Sunday, December 28, 2008

Randori and Kata

This is in response to a very thoughtful and excellent post by Kevin Levitt on his blog at

I have to respectfully disagree about the necessity of randori type activity in training. People in Japan have been arguing about this for at least 400 years, but the randori folks have never achieved a noticeable advantage over the kata only folks. The kata only folks demonstrated the effectiveness of their training methodology throughout the Tokugawa era from 1600 to 1868, holding their own in challenges, fights and duels. I believe the key is that the kata system must not focus on techniques, but on higher skills such as recognizing openings, preparing feints, and dealing with surprises.

I've done both randori focused training, and kata focused for a while now. What I discovered is that my effectiveness in randori increases most dramatically when I don't do randori, but instead make kata training the center of practice. This isn't technique training, but well developed situational training where my partner controls the speed and timing of the action. To do the kata effectively, I have to learn multiple lessons about reading my partner's body set, timing, and spacing as she changes timing, spacing and speed I have to deal with.

I am always amazed at how quickly I can apply these lessons to effect in randori situations.

Randori practice on the other hand is intense and fun, the main thing I take away from most randori training is knowledge of what I'm doing that already works, and what kata need more practice. I can practice kata for a long time without doing randori. When I go back to the randori, I inevitably find myself much more effective. On the other hand, when I spend too much time doing randori, I find that my randori skills don't improve, and often they deteriorate. The chaos of randori doesn't leave enough room to focus on skill development and the desire to win can actually defeat the learning and improvement process as you shift back to relying on raw strength and speed to overcome opponents when your technique is insufficient.

Randori is fun, and it validates who has learned their lessons well, but I really don't think it is a good teaching tool. It is a great way for people to test what they have learned and find out where they need to practice.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Budo and the unflinching gaze

In most Japanese classical budo, the vast majority of training is done with a partner, and in the modern budo there is generally some form of randori . Training with another person with whom you have to demonstrate the effectiveness of your technique forces you to be honest aobut your technique. Unless your training partner takes a dive for you, you have to be honest about how well you are doing a technique and what needs work.

When using a live blade in iaido, it's difficult to find sensible people who are willing to act as training partners. You have to train solo. Solo training means you don't have independent input on your technique. The most difficult thing about iaido training is that you have to look at yourself and decide if you're doing things correctly. I don't know about anyone else, but I have a nearly limitless ability to convince myself my technique is great. Without the check of a partner, I can tell myself all sorts of stories about how fine what I'm doing is. Good iaido demands that you look at yourself without flinching. I have to think about what I'm doing very carefully so I can't let little self-deceits slip in.

I have led myself down some disasterous dead ends, even when people whose opinion I should know enough to listen too have told me how wrong I was. Even looking at myself on video didn't help much. My river of training started flowing backwards for a couple of years while I listened to the lovely lies I was telling myself. It was only when I started to look at myself without consideration of how good or bad I was did I begin to fix things. I had to stop telling myself that this or that works better for me, and only ask "How close is what I am doing to ideal iaido?" When I started doing that and looking at my iai without flinching I started making progress again.

Looking at myself like this has been really hard on my ego. As much as I try to convince myself critizism from others isn't quite right, it really hits hard when it is coming from own mouth.