Why I Compete In Kata

“You are weird…”

The words echoed in my head that night, when I was going to bed, as if some subconscious part of me was trying to figure out if there was any tiny fragment of truth in the comment I had gotten earlier that day, after having become the Stockholm District champion in kata (“just another day at the office…”).

It was a kid who had said it.

A kid who overheard a conversation I had with somebody else, where I had remarked that I wasn’t very happy with the gold.

Why? Because I was unsatisfied with my performance, of course. Gold or not. My philosophy was – is – that the rewards (points/flags etc) you get for your performance in a kata tournament varies too much between occasions for me to even care. There’s too many parameters that have to click. All the stars and planets have to be properly aligned – and I don’t even believe in the zodiac to begin with.

That’s not why I compete.

The day I realized this was a big turning point for me.

Knowing whether you will win or lose is beyond you. Above you. You can only do so much, then it is up to the opinion of 3, or 5, neatly dressed judges in chairs to do the rest. And unless they see somebody lying clearly knocked out in front of your feet, you can’t be sure they will deem you the victor. This is an opinion based sport.

So what is there to hold on to?

Opinion fluctuates. There are simply too many variables, unless you already have a name made for you, or other distinct advantages in some end of the competitive kata spectrum.

So my benchmark can only be myself.


Somebody, a boxer I believe, once said that walking into the ring is akin to walking to death. Facing death. Although the actual chance of really dying in a boxing match is pretty small, it is nonetheless one step closer to death than sitting in the sofa with a beer and some potato chips.

There is no lonelier place on earth than in the ring.

Karateka-gone-MMA superstar Lyoto Machida’s father said something similar in an interview I once read. I believe the wording was “The life of a samurai is a lonely one”.

But I don’t do MMA. Neither do I box. I don’t have to worry about being gradually pushed one step closer to hypothetical death as a hail of blows lands on my body. I have no physical enemy in front of me. Which is great. Because not only does that spare me a host of yet unresearched sicknessed later in life, but more importantly it puts the spotlight on an even more sinister enemy, one that is easy to overlook in some of these combat sports that depend on external factors to a great degree.

I’m talking about myself.


Because, even though boxers, MMA fighters, wrestlers, kyokushin-ka and other full contact martial artist may very well feel desperate and lonely in the darkest moments of an all-out battle, there is also a kind of comfort to be felt. An emotional bond, though perhaps solely on a metaphysical plane, shared between oneself and one’s opponent – because no matter how you look at it you are not alone in the fight. You have an opponent.

I don’t.

We don’t.

So, when I walk up to the mat; dressed in one of my numerous prissy, all-white uniforms – ready to do my thing – there is nobody to blame if things don’t go as planned. Nobody… but myself.

I can’t blame my opponent, because there is no one.

And I can’t blame the judges, because I know that for every unfair loss they give me today, I have been handed an unfair win in the past.

And I can’t blame my coach, because she can only take me to the water, not make me drink it.

My only benchmark must be myself.


And that’s why I can not always appreciate a medal, golden or not. Because it doesn’t prove – mirror – the true worth of my actual efforts. It only serves to remind me that just like the cherry blossom, sakura, it can be here today and gone tomorrow. Exist one second, only to be blown away the next.

Unless I keep fighting.

I’m rarely excessively excited after a win. Neither am I overly sad after a loss. I am, for lack of a better term in my largely self-taught-slash-brainswashed-by-gangsta-hip-hop vocabulary; cool.

Cool, as in analytical.

Sometimes I see people who cry, at Karate tournaments. Not from being punched in the mouth, but from winning. Or losing. In a hormone filled moment of ecstasy their emotions overwhelm them, and they burst out in tears, most often in the familiar arms of an understanding coach or compassionate friend.

Those people don’t need Karate.

They need a psychologist.

“What went wrong? What went right? Did I plan it this way? Did I plan it another way?”, that’s what’s supposed to be going through your mind after a performance. Anything else, which disturbs or interrupts this process of evaluation, is a virtual blow in the face of all the preparations you have done.

