Tournaments Are Fun, But Potentially Detrimental To Training

My FCS Kali instructor told me that it’s the “kiss of death” for any martial art style when it gets adapted for sport.

Thinking about that reminded me a “Gracie Breakdown” video on YouTube, where the Gracies talked about the difference between actual Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu versus Sport BJJ. The latter is geared for grappling tournaments.

The Gracies explain that BJJ has defenses for being struck on the ground repeatedly, which is omitted from Sport BJJ.

My TKD instructor understands the difference between the art and sport, but is still enthusiastic with tournaments. He’s always willing to help any of his students with aspirations to compete in the Summer Olympic Games.

There is nothing wrong with tournaments, but it’s important to understand the differences. Many martial artists are unable to break from the tournament mindset, which sets them up for bad habits in the long run.

One of my friends in MMA took Isshin-Ryu Karate when he was younger. He admits that the Sport Karate mindset is somewhat with him when it comes to MMA training, which became a hindrance to him. My friend was somewhat still used to “tagging” the opponent instead of going for the actual hit.

I have to add that there’s a difference to that format of Sport Karate when compared to Full-Contact Karate.

Why do I think tournaments can be detrimental to training?

One would say that many techniques are inapplicable pertaining to MMA.

I could pick “MMA” as an answer, but it’s too convenient. MMA has gotten popular over the years, but it only contributes to the ignorance of the uninformed pertaining to the martial arts. You may hear people say that something may not work if it doesn’t work in MMA.

That’s actually far from the truth because MMA is sport, which has its own rules. It also has its own set of constants and variables. You have to understand that MMA is a sport that combines elements of other combat sports.

People who think MMA is the proverbial “end all” don’t understand a thing about martial arts. The many uninformed tend to think MMA as real fighting, but that’s far from the truth. You have to remember that MMA, like any other combat sport, is within a controlled environment.

In layman speak, effectiveness in MMA is not something that should be factored.

I remember reading an article on the “benefits of TKD” being made an Olympic Sport, but it misses the point on defense. I read the well-written article, but I felt that it fell into the flawed belief that being efficient at tournaments equates to being able to effectively defend yourself when the time arises.

Yes, getting proficient in TKD sparring increases your mobility and reflexes.

But self-defense situations present factors that neutralize your physical attributes. These situations are often psychological than physical. I had the honor of meeting Captain Paul K. Chappell, a retired United States Army officer, who graduated from West Point and served in the Iraq War.

He visited my town for a few days in 2012, where he was the guest speaker at this event.

Chappell currently works as the Peace Leadership Director for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, charged with the task of leading the way for a world without nuclear weapons. He has written many books and articles, which you can see on his website or the NAPF’s website.

I brought up the subject of MMA, which Chappell surprised me when he said that he’s a fan of the sport. He told the attendees that freshmen males are required to take Boxing and must compete in at least four bouts before going onto the next year. Chappell explained that this is to hone the cadets’ warrior acumen because war is brutal.

It’s appropriate because Boxing is one of the most brutal sports in today’s world.

This is perhaps the most informative and enlightening dialogue on martial arts let alone combat sports that I ever have. It leads to my answer for this question: psychological conditioning. Mind, body, and spirit have to be in sync with each other.

I read his article, The Hunger Games vs. The Reality of War, which I feel that all martial artists seriously need to read.

Chappell wrote this article in response to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games being made required reading material in many schools. He felt that the book gave an unrealistic portrayal of war and violence.

The article has valid points that I took from the article and implemented to my philosophy on martial arts. Reading that article gave me a jaded view of “indomitable spirit,” which is one of the tenets of Tae Kwon Do. I can cite this article as one of the reasons I disagree with martial artists believing that competing in tournaments will help make you a better martial artist.

Chappell cites LTC David Grossman, one of his West Point instructors, the author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Grossman’s research, which led to him writing several books, pointed out that our minds are more fragile than our bodies. It doesn’t matter if we’re stronger or faster if our minds collapse.

The article also cites Richard Gabriel’s No More Heroes, which revealed that many soldiers were pulled out of battle in major battles of World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.


