As karate has grown more popular in the world, it has developed a competitive aspect to it. Tournaments and competitions were introduced as a means of motivating karateka and giving them a chance to test their skills against their peers. But as a result of competition, karate is considered a sport in many places. However, we must not forget that karate is ultimately a martial art, and like any art, it is about refinement and improvement, not winning and losing.
By treating karate as a sport, one's vision is narrowed, and it can be easy to lose out on the intricacies of the art and many of the benefits that we can gain from training. Sports are mainly based on physical prowess, and competitions are a means of measuring that. But karate is not limited to the physical aspect. Learning different techniques and forms is just a starting point; by continuing to improve our technique, we are building endurance and strength of mind. A sport tends to end once off the field or court, but karate continues beyond the dojo. Every idea learned in karate can be translated and applied to actions in our daily lives. While athletes eventually retire from sports, there is no retirement from karate-do. It is more than a physical activity; it is a way of life.
That's not to say that competition is bad. Tournaments have a place in karate training, and can help in one's development. Tournament training provides excellent motivation, and can lead karateka to push themselves harder than they normally would. At a tournament, whether local, regional or national, there is an opportunity to interact with the greater karate world, meeting students and Senseis from various clubs. This enhances the sense of community that exists in martial arts.
One also has to face their fears by performing in front of a large crowd, in a somewhat high pressure situation. This provides a sense of tension and excitement that one might encounter in real combat. Only by being calm and collected in the face of pressure will a karateka be able to defend oneself effectively. But there must be some perspective, since ultimately a tournament is just another form of training. Winning a medal or a trophy highlights good performance, but is not a foolproof indicator of true skill or knowledge. If we approach a tournament with the mindset of a martial artist rather than an athlete, we will recognize it for what it is: special training.
Thus we must train with the idea of self-improvement and learning self-defense, and not just to win against an opponent in a tournament. In all forms of training, always strive to do your best and continue to improve yourself. When competing, put your best foot forward, show what you have learned, and how well you've learned it. If, at the end of the day, you have performed to the best of your ability, and put in every ounce of your effort, then winning or losing is immaterial. As Master Gichin Funakoshi said in the Niju Kun (the 20 guiding principles of karate): “Do not think of winning; rather, think of not losing.” It is a philosophy applicable not just to karate training and competition, but to every part of life.
Submitted by: Arpan Ghosh, Shodan