Tuesday, November 9, 2010

On the Road Again: Tournaments and Tradition

Much of my Saturday was spent in a van full of kids, driving up the New York State Thruway for a martial arts tournament upstate. Because it was the first tourney I'd competed in as a black belt a year ago and because it had relatively small competition groups and was well-run, my training partner (Ed) and I thought it would also be a good first tournament for the young white belts we've been training at our local Salvation Army since May. A good time was had by all the karateka as well as their parents, as none of them had ever been to or competed in a tournament before. They all did very well and learned a great deal, which was a very good thing.

But there was a little weirdness during the day. Since the tourney directors required that all competing black belts - regardless of age and/or experience - judge under-belt kata, weapons and kumite rounds, we saw both the absolute best and worst judging ever. Some of it was blatant - judges voting for their dojo-mates simply because they were dojo-mates and even black belts who seemed totally unfamiliar with any style other than their own. Some of the black belts weren't even in their teens yet and it was obvious that judging of was something they hadn't done much of at all.

Because it wasn't billed as a traditional or single-style competition, many different styles were represented. But no matter how solid the techniques and fluid the Okinawan forms were, they lost almost every time they went head-to-head against 25+ step forms from other systems that had jumping kicks and shoulder rolls.

It sometimes feels like martial artists who study Okinawan/Japanese systems are at a bit of a disadvantage in mixed-style kata competition. Rarely flashy with high kicks, single-leg, leaping or spinning techniques, our kata tend to have intricate hand movements but are often much shorter than other systems' forms. I guess if you're used to seeing forms with a million steps that move all over the floor, when a karateka presents a kata like Seiyunchin - which has absolutely no kicks - it might look like something is missing, As I presented Senchin, the USA Goju version of the kata this weekend, this was my reality as well.

A Kyokushin sensei commented on my kata after the trophy was presented (I finished second to a martial artist whose kata had the obligatory shoulder roll and a couple of leaping front kicks). He assured me that my kata was solid and that my hand techniques were done as the kata prescribes. I admit that it was nice to hear, but I still kinda felt like I showed up to a black-tie event in my shimmery best but without the tiara everyone else wore. But that's what traditional Okinawan kata is about. And I think it's beautiful.

Ed won his kata division with Hangetsu, but opted not to even enter the kata grand championship because he said he knew he'd probably have a difficult time winning against what he called the "flash and awe school of kata."

Are we just too cynical or just more traditionalist than we realized?


  1. My teacher says the same. When he judged contests flash would win over even the most sterling performances of traditional karate or kobudo.

  2. Wow! What a mixed bag of experiences that tourney was. If the judging was as bad as you say then it probably wasn't a tourney worth winning any way. I'd rather see proper traditional kata performances over 'kata gymnastics' any day - they shouldn't even be in the same category! (Love the photo by the way)

  3. Narda, a third-dan I train with just got back from an international competition and kinda ran into the same thing - even though it was a "traditional" tourney. She finished third (which is amazing), but said although she did her kata the best ever and truly left everything on the mat (she literally couldn't even walk for a few minutes after her presentation), the judges were looking for something else - perhaps a little more flash (in the form of more consecutive techniques in succession because her kata had no more than three in a row before a transition occurred). How frustrating it is to polish it until it glistens only to know that no matter what, it will still never be quite bright enough. Sucks, really...

    Sue, the judging wasn't necessarily bad, per se, just an inconsistent mess. Perhaps more experience - especially with judging different styles - should be a requirement, I'm just not sure. Plus, folks have to want to judge, I think. Making it a requirement in order to compete may not be the best thing, I'm thinking...