When I was a wee bit younger than I am today (I’m 39) I wanted to be good at kendo NOW. Not tomorrow. Not in 1 or 2 years time. Now. Immediately. I practised (and still practise -> more on that later) like a madman, feverishly awaiting the point where I’d make the switch over from mediocre to good (or even better, amazing!). Frustration over lack of (self perceived) progress only worsened with time, especially as people started to praise my improvement (lies!) and more so when I’d meet the odd Japanese person who’s kendo was technically sound but who barely practised (i.e. they had practised hard from the age of 6 through university but only casually continued after entering the work force).
If you note a sense of jealousy here you would be right. I’d grimace and brood while watching the folk mentioned above, comparing them to children who were forced into learning another language (or musical instrument) by their parents from childhood. That is, their kendo was/is, as far as I was concerned, a ‘freebie’ from their parents… not something they particularly desired, loved, or tried seriously at acquiring themselves. Their current casual manner was my proof = their attitude was the opposite of mine. Obviously, it’s not healthy to think like this, nor fair on the people involved (they don’t share my obsessiveness after all!).
The next logical step was then to analyse my keiko to see if there was someway I could change it to become more efficient (a shortcut). I read quite a bit about coaching athletes, sport psychology, and pondered on the quantity vs quality debate and the myth of talent. However, the ‘sport’ paradigm never really sat well with kendo: sport is (for the serious or elite player) a relatively short term activity (careers often finish with people in their 30s or younger) with the goal being competitive success and (often but not exclusively) financial reward – I’m sure you see the problems here.
If you want to get the gist of this article (if there is one!) then it is important to realise that that on top of all this reading was a continual research into the history of kendo itself. Specifically, I was (and am still) intensely interested in the biographical aspects (stories) of our kendo forebears. This interest has fundamentally changed my perception of and long term goals for kendo.
(Note that in particular I am talking about descriptions about how kendo was done pre-WW2, that is, how kendo was done, by whom, and why. There is also a lot of written information from kendoka after the war commentating on the seismic change in kendo’s culture and execution.)
Through my reading I started to realise:
1 – Competitions used to be rare – i.e. people practised to strengthen their mind and body. Therefore competitive success had only a limited impact on stature, repute, or status;
2 – People expended years of effort in obscurity honing their already strong basics before achieving technical mastery;
3 – Mastery and repute were based not on technical skill alone, but on a more composite basis, including teaching ability, work experience, and conduct.
Although the kendo has shifted the manner in which it judges mastery and awards status over the years, I do believe believe that the kernel of kendo pre-sportification (pre shinai-kyogi) remains somewhat intact, in particular point 2. I mention sportification here because the first point is now no longer true which has had an irrevocable influence on point three.
This has been something I’ve pondered and considered for some time now, but I am only just posting my ideas on kenshi 24/7 now because of a couple of videos and a blog article that appeared on my facebook wall at the same time a couple of days ago. Of course, they are not kendo related, but they do say something pretty insightful about acquiring skill and mastery of a subject. In particular, this documentary (split over 2 videos) is of interest:
I’m still waiting to become good/amazing, of course, but it’s now not important whether I actually achieve technical mastery or not – it’s the process, the journey if you will, the shugyo aspect that is important. As such, the quality over quantity debate has become a moot point for me (quantity please), and my jealously of the technically-superior casual kenshi has dissipated (I see them now as simply lazy).
I do believe, of course, that if I continue to work hard and practise as often as I do now (8-10 times/week), that my technical ability will increase, and I suspect that I will overtake casual kenshi around the same age as myself easily in the future (perhaps in our mid 40s/early 50s), it’s just that I’m not obsessed about immediacy as I once was: I am playing the long game.
18 replies on “The difficult years”
Brilliant essay, especially relevant for people who started kendo at a “late” stage (post-20’s up to 40’s) and who want to become strong before it is “too late”. Experiencing growth, seeing the value of the journey as opposed to the goal, is something all kenshi need perspective to appreciate, and something we all end up having to come to terms with in the end.
Great post George. Just when I needed it!
Wow. Really awesome essay and something that really strikes home for me. I think many of us “foreigners” have the same feelings in Kendo especially if you live in Japan. Like you said, someone the same age as you who only practices casually and just utterly wipes the floor with you. It really is disheartening but luckily I have always thought of Kendo as a long game. I find it helps to give yourself small goals for each practice, week, shia or whatever. This then ties into practicing actively.
Oh, I’m glad you guys got something from it / enjoyed it !!
I have faced a lot of frustration from kendo over the years and, I admit, still do so. However, I am confident I am approaching kendo in the correct way so although I’ll never be a famous competitor nor amazingly 8dan, I’m pretty sure I’ll eventually look back on my kendo career without regret. I suspect I’m not the only person with this attitude towards their kendo.
Excellent point of view. Kendo is more than tournaments or short terms goals. Kenshis need to be concentrated, inspirated and cultivate patience. In other words a way of life. Nice posting. Regards
Great essay George, and thank you for incorporating the two videos
Thanks for sharing this. Great points to consider for all of us on our kendo paths.
I always refer to it as a wave, cresting , a long way up, a brief time at a peak , a long way down , and another wave just ahead
“Playing the long game” – That’s a great way to put it. Kendo, really, is for life.
That type of frustration is something that I know all too well (I know I’m far from unique in that case). I practice 3 – 5 days per week, doing the best that I can, yet I see others that seem to easily place in tournaments or seemingly pass their promotion exams with ease or just be really good at jigeiko.
I have found myself looking on the internet at various forum and blog posts to see if there is some magical phrase or arrangement of words that would allow me to immediately understand a concept that I’m not quite getting or just be a boss at tournaments. Of course, I’m faced with that reality that reading about things and doing them are completely different things. In most cases, I’m immediately humbled at the fact that I need to find my own ways to acquire new skills, which can take years. In a few cases, it just adds to the frustration.
One nice thing about the post is that, while I do see people get really frustrated with themselves during practice, few really go out of their way to rationalize why they feel the way they do.
Well done, George! Actually, I had a similar conversation the other night at dinner with some of my dojo mates. We came to similar conclusions! Great post, my friend!
Thanks for the great comments everyone, I apoligise I didn’t respond earlier —- 3 keikos sessions yesterday and now (Sat morning) I’m off to a gasshuku all weekend. Super busy!!
Thank you George, great article.
No problem Gabriel, I’m glad you found it useful in some way!
Really good piece. I’ve frequently lamented the fact that I started kendo quite late, 36, but have worked out that I now feel much more comfortable attempting to learn kendo. My maturity level and drive is much higher than it would have been in my early 20’s and I think it has enabled me to progress quicker than I would have done 20 years ago. It’s very interesting as I focused on the fact that I had not achieved anything big yet but I’m starting to see the long game bearing fruit for myself.
I still see kendo as something that has no goal, just a path to follow and help others to follow.
Thanks for the great comment theramist… I hear you !!!
Thanks for this George, I also started Kendo late just before I turned 50 and have been practicing for 5 years or so now. I often joke I have to practice twice as hard to be half as good as the young guys!
So long as I see even the slightest improvement after a training, I am happy……….
I think 50 is still quite young!!