Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Constant Improvement

I'm back.  Kinda.  I didn't really go anywhere, just busy last week and didn't have a chance to post.  But here I am, safe and sound and posting again!  I have a lot to work on, and it never ceases to amaze me that I always find more, and more, and more with each practice. Maybe that's why I love Kendo so much.  It's layer upon layer of refinement, each time you gain more, improve more and yet find more to improve upon.  It's definitely a life-long journey.

We are still in our kata phase, and we took the beginning half of the class to practice the kata that we are individually working on.  My buddy Matt and I worked on kata 1-3 again, and I took the opportunity to really work on my distancing and my connection with my partner.  I know the steps of the kata I was doing, now I want to do more.  I want to feel the kata.  To move with my partner as if we were reflections of each other.  To have as close to real emotions with each step, strike, and movement.  There were a few times where I really tried to project my feelings out into the movements, and honestly it felt really good.  Billy gave us both some advice on Sanbonme.  He said to really thrust the tsuki forward when we are Uchidachi.  There should be a real need for Shidachi to move out of the way to smother the strike and then a sense of urgency as he counters with his own tsuki.  I will remember this and try to work on it this next week before the shinsa.

We jumped straight into kirikaeshi after this, starting out slow and then successively working up through the three levels.  I still need to work on being more fluid and relaxed during the third level, in which we move as fast as we can.  We then moved into Men drills, and Ai-Men, in which kararite and motodachi would both attack Men, and then kakarite would turn and immediately attack Men again.  I noticed that my turn was a bit slow, and in some cases my follow through too far, so I wasn't able to catch my partner as they were turning.

Next we moved into a drill that we haven't done in a while.  Motodachi would attack Kote and close the distance, and kakarite would respond with Kote-Men.  For the most part I did ok with this drill, but I need to remember to strike soon enough so that I'm able to nullify their attack.  Also with some of the faster people I had to either fumikomi in place or do Hiki Men and go backwards after the strike.  It's always good to have a good mix of techniques at your disposal, and be comfortable striking forward or backward.  I do still need to work on Hiki Waza, but it's coming along.

The main portion of time was used on Debana Kote.  This is a technique that I thought I was familiar with and somewhat good at, but Billy re-iterated a point that he made months before, about striking at the exact moment that your partner commits to striking you.  I noticed that only every once in a while was I able to do this successfully; all the other times I was simply reacting and striking faster than my partner could.  But a few times I felt like I genuinely moved to strike at the moment that they decided to strike, and it felt great.  I'm pretty sure my kiai changed just a bit when I would land those strikes, as well.  Billy also pointed out that with Jodan and Nito players, Debana Waza is especially true, and he made it clear that the technique wouldn't work if you don't do it correctly.  Since they are already raised into a "ready" position with their kamae, to execute a correct Debana Kote on them means that we really have to read their intentions and strike at that moment that they decide to move.  Anything later and we're dead (figuratively speaking, of course).

After a quick break we did a little shinsa-geiko, with Billy Joe going first and me going second.  I had to match up with Matt, Andy, and Marek, and tried to remember to execute nice, big swings, limited Hiki Waza, and to strike and push through and not get stuck in tsubazeriai with my partners.  Wendy pointed out that I had a good sense of distance with each one, and on one of the matches she stopped us early, saying that it's not necessarily a bad thing.  If the judges see everything they need to they will sometimes stop the matches early, so we shouldn't get bummed out if that happens to us.

We split up for jigeiko to finish out that night, and I was placed in with the Mudansha.  My favorite match of the night, by far, was with Matt.  We straight up beat each other up, each of us not wanting to back down at all during our match.  It was only a couple minutes long, but it felt like so much longer than that, and I walked out of it feeling very satisfied.

