I continue to see "sport karate" and "self-defence karate" as 2 separate things. You can do them both, and they can look similar, but one is a very much pared back version of the other. It's like comparing classical music with pop.
Sport karate is like a demonstration one might prepare for an expo or festival - quite artificial and in many respects largely irrelevant to training for self-defence/combat. But does this mean it is worthless? Absolutely not.
Firstly the sport aspect is an end in itself. If it is what you enjoy, then do it. Secondly, there is some benefit even for combat purposes - putting yourself out of your comfort zone into a stressful situation is good training.
The flip side is that competition might also introduce a lot of bad habits for self defence. In "non contact", not guarding your head is a common one, pulling your punches is another.
In terms of the latter, a good mate of mine who was a shodan at a shotokan school was so used to non-contact kumite that when he got into a fight all his strikes either stopped short or contacted with no more than a light touch. He got his nose broken by a rank amateur after he “pulled” his punch. I have eschewed this type of "deliberate missing" ever since. Controlled punching is very different to deliberately executing a full punch that finishes 10-20 cm away from its target. This is probably the most dangerous "bad habit" you can get - and it comes from too much competition training.
Those who engage in "contact" sports have considerably more benefit, particularly as you experience (and learn how to take) blows. However contact practitioners also run the risk of bad habits (learning gloved fighting methods at the expense of bare fist, or becoming too used to rules, such as not punching/guarding against head punches in kyokushinkai “knockdown” karate are just 2).
Nevertheless, if a karateka knows the limitations of competition and puts it in perspective, competition can be beneficial.
On the other hand one might not care at all about "combat". I once trained with a taekwondo practitioner who, when considering goju's close range techniques, admitted that TKD high kicks were not as realistic for a packed bar-room attack. But as he said: "I just love doing high kicks anyway." Fair enough. (BTW, despite his comments, this mate of mine makes taekwondo as effective in close situations as any art I’ve encountered, proving that it is the martial artist, not the art that is important.)
My beef is with those who confuse competition karate with self-defence karate. Note that I use the word "self-defence" karate, not "traditional" karate: there are many who practice what I consider to be sport karate (ie. the techniques appropriate to sport karate) under the guise of "traditional" - the only difference being that they don't compete. They ignore bunkai (applications) of kata and just go through the moves, like a dance. Their sparring is just competition sparring - lots of distance and bouncing/dancing around and a very limited repertoire of basic techniques (usually reverse punch and thrusting mae geri) that bear little resemblance to the kata and bunkai that they learn (certainly no grappling). This is what I mean by a "pared back" version of karate.
If you enjoy competition karate, but go back to the dojo knowing that what is in competition is just a small facet of karate, then you can't go wrong.
Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic