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How to Compete and Succeed in Martial Arts Tournaments

27 Mar 2016 12:06 AM | Jessie Bowen (Administrator)

How to Compete and Succeed in Martial Arts Tournaments

The sport and practice of the martial arts is growing in popularity around the world. With all the martial artists out there, it's no wonder people enjoy the competition aspect of sport martial arts! If you are a martial artist, you too could compete at tournaments and make a name for yourself in the martial arts world. Due to the abundance of information on martial arts tournaments in North America, these are the ones this article will primarily focus on. However, there are plenty of tournaments all over the world that you could look into if you do not live in N. America. Also,this article will be focusing more on the types of tournaments that karate, tae kwon do, and kung fu artists mainly attend, rather than UFC-style or grappling tournaments.


  1. Train regularly in the martial arts. If you don't know any martial arts, you certainly can't compete in a martial arts tournament! Train at least twice a week when preparing for a tournament, as well as few times a week at home so you can achieve a skill level that allows you to compete and do well when pitted against others. Stances, technique, kiai and balance are all important aspects to work on. Private lessons, if offered at your dojo, may be beneficial. If you are an XMA artist or do creative/musical martial arts, be sure to work on being able to keep to your music, land all your stunts and keep your weapons in your hands at all times. Also, if your dojo has a competition team that travels on tournament circuits and practices specifically for tournaments, this may be something you want to look into. 

  2. Find a tournament that suits you. There are tons of tournaments out there, so you need to narrow down your search a bit. What kind of martial arts do you do? Some are open tournaments, which allow all forms of martial arts as well as XMA (extreme martial arts) to compete, in separate divisions for each event (see below). There are tournaments specifically for grappling or sparring enthusiasts, and tournaments for one style of martial arts only (eg. a kung fu tournament vs. an open martial arts tournament).

  3. Another important thing to consider is the size of the tournament and the rules the tournament follows. If you are just starting off in tournaments, a smaller one or one recommended by your club may be less daunting than a large international tournament that involves travelling a long way from home and staying in an expensive hotel. Typically, a tournament is hosted by a club around the area in which that particular dojo is located. The tournament may be part of a martial arts tournament circuit, in which case point ratings may be awarded for circuit regulars/members and the tournament will likely follow one set of rules and divisions shared by many different events. Rules are a very important thing to read when filling out registration, especially for sparring or XMA competitors. continue reading for more detail on this.

  4. Decide which events you will compete in. All the events available at most tournaments will be discussed in detail below, but if you do not practice one of the events, obviously don't sign up for it. Typically, most people compete in forms/kata, sparring, and possibly weapons.

  5. Be prepared on the day of the tournament. Be sure you have your full uniform and belt/sash, all the sparring equipment required, and plenty of snacks and water before you leave home. Most tournaments provide some kind of lunch for sale, so you may bring money to purchase it or pack your own. You should have some kind of duffel bag or backpack to carry all your things, and this should be clearly labelled with a marker or luggage tag. If you bring weapons, be sure you can clearly identify them as your own (recommend you write your name on them in permanent marker on one end). Check Mapquest to make sure you have directions to the venue and leave a bit early.

  6. Once you arrive, make sure you take the time to register or pick up your pre-registration and make sure you are registered in all the correct divisions.Mistakes do happen. You may want to bring a plastic card holder lanyard that can go around your neck and underneath your uniform to hold your division cards. Make sure you stretch properly and warm up before competing at all, to avoid injury. Because there are often breaks between divisions, you may want to repeat this before each division.

  7. Be alert! Make sure any space you use to practice or warm up is not needed for a ring or spectators. Sometimes you may be asked to leave the tournament floor if you are not competing. If the rings and divisions are being called on the loudspeakers, be sure to listen for them and head to the correct ring promptly when called. You will usually be disqualified if you are late to enter your card. If you are at a large tournament like NASKA, you may be responsible for finding your own ring using a ring assignment chart. Be sure to figure this out right away and hang around near the ring until your division is called so you don't miss it.

  1. Musical Creative/Extreme Weapons or Forms. Usually the first event of the day, so be there bright and early to warm up sufficiently! Stretch well, be sure to warm up with your weapons to get the feel of them before you go up, and make sure your uniform will not catch the weapons or interfere with your routine in any way. Have your music on an otherwise blank CD to avoid the wrong music playing in your routine. A sound system may or may not be provided to you, so it's good practice to bring a loud, battery-powered stereo of your own if you can. If you have acrobatics in your routine, this is the time to use them. Warm up your stunts beforehand, but don't practice too much - you may hurt yourself before the division even starts! If you keep dropping your weapon or can't land stunts in the practice/warm up, don't let that make you nervous. Nerves can kill your routine!

