When my sensei talk about sutemi, I believe they often are referring to the way you confidently carry yourself before and during a strike. I think zanshin is usually something that describes the moments after a strike. Sutemi and zanshin seem to share the concept of mental/physical/spiritual alertness and intense connection to your aite. When this intense connection occurs appears to be the main difference.
Your body and mind are fully alert and focused on your aite even after the strike in zanshin. I’m sure you’ve been in a situation where you’ve lacked zanshin and seen the consequences. In keiko, it might not be so dramatic when you lack zanshin.
A classic case of mal-zanshin.
You’re in a heated match with your childhood rival. At the most intense part of the fight, he goes for your men. You noticed a tendency early on that he dips his kensaki (tip of the shinai) down slightly before he goes in for a simple men-uchi. You go for the kote. It was the perfect time. The strike produces that trademark ‘popping’ sound from what appears to be a beautifully executed dekote. You feel 100% sure that you’ve got that point. You wait for the shinpan to announce “Kote-ari!”.
But then, the unexpected happens. Your opponent creases your men. The judges had actually never awarded you the kote point that you were so certain you had. You had let your guard down and your rival scored the exact same men that you were certain you had finessed before. There was only a second left in the match. Time was called before you could even make your final attempt to tie the match.
A lack of zanshin really can make all the difference, or so I’ve been taught.
Why is zanshin so hard?
Zanshin was exhausting for me. It was tiring mentally and physically to assume an alert and focused mind/body/spirit after each strike.
In jigeiko, I would rotate to Matt Wolf knowing that I’d be breathing heavily at the end of the 5 minute rotation. Matt would do this thing that would test my zanshin further than I could cardiovascularly manage. Immediately after I’d do any kind of two count nidan waza, he’d continously pursue me with multiple strikes and fakes until he wore down my mental/physical/spirit. Kote-men, hiki-men, kotemen, harai-hikimen. He’d pop my kote or men at the end of this multi-strike oikomi. He wasn’t just blasting me with sloppy hits, they were fully committed strikes. He just had zanshin that would continue further than I could catch up with. I’d just be catching my breath the whole time. It was a challenge that really changed my kendo for the better.
I’m sure you’ve experienced something like this before. A training partner who is so persistent and endlessly focused is always exciting to fight.
This kind of zanshin heavy jigeiko really changed my keiko over time. I had to be sharp in all 3 of these areas in order to compete, zanshin-wise.
This kind of keiko made me alert and focused on my aite at all times. If I lost mental focus on what this guy was doing, he’d notice and use that mental boke against me.
This made me move more efficiently and improved my conditioning. I would learn how to recharge physically after a strike while maintaining physical zanshin posture.
This required me to extend my spirit to my aite more freely. The more I’d extend my spirit during these long combinations of strikes, my mental and physical endurance in zanshin improved so dramatically.