The keiko portion of my yondan (4th dan) kendo exam didn’t feel right as soon I finished it. This is the “match” portion of the test, were the judges observe your sparring with an opponent, who is attempting the same-level grading. No score is kept, and you have 1 minute and 20 seconds to demonstrate your “best kendo”. Because of being nervous, I went into a shiai (competition) mode too much, and exchanged way too many strikes with my opponent, mostly rather sloppily executed. I ended up failing the exam, so my intuition was correct.
While the exam is still fresh in my memory, I thought I would try to analyze the possible ways of dealing with the urge to attack. I do realize, that thinking about kendo is not a substitute for practice, but some analysis in addition to keiko must be better than mindlessly going through the motions.
Here is a piece of advice I received from a 5th dan sensei. At the yondan level, it is important to show the judges that you are in control of the match. On one hand, this means demonstrating ‘sen’ attitude – being in the attacking mode, exerting pressure on the opponent. On the other hand, your attacks should not be forced, to borrow the term from chess. For example, if your opponent faints an attack and moves the tip of his/her (I actually had a female opponent during my previous grading, so it definitely can be ‘her’) shinai upward, and you react by flinching and immediately jerking your shinai in the same direction, the judges will mark their report cards with an “X” against your name, and you will fail the exam. Your purely instinctive reaction shows that you are easily swayed by the opponent and are not in control of the match. It’s a tricky balance: to show attacking spirit, but attack only on your own terms.
So, what to do if the opponent attacks too often, and you want to impose a more deliberate pace to the match? The way I see it, there are basically two options: ignore the attack or counter-attack.
Ignoring doesn’t mean doing nothing. There are several ways of deflating the opponent’s attack without counter-attacking. One way is to hold a firm kamae and let the opponent impale himself on your shinai (assuming he doesn’t use uchi-zeme to knock your shinai out of the way before going for men). I have seen this done by senior sensei many times during keiko with junior kendoka. It seems a bit arrogant to me to do so, as if the opponent is offering something (a chance to exchange hits in this case), but I am refusing to accept it. Perhaps, this is a manifestation of the evolutionary-developed sense of obligation to accept gifts from strangers and to reciprocate with gifts of our own. Robert Chialdini describes this effect in detail in his book “Influence”. This instinctive reaction to accept favours and to pay back is what makes tourists vulnerable to scams (say, being offered colourful threads as “souvenirs from Africa”) on central streets of major European cities.
Perhaps, this is the way to act at the exam, though – confidently on the verge of arrogance in order to show that you are capable of sticking to your way of fighting regardless of the opponent is throwing at you.
Another course of action in the face of opponent’s attack is, of course, a defence immediately followed by a counter-attack. An important point her is that defence by itself won’t do. There is a saying in kendo: “bogyo no tame no bogyo nashi” – no defence for the sake of defence. The key is, however, not to fall into simply reacting to the opponent’s motions, but to lead him – to actually cause him to attack you (by applying seme) at the moment chosen by you.
So the balance between controlling the match and not reacting to a barrage of attacks is a tricky one. In NAVY SEAL terminology, you need to be both aggressive and situationally aware. Easier said than done.
The underlying concept applies in all aspects of life, of course, beyond martial arts. As a professional photographer, for example, there is a difference between not missing creative opportunities and compulsively reacting to every request or job offer that comes your way. It is important to always be working on your craft, but sometimes detecting pitches and proposals. Chasing gigs that do not help develop your own style shows your immaturity as an artist – that you are not yet a ‘yondan’. And this is fine, by the way, because there are plenty of opportunities for practice at your current level. And, except for rare occasions, nobody is judging anyway.