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The Three States of Sen - Sen sen no sen, Sen no sen, Go no sen

(That is a lot of sen...) (-_-)"

This article attempts to explain the concept of “Sen sen no sen, Sen no sen, Go no sen”. Before delving into explanation proper, a few other elaborations are needed. “Sen” (先) roughly translates to “before”. “Go” (後) roughly translates to “after”.

Let’s use the 5W-1H (what, when, where, why and how) to explain what this concept is about.

WHAT is “Sen sen no sen, Sen no sen, Go no sen” about?

This is regarding your position, intent, and actions relative to your imaginary (in Iai context) opponent’s position, intent and actions. Think of it as your intended strategy in response to your opponent’s. With “Sen sen no sen, Sen no sen, Go no sen”, imagine they are 3 broad strategies you might use. Easy, yes?

WHEN and WHERE is this concept applied for maximum effectiveness?

This addresses the space-time domain. Which type of strategy you want to use depends on the distance between you and your opponent, the waza situation you are in (waza bunkai), and your reflex – which response comes to mind?

Bear in mind that while practice is done in controlled environments, the smoothness and finesse of execution translates to actions within split-seconds. There is no interruptions nor decision paralysis. This has to be something we work towards to.

WHY the fuss about this concept?

Obviously, it lies with whether you emerge the victor from the encounter!

HOW do I do it?

It may not be apparent initially while you practice. As you practice over time and gain proficiency, you might wonder about the purpose for certain actions of respective wazas. Finding out and understanding their purpose is the first step towards appreciating the strategies (Sen no sen, etc.).

Tachi uchi no kurai is one area of practicing the application of said strategies. Another is paired practice of wazas (strict observance of safety is paramount).

Also influencing the successful application of these strategies is heavily dependent on how good you are in your fundamental wazas.

That was a short primer to what “Sen sen no sen, Sen no sen, Go no sen” is. At the beginning of the article, we described the translations of “Sen” and “Go”. Putting these characters together, they can be collectively translated as taking the “initiative, in advance, before or after your opponent”

Sen sen no sen ( 先先の先 )

"Also called Kakari no sen". This strategy prescribes creating an advantage over your opponent by taking the initiative in advance of your opponent's actions/ intents." Examples of these include:

  1. Junto (Battoho waza). As the uchidachi decides and begins to attack, the shidachi takes the initiative and attacks before the uchidachi's sword is fully drawn.

  2. Zetsumyoken (Tachiuchi no kurai kata). The decisive moment in this kata is when the Uchidachi is bringing his sword up, and the shidachi exploits that gap and attacks.

Sen no sen ( 先の先)

"This strategy prescribes observing your imaginary opponent's intents from and countering his/her with your own initiative." Examples of these include:

  1. Inazuma (Tatehiza waza). As uchidachi is cutting down, shidachi cuts into the opponent.

  2. Shinobu (Okuiai waza). After deceiving the uchidachi, shidachi in an offset position cuts down before the uchidachi completes the cut.

Go no sen ( 後の先)

"This strategy prescribes taking the post-initiative after letting or luring the opponent to commit to his/ her actions. In many ways, this strategy aims to use the opponents' strengths against themselves." Examples of these include:

1. Ukenagashi (Seiza waza). Once the Uchidachi has committed into the cut, the shidachi receives and uses the momentum therein to follow-up with a decisive kirioroshi.

It is interesting to note that the concept of timing is dependent on both you and the uchidachi/opponent. Having a keen observation of the nuances of timing, apart from an active mind and body, and a solid foundation of skill can help a great deal towards the application of the three states of sen.

The OODA loop

How does it all come together? The above mentioned strategies cannot be blindly applied without understanding the opponent's intents.

A critical mental model helps put all these into place - the OODA loop. Developed by military strategist and United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd, the OODA loop is the decision cycle of Observe-Orient-Decide-Act.

Putting it all into perspective of iai kata, it involves Observing opponent's intents, Orientate oneself to opponent's actions and distance, Decide on best available response options (i.e. which of the 3 broad strategies discussed above and actions do you think is most suitable), and Executing it at the right moment of that particular engagement for maximum effectiveness. Thereafter, the OODA loop cycles through until the end of the engagement. So there you have it -- the concept of “Sen sen no sen, Sen no sen, Go no sen.”

We hope this article is useful in helping readers gain a better understanding in "Sen sen no sen, Sen no sen, Go no sen". Til next time, take care.

Note: The concepts discussed are based on the understanding of the Authors.


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