Very recently I started a “club note” system here at my kendo club here in Osaka. For the benefit of readers who live in countries where schools don’t have active after-school clubs like Japan (my school in Scotland certainly had no such thing) let me explain briefly: I prepared a note book for the club which gets passed around all the members in a certain order. After each days keiko the designated student takes the notebook home and writes some stuff in it. The next day he or she hands the notebook to me (or places it on my desk if I am not around). During that day I read it, write some comments, and at the end of the school day the student comes and picks it up of my desk and reads what I wrote. They then pass it on to the next person and it all starts again.
To some it may seem like a strange thing to do, but what it does is it gets the club members to think back on the days session and, putting pencil on paper, have them write their thoughts in a more concrete manner than they might done have otherwise.
The students are encouraged to write freely, and they usually use the space talking about what they did, what went well, what didn’t go so well, and what they are working on. Of course, there is a quite a bit of graffiti and some random chat as well, which is fine (I enjoy their creativity).
But the benefit gained goes beyond the students. Obviously, if the students go to the trouble and spend time putting their thoughts down on paper, I am obliged to read those comments seriously and write my own responses. Not being a native Japanese speaker and never studying the language at a school, this has proved to be a good language exercise for me. Plus, it has given me a real chance to use my knowledge about kendo, that is, it’s theory and history, to educate the students about the culture of kendo itself.
In one particular case a student was told to “step in more” by a visiting sensei whose advice they, of course, wrote down in the notebook. This immediately reminded me of the teachings of Saimura Goro sensei, one of the only five 10th dans that ever existed, a member ofthe first crop of Busen graduates (when it was still known as the Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo), a student of Naito Takaharu sensei, and one of my favourite historical kenshi. He said:
“During keiko you should attack energetically from a far distance with large strikes. This style of kendo is not only elegant and manly, but it will lead to improvement in your kendo over time. Attack from a far distance – be energetic and lively – attack with abandon.”
With my students I attempt to emphasise the following points in order to engender a more positive kendo style which would, of course, help with the stepping in problem:
- For large strikes: start from a quite far distance, step in, raise the shinai high above your head (the angle doesn’t matter), step in deeply and strike;
- For small strikes: start from a far distance and either move in slowly and carefully to your attack distance and strike, or move in to distance in a quick action and strike, either way a large step is emphasised;
- I treat hiki-waza as a minor set of techniques and don’t like to spend much time on them;
- Whenever I teach waza, I always teach a forward movement, e.g. kote-gaeshi-(forward!)men;
- Emphasis and praise is always for waza that are executed in a forward motion: during ippon-shobu I completely ignore students hiki-waza and only acknowledge attacks that are executed in a forward motion;
- I obsessively point out if a students fumikiri is too weak or their fumikomi too shallow or light – push off strongly and step in deeply.
Stepping in is, at least to me (and probably to Saimura too), a sign of confidence. A large step at a close distance will result in overly-deep strike, so it is best to attack from a relatively far distance. The further the distance is that an attack is launched from the more chance of it being countered and, usually at least, the buildup easier to perceive.
Someone with little confidence* will often prefer not to attack from a far distance because they fear counter-attack. Where Saimura sensei and I almost certainly agree on is that this fear is a mental weakness.
To the student who received the advice and wrote in the club notebook I gave simple advice:
* btw, another easy-to-spot lack-of-confidence move (and a pet-peeve of mine) is when someone pulls their elbows in after an attempted men strike in order to block a dou counter-attack. When I am doing keiko with someone like this I enjoy hitting their elbows repeatedly… complaints are like music to my ears!
I guess I’ve always been the sort to write. Between the ages of 15 until I was 35 I kept a diary. This detailed my day-to-day life: what I did, where I went, who I met etc. In addition to this, from about 19, I kept a more detailed journal, in which I wrote much longer entries. While writing both of these I think, at around about 26 I think it was, I started to keep a kendo diary. My kendo diary detailed what I did each keiko, the advice I got, and what I was currently working or wanted to work on. In this way it wasn’t too different from what I am having my students do (except, the club note is read by peers and commented on by the teacher). I wrote a lot!!
(From 28 I wrote my daily diary in both Japanese and English, and from 30 I wrote my kendo diary exclusively in Japanese. I kept writing all three until I was 35 years old.)
A super common Japanese kendo phrase says:
Strike and reflect, be struck and feel gratitude
The “reflection” element applies, needless to say, in both situations – striking and being struck. To pursue any activity and not reflect on it, whether successful or not, seems strange to me.
Rather than attempting to explain myself, a quick google search reveals many great online resources about the topic of reflection. One of the most comprehensive online resources I discovered is the Reflection Toolkit website from Edinburgh University. There, reflection is defined as:
… the conscious examination of past experiences, thoughts and ways of doing things.
Its goal is to surface learning about oneself and the situation, and to bring meaning to it in order to inform the present and the future.
It challenges the status quo of practice, thoughts and assumptions and may therefore inform our decisions, actions, attitudes, beliefs and understanding about ourselves.
Reflection can (taken from the same definition page linked above but slightly adapted by me for our topic):
– Allow us to improve our own practice to gain better outcomes in the future
– Increase/improve our technical skills
– Help evaluate the quality and success of our plans to improve
– Help us to apply theoretical knowledge to execution and using this to expand our understanding of the underlying theory.
On the same website I discovered the following image which illustrates the ERA model for reflection, one of many models:
This image immediately reminded me of something I have written about many times before:
Club note / kendo diary
It is my opinion that most kendo people routinely (though maybe not habitually) reflect about their keiko throughout their years of practise (sometimes in the pub with a beer after keiko!). What I am hinting at here today, and is strongly suggested by research, is that making it a habit is a useful tool in accelerating progress.
The club note that I have started is mainly for the students (and for the entire club in general), but it also causes me to reflect on the content of keiko plus it allows me to gauge how the students are reacting to it. In that way, it serves as a sort of “kendo instructors diary” for me as well.
If I ever return back to Europe I think I would even attempt to start something like this in any adult club I was involved in, and definitely in any kids club. What do you think?
btw, as I was writing this post, I realised that I ceased to write a kendo diary just after I began kenshi 24/7. At the time my keiko schedule was crazy – about 12 keiko sessions a week – and my excuse for stopping was that all my entries seemed repetitive. But as I thought about it more, I realised that my kendo diary actually just evolved shape… into kenshi 24/7.