Lose and cut

(Note this is a guest post from Stuart Gibson)

Recently I’ve had a few people telling me the same thing: I take it easy in ippon shoubu, and need to attack more. For most people who know me and how much I thoroughly hate losing, this might raise a chuckle. After all, how can I have produced the results I have to date by being lazy in ippon shoubu of all things? And one thing I love doing is the old barrage attack that overwhelms people into making mistakes.

So this got me thinking, what am I supposed to think about or do with advice like this? Inevitably, it’s when I am practicing with older people. Since coming to Japan I’ve heard it or it’s equivalent four times, and all from people who are either considerably older than me (ie a good twenty years) or from people watching my keiko with higher grades. Upon thinking about it I remember one consistent point between each keiko. I knew that if I moved, I was going to get hit, so instead of simply using my reach and speed (I’m always being encouraged to think past reach and speed), I tried to think around it and create a better or proper opportunity to allow me to attack freely. Weather I managed it or not is a different question, but the comments that came afterwards, from either the person I was practicing with or the busy body watching was that I should attack more against older people, or much higher grades.

I’ve heard this thought before, and to an extant, and dependant on the situation I agree with it. How can I learn anything by not attacking? Kendo after all is an aggressive martial art that relies heavily on forward movement and pressure. This I know and (to some extent) understand. However, my point is:

If I know that I have already lost will I gain or learn anything by attacking anyway?

For me this is a massively important question and one which I feel defines my own approach to kendo. If you know you will get hit, absolutely know (we’ve all been there!) would you rather:

get hit


try and figure out a way out of it?

Perhaps it’s my personality, but I will pick b) every single time as I feel that as a learning experience you get more by trying to figure out a way to break the pattern that you have gotten in to as opposed to obediently seeing it out and losing the ippon shoubu you are supposed to be winning. If it were simply about learning by getting hit and not figuring it out for yourself using your own perception of what is happening then practice with people significantly older or higher graded would be very different, akin almost to uchikomigeiko or kakarigeiko. At which point I am sure that the same people would then tell me that I attack too much and that I’m not being patient enough…

This also raises another issue for me that is also key to weather or not I actively choose to go to the same sensei to line up over and again or if I only go there once in a blue moon if I really have to. Does the advice teach you YOUR kendo, does teach you to improve YOUR kendo, or are they teaching you what has worked for them, or simply repeating something they’ve been told themselves? For me the best teachers have always been the ones who have given advice that relates to me, my kendo type, my body shape and my mentality. Strangely they have never been the ones to tell me they feel I’ve been taking it easy. As an example, the first time I got this kind of “advice”, I had just finished practicing with an 8th dan sensei, at which point a guy I kind of vaguely knew from competitions came literally running over to lecture me about attacking more with hachidan sensei, and that I should be trying to challenge them. Fair enough, except that the guy I practiced with said that he really enjoyed the keiko with me, and gave me some pretty good advice on my seme. Not a thing about needing to attack more. Maybe the advice on the seme was a form of it, therefore enabling me to attack more? Maybe he thought that this advice would be more useful than attack more? Maybe he didn’t think I need to attack more at all? But the fact remains that he didn’t say attack more, in any form, and moreover the advice on seme genuinely helped me.

Finally, the one point that really makes me wonder why I get this kind of advice is that I am constantly told to be more patient, and to create more definite opportunities through the middle. I still get told this, maybe once a week. “Be more patient” they say “Watch the opponent” they say, “If it’s not there don’t try and hit it” they say. That last one is perhaps the most striking one, as it sits next to my own thoughts as well, of not hitting if I know I will lose. These kind of comments which are by far the most frequent I receive are also in direct contradiction to the “Attack more against xyz” advice I get. If my own objective is to try and get a better opportunity and not lose a silly kaeshi dou or debana kote, how am I go to be served by doing kendo by numbers that tells me that I must attack more against particular people so that they can hit me? Why would I do something that I absolutely know will get me a slap? If I am not doing my own kendo, or attempting to improve my own kendo, then for what reason exactly should I do what these people tell me to?

Perhaps it boils down to a different way of thinking, and one I struggle to understand, or maybe I’m just being selfish in my approach, but when it differs so greatly from the advice I get elsewhere, what am I supposed to do with it?

8 replies on “Lose and cut”

I’m going to hazard a resoponse, based on not really knowing your situation (although parts of it sound familiar) and not knowing you from a bar of soap. With that caveat in place… I think the kind of keiko that you’re being exhorted to do with senior grades is a bit of an etiquette thing. It’s expected that you’ll throw yourself at your elder and-betters, and they will pummel you easily in return. Then, against your peers you can struggle for supremacy and use all your strategies. But against 7-8 dans, it’s kind of ji-gakarigeiko (is that a word?). b

I think Ben’s hammer has become one with the nail, here. As the junior guy, you’re supposed to throw yourself at the senior guy with great abandon. But as Gibbo correctly points out, at his level (yondan IIRC) the advice he will be getting from his regular sensei is to use pressure to create a chance.

