least feel like everything is in order again. With that said, let's continue!

Both Monday and Wednesday night we went over Kote-Men. The main lesson that I learned on Monday can be summarized with "Think fast, be fast." Speed comes from proper technique and training, but we have to have the right mindset, as well. If we think that we're slow, we will be. If we think that we're fast, everything will soon follow.

Wednesday night we opened with a lengthy discussion about the proper way to handle our uniforms, bogu, and equipment (chakuso, I believe is the correct term). This includes not only the care that you give to your equipment, but also the care and attention you put into putting on and taking off your uniform and bogu. He mentioned that there are many lessons that we can learn by doing this correctly, including safety, respect, courtesy, and it can indirectly help us to have better technique. The way this is done is that chakuso helps us to pay attention to detail. Details in the way that we tie our keikogi, hakama, and bogu himo. Details in where and how we set our equipment down, how we carry it, and how we store it. If we are so detail-oriented with our equipment, how much of a leap is it to be that detail-oriented about our partners and opponents? Sensei did make another good point, and one that I need to work on. I feel like I'm pretty good at paying attention to my own equipment, and I take instruction well and work to incorporate that instruction for my own use. But I need to be looking out for those that are less experienced than myself, and helping them to learn the proper way to tie their uniforms, to tie their bogu, to hold their shinai, etc. I need to be thinking like a higher rank, even if I'm not quite there yet, and it's never too early to pass on what I know if it can help others.

We mixed up our Kirikaeshi with some kihon drills, which added a bit of variety to our normal routine. We did Kirikaeshi, Men, Kirikeashi Do, Kote, and finally Kirikaeshi Kote. I worked on good movement, "snappy" strikes, and tenouchi (especially with Kirikaeshi Kote).

After Kirikaeshi, we worked on what I considered the "meat" of the training that night, Kote-Men. Sensei took some time to explain to us to value of these strikes, both separately and together, and also the proper way that we should be striking. We practiced doing small Kote and small Men strikes down and back across the dojo floor. With Kote we were supposed to bring our wrists back, and lift our left hands up to about chest high. The power, as always, came from our left hand, with our right hand adding stability and tenouchi when we struck. Men was done in a similar way, but with the left hand coming up to about face high, so that we could see our partner underneath our left hand before we struck.

After working on both of those strikes pretty thoroughly, we put them together for the last few drills. The first was Kote-Men (both small strikes). We did the drills slow, but with rhythm, with one strike flowing into the next. Afterward we performed Kote-Men again, but this time with emphasis on speed. As I pointed out above, the beginning of that was thinking faster, then having a faster kiai, and the feet and hands should follow suit, sooner or later. I felt pretty good with my strikes, but I would still like to work on hitting the Kote strike from an in-place fumikomi. It seems that each time I try to do this, I step forward, even if it's just an inch or so, which makes me pull my left foot up ever-so-slightly before launching for the Men strike.

The next drill we did was Men, but we were to hit from as far back as possible (while still only doing one fumikomi step). I played with my distance a bit, sometimes hitting too close, sometimes barely missing my partner, until I found a distance that seemed to be right at the edge of my striking range. I was performing medium Men strikes, as well, since I didn't feel comfortable launching that far and doing a small Men, for some reason. It was a bit slower, but with practice I know I can add a lot more speed to that strike.

We split into Mudansh and Yudansha groups at this point, and went over waza-geiko. I worked on Nuki Do and Hiki Kote, since I haven't practiced those drills in a while, and also on Men, with my emphasis on bringing my left foot up as fast as I could after I struck. Sensei mentioned to me earlier that my strike and my timing were really good, but that I was still letting my left foot lag behind me. It reminds me of some advice that Nishimori Sensei gave us on his visit, and an exercise he told us to try to help bring the left foot up faster. Basically he would do a fumikomi with the right foot, and then kick his left foot up and forward as fast as possible. Might be a good one for me to try in my spare time...

We ended our training that night with a few rounds of jigeiko, and a final Kirikaeshi. I have that say that during this training I really felt like I was....more intense, for lack of a better word. I felt that I stepped up my Kendo a level, and I hope that I keep that feeling with me as long as I can. I stayed in for more rotations (not taking a single break), I was able to do more of each drill (five as opposed to three that I sometimes do), I kept my spirit really high throughout the whole time, and I pushed myself as much as I could. By the end I was pretty tired and had to cut back a few of the drills, but overall I felt that I had a lot more energy and a lot more authority with each of my strikes and drills. I heard some advice one time that I feel applies to how I felt that night. It stated, basically, that we should do keiko (practice) with each of our partners as if it were the only time in our lives that we would do keiko with them. Very true words, and ones that I hope to reflect on more throughout my training.

A few thoughts:

Men: I still have a habit of rotating my right shoulder forward while striking Men. I need to work on eliminating this, and having my hips square and going straight forward while striking.

Kote-Men: Work on having a faster kiai, and thinking even faster than that. With enough practice with this mindset, I can become a lot faster with this technique.

Jigeiko: Don't hesitate! I know that I'm a lot better at this than I was before, but there are still plenty of moments where I see an opening and I don't take it. I need to learn to strike immediately when I see an opening.