The soldiers suffered psychiatric wounds and it was revealed that 504,000 US troops had to leave battle because of psychological trauma from fighting. Many soldiers suffered psychological scars after continuous fighting for 60 days and nights, which led to the reason Chappell believed The Hunger Games inaccurately portrays war and trauma.

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The tributes of the The Hunger Games have less than half-week to train for the event. Cato and Clove, realistically, would have emerged the winners because their sector prides itself on combat.

What does this even or remotely have to do with tournaments in the first place?

To bluntly answer, psychological training.

You have to understand that all combat sports have different rules and they will affect your way of thinking. My TKD master began with Shotokan Karate and often won tournaments with a spinning back fist, which is banned in TKD tournaments.

He spent five years in Shotokan and two years in American Goju-Ryu before studying TKD, where he was disqualified from tournaments for using the spinning back fist. WTF tournaments prohibit strikes not aimed at the helmet and protective chest pads.

My master got disqualified for striking the face with a spinning back fist, but keep in mind that this was a long time ago when he began TKD training. His master forbade him to compete in tournaments for a year.

My Judo teacher did tournaments in the past, but stopped competing because it got old.

Constantly competing can make you too comfortable with the sport aspect of the style, where you will end up developing bad habits. Many schools contribute to the problem by focusing more on the sport rather than the complete art itself.

One of my old Wado-Ryu Karate teachers and my FCS Kali instructor, who holds a 5th Dan in Wado-Ryu, said that more practitioners have focused more on Sport Karate. Those schools deviated from the Jiu-Jitsu training, which is a core part of Wado-Ryu.

In layman speak, you get used to the mindset of a specific format and that leaves you open for attack.

When you receive an attack that is out of the norm from your training, it’s going to mess you over. It is unfortunate that a growing number of schools have watered down their respective arts in favor of winning tournaments rather than effective self-defense.

Why Do We Have Tournaments At All?

Any martial artist will likely have seen or competed in a few tournaments and I am no exception.

If you studied Boxing, then you may have competed in or watched a few amateur or professional matches.

If you studied Wrestling, you may have competed on your school’s Wrestling team and may have even tried out for the Olympic Team.

If you studied MMA, then you may have competed in different matches. You may have competed in your fair share of grappling and/or kickboxing matches, which help you overcome weaknesses in your overall fight game.

Most of your popular styles usually have a sport aspect.

Tae Kwon Do and Karate have competitive sparring, Judo has its tournament style, and the list goes on.

My Tai Chi Chuan sifu is my old Wado-Ryu Karate teacher and he’s had his share of Karate tournaments.

My Tae Kwon Do master constantly competes in tournaments and competed in Karate tournaments when he was training in Shotokan & American Goju-Ryu.

My Fencing instructors competed in the past.

My MMA instructors and training buddies compete in MMA & grappling tournaments.

It’s incredibly easy to mistake the sport for the style even though the former is only a small part of the latter. One of my friends from Fencing wondered if Krav Maga had any rules, which I answered “no” because it’s not a sport.

We are often encouraged to avoid dangerous let alone violent conflicts. It is realistic that you could dedicate your life to the martial arts and not had to use any of your training to physically resolve a volatile situation.

Chuck Norris was known to be diplomatic when it came to solving problems, which means he didn’t have to use any force.

Tournaments enable us to test our skills against each other in a safe and controlled environment.

Boxing and MMA are incredibly exciting to watch for different reasons.

There is nothing wrong with competing, but it’s crucial to separate the complete art from the combat sport.

The Three Protective Methods, Explained By Chappell

One of my favorite parts of The Hunger Games vs. The Reality of War would have to be the “Three Protective Methods.” These are three methods that are explained in-depth, which guard ones mind against the stress of war.

This can be applied to the stress of combat in general, too.

Method One: Reliable Comrades

Chappell wrote that military units work to transform their servicemen and women into a tightly bonded family unit. This was to compensate for soldiers being taken away from their families, friends, and other close ones.

