Programming the Opponent – To Adopt Short-Term Conditioned Responses

I came across an interesting technique while reading the book The Art of Learning – An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin [Waitzkin].  According to the bio, Josh Waitzkin is an eight-time National Chess Champion and a 2004 World Champion of the martial art Taiji Push Hands.

The author describes a technique of “Mental Conditioning” where he programs opponents to unconsciously adopt short-term conditioned responses.  Though described mainly in the context of chess, Push Hands and psychology, the idea seems readily applicable to kendo.  The idea is to “cultivate methods of systematically controlling [your] opponents’ intention [Waitzkin p.153]” and “provoke a pattern of action/reaction in [your] opponent [Waitzkin, p. 154].”

This article covers the technique in the context of Push Hands, its applications to kendo and some thoughts on it.

The Technique Applied to “Throwing” an Opponent in Push-Hands

Here’s a brief summary of the technique for “throwing” an opponent to the ground detailed in Chapter 14 of [Waitzkin].  The example illustrates one way to program the opponent.

You push an opponent (O) and O may push back or lean on you.  If and when O responds, you would then support some of O’s weight.  You would momentarily become one of O’s legs – a crutch.  Then you back off.  This may be repeated until you are certain that O has been programmed to respond “reflexively” and push back.  It apparently needs to be performed subtly so that O is never aware of the programming.

When ready to perform the throw, you start to push O gently again.  Just before or as soon as O starts to lean on you, this time you immediately back off (to remove O’s expected “leg” support instantly) and pull O towards you to further O’s imbalance.  This facilitates his falling and your performing the throw.  Done well, O would have no clue as to what happened.

Applied to Kendo

There are probably many ways of applying this principle of “programming the opponent” in kendo.  Two come to mind readily.  By applying  brief and interspersed moments of subtly-increasing pressure of your ken-saki (sword tip) against O’s ken-saki (assuming chudan kamae‘s) and then releasing the pressure, it may be possible to program O to respond reflexively to counter that pressure.  This may help create an opening to strike a kote or men.  Or, it could be applied when your hands and O’s hands are locked together in tsubazeriai.  By applying brief and interspersed moments of subtly-increasing downward (or upward) pressure with your hands or tsuba on O’s hands or tsuba and then releasing the pressure, it may be possible to program O to respond reflexively to that pressure.  This may help create an opening to strike hiki-do or hiki-kote (or hiki-men).


This technique may seem manipulative or underhanded.  Certainly, the intention is to create a pattern of behavior or a habit in another person “unbeknownst” to that person.  However, it is pervasive.  As revealed in [Duhigg], some companies devote a large amount of effort to “program” consumers to purchase products.  And for those familiar with co-dependency in psychology, this is one way for a co-dependent to “program” significant others to depend on him/her and control them.  Nonetheless, even if unused, I believe it is worth being aware of the technique at the very least.  This way you may be able to recognize when an opponent is attempting to program you and to avoid falling for it.

Finally, of course, the technique may not be needed if and when you have already managed to  identify existing and usable patterns of behavior in the opponent.


[Duhigg] Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Random House, 2014.

[Waitzkin] Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning – An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, Free Press, 2007.


Copyright 2018



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s