Ever since the proposed 2022 NASKA rule changes were released, then quickly recalled due to complaints about the extremely short time frame between the changes and the AKA Warrior Cup, there has been a lot of positive discussion about how sport karate can change for the better. Much of this conversation revolved around creative forms/weapons because that is where the most substantial proposed rule changes existed, but there have been beneficial discussions around the internet concerning virtually every division.
Active competitors, champions of the past, coaches, and parents alike have all chimed in. Some opinions are hotly debated, and there are some thoughts that seem almost universally agreed upon. There is no solution that everyone will be pleased with, but at the crossroads our beloved sport has reached I feel that any change at all shows a desire to improve and make the sport better for our competitors. With that said, I thought it would be helpful to list three ideas that I personally agree with and I am interested to know if others agree. This article is meant to elicit positive discussion, and I appreciate anyone who takes the time to contribute whether you agree with me or not.
Clearly Define "Creative" and make CMX Runoffs an Open Division
The leading gripe with creative forms under the current NASKA rules is that it is not very clear why certain moves are considered “creative” and other moves are considered “extreme”. I believe that a rule should be written that doesn’t have exceptions. If a competitor’s head goes below their hips while both feet are in the air, then it is a disqualification. If a competitor rotates more than 360 degrees in the air, they are disqualified. It doesn’t matter what they were trying to do, or if they landed to the knee or not, or if the move has a name that suggests more rotation than is actually performed. What matters is what the competitor actually does.
An opinion I have shared often is that I have a problem with the difficulty discrepancy in the CMX forms grand championships. In weapons, it is not as big of a deal because the difficulty gap can be covered with weapons manipulations. In forms, due to the necessary restrictions on tricking in the creative division, it is very difficult for the creative division winner to match the difficulty of their extreme and musical opponents. I actually liked the proposed rule change of allowing more rotation in the creative division to make it easier to close the difficulty gap, but I also understand a lot of people were displeased with this idea. Instead, why don’t we just remove the restrictions in the runoffs? A competitor could qualify for the grand championship by winning the creative division, then would be given a fair shake at winning the runoff by having the option to add more difficult tricks to their form. If we allow competitors to add music to non-musical divisions in the runoff, why can’t we let them add more tricking to level the playing field too? In the adult divisions, where creative winners often go straight to the finals without a runoff, this would enhance the quality and competitiveness of the night show and thus provide more entertainment value.
Establish Choreography as a Primary Scoring Criteria in Musical Divisions
Very few forms in modern sport karate are truly choreographed to the music. The vast majority of competitors bow on the exact same remixed beats when they walk into the ring, then hit some poses to a very similar set of “clashes”, and proceed to turn their song into background music for the rest of the form. However, we can’t blame the competitors for this because the judges reward this style of form. As I have always said, the competitors will always do whatever it is that wins.
The good news is that we can fix it by placing a new emphasis on choreography in the way the rules are written. The current NASKA rule states, "The movements of the form must be accented by and performed in conjunction with specific beats, notes, or words in the music. Simply performing your form with the same rhythm or cadence of a song is not satisfactory." The spirit of prioritizing choreography is obviously already present, but not enforced. If the rules more clearly establish that choreography will be the first factor considered by the judges, then competitors with more well-choreographed forms consistently win the division as a result, it won’t take much time for the majority of athletes to make the adjustment. I also feel that judges should be reminded by the center referee that choreography is the primary criteria before the division starts. This will help the rule be enforced and is a practice that is already in place for extreme divisions, where most center referees remind the side judges that competitors are required to invert or spin more than 360 degrees in the air.
The other benefit of prioritising choreography in musical forms is that it will make these forms look different from the creative and extreme forms. I believe the reason so many competitors simply use background music is because choreographing to specific beats would slow the pace of their form down too much. If competitors are forced to use choreography to have a chance to win, they won’t have a choice but to adjust their pacing and this will likely have a downstream impact on the way their forms are constructed in the first place.
Provide Equal Opportunities Across Styles in the Traditional Divisions
Japanese kata have dominated the NASKA circuit for over a decade now, and that in and of itself is not a problem. We have had great Japanese/Okinawan-style champions including Leiker, Torres, Castro, Stowell, and more. When you have that many outstanding competitors over a long stretch, they are going to win most of the overall grands. The issue is not that Japanese is what wins the grands, it is that there are more opportunities to compete with a Japanese form than any other style.
Traditional Challenge has been a great innovation for our sport, as it brought increased quality to the Japanese division that has substantially upgraded the level of competition. However, the quirky name comes from the fact that this was originally a specialty division at the AmeriKick Internationals that was later adopted as a NASKA division. The division is not a unique sideshow anymore, and it should be normalized as a regular division. I believe that the Traditional Challenge rules should be copied and pasted directly into the Japanese/Okinawan division rules, and that be the only specialized Japanese/Okinawan division.
Eliminating one division means that we now have room for one more, Open Traditional Forms. By having an open traditional forms category, you give every style an extra opportunity to compete. Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Kenpo competitors would all be welcome in the open traditional division. There would also be downstream positive impact on the youth divisions, where many competitors feel Korean or Chinese forms don’t have a chance, as they would see these styles being competitive in the adult divisions. Additionally, this would allow hybrid or modified traditional forms to make a comeback on the circuit. I know hybridized/modified kata is a polarizing topic, but I feel it is an important part of sport karate’s history. Without that kind of form, NASKA legends like Suzann Wanckett, William Cornell, John Su, Scott Wu, Gabe Reynaga, and others may have never flourished. Whether you like that style or not, if we are going to pride our sport on being open to all styles of forms, then the hybrid/modified traditional form should have a home too.
While we are on the topic of traditional, it is also important to address the weapons divisions. Since I have been involved in sport karate, and frankly as far back as I can research on YouTube, NASKA traditional weapons has always favored a faster-paced more contemporary style of performance. Very rarely does a true traditional Kobudo performance win a traditional weapons division. That is why I feel there should be a Classical Traditional Weapons division, in addition to the Open Traditional Weapons division. The open division parallels my suggestion of an Open Traditional Forms division and is where the contemporary style forms would call home. The classical division would allow our sport to showcase more eku, tonfa, sai forms, and beyond. We could also see an increase in old-school traditional bo forms with inch-thick, un-tapered staffs and maybe even some Iaido-style sword forms. Again, this would contribute to our sport truly being "open" to all styles of martial arts.