Martial art schools and fight gyms usually work in that same manner, which leads to the “family dynamic.” If you are a boxer, then you will likely think of the local Boxing gym as your second family or your “home away from home.”

The same thing applies to a Tae Kwon Do school, Karate school, Fencing program, and so on.

You can expect positive results in your martial arts training if you have reliable instructors and training partners, but it is the opposite if you are surrounded by the opposite. This is where many can fall into the trap of being used to the tournament format. If your school focuses heavily on winning tournaments, then it’s highly unlikely that you could effective defend yourself if the time comes.

This is because you’re going to be used to light taps or strikes to certain parts of the body.

You will not be mentally conditioned to prepare for and respond to “out of the norm” attacks like leg kicks, knee strikes, holds, weapons, and more.

Method Two: Reliable Leaders

That method is the proverbial no-brainer.

There is an unwritten rule that you never judge the quality of an instructor’s skill by looking at the student. It’s important to remember that instructors have many students and you cannot judge a style or instructor’s effectiveness just by looking at a few students.

Chappell wrote that reliable and caring commanders play a crucial role in the psychological well-being of soldiers in combat.

Many master instructors fail at this method in terms of self-defense because they focus more on competing and winning tournaments instead of the main person, effectively defending yourself if and when the time comes.

In MMA, though it’s a sport, instructors likely won’t allow you to compete if they think you’re not ready.

Instructors that focus primarily on tournaments aren’t going to be reliable when teaching you to effectively defend yourself.

Method Three: Reliable & Realistic Training

This is the most important aspect of Chappell’s article let alone out of all three methods, but many people have their own opinions on what is “reliable” and “realistic.” I have experienced different styles and trained in different environments, which allowed me to view the subject from different perspectives.

Debate on this topic can lead to increased arrogance and inflated egos.

I remember watching a video about Eddie Bravo, 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu’s founder, talking about his background before studying BJJ under the Machado Family. Bravo said that if a move doesn’t work in MMA, then it won’t work on the street.

I have to disagree with that because MMA is still a sport with controlled variables and self-defense is completely different.

Chappell wrote that this method relies on repetition, which is crucial in martial arts training. I remember when I studied European Fencing for the first time as Bill, the head instructor, taught me about the reptilian part of the brain that’s in charge of natural movements.

One can argue that European Fencing is not practical in self-defense, but it can be if you know what you’re doing. I became close friends with Al, one of the instructors, who has been Fencing for many years. If someone with Al’s speed and training held a sharp or pointy object, then I wouldn’t feel comfortable attempting a throw or a takedown.

I might get stabbed in the skull or the side of the neck.

Repetition serves two purposes: overcoming aversion and automatic reflexes. The former taught soldiers to be desensitized to killing.

Guru Cody, in one of our FCS Kali sessions, told me that anything you learn becomes natural after 3,000 repetitions. I believe Cody because the Fencing stance became natural for me whenever I held a blade.

One time when my TKD master taught Hapkido, he had me play the role of the attacker. One would normally pull the blade back before thrusting, but that’s discouraged in Fencing. I got into a Fencing stance and tagged the other student before he could respond.

I shaved off one to three seconds by changing my stance and I tagged him the entire time. He wasn’t used to someone with Fencing training and the difference between our speed put the situation in my favor.

If I did the typical pull back and thrust method, then he would have countered it.

But I didn’t give him the time when I changed into the Fencing stance. It was funny because Master Jean Sr., my TKD master, said nothing to me. Master Jean told the student, Lawrence, to react and move faster.

Sensei Kemp, my other Judo teacher, said that it’s always important to stay in shape.

That will be a determining factor in being able to effectively depend yourself from harm. Master Jean adamantly agreed, which is why he is vigilant in working out on a regular basis. Guru Cody explained that physical fitness goes a long way.

I read an article by Moshe Kaitz, a Grace Jiu-Jitsu black belt, giving his opinion on the Israeli martial art style known as Krav Maga. Kaitz believed that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is suffering because of the rise of grappling tournaments, which led more people to learn tournament-legal techniques rather than real and practical fundamental techniques.

