How can I perform drills realistically?
Doing basics realistically is a big part of kendo. If you do not perform them in a way that is realistic, you may be developing habits that will hold your kendo back.
On the one hand if you rush your movements in an attempt to make them fast, you risk distorting your technique so that you may never achieve a winning point, a real yuko datotsu.
On the other hand, always performing waza slowly may not allow you to make the most of the brief opportunities to strike when you are faced with a "live" opponent.
There must be a balance between both sides. Things are made even more complicated when you are performing waza in drills as motodachi. How can you be realistic in spite of the fact that you already know what your opponent is going to do?
What is "realistic"?
"Realistic" means where you are performing the drill or technique under a similar kind of stress to what you would experience in jigeiko or shiai. It means performing at your highest level, and without feeling that the situation is safe or easy. When you succeed with performing a waza done in this way, you should feel a sense of achievement, not just a sense that you've done yet another men uchi.
The main way of being able to do this is from experience. In other words, the more experienced you are, the more easy it is to flick the "realism" switch.
So, yet another reason to get to training as much as possible!
How can I be realistic?
There are two situations to consider in this question.
When you are the one performing the technique (kakarite):
Firstly all the preparation for the cut, what happens at the beginning, should be correct. So, correct kamae, good posture.
Next, you need a big kiai and at the same time, you need to really observe your opponent. What are they doing? What is their build? How should you be attacking them?
Next, seme-ashi and maai: step in to an appropriate distance. This is VERY important. Exactly where you come to before your cut will depend on several different factors (your size, your opponent's size, whether your opponent is standing still, moving towards you or moving away from you, the type of cut you are performing, etc), and will decide whether your cuts succeeds or not.
Next, the cut. If your intention and your technique are in harmony, in other words if the speed you wish to move and the speed your body actually moves are the same, then your technique will be smooth and integrated. In kendo this is sometimes called shingitaiitchi 心技体一致 (mind, technique and body as one).
Next zanshin. Whether or not your technique is smooth or successful, following through as if it has been, without any sense of disappointment or satisfaction. Your zanshin should be big, and a natural result of the power of your preparation and the cut itself. I have spoken at training before about how I feel our zanshin is too weak. Particularly I noticed this about my own zanshin while watching video of my 6-dan shinsa. We all need to work on this.
Lastly, reflect: did you really score the best cut you could? Would that have scored ippon in a match? Did you try your hardest? Yes? No? Why? Think honestly for a moment, find your answer and then move on. Don't be disappointed or beat yourself up if you made a mistake. Don't get too cocky if your cuts are all brilliant. Just reflect, adjust if necessary, repeat.
As the person receiving (motodachi):
When you are receiving it is important first to know what the drill is that you are receiving.
Next you must observe the kakarite's movements.
Do not react until you feel some genuine intention to attack coming from your opponent.
Only then should you show an opening, and then the opening should be clear but not too large.
When you are performing a more complicated drill, such as one where you perform some action first like a men cut, you must know what the drill is going to be. You must also try genuinely to win, to score ippon. This is how you make it a proper practice for your partner, to give them a 'live' partner even though it is a pre-arranged drill.
However you must also then forget it is a drill and just focus on going for the men cut. By that I mean, try to forget that you know your partner is going to attempt, for instance, suriage men. Just imagine it is a match and that there is an opening for men in front of you and you go for it, 100%.
If you do not forget it is a drill to practice men-suriage-men but you try all-out to win, then you will, without meaning to, change the angle of your cut so as to stifle the suriage-waza of your partner. You will certainly win the ippon, but you will have ruined the practice of your partner. This is not good.
It is very easy to do this when you know already what your partner is going to do. It may give you a momentary pleasant feeling to score a nice cut. But it is not real and it is frustrating for your partner and anyone who trains with you.
This is why being a motodachi is usually the job of a senior grade, because it requires maturity and some experience to be able to perform the motodachi's role correctly so that it is both realistic, and is also a benefit for your partner. By maturity I mean it requires someone who is able to put their partner's need to train above their own need to win, to think of someone else before themselves.
We can all start thinking about this and trying to put it into practice no matter where we are in our kendo journey.