Fumikomi: I really need to work on bringing my left foot up as fast as I can after I do a fumikomi step and strike. Stroud Sensei demonstrated this when he visited, and he was able to bring his left foot up almost at the same time that his right foot landed from fumikomi. An impressive feat, and one that I can attain, too, with proper practice.

Next stop is Kendo camp at Deer Lake this weekend!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Center

Practice last night was pretty intense, but very rewarding. I felt really good. Physically, my thumb and heel are healing up, so I was able to go longer without having to step out...actually I didn't step out at all last night. Also since I had missed practice in the valley the night before, I was really looking forward to getting into the dojo and practicing. Also we did a few new drills and variations that we haven't done in a while. It's always fun when we mix things up. We also played a game called "pig in the pen," which I'll explain more later. Also, lastly, my brother and mom showed up for practice, to watch. My brother is going to join the new beginner's class in a few weeks, and my mom stayed and watched our whole practice, which I appreciated very much.

Since Sinclair Sensei, McNally Sensei, and Ando Sensei were absent last night, Wendy led class. We had a pretty small class, only about a dozen or so people, but everyone gave their all and really pushed themselves as much as they could. It was great to see that no matter how many people we have, or who is leading, that we all give it our best. I firmly believe that we get out of Kendo as much as we put in, and for me that means putting in as much as I can. I definitely want to excel, but I know that it takes hours and hours of practice and repetition to get there.

Wendy had me lead warm-ups last night, and afterwards we went into Kirikaeshi drills. Again, I focused on good form, nice relaxed hits, and then sped it up after a few rotations. Wendy pointed out that we shouldn't cut ourselves short on the Men strikes at the beginning and in the middle, that we should avoid dropping our hands straight down to taiatari after the strike. I tried to strike and then push through a bit before bringing my hands down, and I tried to bring my body up to my hands instead of collapsing my hands back to my body, and it seemed to work rather well.

Next we did Men strikes, and then a variation from to-ma. We would step in with pressure and then smother our partner's shinai, pushing it ever so slightly out of center to open then up, before launching forward with a Men strike. She explained that this should be a very small movement, and that it should stay within the "triangle" of our partner's head and their shoulders. The idea was to take the center and then strike from there. I had mixed success with this drill, and found that the smaller I could make the movement the better position I was in to strike. It didn't take a huge opening to get in and hit, just throw them off for just a second.

Next we did Kote strikes, but instead of going over the shinai we went under the Shinai. Wendy said that, just like when we go over the shinai and barely pass over the top, this drill should be done with our shinais barely passing underneath our opponent's shinai. She also pointed out that I should work on sliding forward, since she pointed out that I leaned forward into the strike. I'll be sure to be mindful of this and work on it in the future. Other than that leaning, though, I felt pretty good moving my shinai underneath and then striking. I used to do this kind of strike a lot, but stopped doing it as much so I could focus on good, clean strikes.

We took the Kote drill to another level, by going under and doing a form of harai from the other side of the shinai. The first two strikes were Kote, and then the last one was harai Men, after dropping under the partner's shinai. I didn't get to practice this one much, because we only did a couple rotations on it, and one of my partners had no Men so I only did the Kote strike part of the drill.

Next we went back to re-visit the pressuring drill from earlier, only this time it was the Motodachi that pressured. They were instructed to pressure a bit too much, which the Kakarite would use to do Kaeshi Men. The object of the drill was to use that pressure to whip the shinai around and strike. I actually felt pretty good with this drill last night, and I focused on bringing the shinai up and over my head, instead of striking from over my shoulder, which is a bad habit to get into. Now, whether I was succeeding at getting my shinai all the way up there is another story.

The next two drills were very similar. In both the Motodachi would step in and strike Kote. The Kakarite struck Kote-Men, and then later Kote-Do. At first I was waiting for my partner to move before I moved, and I used the Kote-Men as a counter. Wendy said that we should be striking at the same time, though, so each time after that, when I heard the whistle blow, I would try to hit immediately. A few times I was able to hit pretty fast, other times no so much, but I tried to keep that feeling of readiness. Like a spring all coiled up and ready to go once you let go of it.

Ai-Men was the last drill that we did, and I honestly felt a lot faster with it. I concentrated on straight, fast strikes, and tried to keep the center as much as I could. I felt that it worked more often that it has in the past, and that I was able to get some really good strikes even against people with more experience. That last part could have been in my head, but I did get some comments on it from some of the friends, so I think I'm on the right track. In the end nothing beats straight, true Kendo.

We took a quick break, and then we started our game of "pig in the pen." If you are reading this and have never heard of it, this is how it went. We all made a big circle, with two people facing off in the middle. All of us were responsible for calling points that we thought were valid, with one person designated as the "shinpan," and they would have final say on the winning point. The winner would stay and face another random person that would jump in from the circle, and it would start over again. It was great fun, and I got beat right off the bat a few times, but the last time I went in I won. And won. And won....and kept going. I went through quite a few opponents, but I was quickly getting exhausted. I wanted someone to beat me just so I could take a breather, but at the same time I wasn't about to just give up. Even though not all of the points would be considered valid in a shiai setting, it was still great fun and I definitely enjoyed being able to fight in such a fast-paced setting.

