To tournament, or not to tournament? (Not even a question)

Some thoughts on tournaments and why we need them as martial artists.

It really boils down to this:

  • When we train in the dojo we have training partners:
    A partner is there to help us learn basics (kihon), to work on technique (waza) and to develop our abilities. A partner (good partner, anyway) should not be trying to hurt us, or overpower us, or even win. I know some of you will say "but what about free sparring (kizu kumite)?" and my response is "do you have rules for free sparring?"
  • When we end up in any combat we are up against an enemy.
    All situations from playground fights up to and including open warfare have no rules and the person we are up against has no interest in us, or our welfare, or our skills.
    All they care about is taking us out, winning at all cost. If we are hurt or killed they do not care. This is a far cry from dojo training, and most martial artists are not even close to being ready for this reality.
    So obviously we fill that gap with tournaments and competitions.
  • At a tournament there are rules for safety but our competitor is an opponent;
    falling somewhere in between the dojo and the realities of combat. While they are (typically) not trying to maim or kill, they are also not interested in making us look good or helping us learn. Their entire purpose is (should be) winning the individual competitions and thus the entire tournament. This puts far more pressure upon us as martial artists than anything we experience in regular training but it is very valuable if we are ever called upon to actually fight for our lives and safety; or for the lives and safety of others.

Back in the old days, martial artists would simply go out and get into fights. The old stories of dojo challenges, street brawls and ambushes did happen. Even when I was young, strangers would come into our dojo and issue "challenges" where the goal was to injure or kill anyone who took up the gauntlet. I am talking about America, the good old U.S. of A.

This lawlessness has all but died out thanks to the proliferation of attornies and the ever-present threat of the lawsuit. I mean, sure: you could win a fierce victory over a weak opponent or a charlatan but then the vultures descend and you are left with nothing except possibly some jail time.

So, how do you find out if your skills are good enough? How can you tell if you are being trained properly?

What lets one know that the "Super Whammer-Dyne All Powerful Chumba Wumba style" one is learning from the "Great and Powerful Eternal Goomba" REALLY IS superior to all forms of traditional karate?

I bet you know what I am going to say. I will not even say it... Moving on.

There are two basic types of tournaments:

  • Closed tournaments, restricted to a single form or style of martial art (e.g., Tang Soo Do or Judo)
  • Open tournaments, where competitors may come from any style or form of martial art

Closed tournaments are typically well controlled in regard to relative ranking of opponents and in regard to rules and expectations (scoring) and therefore give an opportunity to test personal skills against opponents at ones own skill level. This is a good indicator of personal progress and can clear away personal illusions caused by cautious and "polite" training partners in the dojo.

Open tournaments are much more "wild and woolly" in nature, as registrants are typically taken at their word as to ranking in their style. Some disreputable and dishonorable individuals routinely shed two or three belt levels so that they can get an easy victory over less skilled opponents. Also, while there are rules the enforcement is left to each judge and not all schools play fair in this regard. However, the open tournament is invaluable for testing ones self against other styles of martial arts. In this manner, you can build up a knowledge of how other styles fight, learn to recognize the training an enemy has had (in the unfortunate event of actual combat) and develop a response to those realities. Just do not expect to win at an open tournament.