1 hour, 3 mats, 19 contestants
In a world filled with technology, an increasing number of students at Jacobson Elementary School in Rush City have become attracted to a simple wooden ball on a string.
A way to develop good hand-eye coordination and motor skills, Kendamas provide hours of fun and entertainment. The fascination with the game culminated in a two-day tournament at the school March 27 and April 3.
“It’s a lot better than watching TV,” sixth-grader Kylie Forcier said.
A Kendama is an ancient Japanese skill toy with three sizes of cups, a spike and a hole in a ball on a string.
“It’s basically just a game of catching the ball on all the cups and you can spike it. It just gets a little out of control after that,” Turner Thorne, 2010 Kendama USA Pro of the Year, said in a YouTube video.
At the end of World War II, candy stores sold numerous toys, including the Kendama. They can range in size from the mini (3.5 cm) to the mega (32 cm in length) and cost $12 to $50, depending on the type of design and wood used.
Ever since Christmas, sixth-grade students have been practicing nonstop to master their Kendama skills, trying out some of the more popular tricks. The wooden balls are brightly painted and many include crazy face designs.
Sixth-grader Jake Groehler was one of the first students to bring a Kendama to school and share one with his friend.
Students have learned that the two key tips to becoming a better player include bending the knees and not changing the grip for certain tricks. “Juggling” the Kendama means moving the ball on the string from cup to cup, or landing on the spike. The most popular grip for spiking is called the “Ken Grip.” Students in Rush City will tell you that spinning the ball makes it much easier to successfully “spike” it.
The perfect time to practice Kendama tricks at school, of course, is during recess. When temperatures dipped below zero several days this winter, sixth-graders could be seen practicing in the hall and even in the classroom. As warmer temperatures have arrived, many students can be seen playing Kendama in front of the school.
Sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Karvonen noted that the first Kendama tournament came about via the Rush City Student News program published weekly on YouTube.
“The sixth-grade news staff took on the task of reporting on the popularity of this ancient Japanese game, and before we knew it, a tournament was born,” she said. “The initiative these students showed organizing the event was incredible. They set up the brackets, invited other grade levels, designed permission slips, obtained the room, and gathered the equipment. We all learned a lot and are looking forward to another event come May.”
At Jacobson Elementary’s first two-day Kendama Tournament, students demonstrated sportsman-like conduct throughout the tournament.
The ground rules were set, and the battle of the Kendama was on. Opponents faced off against each other on mats, brainstorming the best way to “out-trick” their opponent.
Similar to the game “Pig” in basketball, contestants created their own game of “Ken.” If the first player made a trick, the next person had to repeat the same trick. If the player missed it, they earned the letter K. The first player to spell “Ken” was eliminated from the round; the other was declared the winner and moved on.
As the competition heated up during the bracket tournament, comments like “Either one works!” “Let’s do this thing!” and “This is an actual trick called Tornado” could be heard throughout the room.
On Day 1, Sam Sybrant was declared the winner while Brandon Guptill took second place.
The consolation round included Andy Toupal and Cody McFee, players who planned to save their best tricks for a Kendama rematch on day 2.
The 19 participants included 13 boys and six girls. Lucas McFee was a third-grader; the rest were sixth-grade students at Jacobson Elementary School.