After a few rounds of jigeiko we bowed out. Unfortunately I wasn't able to keep myself fully injury-free, because I stepped back on my heel a bit hard right during the end in one of my jigeiko matches. I'll have to continue to be careful with that foot and work on using more of my foot for my fumikomi step, instead of landing on the heel, which caused the pain and bruising in the first place.

A few thought:

Men/Kote: Keep working on striking with my whole body, instead of leaning into the strike. I should concentrate on moving from my feet and center and keeping my upper body above my hips.

Jigeiko: I should work on striking my opponents as soon as they enter my range (uchi-ma). Billy does a good job of forcing this on me, as he is constantly walking right into my striking distance. When I practice with him I am forced to think and act a lot faster than with other people. It's a skill I need to cultivate, so that I can recognize openings more quickly and act on them in less time.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pressure

So, first of all I avoided injuring myself further last night, so I'm very happy about that. I took it pretty easy and relaxed last night, and just did a couple rounds of jigeiko so I could avoid bruising my heel any more or jamming my thumb again. I'll continue to take it easy for the next week or so until I'm back to 100%.

We started out a bit differently last night, and I'm always welcome to new drills. After bowing in, we practiced standing and sitting in seiza, back and forth. The focus was on our posture and centers and keeping our backs straight and keeping a good posture. As I mentioned before in this recent post, good posture in seiza can translate into good posture during keiko, and can help with overall better Kendo. We also practice standing and sinking down into sonkyo, with our focus, again, on keeping our backs straight and having good posture.

After warm-ups, we worked a bit on footwork, keeping our toes down during fumikomi, and practiced going back and forth across the dojo floor. We would slide our front foot out as far as we could, and then at the last second bring our foot up and step to catch our balance. Sensei explained that we should commit so much to the step that we couldn't pull back and are almost at the point of falling over before we step to catch ourselves and shoot forward.

Next we added in our shinai, and first tried the same drill while holding a strong kamae, and then worked on stepping while striking Men. This was the focus of the night, and one that I definitely want to practice. We would step forward, and pressure forward with our kensen, and then at the last moment when we would step bring the shinai up to strike. The strike was supposed to be nice and relaxed, but I found myself rushing the hit, tensing up, messing up my footwork, or not getting my swing to stop at the same time as my footwork. This is a very powerful technique, to be able to always pressure forward, even in our strikes, and it's one that I will definitely work on to improve. I seem to be at the point where I can start my step and strike at the same time, but the swing goes more up and back than forward first. The forward bit it what is throwing me off at the moment. Sensei made it look really easy...I still have a lot of room for improvement.

After grabbing the rest of our bogu, we started with Kirikaeshi. I was nice and relaxed, yet firm, and worked on accuracy tonight. Accuracy of my Men strike and my Sayu-Men strikes. I also worked on breathing, and was able to do it fairly smoothly with a few breaths (about 5 breaths). This has been a pretty big struggle and focus for me, so I'm glad to see that I'm making progress with it.

Next we did Men drills, and then Kote-Men. I tried to focus on keeping my body straight and not leaning into the hit or letting my right arm drift out and turn my body. It's a lot harder to do than it sounds, that's for sure. I worked on both big and small strikes, as well, mixing it up again as I have been doing, but trying to do each one as quickly (and correctly) as I could. With Kote-Men I still need to try starting it from an in-place fumikomi step, and then launching forward.

The Do drill we did today was supposed to incorporate the footwork and shinai work we had worked on at the beginning of class. Namely, pressuring forward with the shinai at the same time we start to slide our foot forward, and then striking Do at the last minute. The way Sensei explained is that as we pressure forward we should make our opponent think we're going to strike Men, but at the last second we strike Do instead. Make them afraid of our Men strike first, and then hit them with Do. I did fairly well with this drill, I though. I felt like my shinai and foot were moving together, but I might have, again, been moving my shinai up more than forward. I'll continue to work on it.

I only did one round of jigeiko, as I'm still nursing my injuries and didn't want to overdo it. My partner was a newly-minted Ikkyu, and we had a good match, with both of us getting some really good hits in. I tried to work on Shomen, and good clean hits throughout. No ducking or blocking without purpose, just solid strikes with the best movement and follow-through and zanshin I could muster.

After stepping out, I continued to watch the Yudansha group as they finished out their jigeiko rounds. I am impressed by each one of them, and I know there is a lot that I can learn from everyone. Footwork, shinai speed and movement, body carriage, posture, and on and on. I'm especially impressed by the Nidan/Sandan and how they seem to be able to set up, find and opening, and strike faster than I can think about one of those points. I know that if I keep practicing and pushing myself I can be at the point, and beyond. It just takes practice and dedication...

A few thoughts:

Men: I should begin to try pressuring forward with my strikes, as best I can. It will be a long, hard road to work up this technique, but the sooner I start, the sooner I can start to see development.

