There seemed to be a small amount of confusion at the seminar about the nature of kata so perhaps a few words would help. Kata is not combat, it’s a training device and should be understood as such.
Many people understand that the uchidachi, the attacking side is the senior side. But fewer know that both sides have an opportunity to train. The attacking/losing side sets the rhythm, the timing and the distance, not because they are the attacker but because they are the senior. This is for instructional purposes and it’s the senior who should be better at this than the junior.
I think we can all agree that when shidachi (shijo), the “winner” of the kata is working through the kata he should be paying attention to the distance and timing in order to do the movements correctly, but it is uchidachi who leads all the way. Only at the decisive movement, when he dies, does uchidachi lose the initiative and it is at the finish of this movement, just before the separation of the two partners that a negotiation occurs to allow uchidachi to resume control. I often compare this instant and the following kamae o toku (release the stance/contact) movement as the separation of armies after a ceasefire. It doesn’t take much to cause an incident and everyone is fighting once more. Care is needed, but a different type of care than when going into battle for the first time.
This is a careful separation, looking for attacks into a defended position rather than looking for chances to attack into your partner’s position. It means having an attitude of mutual good will rather than single minded determination to annihilate. Let’s face it, in most kata stories uchidachi is dead by this time, this separation phase is about breaking the distance with your partner without literally getting poked in the eye or hit on the head. It’s not strictly part of the lesson. It’s part of getting ready for the repeat of the lesson, or the next lesson.
What is it that this senior side can learn? After all, teacher doesn’t learn from student does he? Frankly, yes. Beginners are unpredictable, they are dangerous units they may not know enough yet to sleep through the steps like some seniors do. Use this as a senior, keep a close eye on them, put yourself into danger deliberately so you aren’t caught unaware that there is any danger at all. This means giving a target and only taking it away at the last moment, being a bit slow but just fast enough. It means reading your partner.
Pulling not pushing
Many people believe that the senior side is there to push shidachi to new heights. From shidachi’s side this certainly seems to be the case if he has a good uchidachi. As it should.
The thing is, if uchidachi is truly senior to shidachi, uchidachi can take shidachi apart at any moment. He is senior and so is more efficient, probably faster, certainly more knowledgeable. He knows the kata, knows decisive moments and can use them. He probably knows how to read shidachi and can use his imbalances, the weak point of his breathing cycle.
If uchidachi feels he should push shidachi he may hurt him. Instead, uchidachi must take the attitude of pulling shidachi up rather than pushing him. Find the limits of your partner and work just fractionally past that limit. Think of weight lifting. If you are truly serious about gaining strength you need to lift to failure. You can remain within your limits for years and never get a bit stronger, but if you spend a month picking up heavy stuff from the floor for two or three reps (which means you aren’t damaging yourself, one rep to failure being a good recipe for one rep to breakage) to absolutely, really, your muscles won’t lift the last try, you will rapidly become stronger.
This is a delicate position, you must attempt a lift just beyond your ability which means you must try to fail without failing due to injury. A good shidachi will work JUST beyond the capability of shidachi so that shidachi must struggle to achieve the rusult, but actually achieve it. Forcing shidachi to fail will drive shidachi backward, destroying his confidence and making him worse rather than better.
Pushing by finding the least little opening and ramming your sword into that opening is not helpful and at some time, if you’re switching partners and mixing in with other people to really understand the art, you might just have your rear end handed to you by someone who wasn’t really open when you thought he was. Trust me, that’s not a good day.
Indeed, shidachi has a sad lot, but I mean here those who don’t want to work with a shidachi who is too far beneath their abilities. Some shidachi are just too good to work with absolute beginners right? Well perhaps but I’ve never seen anyone that good. I’ve seen hanshi make absolute beginners look brilliant. I figure that’s a good uchidachi.
It’s a poor uchidachi that can’t teach and can’t make a poor shidachi look good.
On shidachi’s side, if you sense that you have a partner who is truly superior to you, it’s your job to push, and push hard. Try to actually hit shidachi within the confines of the kata. Don’t be sneaky, be a good student and do it correctly but damn it, get in there! Show uchidachi that you’re trying that third rep to failure. Get out of your comfort zone, push the envelope.
Of course we don’t usually have that amount of skill in our new populations of budoka here in the west, and the shidachi uchidachi roles change around regularly. How do we deal with that?
That’s the point, you deal with it. Pay attention, do your best, wait for the signs.
And remember, you’re senior if you were there a week before your partner.