Playing the devil’s advocate now, against the really top guys, your attempts at seme have about as much chance as just chucking a bunch of shikake-waza at them. So may as well make it all about sutemi.

Turning about once more and being the cynic, it’s very easy to look good when you’re the one taking no chances. I can defend against some pretty strong players, it’s only when I have to try for a point that I open myself up. If you’re playing quiet, and sensei is playing quiet, someone has to take a shot sometime. They’re not going to do it much, and you’re not going to see a lot of opportunity, so again may as well make it about sutemi.

Maybe, maybe, however doesn’t that then become not what pretty much all of my regular sensei (who are incidentally also 7th and 8th dan) are saying? I pretty much throw myself against everyone, but only if I at least believe I have an opening or can make one on the way in. Otherwise it’s not really kendo then, is it?

I’ve practised against the top guys, and it is a differnt kettle of fish, but in that, I’d rather get hit doing my kendo, and figure out what’s wrong with my kendo and how I do it, rather than just get my balls out and lash around for 2 minutes and come away with nothing. What will that help me learn? Or even, what are these other guys trying to teach me by suggesting it?

It’s not about playing quiet, or even about playing balls out. It’s about trying to make an opportunity and improving my seme and kuzushi. If it’s not about that then what is it about? I don’t have a problem with getting hit, but if I get hit I want it to be because I’ve lost, not because someone else told me advice contrary to almost everything else I get. And it’s also not like this is something I get regularly. The thing I get regularly (and can now also see for myself when I balls it up) is that I’m attacking too soon, and not being patient enough or creating the chance.

As you can probably tell, this is one of the more frustrating things I’ve had recently…..

You said this:
“If I know that I have already lost will I gain or learn anything by attacking anyway?”

Perhaps I could also play Devil’s Advocaat here and ask, how do you know you have already lost? It strikes me that this is not a very good thought to be having, n’est pas? Perhaps jettison what you think you know about what’s going to happen and just go for it. This might be the learning to be had from this situation.

Ultimately it’s a kind of koan that you can only answer with training. b

I’m sure that’s one way of looking at it, but I don’t agree with it. I’m generally not in the habit of making what I see as wasteful cuts, regardless of if the guy in front of me thinks they are or not, and especially in ippon shobu. If I don’t cut but do get hit, I can still learn something why did it happen, what could I have done, what got me to that point, but if I cut when I know I’m going to get hit and have recognised it, all I learn is that I was right. Getting hit when I cut is one thing, but allowing myself to get cut through an attack I know will lose is another. And if I go at that point anyway, then that’s not really sutemi is it? It’s waste. And believe me, I can generally recognise when I’m going to lose. If I go at that point I generally do as well, ergo, why go at that point? That is most definately not what I am trying to achieve as it’s wastfeul.

Have you never been in a situation where you know that if you attack at that moment you’ll get done? I have, plenty, and that’s what I’m using to learn from the situation, that and patience. Again, your suggestion goes against what all my teachers have been telling me, if it’s not there don’t hit it, be patient, and make it. Jettison what I think and just go for it isn’t exactly where I want my kendo to go.

I know all about the etiquette of the situation and taking shoshin as my approach, but at the same time, I’m not going to do anything that I think will get me slapped. Why would I? If I know I’ll get hit attacking would just show that I don’t actually understand the situation and am just plugging away in the hope that I’ll hit something. That doesn’t sound right to me.

Remember also that this isn’t just general keiko, but ippon shobu I’m talking about. Jigeiko is fine, but I don’t play to lose in ippon shobu.

Fair enough, I agree: jigeiko is one thing, ippon shobu another. Ultimately this frustration is yours to work out. but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being frustrated. It’s a very creative state and usually leads to discovery. As the saying goes “Small doubt leads to small enlightenment, big doubt leads to big enlightnment.” b

Many sensei or very skilled/high ranked people aren’t doing real ippon shobu when they say “ippon” at the end of a jigeiko anway…. they are looking for something else (I posit). Perhaps thats something to do with it.

I spent a while avoiding practise with some of the types of people that Gibbo mentions above, and still do to an extent now. However, going to a couple of them semi-consistently over a number of years has shown me that there is sometimes something to be gained from – what seems to us – as illogical behaviour. Perhaps age will enlighten us in due time.

Here is the age take on this!

Sorry I am late contributing but, I just found the login to comment on this blog.

I do not think you are wrong Gibbo, simply for the fact that most eighth dans are smart enough and assertive enough to make you do what they want you to. Whatever the level of your opponent, you should start keiko in the spirit of taking shodachi. If the sensei in question wants to continue in that vein he will.If after a while, he is consistently taking points from you or allows you no openings it is time to do kakarigeiko.

When I practised with Chiba sensei before Christmas, I could see that this was the inevitable outcome after the first few minutes, so went for it. Having finished I was given the following advice by a well known, (well at least to George and Gibbo), Welsh sensei – “You are a seventh dan boyo, what the bloody hell do you think you are doing throwing yourself around like that”.

I think the moral is listen to the sensei who is giving his time to practice with you, not the well meaning observers.

Geoff Salmon

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