Practise may ingrain bad habits

From “Living with ambiguity” by Sydney J. Harris. Published by Nan’Un-Do

You probably know the chestnut about the stranger in New York, carrying a violin case, who stops an old lady on the street, and asks, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” With a glance at his violin case, she replies, “Practise, practise, practise!”

One of the oldest maxims in the world is that “Practise makes perfect.” This, however, is a dangerous half-truth that has betrayed many novices in many fields of accomplishimnent.

If you start to learn something the wrong way (which is usually the easiest way), the longer you practise, the more ingrained become your bad habits, and the longer it takes to correct them and get on the proper path.

As an example, a tennis instructor would much rather teach a rank beginner than someone who has been playing casually for years – because the latter has already acquired awkward strokes and faulty footwork, and the first has to be made to “unlearn” these responses before he can be taught good form.

(This, by the way, is one reason that adult education is so much harder than child education: We can take the child from ignorance to knowledge, but we must take the adult from error to ignorance before he is ready to accept knowledge.)

Habit is a two-faced value, both a virtue and a vice. Habit allows the typist to let her fingers fly over the keyboard without even thinking about the position of the letters, and this increases her efficiency. At the same time, it has prevented the introduction of a more senseible arrangement of the keyboard – which would save much more time in the long run – because no one wants to sacrifice an acquired skill.

We continue to do things the old way largely because it is more comfortable, and then we make up reasons to justify our unwillingness to change. This is true in almost every area – it is well known to military historians that generals are always fighting the last war, not the current one.

The learning process is dynamic, not static, but most teaching methods tend to look backward, not forward. Practise always lags behind theory, sometimes by as much as a generation, since it is easier for everyone to keep on doing what he has always done than adapt to a new set of circumstances.

The violinist who has been poorly prepared gets not to Carnegie Hall, but only into a deeper rut with “practise, practise, practise.” Repeating is not learning; it is merely memorizing habits that may threaten to make us their slaves rather than their masters.

As 2009 is coming to an end I’ve started to reflect on being on the verge of achieving my stated aim of 400 keiko’s* this calendar year (I’ve kept a kendo diary since 2003 so I have been able to catalogue how many keiko’s I’ve done over the years… from 136 in 2003 to over 400 in 2009). As a number, I am very satisfied in achieving my stated goal, but I’ve had to take some time out to sit down and contemplate the worth of doing so much keiko, not only on a kendo level, but also personally (socially, mentally) and physically as well.

I study kendo at two different dojo, and sometimes go to others for degeiko. I am surrounded by kodansha and could – if I wanted to – only do keiko with 7 and 8dan’s on a day-to-day basis. From this mountain of experience I have selected a very small number of sensei to whom I go to for instruction. Although advice rarely changes (the terrible parts of my kendo are easily identifiable!), I’ve noticed a couple of noticeable differing streams of thought when it comes to keiko and the amount that you do.

A: – Its not the amount the keiko that you do, but the quality –

I don’t think anyone could argue with this statement. Its better to do keiko well twice a week, than badly 5 times a week, right?

B: – keiko, keiko, keiko…. –

When the topic of improving kendo comes up, one of my favourite sensei always says “数、数、数” or (not a literal translation) “keiko, keiko, keiko.” He – and many other kenshi – believe that you have to aquire kendo through continual hard training. Everyday if you can, the more time the better.

Two things happen in this scenario:

1. your body “remembers” or acquires `kendo` (身に付ける);
2. you have to rely on your own work/effort to improve (工夫).

My sensei believes that teachers can point the way, but its entirely your own responsibility to improve. This can only be achieved through keiko, and a lot of it.

So, which is the “better” advice? Well, neither is. A lot depends on your situation: family, work, access to keiko, health, age, money, etc etc also, on where you are on your kendo path. In my case, up until perhaps 2 or 3 years ago, I think doing this much keiko would have been meaningless – I would have simply been swinging a shinai around randomly with no real gain, save perhaps a good workout. So what changed? Well, I am not sure exactly, but I think it stems from being trusted to teach.

My only caveat with the above, is that the keiko-keiko-keiko scenario should – for beginners – be de-emphasised in favour of quality-over-quantity. Learn correct kendo slowly and accurately from a good teacher before taking what you have been taught and working on it independently (though you still do need someone to watch over you). As someone who is still struggling to unlearn bad-habits acquired when formulating my kendo in the early years, I would stress this point. How long it takes someone to get this far depends entirely on the situation they are in along with natural ability. Starting younger is better, having a good sensei is paramount, and being healthy is required. Almost certainly, it will take many years.

Will I officially state an attempt to do 400 keiko’s next year as I did this year? To tell you the truth, I am just happy that I managed it all injury free. Next year I will continue as normal, and if I hit 400 again, well, thats cool. If not, then it doesn’t matter. Either way, I am readying myself for another keiko-packed year!!

* A “keiko” for me includes not just shinai kendo practise, but also koryu practise, attendance at shiai (whether in official capacity as a competitor or manager, or in an unofficial capacity as a spectator), sessions where I just teach kendo, and the odd mitorigeiko session (watching shiai is also mitorigeiko). All of these fall under the umbrella of my definition of “keiko.” Whether the session is 45mins or 12 hours (the longest continual keiko session I did), I counted it as only a single keiko. Note that shinai-kendo sessions vastly outnumber the others.

