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Monday, October 28, 2013

Choosing A Martial Arts School 3.7: Competition

The idea of testing your fighting skills against another, equally matched opponent, is about as old as ideas get. We have records of various combat sports going back as far as we have historical records (and let's face it, pre-historic people probably had combat sports as well). If the notion of testing your skill against another human being appeals to you, the combat sport is what you seek.

One of the advantages of combat sport training is that it's incredibly straightforward. Unlike 911 Training, which requires addressing a wide range of variables, or some of the more esoteric concerns like spiritual development, combat sport training has a single goal: make you better at winning matches.

Choosing A Sport

Generally speaking, combat sports come in five flavors: Grappling, Striking, Mixed, Weapons, and Non-Contact (yes, really.).

Grappling sports usually involve a combination of upright wrestling and groundwork, where the object may be to throw the opponent decisively, pin them, or to force them to submit through various chokes or holds. Striking the opponent is forbidden. Wrestling and Judo are both classic examples of these kinds of sports, as is Judo's sister art Brazillian Jujitsu, and the Russian art of Sambo. Those are just some common examples: wrestling sports are found in virtually every society on the planet, in some form or another.

Striking sports, by contrast, feature contestants trying to defeat each other through the use of well-timed, well-placed, blows delivered with the hands, feet, or other body parts. Striking sports have a range of levels of contact and allowable techniques and targets. At the low contact end, you have point sparring, where contestants are limited in their targets, and expected to make little, if any contact (blows are stopped about half an inch prior to contact). At the high contact end, you have sports like Muay Thai, San Da, Savate, or Kyokushin, where full power strikes are allowed to almost any target.

Recent decades have seen the rise of mixed martial arts contests, sometimes erroneously referred to as "ultimate fighting" (after the Ultimate Fighting Championship which popularized the sport). Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) contests are comparatively less restricted than other combat sports, allowing the contestants to strike and grapple relatively freely (the sport does have strict rules about what is not allowed, and is a far cry from being the bloodsport that some critics have made it out to be). Basically this is a mash-up of the previous two categories.

There are some combat sports which focus on the use of weapons. Fencing and Kendo are perhaps the two most well-know of these, but some Filipino martial artists hold contests as well. Most require contestants to focus solely on using the weapon, though there are some that allow the use of other striking and grappling techniques as well. The Dog Brothers are on the extreme end of this group, holding gatherings where people can test their skills with damn near anything they can get their hands on (usually sticks).

And, finally, there are the non-contact martial sports. Strange as it may sound, there are forms of martial arts competition that actually don't require any kind of bodily contact at all. These competitions require the participants to perform solo forms (known as Kata in Japanese martial arts), before a panel of judges, who rank the performance in a manner similar to Olympic gymnastics. Some tournaments also feature two (or more) person routines, which are essentially choreographed fights not unlike something you'd see in a kung fu movie. These tournaments range from the very staid traditional models to the more exuberant XMA tournaments. Less combat sport and more performance art, these competitions do offer a place for those who cannot or do not wish to participate in more contact oriented competitions.

Competition Structures

Competition tends to take one of two forms: the tournament, or the single bout.

The tournament structure is one in which a whole bunch of people get together, are separated into brackets based on weight class, experience level, rank, or other sorting system, and then set to competing against each other. The winner of each bout advances to compete against other bout winners, until a single winner of the entire tournament is crowned. Some tournaments are single elimination, while others offer contestants a couple of chances to stay in the tournament.

It's not uncommon to see tournaments set up in a "pay to play" format, where competitors show up, pay a fee, and are entered into the tournament. This offers a degree of flexibility in that you can decide to show up the day of without any formal announcement, or can decide NOT to show up without ruining the entire event (usually).

These kinds of competitions are most common with grappling, non-contact, and weapons sports. Point fighting competitions are usually organized like this as well.

Single bout competition, by contrast, involves setting up a contest between two specific individuals for a specific date and time. Individuals are usually matched up based on weight class, experience level, or what the promoter (the person organizing the fights) believes will make an exciting match up. Because these events are organized weeks or months in advance, there is a much greater degree of individual commitment involved. If you don't show up for the local Judo tourney, it will probably run without you. If you no-show for a boxing match, your opponent doesn't get to fight (and you may get a bad rep, if you do this often).