Do: Same thing as above. I should start pressuring forward on this strike, and then strike Do at the last minute (unless I'm doing off-timing). Also I am pretty accurate with the strike itself, so I can start thinking less on that issue and more on my footwork and movement.

Kote-Men: Begin my strike from in-place fumikomi, and see how that works for me. I played with it early on for a bit, but now I seem to always take a step forward, no matter how small it is. I'll try to remember to work it into my drills from now on.

Jigeiko: Not much to note here today, since I'm still taking it easy so as not to re-injure myself, but I need to be mindful of what Ando Sensei told me a few classes ago. When I strike I should move to the center, with the mindset that I'm going to crash straight into my opponent's Do if they don't move.

Maai: I should continue to work on hitting from various distances, so I can become familiar with my own reach and limitations. If I'm aware of this and able to use it to my advantage, it will be a big plus for me.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Injuries

First off, injuries suck. A lot. I'm currently dealing with a jammed thumb, which I just touched up a bit last night (by running into another opponent during jigeiko), a bruised heel, and a bruised elbow from a missed Do strike. Not the best week for me, so I will definitely keep it light on Saturday if I go. I'm thinking about missing that practice so that I can let my body heal up a bit more. As much as I hate the thought of missing practice, I'd rather be able to give it my all then have to be overly careful and cautious due to injuries that I sustained. Plus I'm hoping if I have more time to heal than I'll be able to recover more quickly.

Last night I really didn't feel like myself, either. I felt distracted and a bit down, due to outside circumstances, but I continued to practice as best I could. I could definitely tell, though, that I didn't have my whole heart into it. But when you do Kendo for any amount of time, I guess it's unavoidable that you will have days where you just feel off.

Since we're done with Shinsa for the moment, we've gone back to our normal routine, which includes warm-ups at the beginning, so after we finished with those we moved into Kirikaeshi. I was a bit faster on my strikes this time, since I had warmed up in the intermediate class earlier, but I still tried to focus on snapping my shinai and having a solid hit at the end with a pause. I'm also still working on my breathing for this exercise, trying to get it down to 5 breaths. It seems to be a losing battle, so I hope that I'm making progress, even minor improvements each time.

Men-uchi drills were up next, and I used a combination of medium and small strikes throughout my rotations. I also played with striking from to-ma and uchi-ma, and tried to carry my kiai throughout the whole movement, as Stroud Sensei pointed out on Monday. Sean also reiterated for us, explaining that we should have a nice long kiai that flows into our strike so that we can avoid the habit of breathing in right before we strike. If we pick up this habit, then a perceptive opponent can use that to their advantage, and strike while we are breathing in. Breathing in is not a "ready" position, and it's hard to strike effectively while doing it.

We moved into Kote-Men next, and again I used a combination of small/big, and small/small strikes throughout. I'm trying hard to shorten up my Kote step, so that I don't end up burying my shinai in my partner's face, and I'm also trying to focus on hitting while my shinai is coming down, instead of popping the hit while the shinai is traveling up. I felt pretty good with the Men strike at the end, I just have to concentrate on getting that Kote strike down.

We moved into waza-geiko at this point, and I stepped out briefly to tape up my foot. Oh yes, I'm still working with blister, as well... After jumping back in, I worked, briefly, on Shomen strikes. I tried to have a good flow to my strike, and worked on pressuring forward during the strike, again as Stroud Sensei pointed out to us on Monday. He definitely had a lot of good advice and information for us, and I'm doing my best to apply that to my Kendo.

The next drill was Ai-Men, which I haven't done much before, but I went over during Saturday's practice and post. My partners for this drill were Billy and Jordan. Billy gave me some really good advice, as well. He said that I was moving to the side before I even started to strike, and that was causing my strike to miss and his to miss, as well (I kept getting hit in the shoulder). He said that I need to hit right down the center and not deviate from that until after I strike. I can then position myself to move to the side of my partner/opponent and follow-through that way, but everything up to the strike should be done down the center, as straight as possible. I focused on this with Jordan, and was able to get a few good hits on him, although I have a feeling it was because I have a reach advantage over him.

After a short break, and some kakari-geiko between a couple people, we did one last endurance drill (Kirikaeshi x60, yikes), and then finished out our training time with jigeiko. I was only able to do a few drills, because I ended up jamming my thumb again, but I received some good advice during a few of my matches. While fighting Jeff, he pointed out that I tend to lean when I strike, and it telegraphs my intentions. He said that I should work to eliminate that and hit from a perfectly straight position. The second piece of info I received was while fighting Harvey. He said that I had really good timing with my hits, but that I need to work on being more explosive after the hit. I took this info, and hit a really good Kote on my final strike with him. After striking his Kote, I tried to move as fast as I could past him, while keeping a good kiai going. It worked rather well, and I'll try to incorporate that into future jigeiko.

A few thoughts:

Jigeiko: Just a few general thoughts and pieces of advice that can be used throughout my Kendo. I should make sure to not lean during my strikes, and instead strike from a straight position. I should also be more explosive on my follow-through.

Men: Continue to work on pressuring forward during this strike, which I can then use in my other strikes.

