Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dancing in the Dojo?

This week has been a good Kendo week so far.  I've had practice Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday night, and I pushed myself hard in each one.  Although now I'm glad for a short break to rest and relax tonight, I'm happy I was able to push myself through each and every one of those practices (including two practices with the beginners/intermediate people where I was not only Motodachi for them but also able to work on basics).

Last night started out normal enough, with warm-ups and suburi, and then Sensei had us put our shinai down for a bit and we went over the clap drill that we did a couple weeks ago.  He has used this drill a couple times to emphasize connection to your partner and the group, anticipation of their movements, and also as a lesson in following instructions.  Afterward we broke into partners and worked on keeping that connection and anticipating our partner's movements.  When they would step, we would step, trying to stay as close to their movement as possible.  Easier said than done, as a few times I caught myself stepping left when they went right, etc.  Sensei really drove this point home when he related these movements to dancing, and said that if your partner in dance thinks about what they are going to do the entire time, each step they are going to take then they would be stepping all over the place, but if they have a clear mind and just go with the movements, they flow freely with you, the leader.  He demonstrated this by, well, dancing with his wife!  Right in the middle of our practice.  It was impressive to watch how she was able to move with each of Sensei's movements without missing a beat or a step.  He said that this is the same kind of movement we should have with our partners, acting as their mirror, or shadow, instead of waiting and moving after they have already moved.  Don't think about each movement, just keep your connection with your partner and go with it.

All three nights of Kendo we've focused on the three different levels of Kirikaeshi, starting out slow and precise, moving into precise and continuous movement, and finally ending with going as fast as we can through the drill.  I'm not very fast with it, but I'm getting there.  Sensei told me on Monday that I was taking too big of steps backwards when I tried to go faster, and that was hindering my speed, so last night I tried to have short, quick steps.  A tiring drill, but it was a good kinda of tired.  Men drills were next, and Sensei had us focus on quick movements, no wasted movement with our shinai, and a mindset that said we were faster.  The mindset is what I'm mainly focusing on.  I'm trusting that my arms and legs know what to do at this point, how to move me somewhat properly, and concentrating on making each strike, in my mind, as fast as possible so that it translates into physical speed.  It's definitely a hard, draining exercise, but necessary if I want to improve myself.  I tried to take my time to set up each strike, as Sensei advised, and to make sure each one was the best, fastest strike I could muster.

We went over a few oji-waza drills after that, with Debana Kote, Kote-Nuki Men, and Men-Suriage Men (as a hiki waza).  Each one required that we not only think of ourselves as faster, but also anticipated that speed in our partners.  Here's where the clap drill and the earlier drills came into play.  We had to have a good connection with our partners, and had to anticipate when they were going to strike, especially with Debana Kote, to be able to successfully land our own strike.  I went up against some of the faster people during this time, including Jordan, and I definitely had to stay alert and follow each of their movements carefully.  The other night Sensei pointed out that a few of my strikes were too deep, so I tried to either start back further if I could, or shorten up my fumikomi step so that I didn't bury my shinai in their arm.

I, myself, think that I have a pretty effective Nuki Men.  After missing it a few times at PNKF I worked on it a lot and I've been pretty successful with it ever since then, but all of this emphasis on faster shinai work, and my own emphasis on faster shinai work and a renewed mindset has really helped and paid off with this technique.  I tried to translate that into the Suriage Men drills we did, and I think I might have been a bit more successful with it tonight than I have been before.  I tried to time my counter movement with their shinai coming down, so that they would hit and slide off to the side, leaving me the center and an opportunity to strike Men.  Since we were doing it as hiki waza it gave me that extra layer of difficulty, having to time my strike with my fumikomi going backwards.  We combined this drill with a sort of pursuit drill after a few rounds, and it was the Motodachi's job to try and find a second opening after their first is countered, while Kakarite was to try and not only strike a successful counter-attack, but also block the incoming second attack.  I did not have so much luck with this, on either side, although I got in a couple good Men strikes on my second try.

We had a short time for waza-geiko, and I concentrated on doing Kote strikes.  I've been trying to eliminate that lean that I have seen in my videos, and strike with a straight back and posture.  I've also been working on snapping my left leg up after my fumikomi (as best as I can right now, with my injury).  I feel that it's getting better, especially since Sensei pointed out that I was over-rotating my heel, and I've really been concentrating on that and trying to keep my feet straight, and not using the outside edge of my left foot when I fumikomi.  I can feel my leg getting better, slowly but surely.

