I strongly believe this is not a secret at all but just the harsh reality that each of us has to face:
how good we prepare for the competition itself
For me it’s all about taking advantage of every opportunity, you cannot focus your preparation only during a specific time of the year or only during the national team meetings. Your preparation must also be mental and constant, even outside of the dojo.
Now you may think “he must be crazy”, which is a little bit true, otherwise I wouldn’t practice iaido.
But what I really mean when I say that you need to train even outside of the dojo? I mean that I often find myself thinking about some kata, about some specific part of a kata, about how my body mentally reacts to some specific movement, or rather how mentally I think it reacts. Then, maybe in the dojo in front of the mirror, or by recording myself, I check if my mental sensation matches the physical result. As Alberto says, that is proprioperception, a very difficult word. On this topic it interesting to read again and again what Ishido sensei wrote in the book The Eyes of the Iaido Grading Panelist (Iaido Shinsa -in no Me) (link to the British Kendo Association website).
You can mentally prepare a kata, analyze it in all its parts, maybe try to mentally remember the mistakes that beginners make and try to mentally correct them on yourself. It is a good visualization exercise for me. I guess you are wondering: But when do you even do it?
I happen to think about kata before falling asleep, or since I regularly spend hours in the hospital for my checks, instead of spending all my time on some social network, I find myself watching iaido videos or thinking about a particular technique . This for me is part of the preparation.
Another very important point is to watch carefully some iaido videos, either your own to try to understand the errors and improve them but also those of the sensei’s to try to grasp their excellent points.
For example, watching a video of Kusama Sensei during the Kyoto Taikai in which he performs the 12 katas of Zen Nippon Kendo Ren Mei, you can see Morote tsuki: between the first cut and the tsuki he has a seme, a continuity of movement that would leave no way out to any opponent, a gem to look at, to study and to try to make our own, if we could ever do it at all. Or, as often happens to me, watch Morishima Sensei’s videos and try to understand how he manages to stay so straight and so low on his hips, or how he manages to move without seeming to even touch the ground, or the progression he has in nukitsuke and kirioroshi in Shoatto. Or look at the apparent ease of execution and fluency of the movements in the execution of the kata of Ishido sensei.
All this is a fundamental part of preparation to me. Do you want to win? Then, as my sensei says “Hard work!” but don’t stop at the hours in the dojo, you must keep working outside the dojo too.
The principles of Zen Nippon Kendo Ren Mei say “improving as men along the way”. I don’t think you can get this just by working or thinking about it when you are inside the dojo.
Trivial isn’t it?
A fun story
I remember with a lot of pleasure one evening at my house with Furuichi sensei and some of his students: we spent some time watching the recording of my 2007 European final in Paris where I won against Belgian Doumoulin. After looking at me, the sensei gave me indications on everything that could be improved, comments that are priceless, also because they were made in front of the PC with a glass of Sake in hand and lots of laughs.
The psychological aspect
This turns to be a very important point and in common with psychology too. However, it is necessary to bring attention to something: I believe it is essential to prepare yourself with seriousness, perseverance and motivation not only within the dojo but also in our daily life. However, we must pay attention to the mental attitude (the so-called Activation in sports psychology) with which a competition is perceived: I noticed that too much emotional and physical investment and an excessive overload of energy do not produce the desired effects. In fact, you risk arriving too loaded, without leaving room for creativity, pure passion, and you become unable to manage the unexpected or any disturbing feelings.
Instead, what is really important, which also follows the same pattern that occurs in psychotherapy, is the use of visualization and imaginative practices. The brain areas are activated equally when we imagine doing something, an action, a movement or when we feel a certain emotion. For this reason, in fact, many professional athletes use this type of technique to mentally prepare for a competition, because the body learns and gets used to certain movements already within our mind.
So imagining to practice katas, or to be in the moment of the competition, helps our body to feel and become familiar with the whole situation and, if well trained, can help to better manage all the feelings that will inevitably emerge in the real moment.