Kote: As it relates to Kote-Men, I should work on shortening up my fumikomi step for this strike, and also be sure that on the small Kote my hands are coming up to my chest height, and not just striking from the kamae position.

Ai-Men: Work to hit Shomen, keep the center until I strike, and then move past my opponent.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Stroud Sensei and the Return of Billy

Sounds like the title for an epic martial arts movie...or at least a good anime episode.

Monday night we had a visiting sensei lead our Iaido and Kendo training. Stroud Sensei from Idako Kendo Club in Boise, ID was gracious enough to come and lead/train with us, and I will do my best to try and recall here some of the key points that he taught and elaborated on. We also had one of our dojo members, Billy, return to us. He has been in Japan for school and Kendo training for the past four months, so it was very good to have him back at our dojo.

After warm-ups, we all gathered around while Stroud Sensei went over a basic Men strike. He said that even though we are in practice, we should perform the strikes and movements with full dedication and spirit, as if it were going to count in a shinsa or taikai. Our strikes can be big, but not too big (not behind the back like in jogeburi). Our footwork should be smooth yet quick, with the left foot pulling back into a good stance as quickly as possible. Our footwork and our strikes should flow into one smooth movement, not broken up as two (or three) separate movements. Our kiai should also flow with our movement and strike, and not be broken up. It should continue as we move, strike, and perform zanshin and follow-through.

After donning our Men and Kote, we partnered up and went over Men strikes. We started from issoku-itto no ma, which is the basic distance between opponents while in kamae. It is about one step from your striking distance (uchi ma). We would then pressure forward to uchi ma, which was different for everyone, and then strike Men. There were a few layers that were added to this drill. First we just did the strike with our kiai, trying to keep the kiai going and building as we struck, through the follow-through, until we turned and faced our partner again. Next Stroud Sensei showed us how to pressure while striking, to try and eliminate any weaknesses in our technique and keep everything flowing smoothly. This was done by slightly extending the kensen (tip of the shinai) forward while we raised up to a Men strike position, and then bringing it back down for the strike. This was all done as quickly as we could while still maintaining good technique. The next layer that was added was to snap the left foot back into place behind the right foot as we did our fumikomi step. The way he explained it is that the left foot should try to arrive at the same time as the right foot steps back to the floor. In this way we can move quickly without much effort, and we will eliminate dragging our left foot behind us during the follow-through. Since this is one of my weaknesses I was sure to remember this bit of advice and practice it during the drills.

Next we moved into Kirikaeshi drills, but Stroud Sensei had us perform them a bit differently. We entirely took out the Taiatari part of Kirikaeshi. He said that we all had a habit of collapsing our hands in before the Men strike was finished, so to eliminate that he had us perform the Men strike and actually take a few follow-through steps while the motodachi took a few steps back. We continued on the rest of Kirikaeshi the same way we've always done it. He said that we should try to use this drill as our normal Kirikaeshi drill, and maybe try to do the Taiatari/Tsubazeriai drills as a specialized drill later on. It was very weird to do Kirikaeshi differently, since we've been doing it our way since I can remember, but I have to admit that it made it a lot easier to concentrate on the Men strike without worrying about giong to Taiatari immediately afterward.

The rest of class was used for jigeiko, and everyone tried to get in a turn with Stroud Sensei, and his son JP. I, unfortunately, had to step out before I was able to practice with either of them. I jammed by thumb, again, just a week after doing it the first time. It also happened while practicing with the same person. I'll have to be careful with that from here on out, as I don't want to keep hurting it. But I was able to get in some jigeiko with quite a few people, including Billy. He definitely taught me to try and find openings faster that I was used to, since he would immediately step into my hitting distance (uchi ma) and attack. I had to stay on my toes and very alert so I could look for openings. Sinclair Sensei pointed out that everytime he goes to hit Kote and his shinai comes out of kamae, he is open and I should try to strike at that moment. After a few failed attempts I finally was able to hit a good Shomen strike on him.

After I stepped out due to injury, I had a chance to watch some of Billy's and Stroud Sensei's matches. Both were impressive, but I was especially in awe of Stroud Sensei. I've never seen our Yudansha stuggle to find openings or strike properly with anyone, but Stroud Sensei seemed like this wall that beared down on each of them. He didn't move particularly fast, but he was very accurate and moved almost before his opponents did. He was able to control their movements, and predict when and where they would strike. It's definitely something that I can strive for. At the end of class he said that we should try, even at this time, to do Kendo like the Yudansha, especially the higher-ranked Yudansha. If we have that mindset now then we can take our Kendo to higher levels than we initially thought possible.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Endurance Training 101

Just a few words about teaching before I start my normal post. I definitely have a lot more respect for teachers now. I had a lot before, but after this weekend I can see what a tough position it really is. I had a chance to experience two different teaching situations. The first one, on Friday night at the valley dojo, I had a plan of action and knew, roughly, what I was going to do, so practice went fairly well. I taught the beginners and the time went by smoothly, and we were able to cover everything that as left for me to do. Saturday, though, I got thrown into the fire a bit. I had to lead the one intermediate member that came to class, and I had no plan and was not prepared to do that at all, but I did my best and went over some drills and points that we had been covering lately. I have to say I definitely like the planned route better, but in both situations I did my best to cover material and techniques that were relevant to each class's experience level.

