by Chenney Navarro
I’ve always been called out as someone who is too technical in my kendo approach. While some appreciate how it dissects concepts and movements into bite sized pieces, others find it too cerebral and unnecessarily nitty gritty. For the latter, it is usually because of differences in methods of learning. Kendo has always been taught and learned through experiential volume practice. If you do something thousands of times you will eventually figure out how to do it right. This can be an effective approach early on, where almost anything will be an improvement from nothing. And within a young kendo community such as ours, this culture’s success in getting people up to the lower dan grades has found no need to be challenged.
However, this has propagated the misconception that hard work and sheer volume alone can reliably drive your progression forward. As we go higher up in the kendo ladder, it becomes more apparent that simply skimming along the surface of waza religiously can only get you so far. And if we are to successfully breakthrough the current soft ceiling in Philippine kendo, then probably, something has to change.
Skill developed from hard work is not an assurance of consistent quality. Good or even bad work can result in progress at the beginning, but it will never magically become great work by sheer will. Great work comes from deliberate and mindful execution, regardless of the result. Mistakes, if seen with clarity, can become discoveries. Discoveries can turn into knowledge if tempered with understanding. Knowledge will feel like intuition once it has been assimilated fully. It is when, with this ease, that such depth and mastery is executed, that we recognize what real skill should probably be.
But how do you get there? Going to practice is important as this is where you apply yourself under the guidance and judgement of your betters. But going only to practice is not necessarily a good thing. There have been periods when I have zealously attended practice 3 times a week and found minimal to no improvement. Then there were times when my schedule stopped me from attending practice for a week or two, and yet it was during these quiet phases, when I was able to practice alone, that I was able to break through some of my plateaus and made significant progress in my kendo. That was when I considered deliberately integrating these spaces into my weekly kendo routine. Since then, I have been able to make incremental discoveries that has kept things interesting and challenging. It is this consistent growth, nailing down one improvement at a time, that I feel has made all the difference in my journey.
The Walled Garden
Although the added expertise of your senpai(s) and sensei(s) are a valuable resource during keiko, there will always be external variables that will add complexity to the environment you are practicing in. For example your sensei points out that you are always making an extra step before striking (which is valuable information!), but the pressure to perform forces you to rush through the movement and make the same mistake throughout your drill with them. Then there are the different partners and the changing maai that you have to adjust to. Uncooperative or inexperienced motodachi making the drill harder than it should be. The heat and humidity giving you shortness of breath. Fatigue from repetition setting in, forcing you to make unnecessary mistakes. And jikeiko itself is where shit hits the fan, filling you with fear, confusion, surprise and doubt. Your “well practiced” kihon has been judged and has been found wanting. Yes you do know the mistake, but you could not make concrete steps in fixing it. There were too many things that were conspiring against you. And that is the problem.
Keiko helps in filling up your to do list and creating a challenging space to fool proof these action items. But there are simply too many things to deal with during keiko that will screw you up if you are not confident in what you are trying to execute. So make it simple for yourself. Rig the game and make it easy to win in what you are doing. Remove the people making unnecessary comments. Remove the judging eyes rushing you. Remove the target you are trying to hit. Just focus on yourself.
Start with looking at that list of things to fix and begin with the one that matters the most (usually that bad habit your sensei has always been pointing out). Your sensei can easily see it and if they keep on seeing it then it’s pretty clear that either you don’t see it or you don’t understand how to fix it (since you keep on doing it).
Seeing is Believing
So let’s begin with what’s more important — that you actually see it too. Really see it. Stop glossing over that moment when it happens. Slow it down. Rewind it as much as you need to. Really take the time to look at what is happening before, during, and after it happens. Try to understand the cause of the problem. What do you think you are doing? How does it feel? Are you actually using the muscles you think you are using? If you aren’t then find the disconnect from what you feel you are using and what you think you are using. If you are using the groups you intend to but the mistake is still there, then maybe try to change the intensity or order of how you are using them.
If you’re starting to space out on the problem then you can approach it from a different paradigm: not by identifying the cause of the problem but by simply trying different things until you produce a different result from the one you are trying to avoid. Don’t try to do everything differently at once. Even though we are guessing, we want to be able to gauge and understand how far we are moving away from the problem and how closer we are getting to the ideal solution. Change things one thing at a time. The more precisely you can identify the increments you are making, the better you can track the changes you made to get to a possible solution. The better you can keep track of your changes, the easier you can understand your solution and the zigzags you took to get there.
So you have a solution or maybe even a few ones to pick from. Stop. Commit to just one and make it yours. Own it like you don’t know how to do it any other way. Or… so we hoped. Because the reality is this is where most people drop out of the process.
Yes, you see the problem. You kind of understand how to move away from it, but the fix is just so inconveniently uncomfortable! It feels weird. It’s different from what you are used to. It takes so much effort to perform consistently. It’s awkward. It doesn’t feel “right”. It sucks. You can come up with all the excuses you can think of, but the truth of the matter is you choose not to do it because it demands work. And it’s not just mindless hard work that you zip through, it’s consistent mindful work until you get it right. And the worst part is the more fundamental your problem, the bigger the change you have to make, and the more the process will suck for you.
But that’s the big ass elephant right up our faces that most people conveniently ignore. If it feels comfortable and safe, then you’re doing nothing new. And if you’re doing nothing new then how can you believe that are you growing? How can you say that you are getting better? You can’t. And you aren’t. Say what you want, but your actions and your mistakes are speaking louder for you. So if you really want to be better, just man up, embrace the discomfort and put in the work.
Yes, you will suddenly feel like a noob, because you are. Trying to learn something new makes you a noob at that new thing, and that’s alright. It is OK to suck. That’s why you are alone in your walled garden making things simple. We’re keeping it simple to make it easier. And if it’s easier then at least it won’t suck as much (but mind you, it will still suck). It may take some time, even a lot of time, to change enough that it will feel like it’s your kendo. Again, that’s OK. What matters is you are moving out of your bad-habit-ridden comfort zone and trying to actually grow and fix things. Nurture that feeling. Thrive in the unknown. Be comfortable in being uncomfortable. That is your commitment to growth. Knowing is half the battle, and this is the other half that will get you to the other side.
So we’ve changed a bit. We’re relatively comfortable with our experimental fix. It’s time to get out of the garden and see if your fix holds up to reality. Can you still do it the way you know how even over the shifting sands? If so, great! Show it to your sensei and see if they still see your old mistake or if they identify a new one. You can even ask them directly if it doesn’t come up during keiko. The important part here is to get reliable feedback on your solution. If they say it fixed things, then (2x) great! Onto the next item on the list. If it didn’t, then at least you know what doesn’t work and eliminate another potential evolution of that bad habit you could have possibly made. Most of the time you don’t even need to overhaul everything, just backtrack a few steps and keep the increments you recognize worked well for you. Identify them and make it your new foundation moving forward. But now that you’ve finished the loop, it’s time to bring it back into the garden, rinse, and repeat.