This is the final article of a five-part series in which I will be sharing my opinion on the five most important steps one must take on their journey to become a successful sport karate competitor. If you haven’t read part four about humility, you can find it here.
The first four articles of this series were meant to follow a timeline as one progresses through their sport karate career. When you first start, it is important to show up and compete as often as possible.
Then, you must find mentorship that will help you develop as a competitor. After you go through that development and find some success, it is time to understand your position in the sport as a leader. When you experience extended periods of success, or you can feel yourself on the precipice of success, it is important to remain humble to continue your progress and not become overly frustrated by the process.
This final step, changing the game, comes after all of that. This is what I consider to be the difference between “good” and “great” competitors. Good competitors compete for a number of years, win overall grand championships, and are respected for their accomplishments. Great competitors do something that changes the sport, setting them apart from all of their peers as well as making themselves unique compared to those who came before and all who will come after them.
I believe the most important distinction that will help any competitor change the game is to be inspired by legends of the past without trying to be like those all-time great competitors. The famous Be Like Mike Gatorade campaign in the 90’s does not apply to sport karate.
Whereas in basketball, modeling your game after Michael Jordan and striving to play just like him will create another historically great basketball player with the right work ethic (Kobe Bryant, anyone?). In sport karate, particularly in forms and weapons, everything is subjective. If your goal is to do double sword just like Kalman Csoka, every judge will think of Kalman Csoka when they watch YOUR sword form. If you want to change the sport, the judges shouldn’t think of anybody but you when you are on stage. This DOES NOT mean you can’t be inspired by Kalman if you are a sword competitor, because you should be. It simply means that if you want to achieve greatness you have to find that thing that sets you apart.
My best advice to help you achieve this feat is threefold: do what you love, keep an open mind, and work hard until it happens organically. I say this because it is the exact process that worked for me. I have loved this activity from the moment I went to my first tournament and competed in forms, breaking, and point fighting.
The number one thing that kept me involved in this sport for so long is that I love everything about it. You don’t necessarily have to enjoy every aspect of sport karate, but you should certainly be passionate about whatever events you are competing in. The “doing what you love” part if self-explanatory, but what about keeping an open mind?
If you had asked someone “Is that Jackson Rudolph kid ever going to be any good?” in 2008, the answer would have been “He has a chance, but he’ll only ever be a traditionalist.” Believe it or not, this is true. I won my first division at the AKA Grand Nationals in 2007 for traditional weapons, then I was in the traditional forms and weapons runoffs consistently until Diamond Nationals of 2008 when I made stage for the first time with traditional forms.
So where did CMX (creative/musical/extreme) weapons come into the picture for me? I had always loved competing in CMX weapons and was doing so even when I had more of a reputation as a traditional competitor. The key for me was that when I was having success with traditional, I never stopped training CMX to focus on what was winning.
I kept an open mind, knowing just because traditional was my best division right now, that doesn’t mean that I won’t one day excel in CMX too. If I had done what many competitors do and specialized too early in my career, I never would have achieved anything that I am blessed to have done with that green bo.
The final phase of changing the game that I mentioned was to work hard until it happens organically. This means that you must have an exceptional work ethic and put in ridiculous amounts of time perfecting your craft. However, training time should not be spent thinking, “how am I going to change the history of the sport today?” Instead, training should first be focused on perfecting your technical skills. If you don’t have solid basics, it won’t matter how great your ideas are because the judges won’t be paying attention after they see the first terrible front stance. Meanwhile, you should always have the thought of “how can I be different?” in the back of your mind. This thought will generate ideas that you can try when choreographing new forms.
Many of these ideas won’t look very good (just being honest), but some of them will and those are the skills and concepts that will set you apart from the competition. If you accumulate enough of these unique skills and concepts, next thing you know you have developed your own style.
A style that the sport has never seen before combined with a collection of major championships is the recipe for a truly great career in sport karate. Be inspired by the past, but work every day to make the future of the sport better. Innovation is the key to greatness.