Blocking is not as sexy as tameshigiri or striking, but it is the understated hero of techniques.
The problem with blocks is that you can only practice them (for real) in situations where you are sparring or combat situations. This brings out the reality of developing reaction time and applying practical techniques. Blocking drills prepare your form only, but does not prepare you adequately for reaction time, impact force, movement and changing distance. Even with a Goshinken, many students tend not to block properly because the weapon is padded.
Even the blocking drills are known situations with predefined rules of what attack will come and which block to make. This form of sequenced drill exists to do just that: drill into your head the form and appropriate counterattack, until it becomes automatic. However, the drills themselves water down the aspects of mental stress, reaction time, visual recognition, and impact force.
Blocking takes a lot of steps both mentally and physically:
1. Analyze what strike is coming
2. Consider what block to make (this eventually becomes automatic)
3. Consider if the strike changes part way and react to the change with the right block
4. Consider if they will strike again immediately to determine if you should return to neutral or counter-strike
5. Depending on which part of the sword you blocked with and which block you performed, consider what counter-strike most naturally or easily can come out of the block
That’s a lot more thinking than you may realize. Even after it becomes automatic for you, it is still happening.
A lot of fighting eventually becomes automatic the longer you practice. This has to do with memory really. The more you practice a sequence, your brain makes more connections for those particular sequence of operations, and even helps the signals to go faster.
These connections occur in several different parts of the human brain, the last being the limbic system that controls your muscles and movements, much of which involves unconscious thinking. In the conscious part, the brain applies its typical ‘program’:
1. what’s happening?
2. have I seen this before?
3. If so, what happened then?
4. What should I do?
5. If this happened before, what did I do then?
6. Did it work?
7. Should I try to do it again?
8. If not, what should I try?
9. Okay, now do this
That’s a lot of steps to analyze something that’s coming at you in half a second or less. There are even more steps in between 2 and 3 when you recognize something that is similar to several possibilities. As you get into this situation more and more, the brain short cuts some of the steps. Eventually, it becomes more and more automatic and just from 2 straight to 9.
Because the limbic system also controls your muscles, people often inaccurately call it ‘muscle memory’ and say your muscles will remember. Eventually, less and less of your conscious brain is involved, and more of your unconscious. What’s more, the specific set of muscles involved in the sequence will also improve with practice.
Unfortunately, if you continue to learn something improperly you will continue to become good at it, even when it doesn’t help; it takes conscious effort to relearn to the proper technique. Also, rote practice of a technique doesn’t necessarily make it adaptable. When you practice one exact move to perfection, you will certainly be very good at it, but if the situation chances, you may suddenly drop back down to a very basic level. Adaptability comes from more cross connections between the patterns in your brain that hold your techniques.
This is why freeform fighting is so important. It lets you put together the mental connections of how people fight, learn variability of fight situations, and what happens when people get unrestrained.
For safety’s sake today, we use non-lethal weapons (vs. lethal katanas or bokkens) when sparring such as a Goshinken (unarmored) or a shinai (armored). Both shinai and Goshinken actually absorb some of the force of the blow because they deform on impact. This doesn’t mean that they don’t hurt, but it’s less likely to be truly damaging.
This unfortunately makes many students lazy about blocking every strike. I see many students often just keep whacking at each other constantly, in repeated clashes (when both hit each other at the same time), without even bothering to block it.
I, for one, am also guilty of it when I have to fight a newer student especially so I don’t end up hurting them seriously—this problem is likely when you consider than half my current students are barely 13 or 14 and don’t have much muscle. Thus, I’m slipping in my blocking skills by restraining myself and allowing students to strike.
While I tend to allow the newest students to keep sparring for a short while even if they don’t block and get it with the Goshinken, I think the higher-level students have to try to block every strike, or it will count against them. Even though we de-emphasize making small slices at the opponents, it's still a must to block them. They will never understand the spirit of sparring of they don’t learn this.
If you don't go into the fight thinking that every hit matters, then you will not understand the spirit of the match. It just becomes a performance.
Long story short: Make blocking a priority skill. Beware people who can block well.
To me a true sign of swordsmanship skill is someone who can block almost every time and any strike.