On Competition

Bob Pruitt, Kiyojute Ryu Master and head of Arawa Kage Kan in Tennessee

Perhaps no other idea is so ingrained in the United States psyche than that of competition. For a long, long time it has been the driving force in economics, politics, classrooms and playgrounds across the nation. The essential notion is that if all relevant factors are left free to exert their power over situations, competition will foster and generate the best possible product, whether that product be an impressive toaster, a brilliant schoolchild, or a fair and egalitarian political system. Standing on the earth as a citizen of the States in 2008, following some bitterly rough governmental elections, a downturn in the nation’s school system, and the greatest financial disaster of our age, we have good reason to be skeptical of unlimited competition as the formula for success, prosperity, and quality.

In martial arts schools, hereafter referred to by the typical Japanese designation dojo, competition has been the root of all power and standing for some time. This has created an environment of enmity and selfishness in most modern dojo; certainly, in many schools people deal with each other amiably and respectfully, but it is an inescapable matter of fatality that the person you are partners with today could easily be your opponent the next day. This is not a good organizational schematic if we mean for our dojo to produce the best quality martial arts student.

In my last martial arts life, I was the senior student of a pair of mid-sized dojo. Despite my best efforts to be gentle and collegial with the students entering the schools, I found myself sizing all of them up as they joined. It was, after all, the nature of my position to be the man in charge. As I encountered these new students in sparring situations, I can say in all honesty that I never brutalized anyone. I was not a heavy hitter, and I did not wail on anyone to make a point. I did, however, ensure that the people I ‘practiced’ with understood that they had been beaten; I felt as if I had to do this to ensure the power of my position.

Looking back, this attitude borders on sick. Traditional martial arts were about family, peace, and mutual welfare; your first teachers were you parents or uncles, and your training partners were people for whom you cared. Needless to say, very few modern training halls preserve this traditional attitude toward practice. Modern schools like competition because it generates big money. For example, it is typical practice to require students to participate in a certain number of tournaments each year to be eligible for promotion; leaders of such schools claim that such competition is essential to the students’ martial arts development. Consider, if you will, the reasonableness of that statement.

In a competitive situation, there are rules. Understand, for the sake of competition, such rules are very important, for they prevent (theoretically) any serious injury from befalling either competitor. History will witness that despite this theoretical safety, competition remains quite dangerous. Sad stories could be recounted of deaths in mixed martial arts competition, karate contests, and even judo matches (for representative stories, the reader is encouraged to consult the writings of William Durbin, Soke). The nature of combat sports, though they are only sports, still represents a serious health risk to those engaged in competition. All it takes is one unlucky strike, and you could be dead or maimed. In my opinion, those are most unreasonable odds.

The danger of such unwise competition aside, let us turn to the supposed benefit. The notion, as I understand it, is that competition somehow prepares you for combat. Let’s go art by art. In karate contests, you are not allowed to strike full power, are not allowed to strike below the belt, are not allowed to strike to the face, and are not allowed to strike to the back. Yet, a punch to the pectoral, one of the most protected places on the human body, is a point; it is a bout remarkable only in its artificiality. Consider a judo contest. No strikes are allowed. The only joint that can be locked is the elbow. You win the bout if you hold your opponent still for long enough. I’m not sure why. Lastly, let us take a quick look at mixed ‘martial arts.’ Some proponents call it ‘reality’ fighting since you are allowed to mix striking and grappling. However, you are not allowed to strike the eyes, grip the hair or ears, fish-hook, or use small joint manipulations or tracheal chokes. You can’t even kick the opponent when he’s down. Forgive me, but aren’t those the very things a smaller person would need to do to be successful in a self defense setting?

In short, martial arts training and competition (combat sports) have come to a point in their disparate evolution where they have markedly different goals. The goal of martial arts training is to take the average person and make them effective in protecting themselves from assault. The goal of combat sports is to have an entertaining and safe show. As such, for those of you who consider yourselves martial artists and not sportsmen, I challenge you to critically consider if competition within your dojo helps you or hinders you. Does competition model a realistic self defense scenario or an artificial and inapplicable situation? Are you trained in your school to strike to the most vital points of the human body or are you carefully trained to avoid striking those areas for safety? Does your school teach you how to protect yourself and escape danger, or are you instructed to roll around on the mat for forty minutes waiting to put the opponent in a shoulder lock? For me, the answer is arrestingly evident.

I hope those of you called to the true pursuit of the martial arts will take responsibility for your learning. If competition doesn’t make sense for you, refuse to engage in it. Seek out a school and a teacher that will help you grow as friends and mentors rather than one that stands across the ring from you waiting on the referee to start a fight. Martial art should grow your mind, your body, and your spirit. If your current school is not meeting that goal, I challenge you to find one that does.

©2008 Bob Pruitt





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