To be honest, I think my first tournament experience probably soured me on the entire experience. I think I was sixteen, and training in Shotokan Karate-do. The tournament was a local one, open to all the Karate schools in town. I was just old enough to compete in the adult beginner, and was paired off with a frail looking guy in his forties. I was confident, I had my friends all around me, and I did great. I easily beat my opponent and got my congratulations. I immediately started prepping for the next round, as the rest of the competitors looked pretty tough. The next rounded started and I watched the pairings, waiting for my name to be called. And waited. And waited. The last pairings were called, and my opponent from the first round was called up and fought. I waited, thinking maybe I had a bye, but there was a sinking feeling in my gut. One of the senior students went up and asked the directors about it, and came back shaking his head. Someone wrote the wrong name down. That was the end of my tournament. I won, but lost.

I spent the rest of the tournament watching my brother clean up his division. In the 11-12 year old grouping, he was a monster. Not only was he far bigger than any of the other competitors, he had cultivated a nasty demeanour. Might have come from a bullying older brother, who knows? Other kids were crying and refusing to fight him. He had a great time. No one even tried to score a point on him the entire day. I never competed in another karate tournament ever again. Moving onto other martial arts school and styles, I found other ways to rate myself.

Competition seems to be a growing concern in the western martial arts community. I can see a lot of formats are being tried, and the bickering is starting. People want competition because it grants a quick and easy legitimacy to things. Playing with swords is hard to explain, let alone justify. Being a competitive swordfighter is a bit different. It’s easier to pass the parent test with that one. My mom was scornful of me learning rapier, but seemed a little impressed when I told her I was training to compete. When she heard some of the tournaments had more than a hundred competitors…well, that was something. Something real. Doing interviews is the same thing. Reporters always started out with the dorky “let’s humour the crazy guy” questions, but when you mention tournaments suddenly the tone of the interview changes a little.

Students also want the hit of personal legitimacy. Everyone has some curiosity about whether they can actually use what they are learning. You can use it in class against people you know, but some part of you always wonders. You can win or lose against regular partners, and not know if it’s real or not. Maybe the other person is having a bad day. Or they like you and are trying to make it easy on you, or they aren’t really trying. Or you just train together so much that you can almost read each others minds. Trying to win a bout against a stranger with a whole bunch of people watching? That’s a serious test of your ability. Of course most students really don’t care about that. People have all kinds of reasons for studying martial arts, and only some are going to be inclined to compete. Most will try it at least once, in some form or another, and be completely satisfied with the experience. Win or lose.

The big choice seems to be either judged or non-judged competition. Judged competition has someone else call the shots, non-judged competitions leave it up to the competitors to call their own shots. Both have problems. Any competition can be gamed by the cheaters. People can decide to ignore shots, and no judge can catch everything that happens. People can be total shits when something is on the line. They can also be absolutely amazing and selfless. When you put pressure on people, you sometimes get to see what they are made of. Sometimes. People can hide the good as well as the bad.

Which is the real problem with tournaments…they don’t answer the questions people ask. They don’t determine “best.” At worst, they are a horror show of cheating, whining, and the worst kind of luck. At best, they give an opportunity for the talented and well trained to showcase their work. Usually they are a mix of the two, but that truth is really only known behind the masks. Everyone else is left to make up their own stories.

It took me a bit, but I like tournaments now. I don’t like the weight people put on them. I’ve fought in a lot of tournaments, and the best ones tend to be the ones with a lot of pick-up fights on the sidelines. That’s where the real fun, and the really good fights, happen. The real value to be found in tournament is that they are a playground, and they work best when they understand that everyone likes to play a bit differently. Some people really get off on the rush of trying to best each other. Some people like to test themselves. Some people like to meet new people over a blade.

As WMA events start to drift towards more tourney focused gatherings, I hope they learn from recent history, and recognize that there are different approaches to competition. There is no one best way. Have a competition ladder for those who want it, both judged and non-judged. Single and double elims for the sharks. Have some open-ended round-robins as well, where the idea is to rotate through partners for small series of bouts, as an almost social mixer. Invitation only showpiece tournaments to make the crowd happy. Gimmick tournies for the fun-lovers. Don’t make everyone happy, but don’t focus on just one group, either.