Ando Sensei has been leading a lot of the practices lately, having us go over various situations. It seems that he's especially fond of having us hit from to-ma (far out, more than one step away from the target) uchi-ma (our normal hitting distance) and chika-ma (a close-quarters distance, closer than one step to the target). I've found that I've gotten better at striking from chika-ma, trying to make my hits as smooth and quick as possible from that position, and that from to-ma I need to make my footwork quicker to cover that distance. I think my problem is that I take fairly big, sweeping steps. I need to work on making them smaller and snappier, while still keeping them smooth so I can "float" into the target and strike without them realizing what's going on.
He has told me a time or two after practice my techniques are "beautiful" and has encouraged me to use them more during jigeiko. While that SOUNDS easy enough to do, having recently tried to put that to use I'll say that it's a lot harder than it sounds. I think that I'm fairly simplistic when I fight. I stick to what I know and I seldom deviate from it. This is both a blessing and a curse for me, so lately I've been trying to add at least one new thing into my keiko, usually something that we'd worked on previously that day during training. I try to figure out how to get myself into that position that I was in during training, so that I can unleash that waza or technique. So, for me, the set up is just as important as the actual technique. This has led to me getting nailed by my partners more than a time or two, but every once in a while I'm about to align the stars just right so that I can create that opportunity to attack using that new technique. Case in point - last week at team training we were doing 1-minute, sudden death matches. I had gone through the rotation a few times, doing fairly so-so as far as wins/losses. I stepped up for the last match with my partner, and the time started. He's a young, fast sandan, but I was able to keep him at bay with attacks and counters to match what he was throwing at me. No one had scored until time was almost up. I found myself in tsubazeriai and I remembered a technique for hitting hik-dou that Ando Sensei favored and shared with us. So I tried it. I had the correct setup and position for it, and when I used the technique it worked like a charm! I was able to strike the target, just as I had a few days earlier during training using the same technique that was taught to us.
When something like that happens, I try and review it in my head, what went right and wrong, so that I can improve it for next time. I'm grateful that kendo only has four targets (men, kote, dou, tsuki), because even with just those four targets, the combination of movements and techniques to open them up and strike them are sometimes overwhelming! I try and think about what I did, so that next time I can do it without thinking so much, and do it again without thinking so much, until I finally reach a point where I'm able to unleash that technique without thinking about it. It's funny, to me, that in order to use a technique without thinking I actually have to DO all of this thinking about it prior.
In addition to the techniques we've been covering, I've been diving more in-depth into body carriage and movement, which has been prompted, challenged, and helped by one of my friends and kendo seniors. While I'm not at liberty to name names, or to divulge super-secret information, I will say that he's been a huge help to me, in thinking outside the box and even more in detail about things than I normally do. Hopefully all of that knowledge is not wasted on me! One of the biggest things that I've been working on, and have been for months now, is having a purpose in what I do. I have a few people at the dojo that are perfect matches for this. When I square off with them in jigeiko, they are good at flying in at me and constantly pressuring me. I always see it as I'm either going to break and try and match them, which forces me to try and do their kendo, or I'm going to stick to my guns and do MY kendo, taking my time and trying to control the distance and timing of everything until I strike with purpose. This works, sometimes. Sometimes I fail and try to match them move-for-move, and sometimes even though they hit me 5-6 times or more, I'm able to get that one or two meaningful strikes in there. Those are the times that I feel great, when I was able to not shy away from improving my own kendo, even when the easier path would be to give it up and fight their way.
Practice to application. While it's easy to say, hard to do, I think the best way to approach it is to go in with a plan. While it's taught that you want to be able to execute techniques without thinking, I believe that there is plenty of thinking that has to be done before-hand to get yourself to that level. Each time I think about a waza or technique I want to use, execute it, and think about the results after, the closer I am to that magical day when I will be able to unleash it naturally.