Training methodology

While we all love practicing naginata, for the vast majority of us it is a recreational sport. Most of us have a limited professional sportive or educational background. This sometimes may lead to a limited overview of the potential of budo expansion and teaching.

I am a student of a degree in physical education in the Wingate academy in Israel, hold a 4th dan rank in naginata, and also have about 15 years of experience of teaching children and youth both naginata, krav maga and various general fitness topics. While this doesn’t give me much of an authority when compared to other more experienced practitioners and senseis in Europe, I nevertheless will take the chance to make a few conclusions I made, so please bear with me.

My first assumption is that Naginata can be defined as a “game”. By that I mean that we have an activity, which is defined by very clear rules that require very specific abilities and proficiencies that can be trained over time.

Of course this doesn’t diminish the fact that naginata is very deep, has a unique history, can be adapted to many types of practitioners, includes a path of developing internal maturity as well as physical skills, and is therefore a very special, unique and amazing activity – but it is a game none the less.

There is more than one way to teach naginata. Some instructors have a clear, set process of a class teachings, while others may have no training plan at all and just create the practice as they go.

However, it seems to me that a sensei should be able to make a clear definition of what a good naginata practitioner may look like – and what does it take to bring him/her there.

In other words – a high level sensei who receives a new group of practitioners, should be able to have a realistic prediction of what their level will look like in a month, half a year, year etc., as well as a clear training plan that will get them there.

I would like to introduce 3 interesting approaches that are being used in the world of sports:

The Skill Approach – this type of practice is considered by some as the “classic” type of teaching. In this type the practitioner makes a repetition of movements, to master one unique skill. Only when this skill is mastered – the practitioner moves to the next skill. For example, a sensei may insist that only when the student will be able to do a sokumen strike on a reasonable level – he will be taught the various waza that include that particular strike.

The Progressive Part Learning – here the practitioner learns to control the technique through the use of small “games” which include the specific technique – but are not the actual “main game” of the naginata. For example, after teaching the basics of fumikomi sune we may allow the students to do a small jigeiko/kakarigeiko practice with only suneate as valid targets. Or do a precision strike competition, using baloons etc. By doing so we improve the fumikomi sune technique – but we do not let the practitioner to experience an actual shiai.

The Game Approach – here we let the practitioner to experience the actual “game” – the shikake oji / kata – ENGI or competitive combat – SHIAI, from very early stages of the introduction to naginata. Of course there is more then one way to define what is that “early stage” is, for some it may be a few weeks, while for others it may be several months. But if the students experience most or all of the “game” during practice – then it falls under the “The Game Approach” category.

Turner, A. P., & Martinek, T. J. (1992) made a comparative analysis of groups that practiced according to the “skill approach” and the “game approach” and made an observation, according to which the difference between the outcome of the two teaching systems is negligible. Other experiments showed similar results. However – we should be aware that both groups were taught only for a short period of time, unlike budoka who usually practice for years.

From this and other researches an interesting observation was made: the motor ability of the technique is of a lower performance when “playing the main game” (engi or shiai in our case) then when it performs in a free practice.

Two main conclusions can be made:
1. There is no proven benefit to the type of training where the repetition of the bare basics of a technique is the main component of one’s regular practice.

2. The body and mind must be trained simultaneously under a variation of practices, both basic kihon, datotsu, shikake oji and shiai, both in practice and competition environment.

When I attended Suzuki Wataru’s highschool dojo in Saitama, I noticed that he used the “Game approach” extensively. Most of the 3 hours trainings were about the “final game” of naginata. Happoburi, uchikaeshi and datotsu were almost not touched at all, or practiced for a very short time. Even for me, a person who was about to take a 4th dan examination, the sensei only asked me to show happo-buri once, and after mking a few comments moved on immediately to other topics.

There were 4 major parts in the Saitama trainings:
1. Long warm up
2. Shikake oji 1-8
3. Bogu – each practitioner asks from his pair to open to specific targets (6 times hasso sune please!)
4. Bogu – 2 minutes Jigeiko. One hour of such Jigeikos.

So here we see a clear emphasys on the
“game” mode, while also leaving some flexibility for a dynamic class.
The proficiency level in the class differed, with both experienced and new practitioners.

Also, sometimes Suzuki sensei took students to the side and gave them specific corrections.

So – the final conclusion is that while there is no one “correct” way to teach naginata, a bigger overview is required.

A lot can be learned by checking how other dojos teach, how it is done in Japan and abroad, and exposing the students to the entire “game” of naginata, as early as you see fit.

In the past I happened to see 3rd dan people who never practiced being shinpan, or hear about countries that hold no annual competitions, thus limiting the experience of their practitioners on the matter. That is obviously not the goal we are looking for.

In Israel, we had 7 competitions in 2022, and plan to have no less then 10 competitions in 2023, so that everyone, including the youngest and newest of our practitioners – will have the experience of entering a shiai-jo, behaving correctly, planning and scheduling the tables and of course the duties of the shinpan. People starting from 3rd kyu are expected to start helping in shinpan duties inside the local dojos, and 2nd and 1st kyu may take part in greater events.

Naginata is still young in Israel – but we are putting an effort to learn and become better – and we feel that this is the right way to do it.

Gur Nedzvetsky, 4th dan.