I have my next shinsa in a little over a week, and I will be testing for Ikkyu.  Unlike last time, I know what to expect, and after the training tonight I feel like I'm ready to tackle it.  I will do my very best, and I have a good feeling I'll come out of it better than when I went in.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Learn From The Right

Courtesy of H. Jewett
Just a quick note from practice on Saturday.  I stayed after for the team training portion, and during the drills Sensei pointed out that I have a good spirit but I'm still using a "drill" style kiai.  He wanted me to strike like I meant it, and told me that it should be like that last point I score in the finals of a taikai.  So I did.  And I, along with everyone else, saw some big improvements from that one change in my spirit.  I'm definitely going to try and draw this out more in my regular practice.  Fight like you train, train like you fight.  It's a motto that Sensei has told us many times, and I genuinely believe in it myself.

Last night we had a new beginning class, and a couple of new students.  I got to help out with them and continued on my path of learning how to be a proper teacher and a proper assistant.  I want to remember these points, as well as being a good example, because as I go through the years and the ranks people will most likely begin to look at me as an example of our dojo and Kendo in general.  Whether that example is good or bad is entirely up to me.  Am I going to be the guy that does the bare minimum, who is always late, and never helps out with anything outside of actual practice?  Or am I going to be the guy that is there early, helps out with things inside and outside of practice, gives meaningful advice when asked, and is someone that people can look to as a good example of Kendo?  I want to be the latter, so I devote as much as I can to learning and observing and "practicing what I preach."  We had a very good, and very humbling, lesson about parts of this last night, and it's something that I will definitely take to heart and work on to correct in myself.

During advanced practice last night we took a lot of time to focus on kata, which left us little time for shinai practice.  That is perfectly fine with me, as I do savor my kata time, inside and outside the dojo!  My buddy Matt and I worked on Nihonme and Sanbonme at length.  Not the whole kata, but the core movements involved in each (the Kote strike in Nihonmen and the Tsuki in Sanbonme).  It was pointed out to me that when I am Shidachi in Nihonme that I still let my kensen drop too low during my strike, so this is something I'll continue working on to improve.  I have a feeling it's because I try to rush the movement and the faster swing causes my tip to drop.  In Sanbonme I need to remember, on both sides, to be more crisp with the steps, and remember to pause briefly on each step, as Billy pointed out.

After warm-ups we grabbed our Men and Kote and went straight into Men drills, specifically smothering our partner's shinai in various ways and then striking.  This led us into Kote-Men, and then using that Kote movement to kill the opponent's sword and strike Men as they are disrupted.  I've run across this idea and teaching before, I believe on Geoff Salmon Sensei's blog.  The basics are:
  • Kill the spirit - ki wo korosu
  • Kill the sword - ken wo korosu
  • Kill the technique - waza wo korosu
Back to my original thought.  We used the Kote movement to knock our partner's shinai out of the way and then strike, first from the inside and then the outside of their sword.  One piece of advice that was given was to make sure that you strike at the proper spot on their shinai and put enough force into it to move them out of center so you can strike.  If you are striking too lightly or striking too high up their shinai you will get little to no movement out of them.  Finally we worked on camouflaging the movement and intent by being active with our movement, distance, and shinai work to try and throw off our partner as to when the attack was coming.

Both of these techniques are great ways to open up an opponent.  The soft/subtle movement of the smother, and the hard and sudden strike of the latter technique. And each are useful for certain types of opponents.  Sometime hard and sudden is what you need.  Sometimes soft and subtle.  Hopefully with more training with these techniques I'll be able to integrate them into my own training and begin to figure out how to use them effectively.

A few thoughts:

Footwork:  It was pointed out to me that I carry my heel just a tad too high when I'm in kamae and when I move and do fumikomi.  I'll work on keeping it closer to the ground so that I can use more of my foot surface area for movement and power in my fumikomi, as well as helping to keep my leg in a proper position.

Shinai:  My swings are a big too big during drills, and my tip is dropping down because of it.

