Tournaments and other competitions are a source of controversy in martial arts. We’d like to look at both sides of the argument, then discuss why—or, more accurately, when—we at the Carbondale Park District karate program believe the benefits of competition outweigh their disadvantages.
General Notes About Martial Arts Competitions
Most traditional (karate and tae kwon do) tournaments offer two competition categories: forms and fighting.
Forms (kata in karate, poomse in tae kwon do) consist of a series of choreographed self-defense techniques. Judges evaluate competitors’ speed, balance, precision, power, focus, intensity, and accuracy
Most karate tournaments divide forms into empty-hand and weapons divisions.
In karate tournaments, fighters wear soft-foam gloves, boots, and helmets. They may only make light to firm contact with opponents. Judges stop the action to score techniques that land cleanly.
Most tae kwon do tournaments don’t offer weapons divisions. Instead, they may add gumdo, or soft-sword sparring, and/or hapkido, where judges evaluate throwing and other self-defense skills.
Instead of padding their weapons (hands and feet), tae kwon do rules require fighters to pad the targets and shields with chest protectors and shin and forearm guards. Tae kwon do sparring allows full-contact striking to the body. Fighters cannot land any hand techniques to the head but can make light foot contact to the head. Action does not stop to call points but runs continuously.
In karate and tae kwon do tournaments, martial artists compete against others in their age and experience levels. Smaller tournaments may not attract enough competitors to create weight or height divisions for their fighting competitions, though larger ones may.
Most state governments appoint athletic commissions to create or approve rules for and regulate nontraditional combat sports like boxing, kickboxing, muai Thai, and mixed martial arts. Rules and regulations may vary significantly from state to state, but generally, fighters compete in weight divisions and can strike with full contact.
In his brilliant book The Spirit of Aikido, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, son of aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba, passionately argues that judo, karate, and kendo made mistakes and errors when developing or adapting into competitive sports:
That aikido is a modern budo does not simply mean that a traditional martial art has taken on contemporary features found in the other “modernized” forms of budo, such as judo, karate and kendo. While inheriting the spiritual aspects of martial arts and emphasizing the training of mind and body, the others have emphasized competition and tournaments, stressing their athletic nature, placing priority on winning, and thus securing a place in the world of sports.
In contrast, aikido refuses to become a competitive sport and rejects all forms of contests or tournaments, including weight divisions, rankings based on the number of wins and the crowning of champions. Such things are seen as fueling only egotism, self-concern and disregard for others. A great temptation lures people into combative sports—everyone wants to be a winner—but there is nothing more detrimental to budo, whose ultimate aim is to become free of self, attain no-self, and thus realize what is truly human.
Some karate schools and many jujitsu schools agree, while others object to martial arts competitions for a different reason: To make combat sports safe(r), the rules must sacrifice realism and effectiveness. Thus, they don’t spar at all, in class or tournaments.
In tournament karate, combatants wear padded gloves, boots, and headgear, and may only use light to firm contact when striking each other. Boxers and kickboxers must wear padded gloves and fight people of their own size; boxers can only punch above the waist. Even mixed martial artists fight with many holds barred—and on a soft, smooth surface.
Adjusting to those rules can create conditioned responses completely inappropriate for a self-defense situation, where a person may face multiple, perhaps armed, assailants, probably with significant size and strength advantages.
The need to one-up each other in forms competitions can lead to acrobatically impressive but martially useless perversions.
Politics have also long disgraced combat sports, with judges and referees giving preferential treatment to certain competitors or just doing a poor enough job that they make incompetence hard to distinguish from corruption. Boxing provides countless examples.
If competition didn’t confer benefits on its participants, the case against it would close. The reality is that competition can help martial artists improve in ways that dojo classes and seminars cannot.
Often unintentionally, martial arts schools sequester their students, and they train in isolation.
Tournaments are perhaps the only place where students can see so many other martial arts styles and schools in one place. They show students they’re part of a much larger world, and they belong to a far bigger family, than they may have realized. Competition allows them to join and build this community.
The diversity in forms alone can delight and bewilder a student. Even at a medium-sized tournament, a person can see students from a dozen schools perform hundreds of kata. Students may even see many versions of the same kata, enlightening them as to how small differences can lead to radical reinterpretations or new applications of the same movement.
Because martial arts exist outside the extracurricular mainstream, students don’t have many opportunities to develop camaraderie and make friends with like-minded interests. School-aged martial arts students, in particular, may feel isolated as they see teenagers on the school basketball or speech team eat lunch together and receive academic or scholastic recognition from teachers, administrators, and peers for their accomplishments.
Martial arts create special bonds between us, and tournaments give students a chance to establish a fellowship based on them.
Realistic expectations and careful adaptation can allow point-fighting and other rules-based martial arts competitions to improve your self-defense skills.
Finally, since nobody likes to lose, competition provides a powerful incentive to work harder, pay closer attention to detail, and improve more quickly than students who don’t compete. Tournaments can pressure-test a martial artist’s skills against people from many different schools who may approach the fighting arts differently. Students may learn what does and doesn’t work for them in a larger context than their home dojos can provide. They may also learn what works against them and how to close those defensive gaps. And they may discover new techniques or strategies they can adapt.
We’ve explored a few advantages and disadvantages of martial arts competition. We already tipped our hand in the introduction that we in the Carbondale Park District karate program generally believe that the advantages of competition outweigh the disadvantages, and we laid out the reasons above. The larger question is how to maximize the benefits while limiting the disadvantages.
First, do not get hung up on winning and losing. Instead, use competition as a way to identify and build on strengths and shore up weaknesses.
Don’t let the politics of competition upset you. Sometimes competition teaches the hard lesson that life isn’t fair. If a judge doesn’t call a point you felt you deserved, use it as an incentive to improve your technique. If a judge’s prejudice costs you a victory that you felt you earned, work harder and smarter next time to win that judge over.
Learn whatever else you can from the experience to improve your performance in your next tournament. In fact, respectfully ask the judges and referees afterward for advice. What did they see that you could do better next time?
Sparring, whether in a dojo, gym, or competition can improve timing, control of distance, angles, technique choices, improvisational thinking, physical conditioning…. All of these attributes can improve a person’s prospects in a self-defense situation.
The pressure of tournament fighting can exceed that of dojo (classroom) sparring, helping students learn to deal with something closer to what they might feel in a self-defense setting.
Martial artists, however, must recognize how fighting, under any rules, overlaps imperfectly with self-defense. Mixed martial artists will find that grappling or going to the ground (particularly on gravel or pavement) can endanger them, either inherently or by preventing escape, which self-defense tactics should always facilitate. Tournament karate fighters need to adapt to deliver full-contact strikes. Tae kwon do fighters must learn to defend against punches coming at their heads. We could go on.
Fighters who understand how competition can enhance and diminish their prospects in a true no-rules, no-holds-barred confrontation will better know why, when and how to adapt or abandon their training.
Martial artists who compete can generally come away with positive experiences if they avoid the pitfalls that Kisshomaru Ueshiba and other critics enumerated.
Of course, martial artists who don’t wish to compete don’t have to. While at the Carbondale Park District karate program we encourage our students to compete and thoroughly prepare students who wish to enter tournaments, most don’t, and we never obligate them to do so.