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.