a MMB! Kendo Blog

MMB! Kendo Blog

Friday, July 23, 2010

忍耐 + 掌握人生
A new phase in my Kendo

I have told myself to write this at the start of the one-month university winter holiday break. But since then, I have found myself enjoying my time with friends, doing road trips, kendo and rock-climbing or just plain chilling out and catching on some good old classic movies. All of a sudden, I just realise my holiday is about to end. So I better start writing something before university goes back into full swing next Monday.

'Skier's Thumb' - even though I have never skied in my life
Another reason why I felt I must write something now is because I am going to have a surgery done to my left thumb in a bit over two weeks time. And I want to write about my current training status in as much detail as possible - what I am working on, feelings that I should replicate, main points on techniques, etc - so that I will have a smoother and quicker return to the pre-surgery training level 3 months after the surgery.

It was kind of freaky how this ligament injury happened. To be specific, the ligament I am talking about is the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) of the metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joint. This type of injury is commonly called the “skier’s thumb”.

In the first training back from Brazil last September, I sprained my left thumb in an ai-men situation where my thumb was caught and jammed back in the attack. There was quite a bit of pain to the joint line and I lost a lot of range of motion in the thumb after the injury, which side-lined me for about two weeks. After the pain subsided and range of motion recovered, I went back to normal training with thumb taping. But then two months later, I sustained exactly the same injury in exactly the same situation with exactly the same training partner again. This time, I got it checked out by an experienced hand physio specialist and he reassured me that it was partial tear and not full rupture. However, he told me to be really careful at kendo training.

Unfortunately, with all the tapes I could possibly lay on my thumb, the ligament eventually completely ruptured at the last keiko of the year in another ai-men situation. I did some quick ligament tests to my thumb, and it didn’t appear well at all. I knew the ligament was completely ruptured.

Alas, it was that time of the year when all the hand surgeons were on their one-month Christmas New Year break, so by the time I could see my hand surgeon in February, the ligament has already shrunk and cannot be reconnected without using a graft from my little finger.

Since I have already missed the critical one-month surgery timeframe, time is not a factor anymore to my recovery, and so I decided to have my surgery the week after my 4th Dan grading, which will be two weeks from now (8th August 2010).


A New Phase In My Kendo
Anyway, this is what’s happening with my kendo…

Over the past two months, I have made a 180 degree turn to my kendo. It’s such a big change it’s completely different to how I played at this year’s nationals. And I reckon this is probably the biggest change in my kendo career, and I am really happy about this. I feel more natural when I hold my shinai, the new grip and kamae makes me feel strong and calmly in control, and the attacks are relax yet powerful. I am totally addicted to this new feeling and do not want to play that old style of mine anymore. That old style has already been torn and shredded into pieces and discarded, and I am ready to embrace this new style that I am slowly uncovering. Hopefully, this will lead me to a lifelong everlasting style of kendo, the style of kendo that I would like to have – noble, proper, strong, efficient and effective.


There are quite a few things I want to jog down before my surgery. So here they are:

Length of Tsukagawa
The length of the tsukagawa is an extremely important, but often overlooked aspect of kendo that has a flow on effect on your kamae and strikes. I have recently fitted all my size 39 female shinai to a size 37 tsukagawa. It instantly made my whole upper body relax and I was able to square up my hips more naturally.

My definition of optimal length of tsukagawa:
I define the optimal length of tsukagawa to be that when you hold the shinai with both hands in kamae, the right elbow can still rest on the side of the body, where the upper arm is closed to perpendicular to the floor. This allows the chest and shoulder muscles to stay relax.

What happens when the tsukagawa is too long?
At the point where your right elbow needed to position itself in front of the side of the body in order for your right hand to grip close to the tsuba in kamae, the tsukagawa is probably too long. What happens is that your right chest and shoulder muscles will activate to try and keep the arm forward and up against the pull of gravity. This causes the right chest and shoulder muscles to tense up. We often see a lot of people get really tensed up in kamae, and no matter how many times we tell them to relax their arm and shoulder, it just doesn’t seem to work. Whereas you can tell when someone is really relax and comfortable in their kamae. Adjusting the tsukagawa length may be a simple, yet often overlooked solution to this.

A quick thought just came to me with the right shoulder forward position and the up and down swinging motion during a strike. With repetitive striking in this forwarding sitting shoulder position, I wonder if this may increase the risk of shoulder impingement. Mmmm… I would love to do a clinical study on this topic if I can get a large enough study samples and long enough study duration. Seriously, this may be a very interesting project.

Where to position the left hand in kamae?
Over the years, I have been told many different things about where to position my left hand in kamae by many different Sensei. The most commonly advocated position is to place the left hand in the centreline of your body. Then there are others, including Chiba Sensei, who instructed me to position my left hand in front of my left hip, which is slightly off the centreline.

