With the growing popularity of martial arts, the term “karate” is attached to a variety of activities that have common elements but often have vastly different goals. There are many dojos, books, and videos which use the karate label, but can be very different at their core. Using “karate” as a catch-all term does not represent the variety of styles and approaches within the martial arts. To know which resources will best guide your training, it is valuable to recognize differences in philosophy and principles underneath the physical movements. It often matters less what specific style is practiced, and matters more what approach is taken to training. The key is to find the approach that aligns most with your training goals.
There are many benefits to karate training. Among many others, you can improve your physical fitness, practice self-defense, develop self-control and confidence, and test your skills in a pressure situation. While these benefits are possible through hard work and consistent training, there are different approaches to training which will emphasize different training outcomes. Each instructor and each student will naturally focus on aspects of training which are consistent with their philosophy toward training and their motivations for practicing karate. There are three main categories within karate training: sports, fitness, and budo. These are not mutually exclusive, and each practitioner will likely have aspects of all three present within their training. But your primary motivation for training will fall within one of these categories and may be supplemented by the other two.
Sports karate is driven by success and failure in a competitive environment. Training for tournament favors techniques and strategies that tend to win. Tournaments must be judged on criteria which are observable and consistent across an organization; this rewards uniformity, athleticism, and the external performance of movements. Benefits from this type of training can include testing your techniques against unfamiliar partners and putting yourself in a pressure situation to test your ability to remain calm. However, competition in karate can foster antagonistic attitudes and can cause practitioners to lose track of practical applications of karate movements when style is emphasized over function. This focus on style causes practitioners to worry more about how a movement looks rather than how it feels and what makes that technique effective.
Fitness karate is motivated by a desire to build strength, endurance, and maintain an overall level of physical health through training. This tends to be very self-motivated, where students may not look to others to gauge their progress, but find their motivation within. Fitness training has the obvious benefits of maintaining physical health, and also develops an awareness of natural body movement that can be applied in daily life. Gichin Funakoshi once recounted a story of how karate training gave him the physical fitness and balance to avoid falling from a dock and drowning while carrying heavy luggage. However, a focus on fitness karate can cause practitioners to think only about how to move and not why those movements are important. A lack of interest in karate application can drain the intensity in partner training and be detrimental to their training partners. Without the drive to continuously improve techniques to increase fighting effectiveness, practitioners focused on fitness will often lose enthusiasm for training due to the repetitive nature of karate practice.
Budo karate is motivated by improvement of the mind and body. Techniques are trained in a way to be most effective for self-defense purposes. The mind and spirit are tested and strengthened to withstand the stresses of combat and everyday life. The internal feeling of techniques holds more importance than outward appearance, because budo seeks to discover the physical movement and the mindset that fits each person uniquely. Benefits from budo karate can include development of confidence and peace of mind in addition to fighting effectiveness and good health. However, these benefits take decades to cultivate and this is an individual journey which is very difficult and has no guaranteed answers and no metrics for success. This approach is very philosophical and requires a lifetime of dedication, patience, humility, and perseverance.
No matter what your motivation, you need to put in your full effort and train consistently to gain the benefits from training. Incorporating aspects of all of these approaches in the right ratios will enhance the objectives you have for your training without contradicting your main purpose for training. There is not necessarily a right or wrong approach to karate, but it is important to make a conscious and deliberate decision about why you train and what you want to achieve through your training. This knowledge allows you to seek out guidance and resources that fulfill your goals, and allows you to put your whole heart and your full effort into your training.
Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan, Matthew Baran, Nidan, and Arpan Ghosh, Shodan