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Martial Arts Tournament Lessons Learned
Written by David Martin   
Monday, 01 June 2009 02:53

My tournament experience in martial arts has been colorful, if not spectacular, beginning with the now-legendary Chicken Leg Kata. Out of all this, I have gleaned a few insights that may prove helpful.

Protective Gear
Unless not having teeth is an actual goal, do not settle for a two-dollar mouth guard. A mouth guard that comes with a $10,000 guarantee to fix your teeth if they are damaged while wearing it is the way to go. As an additional benefit these are engineered to allow you to breathe better than you can with a cheap mouth guard. What is it your sensei tells you to do, like a million times? Oh yeah, “breathe.”

Another worthwhile investment, particularly for males, is the groin protector, or cup. The kind that comes with form-fitting underpants is the way to go. The wrap around protector that you put on as an after thought on the outside of your dogi (karate uniform) is better than nothing…barely.

Sparring Events
Problems with sparring are generally of two varieties, what I call an internal struggle within yourself, and also an environmental struggle.

Internal struggles that you may have to contend with include your own level of physical fitness, forgetting to breathe, and the control of aggression required to operate within the rules while still making a good account of yourself:

  1. Your own level of physical fitness cannot be helped on tournament day. This is a classic case of “the more you sweat during training, the less you bleed during combat.” If you take the stairs instead of the elevator, for example, your stamina will improve. If you sprint the stairs your endurance will improve more. If your sensei asks for thirty pushups on class day and you do an extra 300 (or 3000?) pushups by the next class, it is all good, and even better if you do the pushups one-handed–either hand equally.
  2. Everyone forgets to breathe sometime. That is why your sensei is always saying “breathe!” because this very simple thing is the very first thing to go when you are pushed. So stack the deck in your favor: buy the $20 dollar mouth guard, and practice being aware of your breathing in class, when you are climbing stairs or just walking around, and when you are at rest. The person who figures this one thing out has a pretty good start on everything else in martial arts.
  3. Tournament sparring is all about control over oneself. If you can tag the opponent, not get tagged yourself, and stay out of trouble with the judges, you win. The berserker guy who busts up his opponent, gets disqualified or deserves to be disqualified misses the whole point. If you can modulate your aggression so that you can give the other guy a nightmare for a few minutes and then turn it off after the match, you have learned well.
One of the most infuriating things about tournament sparring is when you are out there with your yellow belt or whatever you have, and the other guy is out there with his yellow belt, too, but he has a brown or even a black belt hanging up someplace because he has been in martial arts forever already. This is actually an environmental struggle, and there may not be a darned thing you can do about it. Here is something to consider: There is a lot of individual variation at every rank, including black belts. If you are lucky, the black belt you are sparring with is quite good and you will learn something useful for the next opponent. This is even more lucky, because the really dangerous guy to spar with is the beginner who kicks like a mule but has no targeting let alone control. If you are really unlucky, the guy is just sand-bagging, or he is afraid to compete at whatever level he should have been competing. Doom on him. If he keeps it up you will outrank him someday.

Another environmental struggle is when the judges see every time your opponent hits you, but every time you tag him the judges are blissfully unaware. The solution? Rotate the fight to your advantage so the judges can see your stuff better than your opponent’s stuff. Do not react when he hits you, but kiai like a madman when you hit him. Judges are only human, and they will sometimes give benefit of the doubt to whoever they perceive as the more aggressive fighter.

Perhaps the worst beastie in a martial arts tournament is your own complacency. Complacency is a vice that will get you seriously damaged in a tournament, and it all involves E.A., Environmental Awareness. Or as I like to put it, “Environmental something-or-other.” Suppose you are standing in the middle of the sparring ring, waiting on the judges to figure out if anybody got a point, and your opponent for some unknown reason decides to kick you in the mouth while your guard is down. Goodbye, teeth, especially if you were silly enough to not only remove your mouth guard but also naive enough not to keep up with what your opponent is doing with his or her spare time just now. Pay attention to what is going on around you.

Tournament Kata
Kata are supposed to be judged by these criteria: Focus, Technique, Balance, Power, and Rhythm. It is not supposed to matter if the judge knows the kata you are performing or not. You can use this to advantage by simply brazening out whatever kata it is you said you were doing. Forgot half of the kata? Fear not! Just keep going, it will all work out. Do not screw your face up or pause if you screw up the kata and chances are no one will be the wiser. No matter what happens, your kata will still be better than the Chicken Leg Kata!

Experience Wins
What is the thing that makes kata at black belt level different than kata at the under-belt level? This is a two-dollar question. During most of the time I have done martial arts, the struggle has always been remembering any kata well enough to just do it and not get bogged down in “do this, then this, then this other thing.” At some point you realize that for all the trouble of trying to remember kata, it starts getting plausible about the time that you forget how to do the kata and you just do it as one thing rather than as a daisy chain of forty-two things. Compare it to reading a sentence because you have learned to read, not because you can identify all the letters in the words. Want to read well? Read a lot. Experience wins.

Seize The Day
If you can hold boards for other competitors so that they do well, do it. If another competitor needs help carrying some gear, schlep the gear. This will provide you with a way to stay warm, ingratiate yourself to the instructors from other schools, and build rapport with people you might otherwise not been able to interact with. Contary to popular thought, a tournament is not just about the competition any more than a fishing trip is about the fish.