Traditional vs Sport Karate

Traditional Vs. Sport Karate
Julian Forbes Karate
By Julian Forbes 
(ex-USA team captain)
CEO Karate Athlete, Inc. (

Let me start this piece by clearly stating my view on this subject: In my personal opinion there should never be a debate about which is better, traditional training or sport karate training. They both compliment each other, and each should be respected for what it brings to the table in terms of improving a Martial Artist's abilities and performance.
I apologize for some generalizations. I understand that not all traditionalists look down upon sport karate.
Different Conditioning Needs?
Traditionalists claim that karate's only goal as originally conceived was to "incapacitate an adversary with one blow". This is certainly true of Shotokan, although other styles like Wado Ryu tend to favor combinations to the "one punch" technique.
Then they claim that sport karate's goals are to score points by tagging an opponent. Very true. I would add to that that an equal part of that goal is to avoid being tagged/hit.
Now, I could go into an in-depth analysis of the body's needs to perform both of these sets of goals optimally but it would be pointless as it is all covered in the Training Center of this site. But here's a news flash.... For the most part, they are one and the same.
Sport Karate athletes do a lot of ancillary athletic training to increase their speed, strength, explosive power, focus, coordination, timing and endurance... Now which of those are not useful in a street fight? Which does a traditionalist feel they don't need or can't benefit from?
Perhaps it is the sport karate athlete who does not need some of the traditionalists' training. There are a lot of ancient practices in traditional karate which I personally disagree with. Keep in mind that traditional training was conceived without the benefit of modern sports science and medicine. The pioneers were basically using their common sense to derive the best training conceivable. On the whole they did a terrific job. However, we must learn from medicine and science and improve on the old.
This is the only difference that I see in conditioning needs: Traditionalists have historically believed that they needed to "toughen" up their knuckles, forearms, shins etc, to be able to resist pain and injury when hitting or being hit in a fight. I was brought up in this way. Yes, in the short term calcifications do strengthen your bones and constant impacts desensitize nerve endings so that blows are less painful. There are however many long term detrimental effects to be considered such as arthritis and one must be aware of these and weigh it all out responsibly. But that's a different subject. The bottom line is that the conditioning needed by both groups is essentially the same if they want to perform at their peak!
Are Sport Karate Athletes NOT "Martial Artists"?
As someone who grew up studying traditionally and also trained and competed as a "sport" karate athlete, this question makes my blood boil! This is the kind of comment I have historically heard voiced by those who either never did well in competition (usually kumite but on occasion kata as well) or who never had the courage to compete at all.
Why is it that a Martial Artist who has taken his or her training a step further and sought physical perfection to enhance the performance of his or her techniques, is any less of a Martial Artist than the guy with a huge beer gut who never stepped foot in a ring? Most, if not all, sport karate athletes also train using traditional methods. It is by doing so that they have mastered their techniques!!!
Sport Karate Athletes Are Not Capable of Street Self Defense?
This is another subject which just plain annoys me. Let me again point out that "Sport" karate athletes also have a traditional background and also usually train in traditional dojos. Yes, a large portion of their training will focus on tournament style fighting. However, most will also often "let loose" with their sparring partners or senseis in "freestyle" non-stop kumite (fighting) which can include grappling, knees, elbows, head butts etc. (All controlled of course.) This kind of sparring is important not only from a physical and stamina perspective but to increase the brain's "library" of actions and reactions so that the next time you will react to similar stimuli even quicker. In addition, as any real fighter will tell you, its just plain fun! An athlete training for world class tournaments needs to spend a lot of their time on tournament style sparring. This is a great break from it. Again, I don't know any fighter who doesn't do a fair amount of freestyle sparring.
So, so much for the idea that the "athlete" is not street prepared. Some will argue that the "point" style training will be detrimental on the street. Hmm... Watch a point fighter closely. Occasionally you will see one who has been intentionally fouled and the referee does not see. Watch what happens next... The next technique tends to be an extremely powerful, pain-inflicting one such as a gyaku to the solar plexus that seems to go through the opponent! As the opponent lies in a collapsed ball on the ground, tell me again how this athlete will inadvertently be pulling punches on the street. I don't think so.
The fact is that the training a sport karate athlete must go through enhances their control of distance (both body and impact). Control means just that... they can control it better. If they choose to deliver more contact they can do so because they have that control. Its simply a question of what they desire.
Focus - Athletes train focus with focus mitts etc... They are less likely to miss their target.
Explosive energy - Athletes train to be the first off the mark. Their technique has to be delivered in a fraction of a second when either an opening appears or is created. Again, useful on the street.
Endurance - What if you don't nail your attackers with the first technique... what if you are fighting multiple attackers? Surely the fitter fighter will have an advantage over the beer gut guy.
Defense - Sport Karate Athletes are trained to avoid getting "tagged", let alone hit! Again, a useful practice on the street I'm guessing... (well, not really guessing - I know!)
Most importantly, "sport" karate athletes constantly face opponents whom they either don't know, or sometimes may not like. These opponents want to win as much as they do, if not more. There is no training in the dojo that will compare to the experience of having a total stranger in front of you whom you know doesn't care about you wanting to drive his foot through your rib cage! Despite the confines of tournament rules, "accidents" do happen and sometimes people end up in wheelchairs for the rest of their lives. This is far less likely and common in the dojo. So yes, you learn to concur fear and balance self-assuredness with caution. You get to practice psychological warfare on strangers. These in themselves are incredible lessons to master. Occasionally we become too self-assured or cocky and end up on the floor. Too much caution, and we will freeze up and also, end up on the floor...
There is one last attribute which a karate athlete brings to a street fight which a pure traditionalist may not. The ability to "switch on" and "switch off" almost instantly. Although switching off sometimes takes a bit longer due to the adrenaline rush. - These athletes can get in the zone quicker and be prepared sooner to do battle than someone who has not trained in this fashion.
Lastly, I can tell you that I survived a stabbing attack in London, England from 4 attackers and made only one mistake. When confronted with the knife I waited and tried to talk sense into the attackers (while trying to remove my walkman headphones). When the knife cut through my leather jacket and penetrated my chest, I swung into action. The fight lasted about 10 seconds... One attacker ran, 3 were downed. The knife wound was barely a half inch deep into muscle so I lived. I was essentially a sport karate athlete at the time... And no, I don't think I'm special. Many of my friends have overcome street adversity with ease.
Is it possible to be traditionalist and not look down on sport karate?
I think so. I am a strong believer in the values of traditional training, but I also believe it can be enhanced. Once again, as much as my ego wishes me to rush to the conclusion that I am unique and innovative in my views, I know there are a lot of you out there that feel the same. I know, because I've met you!
In conclusion let me emphasize that without traditional training there is no proper training of technique which is essential for all fighters regardless of their goals. However, before criticizing a style, whether it is a different Martial Art, or traditional vs. sport karate, take some time to fully study all the factors objectively. Ying can not exist without Yang. Sport karate can not exist without traditional technique training. Traditional training can exist without, but does better with sport karate training and conditioning methods. Don't take my, or anyone else's, word for it. You have a brain, use it to process all the information it accumulates and make an informed and educated decision about things.
Ignorance is not an excuse... 

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