Tomorrow is the day of the British Open Championship and during the past few weeks several people have asked me about the best way of training for shiai. Other than the answer that ” it is too late” if you are asking now, I am not sure if there is any training that is solely specific to shiai. If you train to make your everyday Kendo stronger and faster then it will improve your shiai.
In my view, what sets strong shiai players apart from the rest of us, is the confidence and ability to remain calm under pressure and of course, the more you train and the more shiai experience you have, the more confident you become. There are, of course, tactics that will help maximise on shiai performance, but these are of no use without kendo skill. Arguably, concentrating too early in your kendo career on winning shiai can be counter-productive, with too much emphasis being put on not being hit and not enough concentration on correct technique.
Newer refereeing guidelines point to the need for correct distance, cutting, posture, strength of strike and zanshin and if you think about it, these are best developed through kirikaeshi, uchikomigeiko and waza geiko. Of course you need to find or make the correct opportunity to attack or counter-attack, but again these can be learned in keiko as well as shiai.
The only elements that are exclusive to shiai are the way you manage the space of the shiai-jo and the time allotted to the match. I recently saw a competitor lose by two points by accumulating four hansoku for stepping out of the area. Whilst this is an extreme case, many players would gain from having more awareness of how close they are to the line. The same applies to understanding where you are in the three, four or five minutes allowed for the match and ensuring that you do not peak too early or wait too long. If you are in an individual match or a team daihyo sen, then the stamina and the patience for a long encho are also important.
So I suppose the same advice goes for shiai as passing gradings. The more kendo you do (correctly), the better at it you become.