Begin with Mobility

by Chenney Navarro

Kendo Men - Manila Kendo Club Philippines
A beautiful men strike done with sutemi from optimal distance. It showcases a fully extended leg, sufficient anterior pelvic tilt and body arch, and good right wrist ulnar deviation during tenouchi which also indicates healthy flexible biceps — all of which are characteristic of excellent mobility. (image from kelownakendo.com)

This article is reposted from Chenney’s December 2016 blog post. This article aims to bring to light the humble role of mobility in the development of basic and correct form in Kendo. It attempts to educate people on its importance, benefits, and how you can develop it gradually throughout your kendo journey.

Most of the content has been transcribed and liberally paraphrased from the Tim Ferriss Show so credit goes to Tim Ferriss and Christopher Sommers.

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My recent enlightenment on the value of mobility came from a short series of excellent podcasts by Tim Ferriss where he invited the former US national team gymnastics coach, Christopher Sommers, to talk about Gymnastic Strength Training. It’s a lengthy and highly technical discussion, but has a lot of gems worth chipping into if you can stick with it until the end. The biggest takeaway you can get from here are the discussions on mobility spread throughout the podcast. I will be summarizing and relating this to how fundamental it is to your physical foundation in Kendo.

In the book Kendo — Approaches For All Levels, it mentions that the average age for passing shodan in Britain is 31 years (European Kendo Federation, 2001). This generally holds true for most non-Japanese kendoka who practice outside of Japan — we usually begin Kendo at around our mid 20s to early 30s. However, adults who sit behind desks for 8 hours a day with minimal to moderate physical activity, who then suddenly jump into a very physically demanding martial art without any physical preparation and expect the experience to be thrilling discovery of their sword-fighting prowess are in for an appropriate reality check: your spine is practically fused, your shoulders have inadequate flexion, your hips are frozen, your hamstrings are tight, and your calves are like “piano strings”. We may have strong and mature body structures but it holds no merit having only the “flexibility of a Lego figure”.

As beginners (and even as low level yudansha) we are ignorant to this reality and try to hit the ground running. We try to ace all the kihon and ashisabaki drills they throw at us, while clearly bombing in most of them. We attempt to do the sexy and fancy waza while never really figuring out where we are unceremoniously screwing up in execution. The past five years of my kendo has been an endless recounting of this puzzling deficiency, endlessly nipping at it around the edges but never really digging deep enough to its center. The game changer was through a change in perspective — It wasn’t my lack of practical understanding of the technique, but rather that I’ve been misguidedly trying to build correct technique on a foundation of insufficient mobility.

Good form, and thus good technique, requires a necessary foundation of physical preparation. Your body needs to be ready to do the things that you want it to do. Athletically, that involves having the correct range of motion, good mobility, and good connective tissue to do it. This means doing a lot of the boring work: Jefferson Curls, Shoulder Extensions, and all the unglamorous drills you need to slowly build up your strength, flexibility, and range of motion alongside your training. This is to ensure that you have enough of what you need to execute your techniques and a little bit of extra on top of everything. Because if you are just riding the edge of what you’re capable of it’ll be a question of when things will be going sideways, not if. Having an optimal surplus of mobility will prepare your body for when it does go wrong, you can shrug it off with a sigh of relief and thank mobility you didn’t blow a joint.

Ultimately I hope that in having good mobility we will be able to perform our movements in what I think is a universal visual cue of good form: a beautiful and smooth execution. Mobility empowers you with an excellent range of motion to comfortably use only the necessary amount of force for the movement. This manifests itself in the seamless transmission of energy throughout the complete kinetic chain, from the tips of the toe to the end of the shinai. It is a slow and seemingly effortless execution. Slow is smooth. And smooth is fast.

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