We ended out the night with a few rounds of jigeiko and then some kakarigeiko.  I haven't done kakarigeiko for a while, and the chance to do it was great, despite the fact that I was dead tired at that point already.  But I mustered up the rest of my energy and spirit and threw myself into the attacks.   I tried to make each one count while still going as fast as I could push myself to go. 

All in all, a great training night, and I haven't even hardly mentioned the other nights!  I'm looking forward to more training this weekend.

A few thought:

Ando Sensei:  Ando Sensei pointed out to me that sometimes when I fight shorter people my Men strike is not at their level, and I stop my shinai slightly over their head.  I need to remember to always strike at the height of the person I'm fighting, whether they're taller or shorter than me.  I need to be more mindful of adjusting for them.

Wendy Sinclair Sensei:  If I have an opponent that holds a strong kamae I should try mixing up my small strikes with bigger strikes, especially when doing hiki waza.  If I try to do small strikes with them all the time I'll get my shinai caught up and hooked by theirs, but if I do a bigger swing I can get up and over their shinai which gives me an opportunity to strike.

Sinclair Sensei:  He says that my footwork has improved a lot since he told me about over-rotating my heel out, and that my leg is snapping up more quickly now.  I can feel the change, and I'm continuing to really work on this and drill it into my muscle memory.  The faster I can get my left leg back into place after I strike, the faster I can set up another strike.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Faster

It hasn't been that long since I've had training, less than a week, but for some reason last night felt like my first time back in a while.  Probably due to the fact that we didn't have training on Saturday downtown, or at all last week in the valley.  Instead we had a demonstration for the opening ceremony of Japan Week here in Spokane.  I will hopefully have pictures to post later, but for now onto last night's practice!

Sensei had us start out with a few interesting drills.  We stood in a big circle after our normal warm-ups, and we would begin a clap.  At first he would clap once and then the next person over would clap as fast as they could after him, and so on, until we made it around the circle.  The next version involved Sensei clapping twice, in rhythm, and the next person over would begin their first clap on his second clap, and we would keep that rhythm going all the way around the circle.  After a few failed attempts and some laughs we finally were able to get through both of these drills relatively successfully.  This would serve to help us later with our connection to our partner and our ability to read our partner's intentions and actions.

After warm-ups and suburi, we did another interesting drill.  It was a Men strike, just stepping in and striking our partner's shinai as our back foot pulled into place, but we did it a number of different ways.  First, we tried to perform a full swing and full speed and stop the shinai as close to the target as possible without actually hitting it.  I was only able to get to within a couple inches of the target; when I tried to get closer I ended up smacking my partner's shinai.  Next we would perform another full swing at full speed, but our goal was to barely touch their shinai.  I failed horribly at this, making a very noticeable clacking sound as I hit the target a bit too hard each time.  After that we performed a swing at full speed with normal power, as if we were hitting and going through, and finally a Men strike with way too much power.  All very interesting, and it helped showcase the proper use of tenouchi and shinai control (or lack thereof).

After suiting up, Sensei had us go over three different styles of kirikaeshi.  We have gone over them before, and performed each one at various times, but our kirikaeshi time was focused on each one separately.  The first is to perform kirikaeshi with slow, precise movements and strikes, making sure to pause between each strike.  This style emphasizes good technique.  The second style is to keep that good technique but move continuously, without pausing.  It can still be performed relatively slow, and emphasis is kept on good technique, but there are no pauses between strikes or steps.  The third style we performed was to go as fast as possibly, throwing every other thought out of our minds.  Seth demonstrated to us, and he was very fast, but his basics held up throughout.  Sensei said that if we practice good basics, even when we're not consciously thinking about them, we should be able to fall back on them while focusing on other aspects of our Kendo.

We moved into some Men drills, and the theme of the night was "Think Faster."  This is a point that I've mentioned before, and it has worked for me.  I have lately been not only trying to physically train, but also to mentally train in a better way, and this falls right in-line with that thought process.  I want to have a reason behind what I do, and be able to push myself physically and mentally in every practice.  If I can do this, I can improve my Kendo dramatically. 