After the recent change to the length of tsukagawa, I was able to relax my right upper body substantially. And I have also come to feel that it is more natural to put my left hand in front of my left hip as it allows my left chest muscles to relax and my wrist in a more neutral and less stressful position.

With the upper body more relaxed than ever before, I now have the luxury to play around and trial how to channel my left hip power to my left hand when I push my hips forward in an attack.

Furthermore, with the right arm in a less stretched out position, I now have the potential to reach further in a cut just by extending my arm, without leaning my upper body forward to get the extra reach. Effectively, the straighter upper body posture during a cut eliminated the problem with my chin lifting upwards during an attack.

This is just so beautiful. All the pieces in the jig-saw puzzles are slowly fitting together now.


Seme (攻め)
Cross Sensei has been leading the class to focus on seme in the past few weeks, especially since he came back from his recent Japan kendo trip. He brought back a wealth of knowledge and advices and shared with the whole class. Here is a few points that I would like to jog down:

Win Before You Cut
Broadly speaking, there are two types of seme – physical and psychological. By physical, I mean that you use your physical strength and power to overcome your opponent. On the other hand, psychological seme is more subtle, but it is the more powerful and devastating to your opponent of the two types of seme. Here I would like to explore further on the psychological seme.

Like what Cross Sensei and Jayson have been saying, the victory is determined before you cut. What that means is that, you should have total control of the situation and complete domination over your opponent before you cut. This happens when you have superior seme over your opponent.

We have all experienced superior seme in our kendo career. And when that happens, fear and doubt arise. As soon as one succumbs to the immense pressure, depending on different people, some would react by throwing unnecessary cuts; others may decide to block. When this happens, the victory has been decided. The person with the stronger seme will capitalise on this situation when the opponent is most vulnerable.

The following are a few points I have been working on:

• Dominate the centre. Always keep your kensen in the centreline.
• Always position your shinai on top of your opponent’s if both shinai are fighting for the centre. This is to make sure that you block your opponent’s shinai pathway to lift up and make a cut.
• When your shinai is in the centreline, but your opponent’s shinai is off the centre, this is the opportunity to cut.
• If your opponent uses a lot of force in his shinai to push your shinai off the centre, don’t go into a strength contest and push his shinai back. Simply release that pressure by lifting your shinai either up or down. The force and momentum of his shinai will naturally make his shinai slip off the centre. In that instance, position your own shinai back in the centreline. If your opponent’s kensen is way off the centre after you release the pressure, cut him before he can re-establish equilibrium.

Tame (固め)
Another psychological concept that Cross Sensei has been instilling into our kendo lately is the concept of tame, which means ‘to hold’. The idea is that when both players are engaged into an attacking distance, it is too often the case that one side would decide to launch a cut in the hope that speed will help him to get to the striking target. With the concept of tame, however, you should try to hold that urge to cut, but instead use the application of seme to break your opponent. Tame allows you to build up the intensity of that one cut that you are about to make, and when your opponent succumb to that intense pressure with fear, doubt, surprise and confusion, you have already won the point. Just finish the point off with the available opened target.


Here are some technical notes on various waza:

Right hand has an important role to guide the shinai into a straight path to the target. So do not release the right hand too early. Pull the right hand back to the right hip in a snappy fashion only at the very end of the thrust to generate a crisp thrust.

Pattern Recognition
How many times have we been in the situation where we did something, and our opponent reacted and exposed a target, but we missed the opportunity because we simply wasn’t prepare for that opportunity.

I agreed with Jayson that kendo is a game of pattern recognition. The more you are exposed to a certain pattern, the quicker your brain and your body will recognise. It’s almost like conditioning. In kendo nowadays, there are a few common patterns that we often encounter in our practice, and it has been wonderful to attend the Friday night training session that Jayson is leading these days where we practice those common patterns. So here they are:

• Seme into men --> if opponent lift hand to prevent men cut, kote is exposed --> cut kote
• Seme into kote --> if opponent kensen opens to the right to prevent kote cut, men is exposed --> cut men
• Seme into men --> if opponent completely lift up their hands to blocks both men and kote, gyaku dou is exposed --> cut gyaku dou
• Seme into men --> if opponent pushes your shinai out --> release that pressure on your shinai, by either lifting up or lowering down your shinai, so that your opponent overpressure and his kensen divulge from the centre with their kote exposed --> cut kote
• Seme into kote --> if opponent pushes your shinai out to prevent kote cut, kote is exposed --> cut men

Well, that’s it for now. I will do my best at my 4 Dan grading in two weeks time.