    • Once you get up to compete, make sure you are LOUD! Unlike other divisions, you can yell and scream all you want in this division. If your music does not include time for you to make your judges introduction, raise your right hand high enough for the stereo operator to see when you want it to come on. Don't over-think your routine or watch anything/anyone but yourself. If you've practiced enough and are keeping to your music, you will be fine! Your competition time usually consists of bowing to enter the ring, an introduction to the judges, your form, and a pause at the end in which you receive your scores before exiting the ring. Sometimes, to speed things up, a tournament may tell you to skip the judges intro for this division. If so, be sure you have music prepared beforehand that is shortened accordingly. You will be given a number score by 3 or 5 judges and the highest total score wins.
    • Traditional Weapons Forms. This event usually follows creative events. Your competition time will consist of bowing into the ring, a judges presentation, the performance of your form, a pause for scoring, and bowing out. Again, sufficient warm-up is important. Be sure you've warmed up with your weapon(s) and that nothing will catch on your uniform. Right before going up to perform, you may want to wipe the palms of your hands on your gi to avoid sweaty palms and slipping weapons! This division is NOT the time to be performing any routine that you made up, or any form with throws/catches, creative movements, or acrobatics. This is a traditional division for traditional martial arts forms. Be sure to keep your technique clean, your stances low, and to use loud breathing and kiai. If you have any kicks or balance moves in your kata, be sure to chamber and make sure they are not sloppy. You will be given a number score by 3 or 5 judges, the person with the highest total score wins. BTW, if your dojo uses a separate belt system in weapons, do NOT switch to a weapons belt. Use your regular belt.
  2. Traditional Forms. This is usually the largest division at a tournament. Your competition time basically consists of bowing into the ring, a judges presentation, the performance of your form, a pause for scores, and bowing out. Once again, the task of warming up, especially your arms and legs, is paramount. Don't be nervous when going in, just be sure to keep your technique really clean and your stances very low. Intense facial expression is helpful, as is balance and use of your body/uniform to create sound. You may want to SLIGHTLY modify from your original, adding more pauses/kiais and snaps of the head. However, this is a TRADITIONAL form division, so don't perform any stunts, acrobatics or creative moves. As with the other divisions, your score is a numerical score from 3 or 5 judges and the person with the highest total score wins. If there is a tie, you will perform either the same form again or a lower form, and judges will either re-score or decide the winner with a show of hands. Don't ever attempt to perform a form you haven't practiced or don't know well.

  3. Sparring. The most anticipated division of the day, and usually the most fun! Before fighting, make sure you are wearing all the proper protection required by the tournament. Pretty much every tournament will require at least a mouth-guard and some kind of hand protection, and also may require any of the following: groin protection, foot pads, headgear, shin pads, a chest-guard, or full face mask. If you don't have any of this equipment, borrow from a friend - but make sure it fits properly!

    • The sparring rules are the greatest variable between different tournaments. Some tournaments are very strict on contact, even not allowing you to touch each other at all. Light touch tournaments let you hit each other but with controlled contact, and full-contact tournaments let you hit as hard as you can (these often require the most protective gear). Be VERY well aware of these rules before beginning the fight.
    • You score points by hitting to a target area. There will be one centre judge and two other corner judges watching your fight. If they see a point, they will call for you to stop fighting and will award a point by show of hands. There will always be an odd number of judges so no arguments over who saw what point should occur. Target areas are generally the stomach/torso, kidneys, and side/top of the head, but vary from tournament to tournament. Again, be aware of rules before beginning. Some tournaments require you to be the first to score 3, 5 or 7 points on the other person. Others give you 2 minutes to score as many points as you can, the winner being the one with most points after this time runs out. The division runs in round-robin style, so if you win you will advance to fight the next person until only 2 are left to decide 1st and 2nd places.
    • Warming up and working on cardio are probably the most important. Be sure to practice blocking and scoring combinations at your dojo or on a punching bag beforehand. Don't let your opponent intimidate you; simply look for openings, block their combos, and do what you were trained to do. If you or your opponent injures each other or hits in an illegal area, contact will be called. This can mean the awarding of points to the opponent or disqualification in serious cases. Be nice to your judges and be sure to respect their decisions - they are black belt/sash judges for a reason.

Karate International of Durham
5324 New Hope Commons Dr
Durham, NC 27707

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