During the rest of the drills that night, I tried to keep a focus in my mind of "strike faster," or "my opponent is fast, but I'm faster."  Even if I wasn't physically moving faster in the drills (which I was trying to do), I mentally felt better, more active, and faster.  I think the place where I noticed it the most was in my jigeiko match with Jordan.  He is a very fast, very strong Shodan at our dojo, and he's very intimidating to fight.  With just my change of mentality during our match I felt that I was able to give him a bit better fight, and I was able to show a bit more of what I have and what I've learned and I felt as though I didn't back down as much as I normally do with him. 

All in all it was a great night, and I'm glad I was able to make it.  I'll be sure to continue working on the physical and mental aspects of training, no matter how hard they are.

A few thoughts:

Ando Sensei:  I tend to hesitate sometimes when I'm in jigeiko.  He says that I should not hesitate.  When I resolve to make an attack I should follow-through, despite the consequences.  I felt this at one point during the night.  I was doing jigeiko with Wendy, and I stepped in and went to strike Men.  I knew that she was going for Kaeshi-Do, but I struck anyway.  I was countered, but it was the one moment last night where I can say that I made a resolution to strike and went through with it, despite the consequences.  I want to be able to do this more, to throw myself whole-heartedly into my attacks.

Sinclair Sensei:  I attended the beginner's class last night, to work on my basics, and Sinclair Sensei noted that my left foot is a bit "over-corrected."  I turn my heel a bit too far out, and when I do fumikomi I'm pushing with the outside edge of my foot, instead of having it straight and pushing with my whole foot.  I tried to take a moment and find the feeling of pushing off with my entire foot, and I tried to concentrate on that the rest of the night.  He said it could be the reason why my leg is sore, so I'll definitely take this to heart and work on correcting it as soon as I can.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Needs More Zanshin

For some reason I feel like I haven't been on here in a while.  I know it's only been a little over a week, but still.  I took time off from Monday's class to rest up and let my leg heal up a bit more.  It's still sore, but it's getting better.  After last night's practice it felt pretty good, and it honestly didn't really bother me much at all last night.  I had to step out once, and that was due to the exhaustion, not the leg.  So I'm happy for that, but on the flip-side I'm still working on my endurance.  I'm constantly working on my endurance...

Last night's practice was pretty fun, to say the least.  Wendy was leading us and we ended up doing a lot of kirikaeshi to start things off.  First slow and controlled and precise, and then as fast as we could while maintaining control, and then we backed it down for a few rounds of quite-not-so-fast kirikaeshi. 

Next we moved into some kihon drills with Men and Kote.  Wendy wanted us to focus on pressing in with each hit, and starting our footwork before our sword work.  This helped to not telegraph our intentions to our partners, and also helped with ki-ken-tai-ichi (spirit, sword, and body striking at once, to put it in simple terms).  For Kote, she wanted us to press in and pressure, as if we were going to strike Men, and then strike kote as we came up and over our partner's shinai.  I did my best to start my strike with my footwork, and to hurry through on my follow-through steps as best I could.  I felt the old me returning, since I wasn't dealing with that soreness in my leg during practice, and I felt like I was gliding through more than lumbering through as I've been doing recently.  It's still affecting snapping my left leg into place, but I'm not going to push that until my leg is all healed up again.  I'd rather take a couple weeks of not pushing it than try and go as hard as I can and re-injure myself.

We moved into doing Ai-Men drills next.  Ai-Men is a technique where you and your partner both strike Men at seemingly the same time.  The "winner" is decided mainly by who takes and maintains center, and from my very limited experience it usually ends with one person getting the strike while the other person's shinai is deflected off to the side.  We went through many, many rounds of this, and I had varied results with my partners.  Ando Sensei, not surprisingly, had the strongest Ai-Men and center, and he ended up getting me the majority of the time.  The very last strike, however I was able to get first.  I stepped in to just outside of my distance, and then I went to step again.  Only I started my strike as I did so.  He began his strike and closed the distance between us, which gave me the ability to land a solid Men strike as he came in.  It felt great, even though I don't know if he actually gave me that one or not.  But that's subject for another post, well in the future.  Ando Sensei also pointed out a very effective way of training that helps us to take and keep the center during Ai-Men.  He had us strike Men, and then crash into each other's Do.  Not hard, mind you, but a good bump after the strike.  This kept our focus on the center, and taking and driving through the center, instead of trying to be sneaky and hit from the side (which never seems to work, from what I've seen). 

