Written By David Gomez, Edited by Mark Compton
In the spring and summer it’s baseball that captures our heart; and in the autumn and winter we’re drawn to basketball and football. Tell me, what’s the correct season for Karate? Many Karate students, and caring parents of young Karate students, falsely believe that Karate training is, or can be, a seasonal sport. Unfortunately, that belief couldn’t be further from the truth. In their purest form, the martial arts have traditionally been studied for self defense. While it is possible, but not recommended, to be a “casual“ martial arts enthusiast (one who trains on a semi-regularly basis), historically speaking, the martial arts were never intended for sport or competition.
Few people realize that the modern progressive form of Shotokan Karate that we practice today is vastly different from any martial art studied at the turn of the century. The founder of Shotokan, Gichin Funakoshi, is considered to be the father of modern Karate. In the early 1920’s, he introduced a blend of Okinawan combative arts into mainland Japan that have, to this date, become known as the Shotokan style of Karate. Unlike the current billboard popularity of the Karate we recognize today, the ancient practice of this martial art form was previously reserved for a select few as a surreptitious study whose sole purpose was self-defense.
Gichin Funakoshi, and his succeeding instructors who expanded the art of Karate in Japan and abroad, never intended for “modern 20th century Karate” to steer away from the premise of self-defense as it’s central focus. Moreover, it was believed that Karate was a martial art whose intent was to crush an opponent with a single blow and could never be made safe enough for competition.
During the 1940’s, Karate as a competitive art form was introduced with much trepidation. Never the less, rules were established to diminish the danger level associated with the “one blow-one kill” concept so competitions could be conducted without ensuing fatalities.
As Karate further evolved into “Sport Karate”, there was a deterioration in the execution of the art form for the purposes of safety. While it is true that the establishment of rules for sparring have allowed Sport Karate to become fun and entertaining, it cannot be overlooked that the intent of these guidelines was to contain the danger level of competition Karate. As a result, the original intent of Karate, and the actual purpose for competition/Sport Karate, have become poorly misunderstood–especially by this generation of Karate students.
It seems that the current American culture is inundated with seasonal sports. We’re programed from childhood to switch gears from season to season to accommodate the corresponding sport. Does this really make sense? Does a baseball player feel the cold any less than someone who plays football on a cold day? Would the football player feel the heat any less than a baseball player on a hot day? Does running up and down a basketball court on a cold day make the court any shorter than running up and down the same court on a hot day? No, it doesn’t. Yet year in and year out many people find themselves hanging up the softball uniform in the fall and exchanging it for their football jersy because the football season is about to begin.
Don’t misunderstand me, there’s nothing wrong with playing baseball, basketball or football on a seasonal basis. In fact, I enjoy playing a little basketball myself. Yet, I fear that Madison Avenue has done a great job in leading us from season to season, sport to sport, with no interest in individuals excelling at any particular sport or athletic activity. Rather, as advertisers, Madison Avenue’s sole purpose is to lead us into the next so called ‘seasonal sport’ and have us dig deeper into our pockets. As a result of this shrewd seasonal marketing scheme, we now support a lucrative sports industry. Ironically, our personal growth in a particular sport is largely ignored by the sports industry.
The study of Karate has many similarities to sport type games since both endeavors employ repetitious drills and other mind building exercises. However, there, and there alone, is where the similarities begin and end. Karate is not, and cannot be classified as, a game. You don’t play Karate, you do Karate. This train of thought is what most Karate students, and most well meaning parents of Karate students, fail to understand when they want to “just do Karate for the summer”.
Several decades have come and gone since the popularization of Karate and the introduction of Sport Karate. With the present day popularity of Karate, many of us have grown up knowing Karate only as a sporting event. We see martial art movie’s and tournaments on television, we see little Joey next door come home from a Karate competition with a trophy taller than him, and we think it’s cute. Similarly, commercially sponsored Karate tournaments have also spurred global interest in Karate competition. Unfortunately, in the effort to feed Hollywood and satisfy the public hunger for competition, Karate has suffered a great disservice. It seems that the glits and glamor that Hollywood has employed to showcase it’s popular themes have left many people with the false belief that they can just play Karate for a season, perhaps the summer, and still become an accomplished martial artist.
The American professional sport organizations for baseball, football and basketball (just to name a few), would like to have the general public believe that seasonal sports are synonymous with American culture. Perhaps the games that are played can be considered synonymous with American culture, but not the seasonal aspect that we’ve been so programed to partake in. Aside from taking a rest from your sport of choice, there is really no reason to jump from one sport to the next just because the “season” is over.
I receive phone calls on a regular basis at our Karate club inquiring about Karate lessons ‘just for the summer’, ‘just for the winter’, or my favorite, ‘just for 6 weeks’. A conversation with these well meaning individuals quickly reveals a well programed Madison Avenue seasonally sports minded person. The conversation usually goes something like this:
“Hello, I got your number out of the phone book and I wanted to know what age groups you offer Karate lessons to?” I answer the question and then ask them, “Is this inquiry for you or for your child?” Regardless of the answer, the next question typically asked is, “How much does it cost?”, followed by, “Soccer season (or whatever seasonal sport is drawing to an end) is almost over and I want my son/daughter to have something to do for the next six weeks or at least until football season starts.”
In response, I then proceed to describe our Karate program, which is not seasonal by any means, and then let them decide if we have what they’re looking for. If they choose to enroll, it usually doesn’t take too long before they find out that their not going to get promoted to the next rank just because they’ve attended classes regularly, or that winning trophies is the primary purpose for our training sessions. The purpose of our training sessions are not for sport or to expand our ego’s by winning trophies, rather our program is designed to create an environment where we can learn and apply the art of self-defense, know as Shotokan, in a safe and disciplined manner.
At this point many of you probably believe that I’m totally anti-Sport Karate. That’s not entirely true. What I am opposed to are clubs or instructors who lead individuals to believe that if they won awards at a tournament, then they have mastered Karate. I am also opposed to the inflated ego’s that can arise from the public recognition commonly associated with tournaments. These types of scenarios can lead to a false sense of security and thus defeat the primary goal of Karate; self-defense.
I believe that one’s Karate training should be balanced. Participation in competitive Karate must be bolstered with the practical study of traditional Shotokan Karate as a means of self-defense where the original intent was “one blow-one kill”. Yet, it must be recognized that in competitive Karate, rules had to be established so competitions could be conducted in the absence of undue bodily harm. If the organizers of competitions want to reward the winners of sparring or kata divisions with metals or trophies, I don’t have a problem with that, just don’t let it go to your head.
May I say in conclusion that many martial arts organizations don’t believe that competition/Sport Karate has any place in what they perceive as the real martial arts world. This too is a vast generalization and an extreme perspective. In a sense, it is as extreme as those who believe that competition is the only way to measure ones mastery of Karate. Somewhere in between these extremes lies a balance. A place where Karate training equates to purpose/self-defense, and competition challenges this purpose in a controlled environment.