Clinics and Tournaments: Classrooms for Self Improvement (Part 1)

Tournaments and clinics each have a place in the education of martial artists. The experiences gained from attending them – both good and bad – go far beyond learning a new kata or lock flow, or winning a handful of medals. I encourage my students to take advantage of these opportunities whenever possible. In the this two-part series I share the benefits I’ve gained from participating in tournaments and clinics, and why I think they’re an important component of our training as martial artists.

Part I: Tournaments

In my 22 years as a student of the martial arts I have been to my fair share of tournaments. In fact, in my first system, competing in tournaments was actually a requirement for black belt.

It wasn’t a bad thing, and actually looking back it was a great way of making sure we were supporting the local martial arts community. We still kept a good balance of remaining traditional to our style and not slipping into a tournament-only school – you know, practicing techniques specifically to get a point in kumite or changing the kata for the sake of gaining higher scores from the judges. I probably competed in at least one to two kata a month early on in my martial arts career, but by the time I reached purple belt I was getting burned out on tournaments, so the number of tournaments drastically fell off. Over the next several years I would still go to a handful of local tournaments, mostly people I knew, to help or show my support.

In my early kyu rank years I just did want Sensei said: trained hard and went out and competed hard. If I lost, I lost. If I won, great. Either way, I know I gave it my best that day. It was fun then, and maybe that’s the innocence of a young karateka, not knowing the difference between good judges and bad judges. And really, it’s not that someone is good or bad, it just comes down to what they know and if they are able to see the difference that determines first from second, third, fourth and so on.

I know it’s difficult to find black belts who are willing to help judge, let alone a good handful of experienced and seasoned judges. The other part of that is whether everyone judging on the same criteria. But I think to myself, they all should at least be able to look out there and tell what good basics are. And in my opinion, more importantly, does that person look dangerous and will their techniques work? Then I got tired of people scoring higher than others based on the fact that they run in those groups/circuits – but I guess that’s part of the game.

And just when you thought I was going to dog on tournaments… Let me tell you the benefits of tournaments and why I think it’s good to compete, as long as you keep your traditions and don’t chase points! Just like preparing for a test, when you prep for a tournament you tend to practice your forms more with more repetitions and more energy behind each move.

You practice the formalities of presenting yourself to the judges. You learn to overcome the fear of public performance, and eventually learn to focus and block out everything that is not important. I think this is one of the key areas that has helped me in my development and helped get the butterflies out for black belt testing. You learn to block out everyone watching and it’s just you and your kata (some call it being in “the zone”), focusing on the next move and nothing more. Tournaments also give you the opportunity to see how well you stack up against like stylists, and if you take the results (good or bad) and use and learn from them, then you have gained from your experience.

Summary: I competed a lot. Won and lost a lot. Decided I didn’t like “the game”. Then several years later can see the many benefits tournaments provide to students.

One Response to “Clinics and Tournaments: Classrooms for Self Improvement (Part 1)”
  1. Ron says:

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve been lurking for a while, but felt compelled to respond to this post.

    I am a beginner, having practiced karate for less than one year, but can identify with much of what you’ve written. I’ve competed in just one tournament, and as you, liked some things….didn’t like other things.

    What I liked was being surrounded by a lot of folks, most of whom were higher rank and many of whom trained in different systems. Whether in the dojo or at work, I try to surround myself with people who are better than I am. That’s how we improve. And the different systems give me perspective on my own training. For example, while I’m not practicing the Shotokan style, seeing a fellow competitor execute a Shotokan kata well can be insightful.

    I also liked the practice before the tournament, the extra attention to form, timing, power, etc. I’ve never had much of a problem with getting up in front of people, but aim for the focus….the getting into the zone…that you describe. When I did my form during the tournament, it was the best that I had ever done that particular form. Not perfect, not even close. But it was the best that I had ever done. I could look back and visualize everything I did well, and every mistake. I had a level of focus that I was ONLY able to achieve in a tournament setting, and I liked it.

    What I didn’t like was the somewhat subjective nature of the judging. Now that’s NOT to say I thought any of the judging was bad……I don’t feel like I have the experience to even recognize good from bad at this point. But judging a karate tournament is not as well defined as, say, counting the number of baskets scored in a basketball game. I guess I shouldn’t tag this as something I “didn’t like”, because I went into the tourney with a certain expectation that, in hindsight, turned out to be realistic.

    What else didn’t I like? The feeling that it’s not real. To me, karate is not a sport, nor a game, nor about scoring points. It is about combat, survival, calling on deeply embedded skills when needed, killing or being killed…..the karate jutsu. On a higher level, it’s about giri and on, honor, respect, avoiding bad situations, living a productive and peaceful life….the karate do. But again, I probably shouldn’t say that I “didn’t like” this aspect of the tournament, because I had a certain realistic expectation and it was met.

    So will I be competing again? DEFINITELY. Will I be seeking out and traveling to every tournament in the midwest? NO. To me, karate is a big puzzle. I get the pieces by training at the dojo. The tournaments, clinics and other “extracurricular activities” help to smooth out the rough edges and let me begin to figure out how the pieces fit together. How are your rough edges coming along?

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