Thursday, June 2, 2022

The Role Of Competition In Budo


Final of All-Japan Judo Championships in 2007   Photo Copyright Gotcha2. Used under GNU Free Documentation License.

There is a continual discussion in budo about the importance of competition. The argument for competition has two prongs. The first is that you have to learn to perform techniques under stress, and competition is the best way to pressure-test technique.  The second is that you have to learn  to deal with the unexpected and the only way to do that is in a competitive situation. I agree  that you have to be able to perform under stress and that you have to be able to deal with the unexpected.  If you’re not learning to do things when you are stressed, and you’re not learning to deal with the unexpected, you’re not learning budo.

I’ve heard a lot of people expound on the stress benefits of competition. The desire to win ramps up the stress, and in judo or full contact karate, the fact that effective technique can hurt, and may even leave you unconscious, ramps it up further. Add the frustration that builds when your adversary prevents your technique from being effective and the stress level can get pretty high. You can certainly learn something about stress in competition.

I know that for most of the time I was competing I found competition stressful. I would get anxious and it would become harder and harder to stay still and not fidget as the match approached.  I had to learn to apply breathing and relaxation techniques in order to control the stress so I didn’t become tense and lose my ability to move flexibly and quickly. 

Once the match starts the tension can get worse. The more skilful the adversary, the more frustration and stress. It’s a quick check on students getting cocky about the strength of their technique. It is one thing to practice a technique on a partner who isn’t resisting, and another thing to try to throw someone who is trying to throw you. The experience of learning to flow from technique to technique is great. The dynamism and volatility of competition are excellent experiences for many people.

As Rory Miller so eloquently points out in Meditations On Violence, every training methodology includes a fail. That is, there is always a way in which what you are doing fails, and specifically doesn’t mimic the real world. In competition, it’s that fact that there are rules limiting what you can do, and what your partner can do to you. The possibilities are artificially limited so people can compete with a reasonable expectation that they will be safe and healthy at the end of the competition. Just think of all the techniques that are excluded. Or the protective gear that is worn. Then there is the referee who is there to award points, but also to make sure no one does anything harmful.

This is a safe environment to train in. And the stress level never gets too high because we know it is safe going in. As much as it is a pressure-testing experience, the fact that we don’t have to worry about someone taking a shot at our throat or eyes, or attempting to destroy our knees or elbows means that we’re not experiencing anywhere near the pressure of dealing with someone who genuinely wants to harm us.

There are different kinds and levels of stress. I’ve never seen evidence that competition can rise to anywhere near the level of stress and fear and adrenaline dump that a confrontation outside the tournament area and outside the tournament rules produces. When someone swings a knife at you, the feeling in your gut is quite different from the one when someone is trying to pound you with the ground or choke you unconscious in a tournament. The fear and the adrenaline hit you  much harder. That doesn’t make competition useless; we just shouldn’t think it can do something it’s not specifically designed for.


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One of the best things about competition is that it is fun. We enjoy it, whether it’s a friendly match in the dojo where no one is keeping score, or it is a national level tournament, we enjoy competition. Competition is so much fun that people will come back to train again and again just so they can have the fun of competing, both in tournaments with medals and trophies, and in friendly bouts in the dojo. Competition is a great motivator for many people, but it’s not combat preparation and we shouldn’t pretend it is. 

There are lots of ways stress can be induced in training. I know the most stressed I’ve ever been in the dojo wasn’t some sort of competition. Some of the most intense stress I’ve experienced was the day my teacher swapped out his wooden sword for a metal one during jodo practice. I’ve made plenty of mistakes during practice that resulted in me getting whacked with a wooden weapon. Some of the bruises have been spectacular. When Sensei swapped out the bokuto for a metal blade though, I broke out in a sweat. If I screwed up, the consequences could have been a lot more severe than a nasty bruise. 

Other ways stress can be induced: Train into exhaustion. Ramp up the speed. Increase the intensity. Yes, even compete. Don’t imagine that any of these comes close to combative stress. The closest I’ve come to feeling stress equal to what I’ve felt in real confrontations was in kata practice. Paired kata training as is done in koryu bugei has consistently generated the most stress-filled training I’ve done. It can range from very gentle walk-throughs to adrenalin rush inducing intensity. It all depends on what your partner is giving you.

