Thursday, December 22, 2016

Kent Taikai 2016 - Relaxation: Not a Myth

Photo Courtesy of A. Melton
It's been a couple weeks since our dojo competed at the 20th (20th!) Annual Kent Taikai in Kent, WA, but the matches I had there and the lessons I learned continue to stay fresh in my mind.  It was an awesome tournament experience, and even though I didn't place in anything this time around I feel like I had some of the best matches of my kendo life so far.  Let's get into it!

This taikai showed my return to shinpan duty.  I missed Obukan this past summer and they only used 4 Dan and up for shinpan at PNKF.  I did my best and received some good advice from the sensei floating around and my court judge.  Overall I think I did a good job of "keeping the triangle" between the three of us, moving to position quickly and efficiently and always being aware, but I was told that I may be setting my bar a bit too high for ippon for some of the matches.  This is one area that will just take more practice to really get a feel for.  At the same time I am confident that each time I gave a point or waved one off I did it with confidence and determination, even if I ended up being wrong.  I'm sure all new shinpan know that feeling of second-guessing themselves in the heat of the moment!  I was able to shinpan through three different divisions so I had plenty of matches to judge on the floor.

Our group was second-to-last to go on that day, with only the senior team division left after, so I had plenty of time to warm up in the morning, shinpan and watch matches, enjoy a lunch with all of my kendo friends and then warm up again in the afternoon and try to shake off the tiredness that was starting to set in.  I was about five matches in so even after we started I had a little time to get mentally ready and on the floor.  When I heard my name called, though, it was go time!

They definitely started me off with a challenge.  My first opponent was M. Suzuki, who I had watched earlier that day demolish the women's division and march straight to 1st place.  I had my work cut out for me from the beginning. I guess it's a little better than my first match last year, which saw me fighting a US national champ.  We bowed in and the match started and I definitely played it safe.  I'd seen her plenty of times on the floor and the way I would describe her kendo is "deceptively quiet."  She moves so calmly and with such relaxation that it lulls you into a false sense of security before she blasts you out of nowhere, or takes advantage of you when you move in to attack by countering everything you have.  I joked with my friends before the match that my strategy would be to "just not move" and I would win.  But on the floor it was no joke, she definitely showed that she would take advantage of any lapse in my focus or any opening I gave here while attacking.  We fought back and forth, pretty evenly, for the entire three minute match and through one overtime round.  There'd been a few close, close strikes on both sides, but during the second encho round I was able to score hiki men and take the win with a technique I borrowed from one of my dojo mates (Thanks, Seth!).  One giant challenge down, and what a way to start things!

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz in encho)

Well, one giant challenge down, one even bigger challenge in the next round.  My next opponent would be none other than my good friend Ian.  If you've read any of my past taikai posts you know that I fight him all the time.  All.  The. Time.  And all of those matches have either ended in a tie (teams) or a win for him (individuals).  I've not only never beat him, but I've never even scored a point on him in all these years!  So even though we were laughing and joking before the match I was a bit nervous to get out on the floor and fight him again because my track record has been less than stellar against him.  But when our names were called we bid each other good luck and stepped up to our opposing sides of the court to start.  The bow in and start felt very deliberate on both of our sides, with each of us exuding that fighting spirit as best we could from the first steps out onto the court.  As the match began and went I felt very relaxed, very in control.  All of a sudden my fears started to melt away.  Even though it was a match we were both fighting to win, it felt very satisfying.  I did my best to do my best, move as efficiently as possible and not waste a thing because I knew that Ian would take anything I gave him.  He seemed to be doing the same on his end, and it ended up being a pure joy on the court.  It's almost as if we had an unspoken agreement to do the absolute best kendo we could with each other.  I went in at one point for a kote-men, which turned out to be a mistake because Ian stepped right into my rhythm and nailed my men in the middle of my attacks.  First point for him.  We restarted and I found myself in that very familiar spot of playing catch-up with him to try and get that point back.  I didn't let it phase me too much, though, and kept the pressure on as best I could.  Toward the end of the match I pressured in, pressured in and then something happened.  I stepped in for harai kote just as he changed from a guarded posture to try and strike.  The flags flew, Kote for me.  I had just done something I had never accomplished before.  I scored a point on Ian.

I tried to keep my elation internal, but for me the match was already over.  I didn't care about the rest of the outcome because I was satisfied with that.  But we did have a match to finish, so I came out strong and fought my best.  We ended up going through not just regulation time, but two rounds of encho with neither of us being able to take that next point.  It was time for the judges' decision.  Three white flags.  Ian had won.  He deserved it, he fought well, but I walked out of that match proudly because I had fought hard, fought my best, done the (previously to me) impossible, and pushed him all the way to the end.

Final Score: 1-1 (Ian by Hantei)

I might have been out of individuals, but I had a great experience.  I felt so calm and relaxed during both of my matches, and due to that I felt faster and more in control.  My sensei always tells me that relaxation is the key to speed, and I got to see it first hand that day.  I want to build on this feeling, see if I can improve it and evolve it into something new for me.  Not that I'm not always trying to be calm and relaxed, but this felt like a new level.  I'm looking forward to seeing what I can do with it this next year!  I got to witness some really good matches during the last part of the 3-4 Dan division, including my fellow dojo mate taking 2nd place.  After it was over, it was time for teams!

Our team has taken 1st place at this taikai the past two years in a row, so I knew that everyone else would be gunning for us.  And I wasn't wrong.  After watching the first round action our opponents would be Sno-King, a team that we've fought many times before, and in the finals at this exact taikai a few times, so we knew they'd be tough from the start.  I was up first and fought another guy I'd never fought before, M. Scott.  He was a tough one.  Seems like this was the taikai for tough matches for me.  Even so, I had a job to do for my team, so I bowed in, stepped up and did my best to deliver.  Did I mention he was tough?  I had a hard time pinning him down for anything, and he kept the pressure and strikes coming at me.  At one point my men even got knocked partway off my head so I had to stop and re-tie it.  I used that time to refocus and make sure everything was ready and I wasn't rushing back into a match without thinking.  It seemed to work.  After restarted and exchanging blows for a bit I was able to catch him moving backwards off a missed strike and land a kote-men for the first, and only, point of the match.  Time was called shortly after but at least I was able to get that early lead for my team.  Unfortunately Sno-King proved the stronger team that day and took the next match 2-0 before they tied up our later guys and held them to no scores and no wins.  We did our best, though, and I think all of us came out of the match in good spirits.  Sno-King was able to march onto a 3rd place finish, with our friends from Kent taking 1st place overall.  Great job, everyone!

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score 1-1 (Sno-King by 1 point)

Again, even though I didn't win anything or place this time around, I had great matches.  I fought some strong, remarkable people and learned some new things about them and myself.  I think I also gained a little more confidence in myself.  This will do well not only in the upcoming taikai and training that I'm doing, but also in preparing for 4 Dan over the next year. I've been doing a lot of prep for it, ever since I passed for 3 Dan almost two years ago, but this taikai taught me that I have the skills to make things happen, I just need that calmness and confidence to let it all shine.  Here's the next year of kendo!