I’m glad that Kaitz pointed out that the civilian version of “Krav Maga” is different from true Krav Maga, which is taught to Isreali military and police units. Kaitz gave a positive opinion about true Krav Maga, but preferred Gracie Jiu-Jitsu more. That is to be expected because he’s a GJJ black belt, but Kaitz explains that this is his personal opinion.

Kaitz criticized Krav Maga for replying on immense physical and psychological training, where he points out that regular people don’t possess such abilities. I do agree with him, but I have to go back to what Sensei Kemp said about physical conditioning.

Take two martial artists on the same level, where one is ordinary and the other has superior speed & reflexes. It’s obvious that the latter will win because of that difference.

I am glad that Kaitz emphasized the core philosophy of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, leverage and control.

But Kaitz didn’t talk about psychological training. It won’t matter if you’re used to fighting opponents of different sizes if the person is adamantly trying to kill you. Part of Chappell’s explanation of the third method involved information about Spartan training.

Chappell said that boys would start training at seven and see combat at 20, where they would retire at 60. He explained that the typical Spartan in his 30s almost has two decades worth of combat training and experience, which many think is hardcore.

He explained that there are three historical battles that the Spartans retreated from. In layman speak, there are times that the Spartans have felt uncontrollable fear regardless of their intense physical training.

As Chappell bluntly put, actually trying a kill a person strikes terror in the heart.

This is the main reason I disagree with Kaitz’s view of GJJ being superior to Krav Maga. One has to remember that Krav Maga was born out of the need for Israelis and other Jews to effectively defend themselves from Anti-Semite sentiment.

Hand-to-hand combat has changed over the years, where you need only watch a couple videos on World Star Hip-Hop’s website.

But bluntly put, getting used to the tournament format will make one too comfortable and too used to the setting. Outside the mat, where danger can come, we leave ourselves constantly open. When I read over the third protective method, it reminded me on why Guro Cody told me that it’s the proverbial kiss of death for any martial art style when it becomes adapted into a sport.

This is why I agree with Cody on why it is perhaps being included as an Olympic sport is perhaps the worst thing that could have happened for Tae Kwon Do. My Tai Chi Chuan instructor, Guro Cody’s master instructor back when they did Wado-Ryu, let me borrow a book that Cody had co-written with Marrese Crump, the same Marrese Crump that starred as one of the main villains in The Protector 2.

I read a small section that glosses over some martial arts styles, where the section on TKD focused on how the WTF watered down the style by focusing on the tournaments.

I do mostly agree with that entry, but Master Jean said that there’s a difference between “true WTF” and “watered-down WTF,” which I got to see a stark difference between the two at the 2012 Florida Sunshine State Games at the Lakeland Center.

Importance & Impact Of Psychological Training

In The Matrix, Morpheus said that the body cannot exist without the mind.

The body cannot operate without the mind. You can argue that it doesn’t apply to zombies, but it does because the brain is still functional. That is why zombie lore usually requires one to go for the head in order to kill one.

This is why I’m not into the tournament scene of any style except MMA, but that’s a completely different story altogether. Let’s take a look at WTF TKD as a prime example with specific look at the 2012 Florida Sunshine State Games. Schools directly associated with the WTF required students to wear special colored uniforms to tell them apart from other students.

One of the students delivered a very good kick, but hit his opponent’s face.

It was a good strike, but WTF Competitive Sparring forbids you to strike the face. You’re only allowed to hit the protective pad or kick the side of the opponent’s helmet. Some of my friends in MMA class thought that it was the true style, which is far from the truth.

In competition, you cannot strike the face.

But in self-defense situations to kickboxing & MMA by that extension, go right ahead. The former requires you to hurt your aggressor in order to escape to safety and the latter gives you the freedom to do so.

Sport Karate emphasizes fast and light contact depending on the organization such as the World Karate Federation (WKF). There are certain organizations that hold full contact competitions, where knockouts are allowed. In most cases, knockouts are fouls in sport Karate.

There are even full contact competitions that ban punches to the face.

