I have a habit of comparing karate to sports in this blog - or at least in my head - because a big part of the purpose of this blog is to provide the kind of strength and conditioning information to karateka that is already widely available to, and targeted towards, participants in major sports. It occurred to me that people might assume that I think karate is itself a sport, and so I figured I'd address the issue. Also because arguing about stuff like this is fun (at least to me).
When I was in high school an acquaintance of mine mentioned that he had practiced karate in junior high, but had stopped because he didn't have time to go to tournaments anymore. He said something to the effect that there was no point in training karate if he wasn't going to compete. I was horrified. To me, he was missing 95% of what karate was about - a discipline, a way of life, a means of self defense. He thought of karate as a sport. Was he right?
In order to answer this question we have to start by looking at what the word "sport" means. Nothing fancy here - the meaning of a word is its use in the language. So rather than relying on some dictionary definition we can just look at the way English speakers use the word "sport." What sorts of things do we clearly regard as sports?
There are a number of activities that lie on the fringe of the meaning of sport, activities that lead to arguments regarding their sporthood. But there are also a large number of iconic examples of sport. The major ball sports come to mind - football, soccer, baseball, basketball, hockey (okay, not a ball sport, but the same idea), tennis, golf. Most of these are direct or indirect athletic competitions - competitors trying to achieve some goal while the other team (or player) tries to stop them or competing side by side (as in golf, where there really is no defense). Combat sports like boxing, wrestling, and MMA are also direct competitions. Then there are performance sports - events where athletic activities are judged, and those scores compared. Think figure skating, dance competitions, gymnastics. Bodybuilding is sort of a weird fringe case because what is judged onstage is the physique - which might be the product of an athletic endeavor, but isn't itself an athletic endeavor (sorry, posing doesn't count). We'll put that question aside for now.
So what about karate? Well, there are clearly karate competitions. Parts of those contests fall into both these categories. Sparring is a direct competition. Kata competitions are judged. You'd have a hard time, I think, arguing that sparring is not like a sport when boxing, fencing, and MMA are sports. Does that mean karate is a sport? Not so fast.
We should look at the scope and the history of the activity. Karate did not originate as a sport - it started as a means of self defense. The old masters did not get into rings and fight with rules and judges. Karate has plenty of techniques and aspects that have nothing to do with competition, due to their risks (eye gouging is part of karate but not a good idea when part of sport). Is that true of iconical sports? Is there any component of football that is unsuitable for football competition? Do people intentionally practice football techniques or moves that they wouldn't ever be able to use in a game of some kind?
I think the question of whether karate is a sport is answered already. There are tournaments - that makes it a sport. In part. But think about what my friend from high school had claimed. He thought of karate as only a sport - that there was no point to it without competition. That's not the same as claiming that it has sporting elements. If we re-phrase the question to say, "Is karate just a sport?" then we get a very different answer.
Karate includes sporting elements but it also includes a rich series of elements outside of its position as a sport. To practice karate but never compete would not be unusual; to practice tennis but never compete (play against another tennis player) would be extremely odd.
If you're a sport karate person (someone who sees karate as only, or primarily, a sport) then that's great. But karate practice is, for many of us, and I suspect especially for those of us practicing traditional arts, much more than a sport.
What all of us can agree on is that karate is a disicpline of movement - if you saw someone whose karate practice consisted entirely of seated meditation I think you'd agree that while their practice may be very valuable to them it's not really karate (not to deny that seated meditation can or should be part of your practice). Football, baseball, and dancing are also disciplines of movement. The fact is that in our society (and I'm not being critical here) vast resources are poured into studying ways of making better football and baseball players - largely because there is competition. If you have a kid who is a talented karateka, you send him to karate classes. If your kid can throw a baseball really fast, you might send him to baseball practiace, then get dreams of big league money (or college scholarships) in your head and start sending him to special facilities that make big bucks over developing athletic potential. Sure, there are karate competitions, but the money and status available aren't nearly big enough to drive an industry of support the way baseball and football are.
I talk about karate in the context of sport because in our culture sports are the systems of movement that have the most support and research around them. There are lots of very smart people who spend all their time working to make better baseball players - because there's a lot of money in it (and because there's a lot of passion for baseball in this country). Using the knowledge those guys generate - adapted to the specific demands of karate - can only make us better martial artists.
There is another reason to study competitive sports, another reason (other than popularity, money, and passion) why sport often leads to innovation in training. Competition does two things for athletes and coaches - it provides both motivation and feedback on their training. Think of a strength coach in football. He's going to be highly motivated to get the most out of his athletes - he wants to win on Sunday. In fact, his job may depend on it. Is he going to be more motivated than your karate instructor? Not necessarily - but all your sensei really needs is for you to continue training with you. You have to be satisfied that you're progressing - that doesn't mean you have to get the absolute best training possible. If the football coach gives his players anything short of top notch training then they will lose on Sunday - instant feedback.
This post contains an unusually high degree of meandering, for which I apologize! If anybody wants to argue the sport question feel free to post to comments. Otherwise, keep training! Osu.