After a short break, Wendy had us divide into groups and we used the rest of the class time to do some shiai-geiko.  these are practice matches, much like we would do when we entered a tournament.  We did 2-minute, single-point rounds, and I was divided into the Yudansha group.  I had time to fight three rounds, and each round was against our young, fast Shodan guys.  My first opponent was Jordan, who knocked my shinai around quite a bit during the match.  At one point he nearly knocked it out of my hand and then landed a Hiki Men, which fortunately for me did not score.  I gave him a good fight, and we lasted quite a while, but he finally landed a Kote strike to take the round.

My next round was against Aaron, and again I gave him a good fight.  Many times as he backed out of tsubazeriai I would block and counter his strike with my own, but I wasn't able to get any points on him.  Again, he was able to end the match with a Kote strike.

The last Shodan I faced was Seth.  I really admire his Kendo, it's very strong, and I knew I was in for a fight.  We fought hard, each of us landing some good hits but none good enough for a point.  I actually almost lasted the whole 2 minutes, but during the last few seconds he was able to score a Kote to take the round.  See a pattern here?

Even though I got beat in each of my matches, I think I did fairly well.  I was able to hold my own for most of the match on each of the matches, and my opponents definitely had to work for their points against me.  I was also able to see where my strengths and weaknesses lie, and I'll definitely be working to be able to block and counter incoming Kote strike more effectively.

After class I went and talked to Ando Sensei, and he gave me some good advice.  He said, first of all, that he was deliberately being harsh with the points, and that if I had been in a real taikai I would have taken a lot of points with my strikes.  He wanted to see more zanshin, and in a specific way, from everyone.  He explained to me that he wanted to see good ki-ken-tai-ichi from each of us at the moment of our strike (good kiai, fumikomi, and sword strike all at the same time), to see it continue through and past the opponent, and then when we were outside of our hitting distance (to-ma) to turn and set back into kamae.  I'll definitely try to work on this, I know that I have a bad habit of hitting and then running into my opponent without trying to go past them, and it's something I've noticed before, as well. 

One last thought that I had was that all during practice last night I tried to keep a mental purpose.  What I mean is I wanted to have a reason I was doing what I was doing.  I know that I go through practice working on various issues, but last night I tried to make it a point to mentally focus on what I was doing.  for example, during each drill we did in warm-ups, I focused on striking and counting at the same time, even if this meant I had to speed up or slow down my own swing to match the leader's swing.  In hayasuburi, especially, I tried to add that pause and make each strike count.  This is something that Billy pointed on on Saturday, to not just let our shinai move continuously through the motions without thinking about it, but to add a slight pause at the end of our strike to help us focus on the strike itself.  Instead of one drill with numerous swings, I concentrated on making each swing it's own entity, if you will.  Also during our drills and the shiai-geiko at the end I tried to visualize each strike as a strike I would try to do in taikai or shinsa.  This means I worked extra hard on having a fast swing, snappy ending with my wrists, and making sure my footwork, swing, and kiai all came together at the same time.  Overall I'm happy with the mindset I had all last night, and I'm going to work on continuing this into each of my practices.

Monday, April 4, 2011

UW Invitational Taikai 2011

It's always hard to come back to "reality" after such a great Kendo weekend.  This past weekend was the UW Invitational Taikai, and it marked my first time fighting in the upper Kyu division.  I was in the 1-3 Kyu division for this taikai.  Initially I was also going to fight on our B team in the team division, but due to a few complications we were unable to run a B team.  So I had to pour everything I had into the individual matches that I had.  I was not only fighting my opponents for this taikai, but also a pulled muscle in my leg and a sickness that I was recovering from.  Despite all that, though, I don't think I did too bad.  Here is my account of the taikai.

Friday night I had to cut my training at Bellevue dojo a bit short.  I felt feverish and didn't want to overdo it the night before the taikai.  I believe I made the right decision, although I really wanted to jump into jigeiko with everyone from Bellevue.  Saturday morning rolled around and I felt pretty good, all things considered, until the time for our division to go came.  I was really, really nervous throughout all of my matches, and I think it showed while I was out on the court.  I did my best, though, and worked to overcome those feelings and my shortened fumikomi for the day.  I made it a point to lure people in closer so I didn't have to fumikomi as far, and tried to use oji-waza more.  I think, for the most part, this strategy worked, as I didn't injure myself further, but the shinpan and other sensei definitely noticed my lack of movement throughout the day.

