Forms and weapons competition is subjective by nature. A panel of judges with varying martial arts backgrounds and experiences form an opinion about who had the cleanest technique with the most speed, power, difficulty, performance value, and the list goes on and on. Some judges value speed more than power and vice versa, and a few judges may even go against typical convention and value difficulty more than clean technique. With so many variables, what is the secret to persuade the judges to give you a favorable score?
It doesn’t matter if you are in a traditional or creative/musical/extreme (CMX) division, or if you are in a weapons or a forms division. The most common way that judges score any division is by using a tally mark system. They write down the list of however many competitors are in the division, and every time “competitor 1” makes a mistake, they receive a tally mark. If competitor 1 has one tally mark and competitor 2 has zero tally marks, then that judge is most likely going to give competitor 2 that winning score of 9.99. Keep in mind that NASKA and most similar circuits use a relative ranking system. This means that 9.99 is not a qualitative assessment in which the judge is saying that form was nearly perfect, it just means that form was better than the rest of the competition in that division.
Given that most judges use this tally mark system and spend their time looking for mistakes in your form, the best way to score higher is to seek out which mistakes judges look for most often and make sure you focus your training on correcting these problems. The best place to start is this list of five very common pet peeves that I hear from judges, and that I have myself when I sit in the judge’s chair.
Stances and Footwork This is by far the most common category of mistakes that judges penalize competitors for, and with good reason. Stances are an essential part of every style of martial arts as they create the base from which your body will generate power to execute techniques. But what about your stances are the judges looking for? The general guidelines I am about to describe go for every division except traditional forms, where the specific style of your form will dictate modifications to your stances. This entire category primarily boils down to front stances, which are the most used stance in almost every single division other than traditional forms (which also of course have a bunch of front stances). We’ll start from the ground up. Following general competitive standards, both of your feet should be pointing in the same direction as your target during the front stance. A mistake I see all the time is when competitors do a front stance to the corner of the ring, their back foot will point straight forward at the judges instead of pivoting the extra 45 degrees to the target. Good judges will catch this alone, but every judge will catch the most common side effect of this. When the back foot points 45 degrees away from the target, biomechanics give us a tendency to drag the back foot resulting in our weight rolling to the inside of the foot. This causes the classic “rolled” or “bladed” back foot that you may have heard of before. The space created between the ground and the outside edge of the foot is very easy for judges to spot and they will put tally marks down for that every single time. Another very common front stance mistake is bending the back leg. It is actually rather difficult to bend the back leg when your feet are pointed at the proper target because you pretty much have to extend your leg for your heel to plant on the ground in that position. Nonetheless, when people mess up the back foot, they probably bend their back knee as well.
A bent back knee is even easier to see than the bladed foot, so make sure you are stretching your hamstrings and calf muscles regularly to make it easier to lock that leg all the way out. Lastly, although this list could probably go on for a dozen more bullet points, it is also very high-yield to avoid movement in your front stances. I’m not talking about shifting back and forth between different front stances, that is fine. However, if you are trying to stay in one front stance during a combination of techniques, the front knee should not have any wiggling side to side, and you should not rise up in your stance as the combo progresses.
You should stay at a single level with your legs almost completely still. Granted, this is not ideal for actual combat as you would want to be lighter on your feet and change angles for each striking or blocking technique, but for performance martial arts it is expected that you stay still in your stance until it is time to move on to another stance.
That was a lot about front stances, right? The good news for this next category is that it is pretty straight forward (pun absolutely intended). It is easy to assume that judges value speed over everything else, particularly in the CMX divisions but also in the traditional weapons division. When you see world champions competing in the Saturday night finals, the vast majority of them are very fast. This being said, the champions who are most consistently successful are not just fast. They mastered execution of proper technique with full extension first, THEN they added the world class speed.
The mistake that this perception causes is that young competitors often attempt to fly through their technique as quickly as possible because they see their idols going that speed. When competitors fly through techniques that fast, it is almost a guarantee that some techniques are going to be left short. When a judge sees under-extension like this, points are coming off of your score. The best way to put it is this: in the eyes of most judges (myself included), a competitor with A+ technique and B- speed should beat a competitor with B- technique and A+ speed. Take the time to develop your technique and extension first, then add speed later. The long-term results are worth it.