It takes time and dedication to win tournaments, but many schools make the mistake of focus primarily or solely on tournaments. You can be one of the best tournament competitors, but you risk developing bad habits.

I go back to what Instructor Bill and Guro Cody, respectively my Fencing & FCS Kali instructors, explain about body mechanics. Bill said that the medulla oblongata, the reptilian part of the brain, serves as the reflex center. To that extent, the medulla is responsible for many functions of the autonomic nervous system. Cody said that 3,000 repetitions of one motion becomes body memory.

If we constantly compete in tournaments, we risk getting comfortable and we adopt that mindset. That surely makes you are tournament ready, but that doesn’t apply in actual self-defense. One can argue that it can give you a competitive edge, but that’s only good in tournaments and contests.

Remember that competitions have rules.

This also applies to kata, which is the other important component of tournaments. I will say that kata has many practical uses because each one has a set of patterns. The main problem is the difficulty of knowing when or how to apply the moves in each form.

Kata is self-training and is similar to shadow-boxing.

But it’s near impossible to visualize the application of each move without knowing the proper response. It made think of one of the entries on the Karate Nerd’s website, which states that it’s highly unlikely that another martial artist will attack you on the street. I’m not against kata, but the current way of instruction feels obsolete and I blame tournaments for that.

You can win first place in kata at every tournament, but it doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t understand the actual application of the moves.

Fallacy of MMA & BJJ Training

By extension, I must include mixed martial arts (MMA) and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

I remembered the conversation between Gerry Lane and Andrew Fassback in World War Z when they flew towards Korea.

Fassback gave this interesting quote: Yeah. Yeah, we’re gonna find something. Mother Nature is a serial killer. No one’s better, more creative. Like all serial killers, she can’t help the urge to want to get caught. And what good are all those brilliant crimes if no one takes the credit? So she leaves crumbs. Now the hard part, why you spend a decade in school, is seeing the crumbs, for the clues there. Sometimes, the thing you thought was the most brutal aspect of the virus, turns out to be the chink in its element. And she loves disguising her weaknesses as strengths.”

MMA and BJJ schools open promote their skills as effective self-defense, but that’s very far from the truth.

There’s a myth that most of a street fight takes place on the ground, but that’s false. I can list reasons that it’s false.

  1. The term of street fighting is subjective and the reality is that the nearly all of the participants are d-bags, @$$h0les, and jerks. Fair-minded and calm people usually resolve the situation with diplomacy before things get worse. Master Jean told me when his son, Gabriel, won medals at the Junior Olympics. His middle school announced it on the intercom for everyone at school to hear. It’s a proud occasion, but haters will hate and other students picked a fight with him. Gabriel could have beat the tar out of them and claim self-defense, but didn’t and talked it out with them. Those same students became his friends since then.
  1. “Street fights” are 100% unpredictable. Rhetorically asking, do you really want to take a fight to the ground? It’s the worst thing you could do because you have to worry about what’s lying on the ground like needles, broken glass, sharp objects, and other debris. Good for you if you managed to “win,” but think about the possible injuries you sustained when your body makes contact with those objects. This is something that Sifu Carey, my Tai Chi Chuan teacher, talked about.
  1. The advantage will never belong to you. Your assailant will likely be armed or have friends in waiting. It reminded me of the episode of Fight Quest when the hosts visited Israel to learn true Krav Maga. One of the hosts went through a training course and failed the early part because he took the fight to the ground, where other “assailants” arrived and ganged up on him.
  1. In a really bad neighborhoods (Bronx, North Philadelphia, Baltimore, and more), you’ll likely end up dead or in critical condition at the ICU.

When I think about MMA and BJJ, I refer to Fassback’s line from World War Z. I am a fan of MMA and I appreciate the benefits of the training, but there are many fallacies to training. I understand that aggression is important when you have to defend yourself, but there are things you have to seriously understand.

