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Tenouchi : The Art of Controlled Challenge

I’ve practiced kendo for a number of years and the club regularly takes in beginners. They are very keen and eager but have not developed their skills sufficiently to control attacks. I can see a connection between the development of their kendo skills and the development of executive coaching skills. 

Kendo means the way of the sword, and is a modern Japanese martial art/sport, which is descended from traditional swordsmanship and uses bamboo swords (shinai), and protective armour. It is a physically and mentally challenging activity that combines martial arts practices and values with sport-like strenuous physical activity.

Tenouchi : The Art of Controlled Challenge

As Kendo involves full contact with the shinai, control is required to prevent significant injury. With beginners the challenge is evident; they are keen, eager and up for a fight but their control has not yet developed.  The uncontrolled challenge is evident as my head, wrist and other parts of my body hurt as they practice their cuts!

As kendo skills are developed, the Kendoka learns to apply ‘tenouchi’. As the shinai hits the target, the grip tightens for an instant (this is tenouchi), and then the grip immediately relaxes. This has the effect of controlling the strike, so it is a noticeable tap on the target, and prevents it from being a painful pile-driver of a blow.

With so much going on in the kendo fight, tenouchi is a difficult skill to develop. It is easy for the adrenaline to take over, it is a battle, and so the notion of control can be a distant thought. But over time, and with focused attention the skill develops. So there is the challenge of a fight, but with control.

The purpose of describing the skills of kendo is that I see a connection with executive coaching. When working with a coachee, uncontrolled challenge is brutal, painful and damaging. In terms of the 2 x 2 support vs challenge matrix this is high challenge and low support, the stress quadrant. This is where the coachee loses resourcefulness, feels overloaded and burns out. However if the challenge is controlled, then there is the balance of high support and high challenge, the optimal zone for high performance.

support challenge matrix


The art is to develop controlled challenge and apply ‘tenouchi’ to coaching. This comes with focused practice over time.


At kendo on Sunday, I experienced another connection with coaching. After a particularly challenging and exhausting first half of the session my instructor said to me “We have a really good group of people in the club, they are all very open minded and receptive. You must notice this in your coaching.” This is very true, if a coachee is inflexible and not willing to try new things and test themselves, then the job of the coach is even more difficult. If the coachee is open to try new things, they are more receptive and able to change and grow.

Click here to see what kendo is like (I’m the one with the red ribbon and sky blue head scarf!)

What analogies do you have which connect to your coaching? Post your thoughts on our Linked In discussion group.