My first match was against Tagami, from UW.  This was my first time fighting him, and I wasn't sure what to expect.  The match began and we stepped in to size each other up.  He launched forward with a Men strike, which I blocked and ended up tsubazeriai.  After a short exchange there we were back out at our proper distances.  I stepped in and applied pressure to my opponent, looking for an opening.  I inched closer and closer and closer to my target, and finally launched a Kote strike, which connected, giving me the first point of the match.  We reset and after a few other exchanges I scored my second point with a Nuki-Men to take the match.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

My second match was against Kim, from UW.  This made the third time I've fought him, and each time his level of Kendo is constantly improving, and each time I fight him I find that I, also, have to step up my own level of Kendo.  The match started and he quickly lured me in for a Kote to score the first point.  We came to our lines again and the match started up once more.  I stepped in for another Men strike, and luckily he was just off on his Kaeshi-Do.  I turned to follow him and stopped for just a split second as he turned around.  That second gave me the opening I wanted, and I lunged forward for a Men strike that connected, giving me a point to tie the match.  We reset one last time, and ended up in tsubazeriai again after a while.  He stepped back for Hiki Kote, which I struck down, and I followed with a Kote-Men strike, which found its mark to give me the win.

Final Score: 2-1 (Ruiz)

The next match was the quarter-finals, and my opponent was Nozawa, from Sno-King.  Again, this was my first time fighting this particular opponent, but I had watched his previous match so I had a little idea of what to expect.  We started and I sprang forward after a moment for a Kote, which missed the mark, so we found ourselves in tsubazeriai.  We started to back out, and I took the opportunity for a Men strike, which connected.  We reset to the lines and I sprang forward again with a quick Kote-Men strike to take the win.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

I had made it into the semi-finals.  Only two more matches and I could claim victory in the 1-3 Kyu category.  But standing in my way was Tsai, from UW.  He was a very strong Ikkyu, and I'd seen his name in the top 3 of many taikai before, so I knew it wasn't going to be an easy fight.  I took my allotted two-minute break to relax and focus, and then stepped up to the line to start the match.  After a few moments, he threw a very quick Kote at me, which I countered with Nuki-Men.  But he was expecting that, and threw up his shinai to block my strike at the last moment.  We found ourselves in tsubazeriai, and after a brief exchange there, back out.  He stepped forward and delivered a Kote strike that found its mark, giving him the first point.  After we reset, we fought for about half the match, with no one scoring, although we both came close a few times.  I had one shinpan raise her flag on a Debana Kote that I delivered, but it was waved off by the other two.  We wound up in tsubazeriai again toward the end of the match, and I backed out a bit before going in for a Kote strike again.  Unfortunately his strike was a bit faster than mine, and he landed another Kote to take the match.

Final Score: 2-0 (Tsai)

 So my road to glory ended at the semi-finals.  Tsai went on to take first place in our division, which made me feel a bit better.  I didn't beat him that day, but no one else did, either.  Actually, I didn't feel bad at all with how I did.  I ended up taking third place in the 1-3 Kyu division, which is not bad at all for my first time fighting there.  I had far exceeded my own expectations for that day, and overcame my initial nervousness to do very well, if I do say so myself.  I spent the rest of the day taking pictures and videos of my fellow teammates as they fought in their categories, and we were treated to quite the show during the team finals between Steveston and Vancouver (Steveston ended up taking first place during unlimited encho with a great Harai Men).

We all had some wins and some losses, and I think that spirits were pretty high afterward.  I felt really good about how I did, and even though most of the time I don't feel as if I'm really Nikyu, looking back on this weekend I kinda feel like the technical proficiency is in there, somewhere, and it tends to come out every once in a while.  Also, even though victory is good, defeat also shows me where my weaknesses are, and I'm glad for the opportunity to reflect on that so I can improve myself and my Kendo.  I have two months until our next taikai, and I plan to be a better, more ferocious kenshi by then.

Photo by T. Patana