Monday, May 19, 2014

Communication and Kendo: Part 1

image from
Watching my son participate in his second taikai (kendo tournament), and taking fourth place, was very exciting for two reasons. One, it cemented his belief that he could be good at kendo, making him want to continue. Two, seeing him compete showed me how much he had grown not just within the sport, but with communication in his everyday life. To help you see how I made this connection, I need to break kendo down into basic points, starting with this - Kendo is NOT an art of self-defense, it is an art of self-improvement.

If kendo was all about whacking your opponent, tournaments would go a lot faster. Anyone who has watched a taikai match will know that there could be dozens of strikes, all of which look good to a casual spectator, before a point is awarded. If you've never seen a match, YouTube is full of examples, like this one. In order to get the point, the attacker must not only hit his or her opponent in the right place, but must also look and sound good doing it.

Wait. Huh? How are you supposed to look and sound good swinging a bamboo sword and yelling wildly at the top of your lungs?

Image via Wikimedia Commons
There are three things a kendoka (one who practices kendo) must do when making a strike. First the strike must hit one of four places: the head, the wrist, the waist, or the throat. But not only must he hit these areas, he must make the hit with only the top portion of the shinai (bamboo sword). If he hits with any other part of the shinai, the point is not awarded. But even with a correct hit, he still won't get the point without proper footwork, proper stance, or proper follow-through. His feet have to move right and the way his body moves through the hit cannot be sloppy. And even if he manages to strike and move correctly, if he's not screaming out his charge with conviction (this is called ki-ai), well, no point. This is why good kendo matches are loud. It also makes one think: with all this having to worry about proper this and correct that, how does anyone actually manage to get a point?

And isn't that kind of the same question one would ask about effective communication? It's not just about having something to say. It's also about how you say something so the other person understands where you're coming from. If you don't choose your words correctly, or have the right body language, or use a proper tone of voice, then your not going to make your point.

So, back to my son. He wanted to practice kendo because I did. When he first picked up my shinai and swung it around at three years old, I decided to get him his own and gave him informal lessons. I first taught him that the shinai was not a toy, he couldn't "teach" any of his friends, and the only person he could hit was me, and I had to be in gear. What I was really teaching him was to be mindful of who he was interacting with at a given time and adjust to each situation. His sword became his feelings, and he had to adjust his feelings to properly respond to different situations: when a classmate made him mad, when he got in trouble for something he didn't understand, or when he was told to do something he didn't want to do (like homework).

Well-loved shinai
When he was finally old enough to take formal lessons, he quickly learned that while he may think it's fun to practice with mom, it's entirely different interacting with a real instructor. Although I tried to prepare him with the basics, his footwork was everywhere, his swings were wild, and if he even bothered with ki-ai, you probably still wouldn't have heard him. His teachers were always correcting him, and he would get discouraged because it felt like he couldn't do anything right.

And when he got into bogu (kendo armor), he also realized it wasn't nearly as much fun being the one getting hit. During practice drills he would get upset because he was getting hit more often than the other way around. There were times when he would decide that he didn't want to do kendo anymore because he wasn't good at it. It wasn't that he wasn't trying, it was just that there was so much to focus on! But with subtle encouragement and maybe a few not-so-subtle "suck it up" commentaries, I kept him going.

His initial struggles with kendo were a mirror-image of his every-day life. He had a hard time focusing on his work and would get distracted easily, and his teachers would have to get him back on task. He was emotional and easily upset, feeling like everybody was against him. But when he needed to speak up for himself, he couldn't bring himself to do it. He just wasn't good enough to make friends or be a successful student. He wasn't good at communicating his feelings.

When he entered his first taikai, he lost in the first round. I braced myself to comfort a child who would be upset with his loss. But what a surprise I got! Yes he was disappointed that he lost, but he was smiling and excited that he didn't let his opponent get him on the first hit. We talked about what he did right, what he could do to improve, and how much he could learn by going up against an opponent.
First Taikai

Over the next year, he continued to improve. His strikes were faster and more accurate, he read his opponent's moves a little better, and although his footwork was still a little sloppy, he made up for it in a strong and confident ki-ai. Seeing this improvement come together in his second taikai made me realize he had made improvements elsewhere in his life. He is still distractable (hello, he's a boy), but his self-esteem has grown and he is more likely to speak up when needed. He is better able to communicate effectively in various situations, whether it's with an adult, a classmate, a friend, or a stranger.

At his next taikai, his face was beaming with an ear-to-ear grin when he received his fourth-place trophy. And it should, because that trophy was also the proof that he was good enough to get his point across. Kendo, the art of self-improvement, helped with that.