Saturday we were back to our "normal" routine, with warm-ups and drills to start with, instead of kata. With all of the testing done for this time of year, McNally Sensei decided to get us back to our normal practices. After warm-ups we went straight into Kirikaeshi. First normal, then Kirikaeshi Do and Kote. I did my best to have a fast, strong Do strike, but I'm pretty sure I missed a couple of times. From what I could gather the times I missed were the times where I didn't bring my left hand down to center. I'm a lot better at it now than I used to be, but it's still something I need to work on, and I can't let it slack. For Kote I tried to take smaller steps, again, so that I could fully extend my arms for the strike. I also worked on tenouchi, so that I didn't bring the shinai crashing down on my partner's Kote very hard.

Next up we went into a few kihon drills. My Men strikes were, well, nothing spectacular today. I took my time on each one, first doing a big swing and then finishing them out with smaller strikes, but I need to remember to bring my hands up high enough for a valid Men strike. I think I tend to hit too small sometimes. Ando also brought up a good point about this, which I will reflect on later. Sean had some good advice for me with Kote, as well. He said that I tend to lean to my left right before I strike Kote. He said the good news is that I move from my hips, but I need to eliminate the lean. When I focused on it and did the drill again, he said that I wasn't leaning. I will add this to the list of things I'm working on, I definitely don't want to start developing any "tells" in my techniques.

The next drill is one that I did once before Billy left to Japan, but not on this level. We did a variation of Hayasuburi where we hit Men, Kote, Men. We would step forward and strike Men, like normal. Step back and strike Kote, and then step forward again and strike Men, ending by stepping back and bringing our shinai back over our heads again. This was one count. We did this drill forty times the first time, and then fifty times immediately afterward. Although I started out strong and fast with them, I was unable to finish that way, and quickly learned that I need to work on my stamina...

After a short break we moved into Kote-Men. I worked on varying my strikes, first doing small Kote, Big Men, and then small Kote, small Men. I also tried to vary my footwork to see what worked best for me, and what different timings I could accomplish with the two strikes. I also tried to work on knocking my partner's shinai out of the center, instead of trying to strike their actual Kote. Sinclair Sensei has pointed out many times before that the Men strike is the most important one in that drill, so it should be where our main focus and effort are.

The next drill we did was Kote-Men, but the Motodachi would strike Kote, as well. So we were supposed to nullify their Kote strike with our own and then strike Men. I had various results with this drill, depending entirely upon how fast my partners were. Some people I was able to strike a really good Men strike on...others I felt like I practically buried my tsuba in their Men. I'll keep working on this one, try to get my hands to move faster.

We moved onto Ai-Men at this time, which is a technique that I haven't done much. The drill is done with both people striking Men at practically the same time, each one trying to score a valid point. It was explained that the person with the best, straightest technique would be the one to score, and that we shouldn't try to duck or dodge or hit any other way besides straight Men, because anything else will only slow us down and make us lose the center, which is critical in this drill. Unfortunately one of my partners for this one was Sean himself, and I'm pretty sure even on a good day I can't match the speed of his Men strike. But with others I had a little better success. Again, a technique I'll have to continue to work on.

We had time for a few rounds of waza-geiko before moving into jigeiko, and I used that time to work on Men strikes, and Kote-Men. Again, I worked on timing, distance, and big/small strikes. During jigeiko I had to step out for a few rounds, again due to the blister that I received on Wednesday night, but I came back in later on to finish up the jigeiko time. One of my opponents was Ando Sensei, and he gave me some advice concerning my Kote and Men strikes. He said that my Kote is very good, that I don't need to practice it that much anymore, and that I should instead be trying to use good, big Men strikes him. The way he put it is that I'm taller than he is, and bigger, and I should concentrate most of my strikes on his Men. He also said that I shouldn't try to side-step to avoid him after I strike, but I should try to keep the center and crash right into him if he is there. We tried this a few times, and I was able to do it, although I felt a bit uncomfortable crashing into a sensei like that.

The last drill we did for the day was 5x5's. This drill is done with a partner. The first person will strike Men, and then five Sayu-Men strikes. then the next person will do the same, so you move back and forth across the dojo floor. This is one count. We do this five times. I was only able to get in one rotation of 5x5's, due to my foot and the fact that I was exhausted and about ready to fall over, so for the last rotation they did I cheered them all on. If ever there was a lesson to be learned from this practice, it was that I need more stamina and endurance!

A few thoughts:

Men: Ando Sensei pointed out that, against a shorter opponent than myself, I should concentrate on striking Men, and only occasionally strike Kote to mix it up. Also, concerning Ai-Men, I should keep my strikes as straight on on-center as I can, and if I know my opponent is faster than me I should try to start my strike firt.

Kote: Don't lean! Try to strike from a stationary position, or from a short step in, but avoid leaning to the side before the hit. I should angle my whole body to the side at the time that I do fumikomi and strike.

