|Shiai. Photo Copyright 2015 Grigoris Miliaresis|
Competition seems like the ideal place to test your budo. You can test your techniques against other people. Challenge your abilities. Polish your skills. See how you do under the pressure to win. Learn what it takes to be a winner. Learn how to be a winner with humility and grace. Learn to lose with honor and dignity.
Those sound like great benefits. They are exactly the arguments used to support all competitive sports.
In martial sports competition, one person wins, and one person loses.
A problem with this paradigm that that most things in life, including conflict, are not games with clear winners and losers. There are far more situations where everyone involved can gain, as well as endless opportunities for everyone involved to lose. Life is not defined by a win/loss column.
When you see the world through the lens of competition, it’s a zero sum game. Someone wins and everyone else loses. When you see the world through the lens of budo, it’s a non-zero sum world, just like keiko in the dojo. When we train together, you don’t have to get weaker and less skilled for me to become more skilled. We both grow in skill and strength and understanding when we train together.
Budo keiko offers many profound lessons that will not be found in the arena of competition, and defining things in terms of competition, in terms of winners and losers, misses a number of those points. There a plenty of outcomes that aren’t covered by the idea that there is a winner and loser in every conflict.
I had this reinforced in a memorable incident. I was teaching an evasion to a sword attack that involved stepping to the side and cutting up, under teki’s arm as it came down with the sword. I did my step to the right just fine and placed my cut under teki’s arm. I did so just at the moment her sword smacked me in the side of the head. I had moved too early and teki was able to track me and adjust her attack. The result was not a winner and a loser. It was two losers. Her attack would have killed me at the same moment my counter attack killed her. Not a very satisfying outcome. One fight, no winners.
That lesson that can come as a huge surprise if you’ve never focused on anything other than fighting in tournaments. Tournaments provided a very limited view of budo. They are safe, controlled duels. They follow rules. One person wins and one person loses. One of the problems with that arrangement is that in pretty much everything outside of competitive sports, nothing works out that cleanly. Life is not clean and clear. It’ messy and unfocused.
Remember that yin-yang symbol that is used to decorate so many dojo? Inside the black half is a drop of white. Inside the white half is a dollop of black. Things aren’t clear cut. In my example above, we both achieved the basic objective, and we both would have died doing it. Sports competition can give students of martial arts just as skewed a view of martial arts as watching action movies can. In competition, there are two options. You win and your opponent loses, or you lose and she wins. Simple.
In real conflict there are lots more options. All parties end up so badly damaged that there are only losers. One side decides to give in for the sake of avoiding the physical conflict. All parties decide that the fight isn’t worth the risk and everyone goes off in a different direction. The police show up and everyone involved is arrested. There are a whole range of possibilities beyond “I win,” or "I lose."
Budo practice teaches a not just about fighting, but about recognizing all those other possibilities. I’m not going to say competition is entirely bad. It's great fun, and it gives people with too much energy a way to stay focused on something. I’ve seen that as a young judoka. The weakness is that we focus far too much time on competition and forget about the rest of the path. The lessons of competition seem tiny compared to all the other lessons that can be learned on the journey that is the study of budo. That in itself may be the first lesson.
It’s a journey, not a destination. Winning a match or tournament doesn’t mean much in the context of that journey. You’re still trying to learn the lessons. When you start to study budo, and not just a martial sport, you’ll discover that there is a whole lot more to your budo than the stripped down set of techniques allowed in competition.
I’ll start by using Judo as my example. Competitive judo prohibits strikes, a range of throws that endanger your opponent, a few throws where you can endanger yourself, gripping techniques that you can hurt yourself doing or that provide an unfair advantage, grips below the belt (don’t ask why, I still don’t understand the IJF explanation), attacks to any joint beside the elbow, throwing with an armlock, and numerous other things.
Even though these things are all banned in formal competition, most of them are part of the formal syllabus of Kodokan Judo. Just take a look at the two videos below.
The Kodokan Goshin Jutsu and the Kime No Kata are both part of the Kodokan syllabus. Almost nothing in either kata could be used in competition. If you focus on competition, you miss all the rest. Competition presents too small a slice of the possibilities that are budo, and the possibilities that are life. In life there are lots of options beyond simple win or lose scenarios. Business people spend much of their time trying to fashion what they call win-win agreements, so that everyone involved gains something in the exchange. They don’t always work out, but just being able to try for something like that seems a lot better than scenarios like a match where one person wins and one loses, or worse, tournaments, where there is one winner, and there are many, many losers.
Often the ideas of learning to be a gracious winner and accepting defeat honorably are mentioned as benefits of competition. The weakness I see here is that outside of organized competitions, there are almost no opportunities to practice this lesson. Life doesn’t consist of of competitions with clear winners and losers. There are other lessons that I find useful every day though. The best people to be around aren’t the ones keeping score. The best people to be around are the ones who don’t keep score. The ones who try to, in the words of Bill and Ted, “be excellent to each other.”
One lesson of competition is to keep score. The lesson of budo practice is that there is no score. We all improve together. I can’t improve my skills without your active support, and you can’t improve yours without my active support. If you and I are busy trying to keep score of who learns the most techniques, or who gets the most reps, or anything else, we’re not providing the mutual support necessary to truly improve our skills. That kind of practice is a lot more like life than any competition.
The other, discreet lessons of budo apply beyond the dojo as well. Budo teaches numerous lessons about ma’ai and timing. Ma’ai isn’t just for combat, and neither is timing. I haven’t gotten to all the places where an understanding of the principles of structure will serve you. Understanding ma’ai is about understanding the weakness or strength of a particular position relative to those around you. It’s a fluid, constantly changing as the situation changes, even if you don’t move at all.
Timing is important in whatever you do, from gardening to business. Structure too applies outside the arena of competition, mostly in place where being aware of strong, stable structures and weaknesses that can undermine them are critical to not getting hurt in physical, or not-physical, ways. Timing needs to be considered for anything you want accomplish, in or out of the dojo. Too early and you give away your objectives and strategy. Too late is, well, too late.
One of the most critical lessons of budo practice is that it’s OK if you don’t master these lessons today. The goal isn’t to master anything thing right away. In budo there is no illusion that we will ever perfect anything. We learn that there is no goal to reach. The point of budo is to improve a little bit every day. To be better today than yesterday, and be better tomorrow than you are today. This isn’t a goal because a goal is an endpoint, a place to get to and stop. With budo, there is no endpoint.
What you do every day is more important than what you do during any 5 minute match. It doesn’t matter what the match is. Dr. Ann Maria DeMars is a former world champion judoka. Let that sink in. World champion. At some point, she was the best on the planet at what she did. Yet now she can write about how she completely forgets having done that. Whatever we do, it will quickly be in the past, and we can’t live there. Life is a journey, not an event. Each day we have to continue that journey. With competition, we focus on the events and an artificial concept of a winner and a loser. With budo, we focus on the journey, of moving forward and improving every day. Working with our teachers and seniors and partners and juniors so we all are a bit better today than we were yesterday, and so tomorrow we’ll be a bit better than today. We don’t stop at any event.
Competition is a limited view of the world. It’s a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers. Life isn’t a zero sum game. Life is big and messy and so very unclear. In life, winning and losing isn’t decided by a set of rules. It’s more like a fluid range of success, and that success is much more dependent on not keeping score than it is about winning points. You have to work with the people around you, your training partners, so you all succeed and improve together. If you aren’t better today than you were yesterday, that’s probably the closest thing to a loss. You succeed when you and your partners are better people tomorrow than you were today.