Competition in Training

A childrens’ BJJ competition

In many martial arts schools, gyms, and dojo, there is a competitive environment. This is seen as a way to promote self-improvement through “healthy competition.” In particular, this idea manifests itself in whatever form of “sparring” that school/gym/dojo participates in–every (or almost every) sparring session is set up exactly like it would be for a competition, and so everyone is trying to win. I have personally experienced this, in both karate and judo, although it is not how we train at my current dojo.

For some people, perhaps this “friendly competition” really does help push them to improve and get better. For me, it just made kumite and randori terrifying, and caused me to always “play defense.” I could block and evade in kumite, and stop throws or trap people in guard during randori, but I couldn’t actually accomplish much offensively. It wasn’t fear of being hit or thrown that was holding me back, as one would expect, but the fear of losing. I have never been a competitive person, and hate conflict, so sparring was never really my “thing,” but I threw myself into it, anyway. I have also been a “loser” my entire life, which has given me a bit of a complex, to begin with. While that character flaw is my own to deal with, I know I’m not alone.

Defense is important, but so is offense

I see/read about people trying to “win,” or being afraid to “lose” while training, and I worry that they will be hampered, as I was. That fear of losing has kept me from trying things in an “alive” training situation (kumite and randori, in this case), which has stunted my growth as a martial artist. The only way to truly become effective with the techniques you learn, you must work them in some sort of “alive” manner. Being afraid to try them, because you don’t want to fail and end up losing, means you never really develop those skills. You can do them in the air, or on the pads, or with a compliant partner, but you can’t actually make them work.

If you teach martial arts, I urge you to look at your sparring practices, and see if you are incentivizing your students to value winning over learning. Even if you don’t format your sparring sessions to match competition, as I experienced, there are still students who will feel that it is supposed to be a competition. It is important to remind students that sparring is not a competition, but a way to practice techniques in a way that makes them more effective and easier to use. Encourage more of a playful atmosphere than a competitive one, and I think you will find that your students will improve much faster.

All that said, competition does still have a place in martial arts, in a way. When I say “competition,” I mean any form of “alive,” resistant-opponent training where both parties are trying to win. This can be karate tournaments, kickboxing matches, MMA fights, or realistic self defense scenario training. Competitions, like those, raise the stress levels and intensity levels of everyone involved, which is important. That experience is what helps us refine our material, find our weaknesses, and learn to overcome adversity. It isn’t something that needs to be done frequently, though–a handful of times per year is plenty. Doing it too frequently is, in my opinion, a sure way to put your students in a constant “survival mode,” where learning is difficult.

Then again, I’m certainly no expert on human development, so perhaps it’s just me.

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About Noah

I began training in karate (Shuri-Ryu) in the Summer of 2006. Subsequently, I started training in judo, kobudo, and iaijutsu within the next 6 months. During my training there, I earned the rank of Sankyu (3rd Degree Brown Belt) in Shuri-Ryu, Gokyu (Green Belt) in judo, a certification in the use of the bo, and passed proficiency tests for the four tachigata of Shinkage-Ryu iaijutsu. I moved to Arizona in the Summer of 2008, and continued training and researching karate at home. I continued regular training in judo at a local club until 2010, when I was able to start training in Shorin-Ryu with Sensei Richard Poage. I have been training with him ever since, and currently hold the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in Shorin-Ryu under him. In addition, I began studying KishimotoDi under Sensei Ulf Karlsson in 2014.