Jigeiko: I'm getting a little better with finishing my strikes, but I need to remember to do it in all cases, even if I miss or if my hit is too shallow, etc. I need to always push through with good spirit and follow-through.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

It Starts with Seiza

Since I joined the intermediate class, as well as trained in advanced, I was able to hear this information twice, so I hope that I can convey the feeling that I'm looking for properly. Sinclair Sensei brought it up a bit during intermediate, and then expanded on it during advanced class.

He said that there is a saying among some more experience kenshi that states the key to finding opportunities to attack is in a good seiza. Seiza is the traditional seated position we use in Kendo, usually done during the beginning and ending of class, at the very least. You may be asking yourself...how does sitting properly lead to finding good openings? I asked myself this same question, as would most people, but Sensei did a very good job of explaining the steps taken to get from point A to point B in this discussion.

Let's start with seiza itself. You should have a good position (which I won't try to explain here), and you should have a nice straight back, with a slight arch. The position causes your hips to lean forward, which creates the arch in your back and gives you a very natural position with no tension on the lower back. The arms should be relaxed, with your shoulders relaxed down and not protruding at all. The head should be up and straight, not leaning forward and tilted down This position, the back straight, shoulders relaxed, and straight head, translates straight to what you want when you stand. This translates to what you want when you take a good Kendo stance, with your left foot (most of the time) behind your right and your weight on both balls of your feet, with your left heel slightly raised off the floor. So you see, the good posture and habits that you learn and work on in seiza directly translate to standing, to your stance, and finally to attacking.

We took about half and hour on this lecture, which was very interesting, to say the least. I'm just sorry that I can't recall the entire thing to reproduce it here for my own good later on, but I hope I got the general summary that I was looking for.

We started off with Kirikaeshi, taking it slow for the first few rounds, and the moved into Kote and Do variations. I feel like I am faster at Do these days, since I'm starting to get over that mental block that was stopping me before. I also feel more accurate with it, although I do tend to miss every once in a while, still. The sound of hitting a good Do strike is very satisfying, though, and it motivates me to do better with the technique. With the Kote strikes I had to take really small steps, since I was able to reach out so far to strike. I would rather take smaller steps and be able to reach out properly than collapse my arms and hit incorrectly.

We moved onto Men next, and I took my time on this one. I tried to be sure that each hit I was doing was while my hands were moving down, not on the way up. Sensei pointed out that at the lower ranks you can get away with hitting on the way up, and a lot of people do, since it's initially faster. But he said that we should work on hitting on the way down, properly, because in time we will have a faster, correct technique. I think that I'm doing this pretty well, but I'll continue to work on it. The last few rotations of this drill Sensei wanted us to focus on hitting as fast as we possibly could, whether we were taking one or two steps. I tried doing both of these variations; hitting from a standing position and hitting with a quick step in to close distance. I think I did pretty well with this, at least for my level, but speed is something that I can always work on. I've heard a saying around our dojo that applies to speed. If you want to be faster, relax. It seems weird at first, but it's definitely true. Tense arms and muscles only slow you down and create improper technique.

The next drill we did was one that I first saw and did at Kendo camp last year. We set up with a partner at an angle, and we step in with fumikomi to taiatari, and then move around then and step back with fumikomi again as we move away from them. This is done at about a 45-degree angle, and then we do it while moving back to our starting position. At first we did the drill with no shinai, just to get the feel of the movement, and then afterward we added in our shinai and did it with actual Men and Hiki Men strikes. I was definitely better at moving left-to-right. It seemed that when I went the other way I took way too many steps to get around my partner.

We split up into Yudansha/Mudansha groups at this point and proceeded with jigeiko. I was only able to get in a couple of rounds, though, before a blister popped on my foot, forcing me to step out. I didn't want to make it any worse that it already was, or else I might have to miss even more practice later on. While in, though, I worked on Shomen and Nuki Do strikes. I landed a couple of really good Nuki Do strikes on one of my opponents, by controlling the distance and forcing them to come to me and make a move. I do need to work on being more accurate in a jigeiko setting, though. Many times last night I saw an opening and went for it, but then completely missed my target (mostly Men). I also need to remember that even if I miss my mark, to keep pushing through and finish the strike as if I had hit it properly. I have a tendency to stop myself when that happens. Sean referred to it as killing my own technique.

The last drill of the night was one that we call "Pinball." I wish I had been able to do it, too, because it's one of my favorite drills. The way it's done is there are 4 receivers that make up a square (one at each corner). Then 4 attackers are positioned in between each receiver and they go through hitting Men and then Hiki Men on each receiver as fast as they can. It's a very fun drill, both to participate in and to watch. I made sure to have a strong spirit and give lots of encouragement and cheering to the kenshi that did do the drill. It's the least I can do when sidelined.

I'm very much looking forward to this Saturday practice, and also to next week. I was informed that we will have a guest leading our practice. Stroud Sensei from Idaho Kendo Club. I haven't met him yet, but I've heard a lot about him, so it's very exciting for me.