Yelling in their Faces
We are going to take a quick break from talking about technique so that we can discuss a rather odd mistake. To be honest, I don’t really know how this even got started. This tip is exactly what the subtitle says, don’t yell in the judges’ faces! I see so many competitors get to the end of their form and literally lean forward into the center judges’ face to scream their final kiyah at the top of their lungs. Would you like it if someone yelled in your face like that? No! I often see judges having to lean back in their chairs just to get away from the blood-curdling yell being directed at their face. I believe some competitors think that this shows extra intensity or maybe even intimidates the judges… but it does not. Instead, maintain good posture on your final pose and direct your yell outward.
By the way, try to avoid yelling in your introduction as well. I frequently see competitors walk up to the judges before their forms and start their intro with something like, “I-YAH! JUDGES, REPRESENTING TEAM…” This has the same negative impact, in my opinion, as yelling at the judges at the end of your form. Instead speak with a forceful tone, as if you were leading a martial arts class, but don’t just scream your name at the judges.
Head Position There are a lot of small details that fall under this category. A good rule of thumb to follow is that just like we discussed how your stance should stay almost completely still while you execute a stationary combo, your head should remain still as well. If you are throwing hand techniques or weapons strikes/cuts and your head is shaking all over the place, there is no way you are looking at your target properly and points will be deducted. Looking at your target is another factor that is very easy for judges to assess, and it is also why eye movement is an important habit to correct. I often see competitors with “wandering eyes”, who keep their head still while hitting a pose, but allow their eyes to wander a couple of different directions before going to the next move. In addition to head movement and eye wandering, another very common mistake regarding head position is tucking your chin into your chest or just plain looking downwards. Tucking your chin into your chest closes off your breathing pathway which causes you to tire out more quickly, and it typically causes residual tightness in the shoulders that contribute to poor technique. Keeping your chin up will help you breathe easier and keep your shoulders relaxed, not to mention the fact that you will look more confident with this improved posture.
Small Errors The final subcategory I want to discuss consists of all those tiny errors that many competitors, coaches, and parents, may not realize how much it is negatively effecting scoring. A great example appears during balance moves, such as holding a block with one leg in the air during a traditional bo form or doing multiple kicks on one leg during a creative form. Competitors often wiggle their base foot a bit from side to side while this is happening, and they don’t think much of it. They aren’t hopping around or waving their arms off balance like you would imagine a true “stumble” to look like, but they are just moving that base foot around a bit.
This seemingly insignificant movement of the base foot is something that I have seen judges penalize competitors for on numerous occasions. The balance move wiggles, for lack of a better term, are the most common example of these barely perceptible mistakes that judges care so deeply about. I’ll list a few others that hopefully you can relate to. If you do a tricking pass and have to do an extra spin after the final landing before you hit the front stances, some judges will count off for that.
The expectation is that you should be able to execute the trick, then get to a stance as efficiently as possible without needing an extra spin to get there (this varies by move, of course). If you are releasing a weapon and it travels slightly out of reach, so you have to take even just a step or two to catch it, judges can take points off for that even if the catch itself is perfectly clean.
A drifting release is a sign of lack of control of the weapon and regardless of how good the catch looks, chasing it down is a no-no. While on the topic of weapons, if you do double weapons, hitting your weapons against one another is another small error that judges penalize heavily. If they can hear that *clink* of kama blades or *clack* of two bo or nunchaku hitting each other, there’s a good chance they are putting a tally mark next to your name. As you can see, there are a wide variety of reasons that judges may take a point or two off your score. What is important to realize here is that just making three of these mistakes in one form can take what would have been a 9.99 down to a 9.96 or lower depending on how mistake-free your competition is that day. These small details can make a huge difference in where you place from one tournament to the next. My suggestion is that after reading this article, you go watch the most recent video of yourself doing your form and try to identify everything on this list that you can improve. If you do that, you are one giant step in the right direction to becoming the best sport karate competitor you can be.