Tournament Time

By Brent H. Baker

My teacher once told me that tournaments will never gain me any students, but could cost me students. There is a certain amount of irony in this statement, considering that Hanshi Bernard has been running a successful shiai (tournament) for well over twenty years and that his annual tournament has become well known for having high standards of both safety and professionalism. It is a real pleasure for me to bring students to this event each year so that they, too, can get a glimpse of what it means to be part of this larger family of martial artists that extends so far beyond the bounds of our little dojo.

Why, then, do we lose students when we expose them to tournaments? I have come to suspect that part of the problem is the perception that people have of tournaments. We tend to be very competitive in the US, and this affects the way we approach these events. That is not to say that competition is a bad thing. It can actually be quite healthy, driving us to excel and to strive to reach our fullest potential in life. Many of the scientific and technological advances in the world have been driven, at least in part, by some form of competition.

It is important, however, that we maintain perspective. While competition can help motivate us to succeed, it can also be taken to an unhealthy extreme. Consider, for example, fights that break out among frenzied fans at professional sporting events. Or incidents where parents become so emotionally involved in their children’s sports that they lash out with physical violence at other parents, at coaches and officials, or even at children on the opposing team. There was even a recent incident where a parent attacked and killed a peewee hockey coach – the man was apparently frustrated by the children’s performance during a game.

Part of karate training is learning control – internally as well as externally. One of the ways that we exercise this control is by displaying proper etiquette. Bowing to the officials is a way of acknowledging both the rules and the proper etiquette of the shiai, as well as the official’s authority to enforce them. In kumite, we also bow to our opponent at the beginning and at the end of each match. The first bow is an acknowledgement of our opponent both as a person and as a fellow student of the martial arts. We are taking the time to show that person that we respect them, and that we appreciate their willingness to share in the tournament experience with us. Similarly, the bow at the end of the match is to show that we have maintained our respect for them now that the match is over, and to thank them for sharing themselves with us. By taking the time so display these courtesies, we have transformed our opponent in a sparring match into our partner in an exchange of techniques and ideas. This allows us to be competitive without being adversarial. We change a confrontation into a positive learning experience.

And that, really, is what karate training is all about: creating positive experiences that allow us to learn and grow as individuals. Tournaments are simply an extension of that training. Just as the color of your belt is not as important as what you’ve learned so, too, the points in a tournament are not as important as the experience itself. Kata divisions often end with the competitors scoring within a tenth of a point of each other – and anyone who has experienced kumite can tell you that there are always plenty of points made that the referees never see. A thousand tiny factors can influence the outcome of a shiai competition – which is why it’s important to keep the points and the places in perspective.

A few years back, my teacher stopped awarding trophies at his tournaments and instead began awarding medals to the participants. The difference, he explained, was that all participants would be recognized – not just the top three competitors of each division. Everyone who performed a kata or fought a match would receive recognition for it. After all, it’s not easy to perform in front of colleagues, judges, and a crowd of spectators who may or may not know anything about the martial arts. Hanshi Bernard has stated, and I have to agree, that just getting out in the spotlight and performing is a victory in itself. It’s a victory in the battle against fear and self-doubt. It’s a victory of self-confidence that is expressed by acknowledging that we each have something positive to contribute to this larger community of martial artists. It is a victory in simply declaring that it doesn’t matter whether we come in first or last place, so long as we are out there trying and supporting each other and sharing in the experience that is the martial arts.

And so, in closing, I would like to pass along something that I have always tried to tell my own students about tournaments. Don’t worry about the points. Don’t worry about making mistakes. Don’t worry about what place you come in. It doesn’t matter. It is much better to strive for three simple things:

  • Do your best. Leave the tournament feeling good about your performance, regardless of how you placed, and understanding that you have made a positive contribution.
  • Try to learn something. This is an opportunity to work with new people from different styles and backgrounds – learning from them is a way to recognize their contributions.
  • Have fun. The shiai is a coming-together of a group of people who truly enjoy the martial arts. Don’t be afraid to meet new people and share the joy.

If you can keep these things in mind, then you will make the tournament a positive experience for yourself and others. And, at the end of the day, that is what it’s all about.

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