It’s been over a week since I participated in the 9th London Cup, held at a community sports hall behind the London Nautical School in the UK. In a nutshell, the overall experience was an eye-opener for a number of reasons. The most notable one being that it was a “private event” that was hosted by the Tora Kendo Dojo, rather than by the national governing body, the British Kendo Association (BKA). This implied that the Tora dojo’s members arrange pretty much everything themselves, including all logistical matters, shimpan duties and prizes. With just under 200 competitors from both the UK, various European countries and of course, me from South Africa, you can imagine how tightly the logistics had to be managed to make this 2-day competition event run as smoothly as possible. The good news is that despite a few hiccups here and there, the overall event was very well co-ordinated! I boil this down to 3 things: 1) good management by the London Cup organisers; 2) equally good management by the other dojo leaders of their respective clubs; 3) active participation by all the attendees to assist in the shimpan duties when required.
Point no. 3 is of particular interest that is worth exploring. When I signed up for the London Cup, I was under the impression that I was only going to take part as a competitor in the team and individual competition. However, upon arrival at the venue and soon after the opening ceremony, all 3rd Dans and higher were informed by the organisers and some of the BKA officials who attended, that they would be required to shimpan for matches before and/or after their own matches. For me personally, I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity for me to put my shimpan skills to the test at an international level. However, it also did highlight something very importance – our South African kendo community members that were in the 3rd dan and up category would be at a disadvantage and probably should NOT be volunteering to do shimpan duties. This is due to the fact that in the past, shimpan skills was never really emphasised much and very rarely did the SA kendo community get instructed in the shimpan theory, let alone have opportunities those theory to the test in being able to referee at a shiai. I was fortunate enough to have had attended the Kitamoto Foreign Leaders Camp twice in Japan, whereby a number of sessions at the camp were dedicated to shimpan theory and practical. Besides a handful of other SA kendoka, not many others have had this opportunity. As explained at the Kitamoto camps, shimpan skills and the keiko skills of a kendoka go hand in hand – having that ability to be able to see and score a point correctly is AS IMPORTANT as being able to physically do it in keiko. Both sets of skills complement each other and should grow and mature as the kendo player’s skills and grade level increases. As a matter of fact, as explained by Sato Sensei (8th dan, hanshi), the head sensei of the Kitamoto camp on both my occasions, the one skill cannot be done without the other and must be constantly practised and refined.
With that said, the SAKF has already started putting steps in place to rapidly increase the shimpan skills of the SA kendo community. In the last SAKF seminar in March 2016 with Uwe Kumpf sensei, an afternoon on one of the days of the seminar was dedicated to shimpan theory and practise. This was met with positive feedback by all those who attended, regardless of grade. The reason for this was that it made so much sense to them as it was now explained why certain points were scored in a shiai and others were not. As an inexperienced shiai player, knowing these finer points of how shimpan score points would have encouraged me very early on how to do correct kendo, as well as kendo that would score a point in a match.
In July this year, a shimpan seminar will be held by our senior kendo sensei’s for 2nd dan holders and up. Furthermore, those who are 1st dan and lower would also be invited to the shimpan theory session, as well as asked to participate in a special shiai for them only that would allow the 2nd dans and above to put their shimpan theory into practise. Overall, everyone will benefit by knowing what the shimpan is looking for when doing shiai, and how to actually do the shimpan.
Then, in October, the SAKF’s annual international seminar will be conducted by 3 high-ranking European sensei’s that have been active in the shiai-arena. All these sensei’s have a sound knowledge of shimpan theory and have been shimpan in many European and international kendo events. Again, there will be a section of the seminar that will be dedicated to improving our SA kendoka’s shimpan skills.
To conclude this point, a discussion with one of my fellow shipman peer at the competition highlighted the fact that the shimpans must have the uttermost confidence in his/her decision when making a judgement call which can only be accomplished by having the relevant knowledge and sufficient practise.
Back to the shiai itself at the London Cup, here are a few additional points that I would like to highlight as a competitor:
- A good captain/coach/manager/ leader who can inspire and motivate is important – My team was a slapped-together group of individuals who had met each other in the morning of the competition. For whatever reason, I was nominated to be the team captain. As captain, I had to come up with a quick way to get my team to perform positively for the upcoming matches. During my time in the corporate world, one of my tasks was to produce results using a group of individuals that were expected to operate as a team. As their manager, I knew that before those individuals could become a high-performing team, they needed to undergo various stages and metamorphosis to be able to produce high-performing results. The stages they underwent were: 1) Forming – The stage of getting to know each other and everyone is generally pleasant and tolerant of each other. 2) Storming – As the members of the team become more familiar with each other, they begin to notice the others’ various idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, they start to get into arguments over these idiosyncrasies. 3) Norming – Eventually the team starts to accept each other for who they are and learn how to work with each other, rather than against each other. 4) Performing – It is now that the team is able to perform optimally and are able to set specific goals and work together to achieve them. 5) Disbanding – Eventually the team will disband as the goals it had sets out to accomplish had been met. Some stages are longer than others and sometimes go through a number of iterations, but all high-performing teams go through this cycle. A kendo team is no different and in our case, we had to go through all 5 stages in a day. The importance, therefore, of the captain/coach/manager/leader is to be aware of these stages and skilfully navigate the individual members and the team through this metamorphosis to a stage where they are performing optimally.