What I have just divulged to you is the very act of building the base for the next period of training… to be re-evaluated at the next tournament. Which will then build the foundation for the tournament after the next.

Ad infinitum.

Some people stop competing because they respect their limits. I continue competing because I don’t.

I might not always win, but I never lose.

To round it off, I guess what I am saying is that ultimately we must all face ourselves at some point, lest we want to remain nothing more than a product of our environment. Some people chose to postpone this inevitable day as much as possible, hoping it will disappear into thin air, but alas, it doesn’t. We all know it.

So… why do I compete?

Because I have to.

And if that makes me weird, then, well…

…I couldn’t care less.


  • Sayo
    I love the analogy with facing dead. Sometimes it feels like that. When we perform kata in a shiai at our club, the sounds in de dojo fades away when the player enters the shiai area. Unlike what I see in numeruous YouTube films, everybody present is completely still, no sounds at all and all eyes are in your direction. At this point you can hear you're heartbeat throbbing in your throat. Pounding faster and faster in your chest. Nerve-racking silence. And now you have to do your thing. Under this pressure you have to remember what you have been training. If I can, I feel so relieved. If I cannot I feel devastated. If I can evaluate afterwards because I registered everything, I feel even better and filled with warm and fussy feelings. And sometimes the focus and concentration is so strong, that I forget to check if I won or lose all together and went home straight away. Guess that is weird…
    • "I love the analogy with facing dead. Sometimes it feels like that" After all, wearing a gi is technically a symbol of the fact that you're willing to lay down your life for what you're about to do, n'est pas?
  • Te'o
    Jesse my brother, thank you for a really good commentary! At our dojo, although we compete, we try to teach our students exactly what you're talking about. We really try to teach them to humbly approach the event and humbly/reverently accept the results...good or bad. We teach the "philosophy" that the dojo is a "death ground", a field of "life and death", literally the battlefield of life. In the dojo we face death daily, and numerous times over, which allow us to develop a balanced outlook on this matter of life and death, or pehaps winning and losing. I believe that, "seishi o choetsu", literally, "transending life and death" is the meaning conveyed. And for me, my worst enemy, my most critical judge, my most challenging opponent is the one I see in the mirror while standing on the hardwood of my dojo. Thank you again my brother. Imua!!!
  • Diego Romero
    i'm simpler, i compete because it's fun.
  • "My only benchmark is myself", I agree with you. I'm the hardest and more inflexible judge of myself. Both in case of victory (rare) or defeat (frequent), the only judge i listen to is myself, the only opponent i fear is myself. And as you said, i need to compete, because competitions are the necessary exam after a period of study. Without competitions, I'd lack the stimulus to train more and more harder. I don't agree with: "They need a psychologist." People have different sensibilities, story, expectations. I've seen athletes of the Italian national team crying after a defeat. It's undestandable. In a life spent in karate training, an error in a match means a lot of time and a big chance lost. We should respect the commitment and the sensibility of other athletes, also if they face the competition in a different way.
  • Euey
    well said, homie. i too believe there is no one to beat than yourself. i think the practice of kata is more of a strive for perfection and enlightenment that may never be reached than a contest of who beats who in a tournament. i mean, who is one really to judge what is perfect or not? there is no spoon right? jk. noting your mention of a cherry blossom simile i too want to play. in overdramatic fashion, i leave you with a quote from the movie The Last Samurai which really moved me: "The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life. " :P p.s. i think i've posted comments with like 3 diff names... to confuse them karate po-9's! jk
  • @jraulhernandezi
    i allways recomend your website, unfortunately not everybody here (Venezuela) can unsderstand english even if is writen so if you put this on spanish you will get many new readers, MANY. ¡Saludos desde Venezuela!
  • Rolando Duarte
    Awesome post Jesse, I have the same opinion regarding this topic.

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