My koryu teachers have never given me more than I can handle, but they have been more than happy to give me more than I thought I could handle. They ask me to put as much as I can into practice, and sometimes that includes dragging me past the edge of what I perceive as my ability into frightening new territory. That’s part of their role. In koryu the senior is responsible for taking the losing role. It is the senior's job to control the speed and intensity of training so the junior gets as much from the training as is possible.

One of the complaints that people make about kata training is that you know exactly what is going to happen. In good training that is, and isn’t, true.I was strongly reminded of that recently. I was working with a senior teacher who would attack into any opening I left while doing the kata. I got whacked on the head with his fukuro shinai in places where it’s not called for in the kata. It was good kata training. He showed me openings I was leaving as I did the kata. In most instances I was too focused on one aspect of the kata and he attacked where my awareness wasn’t. 

Talk about inducing stress! My stress level went well above what I have felt in competition. It was a lot like randori because I never knew when he would spot an opening and fill it with his sword. Thank goodness it was a fukuro shinai; a bokuto would have left colorful bruises in a number of places.

This way of practicing kata is a great one, and it provides the same sense of uncertainty that competition does. In koryu kata practice, your partner is supposed to be trying to kill you. It makes sense that they would attack any opening you leave, not just move with the choreography of the kata. Uchi’s intention to attack you anywhere they can is important for making the kata practice as effective as possible. In koryu kata the role the junior person takes is the winning side, and the choreography of the kata on their side is the optimal set of techniques for the situation. That doesn’t mean the senior, in the role of uchi, should just go  along and forget about any attacks that are specified. In good kata practice, uchi is always looking for additional opportunities to attack. If the junior does a good job, there won’t be any. Since the junior is in the process of learning, they will make mistakes, leave openings, and get attacked. If you practice kata correctly, the planned actions are the logical ones. If you don’t, other options present themselves.  Or not.

The element of unpredictability and spontaneous action is what gives competition its real value, but the  stress level of competition isn’t any greater than many other exercises. Competition involves  learning to see openings and to close them. Learning to deal with unexpected attacks and how to prevent them. Learning to flow from one action to the next without pausing and without leaving openings. That’s where the real value of competition is. I just don’t think that it’s the only way, or even the best way, to learn these things. 

The rules that make safe competition possible also limit its value for learning to deal with spontaneous action. Too many options are artificially eliminated. Judoka get used to nothing coming at their faces and not having to worry about strikes. Karateka don’t have to worry about opponents closing with them. No one learns to deal with weapons attacks. No one learns to deal with asymmetrical situations where people are armed differently.

In competition everything has to be fair.  No one would show up for a competition where you don’t know if you or your opponent will be armed or unarmed, or even armed similarly. That wouldn’t be fun, and it wouldn’t be a fair comparison of skills. It would be much more realistic though.  And more dangerous!

I think that too much concentration on competition will render one blind to everything that is not allowed in competition. A little competition for the purpose of learning to be spontaneous and flow  isn’t bad. Too much focus on competition and you risk training the things that aren’t allowed in competition right out of your system. If you ignore all the stuff that isn’t allowed in competition, very soon you aren’t doing budo. You’re only doing sport. Kata training can fill in some of the gaps. Budo training doesn’t need competition to be effective.


Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D., for editorial support.


Rick Matz said...

Good article. Thanks.

DJ Suter said...

Excellent article. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

“ No one learns to deal with asymmetrical situations where people are armed differently.”

Maybe tanto randori in Tomiki ryu Aikido is an attempt to do this? I have seen the practice explained differently by different practitioners, but at least some Tomiki students call it a competition.

Dan Keding said...

Excellent and thought provoking. I agree that competition can be useful but only in moderation. Once winning becomes the goal then the spirit of budo is in jeopardy. When winning is the goal then training no longer revolves around the concepts of budo but around the goal of winning and beating your competition.