  1. MMA is a sport even though you have more freedom than Wrestling, Judo, TKD, Competitive Grappling, Boxing, Kickboxing, and Karate. You have freedom, but the format still has rules and a point system. The sport is one-versus-one inside a cage with a referee inside and judges sitting outside.
  1. Because MMA is a sport, you will not learn anything pertaining to dealing with armed or multiple assailants. UFC Fighter Mauricio “Shogun” Rua was robbed last year in Brazil by four men with rifles. He was accompanied by fellow UFC Fighter Demian Maia. The robbers knew Shogun’s reputation as a professional fighter and threatened to kill him if he tried anything funny. I know this is an extreme case because of the four men with rifles, but it gets the point across.
  1. A Human Weapon episode took the hosts to Quantico to train in Marine Corp MAP. Jason Chambers and Bill Duff failed the final part of the challenge as they were forced to fight two assailants unarmed. Neither host knew that the assailants were armed with rubber knives because they were focused on grappling. They were dead before they even knew it. Had they been on an actual battlefield, they would have really died. Rhetorically asking, do you want to grind an assailant against the wall and not knowing if the person is armed? What happens if the assailant has allies waiting nearby?
  1. Jason and Bill headed to Israel in another episode of Human Weapon to study Krav Maga, where Jason tested his skills against one of the instructors. He struck the instructor in the chest with a front snap kick, but that didn’t stop the instructor as he relentlessly and aggressively. The man hit Jason’s head with the rubber knife. Jason didn’t pay attention to the knife and assumed that the man was going to give up. It also showed that neither Jason nor Bill were trained to defend against armed attacks.
  1. The likelihood that you’ll be attacked by another martial artist is incredibly slim to none. That also applies to anyone using MMA. It’s a slim to none likelihood that you’ll be attacked by MMA fighters, too.

You have to understand that perpetrators are opportunists from the start to the very end. They will not mess with you unless they see an opportunity. If they do not, then they’ll leave you alone in favor for an easier target. Don’t expect a fair fight if some random person picks a fight with out on the street because that person has a trick or two.

What about BJJ? There are reasons I added BJJ to the conversation.

  1. Many BJJ schools have focused on winning tournaments over the years, which adversely affects the style. I find BJJ an effective form of self-defense depending on the situation. You have to go back and research the history from Mitsuyo Maeda to Helio Gracie. Competitive BJJ and grappling tournaments do not teach you how to defend against strikes, multiple assailants, and armed assailants.
  1. Ground combat is the emphasis of BJJ because strength and power is negated, but do you want to take it to the ground? It wouldn’t matter that you have the superior position if you have to deal with multiple attackers let alone armed ones. You can always scare off your would-be attackers by breaking the limbs of the attacker you’re defending against. You’re psychologically conditioned to go for the submission instead of the limb break in training let alone competitive training.
  1. What happens if your assailant pulls out a weapon when you’re rolling with him/her on the ground?

What To Ultimately Take From This Dialogue

The sport is only one minor aspect of the martial arts, but there’s too much focus. I remember when a fellow Tai Chi Chuan student named Neil, another former Wado-Ryu teacher, showed me one of his secret attacks. He showed it to this professional kickboxer as courtesy. The kickboxer said that he’s not allowed to use that technique, but Neil explained that it’s to save his life and not for use in the ring.

You have to seriously think on why you’re training in the first place?

Do you wish to have a competitive career? Then you have to prove yourself at tournaments because the environment is incredibly competitive.

If you want to effectively defend yourself, then don’t train at a school that focuses primarily on tournaments. You’ll develop bad habits in the long run.

MMA training can help because it teaches you mental toughness, physical toughness, and how to combine styles together. You still have to understand that MMA is a combat sport that is derived from other combat sports.

But the most important part is psychological conditioning. The body is only as strong as the mind. You could be the strongest or the fastest, but it does nothing if you lack the psychological conditioning.

If you lose tournaments, then so what? Tournament wins should never be a means to measure your skill as a martial artist. This is the main reason I believe MMA should never be used as a barometer to judge the effectiveness of any style.

More power to you if you can win tournaments and effectively defend yourself outside. This shows that you’re able to compartmentalize your knowledge and training.