Grading reflections — 1st to 3rd dan
Kendo grading at Tokyo Budokan
Last Sunday I was on the grading panel for the VKR 1st kyu to 3rd dan gradings. I thought it might be useful to record my impressions here of what the grading participants needed to work on for next time.
Seeing/setting up an opportunity
This is difficult to put into practice. All candidates except one for 3rd dan were unable to show they understood where and when the openings were and hoped that by simply attacking there would, by the time their cut landed, be an opening. In other words they hoped that their attack itself would create an opening.
What this looked like was, "one... two... three... MEN!... one... two... three... KOTE!... one... two... three... MEN!..." and so on. Openings are never going to appear like clockwork, but that's what most people's Kendo looked like.
The reason for this is nerves, or to put it another way, lack of courage. When facing an opponent in jigeiko (free-sparring), shiai (competition) or jitsugi (grading match), it is natural for a feeling to build up between opponents. When this feeling gets too much, one person will break and launch an attack. At junior levels this always seems to happen with a regular rhythm. It takes courage to hold back in the face of this build up. It is like watching a wave coming closer and getting bigger as it nears. As this feeling—let's call it aiki— gets bigger, most people's fear increases and they lose their nerve, so they attack, without really knowing what they are attacking. Sometimes they mistake this "don't know" for mushin (無心 'no mind'). But mushin is very different, it's the opposite of "don't know" in fact.
A simple remedy is to count to ten. Say to yourself, "When I stand up into kamae, I will not launch an attack until I have finished my count to ten, no matter what my opponent does. If they attack, they will run onto my kensen." When you do this, you will notice your fear lessen, and your ability to observe your opponent increases. You will feel more confident and more in control of your own Kendo. Even in a jitsugi of only 60 secs there is no need to rush.
A number of people who failed 2nd and 3rd dan did so because they were unable to break through and score a valid ippon. By "breaking through" I mean finding a way to overcome a difficult opponent. These were people whose Kendo is easily up to standard but who failed to be effective on the day.
Usually a simple change in strategy is enough to achieve this. Men not working? Try do instead. That kind of thing. At 3rd and 4th dan, this kind of ability is very important. It shows adaptability, persistence and that you possess a range of waza.
Being unable to 'break through' in this sense is often a sign that you are stuck in a rhythm but you can't see it. Again, when you find yourself in this situation, stopping and counting to ten whilst keeping an active kamae can give you the breathing space you need to achieve that break through.
- Kata - was generally lacking in intensity, which is to be expected at this level. But everyone knew all the movements so everybody who made it to the kata stage passed I think.
- Chakuso - or the wearing of one's kendogi, hakama and bogu was also not good. Yano-s. was particularly disappointed as he mentioned it at the last grading as well. He said correct chakuso is an attitude that you bring with you into the dojo. It doesn't just start when you start keiko. Particularly bad is when you can see someone's underwear through the side vent in the hakama because their kendogi is too short. Also, wrist sweat bands should never be seen during kata.
- The group going for 1st dan was quite strong. This is not unusual. Sometimes there will be one particularly talented Kenshi in a group, sometimes several. I expect that the members of this group will not have too much trouble passing their 2nd dan grading in a year's time if they train regularly. Others can also look to them as a model of what the grading panel is looking for.