And remember!  "Migi e narai."  Learn from the right!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Endings And New Beginnings

I sit here, wondering what to write, and the only thing I can think of is how blessed our dojo has been by the Ando family in this past year.  Ando Sensei's family came to join him last fall, and his two daughters and his son have all trained with us throughout the past year.  They have very much become a part of our dojo family, and last night was their last practice with us.  They left to go back home to Japan today.  I am sad that we won't be able to train with them regularly, but I'm so thankful for the opportunity that we had to meet them and find out how wonderful they were.  I'll be sure to hang onto the good memories that I have of them all, and thanks to the power of the internet we'll always be just an email away.  I wish them a safe journey and that they do well going back to their home, and I hope that we'll be able to meet up again to talk and to practice together!

With each ending, though, there is also a new beginning.  Ours came in the form of my buddy Matt.  He came back to practice after a brief hiatus, and we're all looking forward to having him back in our Kendo family.  It was great practicing with him, as I did both kata and regular practice with him.  During kata practice we decided to go over Ipponme, Nihonme, and Sanbonme (1-3).  I mainly concentrated on my timing and my distancing.  I have a bad habit of slowly drifting to one side or another, and I think it's due to some of my steps being too small.  Matt and I worked on it for quite a while and it seemed that when I took bigger steps during the kata (not on the steps in or out) that we ended up in the center, especially while I was Uchidachi.  After we finished Sensei gave us some advice on using the correct distance and, for lack of a better term, intensity while we are Uchidachi.  We should always strive to use the correct distance and be in close enough that when we strike if the Shidachi does not move then we will hit them.  Our strike as Uchidachi should force Shidachi to move, and hopefully it prompts them to move correctly. If not we should be able to control our strike to stop it if necessary so that Shidachi can correct themselves and continue on.  It was a brief bit of advice but it was very good and important, as I'd never thought about it quite the way that Sensei presented it.

After grabbing our Men and Kote we did a few rounds of kirikaeshi and then a few rounds of basic strikes on Men, Kote, and Do.  It felt good to hit Do, since I haven't been concentrating on it much in a while.  I've really been trying to use it more in jigeiko, but have been concentrating on other aspects during waza-geiko.  I actually felt pretty accurate with it last night, and pretty quick.  I know I can always use more improvement, but for the time being it felt pretty good.

We moved onto more Men drills, specifically the smothering drills we've been practicing lately.  I really like this technique and I hope to improve it so that I can start using it effectively.  I did try it in jigeiko a few times, with mixed results, but I was very happy when I actually got it to work a couple of times.  Coming in and over my partner's shinai and then pressuring them down and to the side just enough to take the center without them noticing before I launched my attack.  It felt good those couple of times I was able to connect the strike!  But, as with all new ideas and techniques, I'll need more work on it before it becomes a habit.

One of the hardest parts of the drill for me is pressuring in before I strike Men.  I always want to move my shinai way too early instead of waiting until the last minute to flick it up and then flick the tip down for the Men strike.  If I don't move early enough I feel that my fumikomi and my strike are way off.  Again, more practice!

After some waza-geiko, in which I practiced (surprise surprise) Kote-Men, we moved into jigeiko to end the night. I had a chance to practice with many people, including a last practice with Ando Sensei before he comes back, and honestly I felt pretty good throughout.  Sometimes I feel really bad with trying to create openings or reacting to others.  Sometimes I feel exhausted and unable to do anything.  But last night I felt pretty good.  I took some hits, and I gave some hits.  I was tired but not overly so.  I was able to create a few legitimate openings which made me happy.  So last night felt like a victory for me, and I'll hopefully be able to expand upon that in the coming weeks.

After class we said goodbye to the Ando family.  There were lots of pictures and hugs and smiles and tears had by all, and I'm confident that we'll see them all again.  Hopefully sooner than later!

A few thoughts:

Ando Sensei:  Ando Sensei left me with a piece of advice for when I fight him next time.  He said that I should try and come at him with a strong, committed Men strike.  He said not to worry about what else might happen, but if I have the opportunity to push forward with a Men strike.  He says it's a lot like how boxers tap their gloves together before a fight.  I will remember this and look forward to practicing with him again next month.