Practise design

The regular squad sessions are on again so I needed to come up with a practise plan. The general schedule we could keep for a month, as I’m writing this: for the next three sessions, or so is as follows:

  1. warmup 10 min
  2. ippon shobu shiai 20 min
  3. free practise 20 min
  4. break 5 min
  5. butsukarigeiko 15 min
  6. kirikaeshi 15 min

Ippon shobu shiai

The main reason for placing the shiai portion on the front is to model the constraints of an actual competition day. We seldom have the luxury of having 30 min of buildup just prior to the match. Instead it is likely that we will have some kind of practise in the morning and then the fights will be around noon.

The goal of the shiai practise is being able to give it all you’ve got with a moments notice. How do we know if we are getting there? One immediate marker is that you are out of breath and dripping sweat after each fight. Other is that you were able to execute your full range of tactics and waza. If you have a practise goal like, say you tend to react with your hand to block and want to learn out of it, could you do it.

The second goal of the shiai practise is to remind us of the skills and tactics we need to work on in the following free practise set.

Free practise

Free practise as in agree with your partner what you are going to practise on — not necessarily jigeiko although thats ok’ish also. It’s also ok to practise kihon uchi like striking men or kote or polishing your oji-waza. However if you do that a note on specificity.

Principle of specificity: you get better at what you practise

This seems self evident. What is possibly not self evident is that we are practising in order to win in a match against a live opponent. From the principle of specificity it follows that we need to consider all the facets of a bout with somebody who is not a willing dummy to be struck when we are practising. What are those facets? What are the factors differentiating a kendo bout from say kendo kata?

The AJKF kendo japanese english dictionary defines “ichi gan, ni soku, san tan, shi riki” as

[..] a phrase which presents four elements essential for kendo training, in order of their importance. The first of these elements is the functioning of the eyes, the second is footwork, the third is a strong mind not upset by anything and the fourth is bold waza and the physical strength to execute such waza[..]

Note that the motion of striking is the least important bit but if you look at what your mates are doing which parts are they perfecting ? Are they improving their ability to read and react to an unwilling opponent or perfecting the skill of swinging at a wooden dummy. Luckily the internet is full of interesting perception-action exercises for kendo. To simplify what I think:

  • more than one possible response from motodachi is better than motodachi responding always in the same manner. This makes it mandatory to actually look and respond to the opponent.
  • response options that involve taking away the attack opportunity are better than always letting the kakari strike or counterstrike. The opportunity to strike is not always there and training should reflect that.
  • taking the opportunity to strike after a failed attempt is better than resetting immediately or continuing past the opponent no matter what.


The last two sets, butsukarigeiko and kirikaeshi are mostly about conditioning. Everyone can do these things, at least when rested and at a slow pace. The challenge is continuing to do quality work even when tired and going fast.

Butsukarigeiko is an exercise where the kakari strikes motodachi, crashes into him using tai-atari and bounces off with a hikiwaza. Wash rinse repeat until done.

There are good teaching points in doing tai-atari. However there are some downsides also. The general problem with tai-atari is that it teaches moving the hands down instead of keeping the arms extended and going through the opponent. This happens especially when we start getting tired or hurried. Tai-atari is also seldom seen in a shiai setting. More often the contact is made with arms extended and the loser, i.e. the person lowering or raising arms, ends up in his backside.

What I had in mind is of course a bit different.

The kakari strikes and after the strike tries to push her hands to the face of the motodachi. The motodachi moves back and pushes back with his hands. The motodachi may vary going back 10 meters or 10 cm. To re-iterate: instead of a tai-atari where the hands go down, both sides have arms fully extended towards the opponents face and bump with the fists up. When the kakari sees an opportunity for hikiwaza she takes it. Repeat. As the motodachi is moving backwards we run out of space at some point and switch roles.

Alternative to this would have been oikomi but that is problematic because it requires so even pairs. If the kakari is faster than the motodachi oikomi becomes annoying for the kakari and dangerous for the motodachi. This type of butsukarigeiko is not to sensitive to the differences in speed or mass.


Kirikaeshi is nice for developing striking action, tenouchi, endurance and strength. It is also very safe exercise. Which is nice as a last exercise when people start to be tired. The criticism against kirikaeshi, and any drill of its kind, is of course that it is very removed from what actually happens in a bout. So if we are going to do it we ought to make sure that were are nailing it on each and every strike even when we increase the speed.

If you absolutely have to do drills why do those so badly. — some guy on twitter

The trouble with kirikaeshi is that many people strike air or too close instead of actually trying to cut the opponent with the monouchi. You can try to fix this with feedback. However advice like “arms straight”, “imagine hitting the opponent” (even though it is impossible because the motodachis shinai is blocking the strike half a meter of target), “cut 45 degrees” are easily forgotten or misunderstood in the heat of the moment.

The easy solution to this is to use constraints instead of verbal feedback. In kirikaeshi we can require that on each strike the sagikawa of the shinai must make contact with the men on the line from motodachis ear to ear (or somewhere behind that) and make the motodachi count only the strikes that do make contact. The motodachi should also keep his shinai so that it is possible to make contact but doing so requires proper tenouchi. For right side that means keeping the shinai upright close to the head just in or barely outside the line from the right eye of the motodachi to the left shoulder of the kakari. This way there needs to be full extension of the wrists to make contact.

The idea is not to hammer the motodachis head but just make contact with menbuton. The kakari should anyway be attempting to strike at the point just inside the menbuton instead of attempting to cut the motodachis head in half. If the kakari is too heavy handed motodachi can move the shinai a bit more outside, grip a bit firmer on impact or complain to the kakari.

There are two variations of this kind of kirikaeshi. First is that the motodachi goes freely back and forth switching directions at will and in the end signals when say 20 valid strikes have been made. The point of switching directions at random is that it keeps the kakari honest with his footwork and includes an element of perception to the exercise. The second variation is that the motodachi goes backwards and stops and waits at some point before the end wall until all the strikes are done and then moves back to let the kakari do the last shomen.

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