Image and reflection: thinking your way out of a rut
Following on from the post on Stages of Kihon, there are two steps in your mental training that are very important for your improvement. One is the mental picture you have of what you are about to do, and the second is the ability to reflect on what you have done.
These things are more important the further you go in Kendo. If you are a kyu grade, then the main thing is turning up to training as often as possible and doing your best. If you don't think too much about these things that's OK.
But as you progress you might find you keep making the same mistakes over and over, or you might get stuck in a rut — like you're not improving and everyone one else around you is. In this situation, being able to analyse your Kendo clearly is an important part of improving.
Image training is where you imagine yourself doing your best Kendo. This is all well and good, but what I used to find was I wound up imagining lots of losing scenarios as well. It is very difficult for most people to think of themselves as 100% hero in their own minds. Doubts, low confidence, remembering past failures, all these things can come crowding in when you stop to imagine yourself doing Kendo.
So the first thing you need is a positive image to aspire to: a positive, realistic image.
The easiest and best thing to do is imagine the Kendo of someone you admire and copy their style. Aim to be like them. As the old teachers would say, "Steal my technique!" If you love Chiba sensei's Kendo, copy his Kendo, his movements, his habits. Copy everything about him, or whomever it is you chose.
When we do this we put into operation things we haven't consciously understood, things we couldn't describe in words, but nevertheless things we can clearly see and copy. If there is something about another's Kendo that makes you go "wow!", then be that person. "Wow" is you understanding the core of what that person's Kendo is. It's not an undertstanding that operates in words. It might not even be "thinking" in the usual sense. Perhaps it is thinking-feeling-intuition all happening at once. The new theory of mirror neurons in the brain could be a possible explanation of how this works.
When I was a kid there were really only two sports to choose from, footy and cricket (only rich kids played tennis! hehe). We played both of course. Often we would muck around imitating famous players and their styles. You only needed a Ted Whitten footy card to be able to copy his unique way of kicking the football. We would have fun bowling like Max Walker (his bowling action earned him the nickname "Tangles") or Dennis Lillee with his long run-up, the great Indian spinner Bishin Bedi with elbows held high, or trickiest of all, Jeff Thompson. It was fun because it was a way of getting into the skin of these famous players. Some of us would secretly try to keep some of these aspects as part of our technique because they really worked for us (except for Thommo's action, that was impossible!). But we didn't want anyone to think we were copying anyone. We wanted our own style.
In Japanese culture, imitation is not only "the sincerest form of flattery", it is the expected way a student will learn from their teacher.
This is the other half of the process. Think about how it went. Did I do that men cut how I wanted to? Was it accurate? Did it 'stick'? How was my tenouchi? How was my posture? Were all my movements in unison? Would it have scored ippon?
This process doesn't have to take long. Don't beat yourself up, a moment is all you need to answer the question, yes or no. Then move on and try again.
If you have trouble working out how you went then ask me or another experienced partner. Don't ask during the exercise but maybe at the end before you bow and move to the next person.
Focus on just one thing at a time. Make a plan to work on a single aspect of your Kendo. If you're not sure what that should be then ask me (or for non-Nanseikaners, your own sensei). Sensei are always watching their students and know their progress well. Sometimes you may think the problem is due to something you are doing with, for instance, your hands. But your sensei may tell you to concentrate on your footwork, which leaves your hands free to act by themselves, so to speak. This is why it is important to have people to instruct you who have been there before you.
Video is another excellent way of reflecting on how your Kendo is right now It is objective and very direct.
In the end, regular training is the best way to improve. But if you can't get to the dojo regularly, or if you are in a rut, feeling like you keep repeating mistakes, image and reflection can help you find your way out.