- Looks can be deceiving – don’t underestimate or overestimate your opponents. There was a team of 5 women that totally dominated some of the teams, while others, although fearsome in physical appearance and attitude, didn’t even make it out of the pool rounds. Furthermore, I had to be careful of mistakenly judging people based on their attitude towards me during the competition days. Some of the more serious kendoka would get into a “zone” that would, at first glance, seem very rude or obnoxious. However, this was just their way of preparing for the competition. For me, when I get into this zone, I have to strike a fine balance between keeping a competition-focused mind-set and my usual amiable personality that just naturally wants to socialise with other people.
- Stay in the game – As a competitor, it was easy to feel disheartened and demotivated after being knocked out of the competition. However, there is a lot of lessons that I learnt from losing, firstly it helped me understand what in my performance needed to be worked on in order to do better in future matches; and secondly, my attitude towards the competition and other competitors after losing – as much as I wanted to turn away from those who had done better than me, I had to swallow my pride and just observe them in more detail and try and understand what was it about their techniques and various ways of preparing themselves for the next fight that made them better competitors. Back home, it has been common practise for many competitors, who have been knocked out of the competition, to leave directly after they are done. Many have legitimate reasons for leaving, but often it really is just that they let their own disappointment in their performance get the better of them. This happened at the London cup too. The difference is that because we have a much smaller number of competitors (30 vs 200), it becomes very noticeable when there is only a handful of participants are left at the end for the prize-giving formalities. Furthermore, at the London Cup, there was an opportunity for all remaining kendoka to take part in some goodwill gei-keiko at the end. Those who had already left had missed out on a great opportunity to do more kendo with a bunch of different people. For me, I had met a number of fellow kendoka over the weekend and would now also have the opportunity to keiko with them. There is a kendo maxim that says you can only truly know a person once you have crossed swords with them.
- Use every opportunities available – This refers to meeting, volunteering and training. I like meeting new people anyway, so the first one was easy. With that said, because of my SAKF duties, I am constantly on the lookout for those individuals who can contribute to our local SA community back home. Whether it is meeting a new sensei that might consider coming to South Africa to conduct a seminar; or interested kendoka who would like to train at one of our dojo’s whilst on holiday, thereby giving our local kendoka a taste of some international kendo. With regards to volunteering, like the shimpan duties at this London Cup, if the opportunities arises to do so, I’d volunteer to assist with whatever I can (provided I am of course capable of doing so). And lastly, training – besides the goodwill keiko at the end of each day, I took the opportunity to train at the London Kenyukai dojo when invited to do so by their sensei. The thinking was that since I was in a faraway place anyway, why not do as much training as possible with the local kendoka. I had mentioned in a previous article that one of the challenges that SA kendoka face that prevents them from being able to perform at an international-level shiai, was the lack of international experience. This referred not only international shiai, but also to exposure to more international keiko. Traveling abroad and training with the local kendoka at their dojo is one of the ways to overcome this challenge (there are some other ways to alleviate this challenge, but this will be discussed in a future post). Earlier this year in Skopje, Macedonia, after the European Kendo Championships (EKC), the SA National Team was invited to train with the Macedonians at their main dojo. Myself and one other team member attended the session and not only got to train with the Macedonians, but also with their visiting sensei from Japan and members of the Italian, Malta and Croatian national teams. These are invaluable opportunities that not only help me improve my kendo, but also enriched my experiences of each trip. The reasoning behind each of these sessions that since we had already come such a distance to do some kendo, why not go all-out and train as hard and as often as possible.
- Lastly, have fun – Although not always obvious initially, I always try and find the fun of why I am doing kendo. Whether it’s the whole experience of traveling abroad; getting to meet and keiko with different people, or perhaps, just the fact that I get to train in some exotic location, there needs to be a reason of WHY I do what I do. For me, I have found that the more I do kendo, the more I learn about myself, and like my kendo practise, the harder I work at it, the better person I become because of it. It’s not easy and often takes a lot of work to make some progress, but the important thing is that I try and have fun while doing it.
That concludes my feedback on the London Cup 2016. I had tremendous fun and must say thanks to the organisers for firstly allowing me to compete at such at a late stage, and secondly, for putting on an inspirational event that spurred me to relook at how we will conduct our shiai’s here in South Africa.
More information on the London Cap can be found here: http://www.londoncup.co.uk/
Written By Warren Ho (16 May 2016)