Single bout competitions are most common in full-contact striking (Boxing, Muay Thai, etc.) and Mixed Martial Arts competitions. Occasionally, grappling tournaments will feature "superfights" between two specific competitors, which amounts to a single bout.

[Side note: some MMA promotions will promote "tournaments", but those are usually a series of single bout matches. Fighters work their way through brackets, but the fights are separated by weeks, not minutes. I'd still qualify that as a single bout structure.]


All athletic competition carries risks. All of it. People get injured playing golf. If your intention is to avoid all risk of injury, martial arts in any form are probably not for you.

That said, combat sports by their very nature expose athletes to certain types of risks. Torn ligaments, broken bones, black eyes, and concussions are all very real dangers when you're playing (hard) at fighting. Some injuries seem more common in some sports than others: grappling tends to tweak joints, but not pile up the brain trauma. Full contact striking may not tweak your joints, but you're practically guaranteed a black eye or broken nose, and a concussion (or several) is a very real risk. Some of the weapons based arts may not bang you up as much, but it really depends on what you're playing.

This comes back to the discussion of sacrifices. What are you willing to give up in pursuit of your martial arts career? What chances will you take with mind and body? I can't answer that question for you, but I would implore you to really think about this. Are you okay with some bruises? A broken nose? A broken bone? A concussion? Several concussions? Remember that the choices you make now will impact you for years to come. Think about it.


Go read that post on sacrifices again. Seriously. This matters here.

How much you commit partly depends on how far you want to go. If you want to be a superstar in any combat sport, you are looking at putting in a LOT of time and energy. You are trying to be a professional athlete. It is no easier than trying to become a pro basketball or baseball player. Different, not easier.

If you just want to compete as a hobby, that's certainly possible, but look for a sport that's hobbyist friendly. Grappling arts seem to be more forgiving for the hobbyist, particularly in the long haul, but there are plenty of people who get in the ring for one or two boxing matches and then call it a day. Just know what you want going in.

Questions to Ask/Things To Look For

Does the School Compete?

This might seem obvious, but some schools will eschew competition, even if they are teaching systems that ostensibly are competitive. Some smaller Judo clubs, for example, may put little emphasis on competition, and might not even bother with it. And there are some systems that offer no competitive outlet at all.

Does the School Succeed?

If competition is going to be a major focus, it's worth asking if the school you're looking at has ever produced a successful competitor. They don't need to be producing world beaters all the time, but if no one in the history of the boxing club has ever won a boxing match, it might be a problem with the club.

Again, be judicious here. If all you want is to enter a few BJJ tournaments, you don't need to train at a place that produced the most recent Abu Dhabi champion. If a school is relatively new, it may not have a long history of competition, so you may not be able to judge clearly. On the other hand, if they've been competing for generations and not getting anywhere, it might not be the place for you.

Red Flags

Unnecessary Roughness

This is weird to try and write about, and a lot of it comes back to the discussion of risks and commitments from above.

There are a lot of different ways to produce successful fighters. Some gyms do this through carefully building up students and letting them blossom. Some do it through hard training that selects out those who can't hack it. Both methods work. Both will produce successful fighters. One will take longer. The other will weed out people who might have made it, but needed some more building first.

So some of this is just a judgement call on your part. What are you willing to tolerate? What can you tolerate?

That said--there are some trainers out there who cross the line from "hard training" into "abuse". And that is not cool. Fight training absolutely should get rough, and people may occasionally get injured during training, but if you're in a place where people are constantly getting smashed to bits long before they get into the ring or on the mat, that's a bad sign.

Low/No Standards

Any credible competitive school will have some standards about when you are ready to compete. Obviously, some of this will depend on the type of competition you're entering, but no good school will let you just jump in willy-nilly. They will expect you to demonstrate a certain level of competency and commitment before you go out and represent them. If the school doesn't seem to care much about it's competitors, beware.

Competition can be a one-time experience, a hobby, or a full blown career. All are valid options--find the one that suits you best.

The last training goal I have on my list is Heirloom/Preservation training. That'll be in the next post in this series. After that, I want to talk about kids for a post or two. If there's particular topics that you think I ought to be addressing in this series, let me know.

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