A few thoughts:

Men: Bring my hands up higher on my small Men strike. I need to make sure that they are up high enough for a valid, and correct, strike. Also I still need to remember to square up my shoulders and not let my right arm lean me to the side while striking.

Do:
Be sure to keep my left hand in the center always. I noticed on Kirikaeshi Do that it comes out to the right and left side slightly.

Jigeiko: Work on being more accurate with my strikes, Men in particular. Also finish my attack by having a good follow-through and zanshin, even when I miss.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Quiet Your Body, Quiet Your Mind

Here's a bit of good news; my foot is feeling better. I still had to step out of a few rounds of jigeiko last night, but my foot is feeling a lot better. Hopefully in another week the pain will be completely gone.

I was quite a bit early last night. I was downtown for a job interview and didn't want to drive all the way back to the valley and then all the way back out, so once 5 o'clock rolled around I headed to the dojo to get ready and to watch Iaido. I really wish I had the time and means to do Iaido, it is a very beautiful art. I enjoyed watching, and noting how fluid the movements were.

I jumped into intermediate class, as usual, and we went over Kihon Kata 1 and 3 in depth. I especially enjoyed the time spent on Harai Men, which is part of Kihon Kata 3. Sensei explained that the movements should stay within the "triangle" created by our shoulders and our head, and that that bokken/shinai tip shouldn't go outside of that triangle while performing Harai, which is a sudden sideways movement of the sword used to knock an opponent's sword out of the center, thus opening them up for a strike. Sensei had us do this drill with bokken, and then later on had a few of us suit up in bogu so that the intermediate kenshi could do the same drill on us with their shinai.

Advanced class started with Nihon Kata, and Sinclair Sensei had us do the set of kata that we were working on all in order, as if we were doing them for shinsa. We spent almost a whole hour on kata last night, which was very nice. At the end he had each of our pairs step out individually and demonstrate the kata we were working on. He then had a short question/answer session with us, and then had us point out some of the common mistakes throughout everyone's kata. The answers that came up were the speed/pace of the kata (we can always be slower with kata), the Shidachi leading instead of the Uchidachi leading, and the distance between partners. A couple of these are issues that have been mentioned to me individually, so they are points that I am actively working on at the moment (speed and distance).

With about half the class left, we grabbed our bogu and did a few variations on our normal drill routine. We started with Kirikaeshi, nice and slow since we hadn't done proper warm-ups, but in between each round of Kirikaeshi we did twenty Hayasuburi strikes. The first few were normal, but then we moved on to Kote Hayasuburi, and finally Do Hayasuburi. The Do Hayasuburi were definitely NOT easy, in my opinion. We also ended Kirikaeshi with a variation in which we hit Do instead of Men.

After splitting the Yudansha group out from ours, we continued on with Kote-Men drills. We did these for quite a while, leading into Jigeiko later on. During this time I worked on mixing small Kote, big Men strikes with small Kote, small Men strikes. Some of them I would do at a reasonably slow pace, so that I could really work on striking the targets correctly, and having my footwork match my strikes. Other times I tried for speed, tried to go as fast as I could. I noticed that my first fumikomi is very short on each of these strikes. Not quite in place, but very short. I should work on doing them with a Fumikomi in place next time, to see if I can speed it up even more.

I was able to do a few rounds of Jigeiko today before stepping out for a few to let my foot rest up. I concentrated on doing good Kendo, since we are still in our shinsa-geiko phase. I want to be able to have good movements and basics happen naturally in jigeiko, which will lead to it happening naturally in shiai and taikai settings. I tried to push through my opponent on each hit, and not get caught in tsubazeriai. I also worked on matching up my strikes with my Fumikomi, and having good follow-through. I threw in a few attempts at Do, as well. I've been trying to use it more and more, as I see the opportunity, too. Last night I was able to pull out a pretty good Kaeshi Do.

The last drill that we did was an endurance drill, and I stayed in for the first half of it. We did Kirikaeshi with thirty Sayu-Men, down and back across the dojo floor, and then did thirty Hayasuburi in place before switching and having the other person go.

After bowing out, Sensei talked to us about calming our minds and bodies, and explained that a lot of times we go from training hard straight to being still and sitting and being calm, and said that it's in exercise in learning how to control our bodies and minds. He said that Seiza is used because it's a positive position (once we get used to sitting in Seiza), and that Mokuso is not a time to meditate, but a time to sit and quiet our minds and get control of our bodies and our breathing. He said that we have to quiet our bodies first, by controlling our breathing and composing ourselves, and that will lead to quieting our minds. He explained it as a cyclical cycle, one influencing and helping the next part with it all coming back to together and starting over. Definitely some good thoughts and ideas to put into practice.

A few thoughts:

Kirikaeshi: Harvey pointed out that I was dropping my shinai tip a bit too far back. I should work on keeping it between parallel to the floor and at a forty-five degree angle. Also I'm still working on breathing. For some reason that is a very hard thing for me to do...

Kote-Men: Try doing the first Fumikomi step right in place, and then stepping for the next one. I haven't been doing this lately, but I felt like when I would do it before it was a lot faster, so I'll try to incorporate this footwork again and see how I do with it.