Originally Published in Fall 2005
- an important part of our training, not our ultimate goal.
As our competition season begins in earnest, especially leading up to the U.S. National Championships in December, I wanted to take some time to discuss the proper place of competition in the martial arts. There has certainly been much debate over this, although the value of two competitors training “live” with each other, or sparring against a resisting opponent rather than just practicing forms should have been apparent to everyone since the decisive victory of Jigoro Kano’s Kodokan Judo at the Tokyo police tournament of 1886. The Kodokan students practiced free sparring and the other schools practiced only forms.
Personally, I love competition, because competition always leads to innovation. Just look at the success of capitalism over communism during the last century. Without competition, School A has technique A and School B has technique B, and both assert that their way is superior. With competition, the public can see which technique actually works better, and thus the martial art improves, with other schools free to build off the base. This is one reason for the rapid technological development of Taekwondo over the last 30 years. Competition provides an important ‘reality check.’ I know there have been times that I thought what I was doing was working, only to step into the ring and find out that my training wasn’t enough. Competition also teaches us patience, how to deal with adrenaline, how to figure out an opponent quickly, how to perform even on your bad days, and builds team spirit. Thus, competition is an important part of our training.
However, this is really the key. The ultimate goal of our training is to become a better person and a better martial artist, not solely competition. This is what distinguishes Taekwondo from other sports. Competition should be seen as a means only, not an end in and of itself. Some schools think that the only purpose of their training is competition. This leads to three main problems. First, they may engage in behavior at the tournament that is not frowned on in other sports, but very disrespectful for Taekwondo. No match is important enough for you to throw your helmet or cuss out the referee or hit your opponent with a cheap shot. Consider this your warning that that type of behavior will not be tolerated by KAT students. Secondly, this exclusive focus on competition may cause the school to neglect other important areas of training, such as self defense. Thirdly, if competitions are seen as the most important thing, people will tend to have a mental lapse after a tournament is over, and only train hard once a tournament is coming up. You must train hard all the time, regardless of when the competition is. Training when others are resting is the only way to make up ground on people who are better than you, because before the tournament when everyone is training hard everyone is progressing.
The last thing I would like to mention about competition is the terminology. Although this is not strict, it is proper to refer to people sparring as competitors, athletes, or sparrers, rather than ‘fighters.’ It is proper to refer to the match as a match, not a ‘fight.’ The reason for this is that a sparring match is very different from a real fight. Olympic Style sparring does not have much to do with fighting, thus it is not proper to say that someone who is a good sparrer is a good fighter. Many elite Taekwondo athletes could be taken down and choked out by someone with only an elementary knowledge of grappling.
The KAT has historically done very well in competition, and now it is time for us to step up our training even more. With the proper attitude, competition can go a long way towards making us better martial artists.