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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15 replies on “Practise may ingrain bad habits”

Very nice, George.

But who’s Keiko, and just what does she own? 😛 (Aren’t you employed as an English teacher?)

How true all this. I always wonder about people who do the same thing over and over and over and on one day expect a different result.
I think perfect practice makes perfect.
Very nice.
400 keiko’s a year? You do know that a year has 365 days?
Happy holidays to you all.
Yoi otoshio.

This is actually a topic I have had rattling around in my head as well a lot lately, although from a slightly different angle. Time to open Word and write down some thoughts….

As one who is sometimes in a teaching position, I concurr. I tell over anxious beginners not to practice over zealously in the beignning lest they ingrain bad habits. As well, unlearning is more difficult than learning….

Hey George,

very interesting article of your’s. As someone who started in a club with third rate quality kendo, I very well know that not all kendo sessions are as fruitfull as others.

Now I had a talk once with a 7dan about an article written by a 8dan, that included a statement that the teacher of a kendo class should himself not try to teach himself and improve. Even it is very uncommon for Japanese kendoka the 7dan told me that he does not concurr with this statement of the 8dan. A teacher should try improve himself even he is teaching the class.

It’s a little bit of the topic of your article, however I wonder, what exactly are the criteria for good quality kendo practice? Is it something that is influenced by the environment more than it comes from within yourself? What makes a quality training session?

Hello George!
I better make my comment really good since it is my first one ever in this blog.
I am appreciative of you having addressed elements of the learning process in this article, in particular those concerning adults.
I started Kendo about three years ago when I was 53 years old. My first classes were at a local dojo non-affiliated with the federation. It appears their ryu-ha was somehow either non-traditional, non-orthodox or an old style where they did not emphasize on kihon practice. Luckily and due to my research and extensive reading, before I joined their class I knew there were substantial differences to the way a traditional school does.
After two years of practice with them, I had acquired many habits not in accordance with traditional Kendo practice, which I tried to control the best I could, in particular because of the significance of learning Kendo at this very late age and risking some waste of time.
Last year I decided to join a federation affiliated dojo with traditional Kendo practice and I can tell you that although classes are three times a week I have been practicing almost every day to make up for life lost opportunities and make necessary modifications to what I learned in the previous dojo. At this point my new dojo has acknowledge my progress and achievements for which I have had to make many “blistering” and traveling sacrifices, but again, quality practice/teaching has definitely made a big difference.

Thanks for you comment, and apologies for the late reply.

Its a shame that your first experience was not the best, however Its not the first time I’ve heard a story similar to yours. In my experience, non-traditional/orthodox places tend to call themselves “old” style but, in reality, they just seem to be something else (I don’t wish to discuss that here).

At any rate you seem to be on the right track now… good luck!!

Let me quote one of my favorite Russian comrade, Pavel Tsatsouline : “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

This reveals much more clearly the “middle” line between the two opinions of quality vs. quantity : the best line is obviously both quality and quantity at once. To a degree of course, because while you can never be too perfect, you can indeed overtrain. Overtraining is as bad for your health as not training, so let’s not do that.

So, what’s the best then : 2 hours two times a week or 1 hour three times a week? 1 x 3 is actually better. It gives your body more time to assimilate (sleeping between practice) and since you do not have to pace yourself as much in one practice session it allows you to better concentrate both mentally (perfect practice) and physically (more intensity). Of course, 2 x 2 (or 3) while suboptimal is still better than nothing. But 2 x 4 (or 5, or god forbid 6) would be pushing it unless you do this full-time, in which case 1 hour x 2 sessions (per day, with possibly a nap inbetween) x 6 times (per week, always allow at least one day of total recuperation) would be near optimal for most people. Of course, if you train in multiple disciplines, they can overlap each other somewhat without interfering too much, as long as they’re different enough and you don’t overdo it.

This is all considering that you know how to concentrate and how to do perfect practice. That’s where the “teaching” comes in, usually. Of course, in the end it’s always you that must concentrate and practice perfectly. That’s where the “learning” comes in.


Very nice article and true throughout the majority of cases I would estimate. In Jodo we have a solo kihon technique called Tandoku Dosa (or “marching up and down endlessly”). I am trying to convince people that solo practice means solo practice not doing this synchronised throcking to someone else’s tempo. Doing it in a group doesn’t allow any time for examination or reflection of one’s own technique, posture or anything really and it does ingrain bad habits. It is usually delivered without much personal feedback from teachers either.

Far better I feel to do this solo practice by oneself, taking time to examine one’s technique and position, gradually making improvements and then slowly increasing the intensity so that it becomes consolidated and reliant on muscle memory rather than conscious thought.

Strangely I don’t think that paired kata suffers the same problem so much. Techniques become examined through their delivery and it is easy to ask one’s partner to slow down so that errors can be ironed out. The same doesn’t seem to apply to solo kihon…


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