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  • Writer's pictureMatt Powell

What’s the point?

I can still remember my first ever Karate Competition, which is a miracle considering I cannot remember this morning’s conversations with my Wife.

It was November 1987, and I was eight years old. The venue was the Mountbatten Centre Portsmouth, and it was our association (SEKU’s) annual invitational tournament.

Back then the Mountbatten Centre was relatively new, and it had a long slope which rose to an imposing entrance and large reception area that overlooked the main sports hall.

I remember holding my dad’s hand as I walked the slope, flanked by my Grandad who had accompanied us for support and to film proceedings on his Super 8 Cine’ camera.

I was petrified and didn’t really know what to expect. Once registered I remember entering the hall feeling overwhelmed. Back in the late 1980’s these competitions were huge with entries from all over the south of England. (It was not unusual for the kumite finals to be fought approaching midnight or later).

I didn’t know what was happening, I didn't know what to do and I felt very alone. My Dad encouraged me to go and warm up, but I couldn’t see or recognise anyone from the dojo, so I submitted to fear and sat with Dad.

As it was my first competition I had only been entered for kata. When the ‘Pee-Wee’ event (Under 10’s) was called I went to the area and hoped for the best. I was called up for my first round and asked to perform Kihon kata versus a brown belt.

For some reason I went into auto-pilot and demonstrated Heian Shodan, the orange belt kata instead.

Not surprisingly I lost and THAT WAS IT!

My first competition was over!

I was disheartened, disinterested, and I asked to go home.

Once back in the sanctuary of our garden I performed kata for my Grandad to film. I decided that competition wasn’t for me.

A year or so later we had moved house, and I was now a member of the Portchester dojo. There was a large contingent of my school friends at the dojo and they convinced me to enter the next competition at the Mountbatten.

I can’t really remember this occasion, but I got through a few rounds in kata and 3-Step but still didn’t enjoy the experience.

I think it frightened me.

Not the thought of getting hurt.

But the thought of losing and realising that others were in fact ‘better’ than me at the art I was learning to love.

In reflection I believe I was beginning to fear failure!

It was much safer to hide from the competitions, avoid them and pretend I was busy. I told myself these events weren’t for me.

After a few years out of karate I returned to training as my Millenium resolution in January of 2000.

Now an adult I was much more assured, and my Seniors James and Paul encouraged me to compete at the Portsmouth Invitational in the November. I was a 1st Kyu brown belt at the time, and I won Brown Belt Kata, Kumite and we placed third in team kumite.

I was buzzing and not afraid at all.

I wonder if as a young adult I had learnt to supress the fear of failure, but I suspect that I didn’t feel the same pressure I had when I was a child. The pressure must have come from within and somehow at 21 I was happy to be involved and critically I had more confidence.

(I also had the support of two friends and karate seniors who believed in me).

Around the same time, I had started assisting my Sensei with teaching the children’s classes.

I have always had a sense of what the kids ‘need’ to enjoy a class and be motivated. I think this is largely because I trained as a child myself.

The Cambridge professor and Author Dr Ayesha Siddiqi famously wrote.

“Be the person you needed when you were younger.”

Dr Siddiqi believes that we have the capacity to provide a voice for those who cannot speak on their own. I interpret it to mean that I should be the Sensei and Coach I would have liked or needed when I was a youth.

I am in no way criticising my own teachers. But they had started karate as adults. Training as a child is different and offers an alternative perspective and experience. For those of us who trained as kids this offers valuable insight and empathy.

Recently I overheard a conversation between two of my junior students talking about our forthcoming Inter-Club tournament at Clanfield.

One of the students had asked the other if they would be competing.

They had shrugged their shoulders and replied

‘what’s the point? I never win …… student X always wins it!’

I didn’t want to embarrass them, so I didn’t say anything then, but I pondered their response. I didn’t like their mindset, but I realised that my own attitude at their age was not really that different.

In preparation for the competition, I then found myself thinking, questioning, challenging my beliefs…… what is the point?

The well-known saying ‘it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part’ has never really resonated with me. I fear it can cheapen competitive sprit and discourage those with a will to win. Winning feels great, especially if an individual wins with style, grace, and humility.

Winners can also inspire others and provide examples of greatness in every sense. I aim to create winners who are kind and compassionate. These people will help drive karate forward.

So, what do we learn from taking part, why could it be considered more valuable than winning?

What is the point?

I think the point is that competition helps an individual find out who they really are and connect with a sense of self that is so important if they wish to live happy and fulfilled lives.

On the mat you learn how you respond to pressure. Everyone is watching and you stand alone. It may go well, you may suddenly go blank. You may dig deep, you may burst into tears.

It hurts sometimes both emotionally and physically …… but its what you do next that counts.

It may go well, you may surprise even yourself. You may triumph against someone that you always felt had the advantage….. but you will never know if you don’t try!

You may feel distraught, gutted, disheartened at your performance.

But then you feel a teammates hand on your shoulder. A fist bump from your friend from the dojo or a smile from a parent or Sensei that reminds you that you are part of something bigger.

It’s not the end.

It’s all part of the experience!

In victory you will discover how well you treat people; do you remain gracious and polite? Could you be the inspiration?

When I was eight years old, I needed to understand the point, the purpose, the reason ‘why’ I should compete.

I believe I know it now.

Competition will help you find out who you are now and help you understand who you want to be!

You may not like what you discover but that can be valuable too!

I know many adults who struggle with self-reflection and lack the ability to grow as a result.

The point of karate competition is that it offers an opportunity to check in on yourself.

How do I respond? And crucially am I happy with the answer?

... and if not...

what will I do about it?

The Japanese have a word Mushin which loosely translates to ‘Without mind’. Being unconsciously conscious or consciously unconscious.

The famous Swordsman Miyamoto Musashi wrote of it in his famous book of the five rings. The principle is that Mushin allows an individual to perform with a clear mind without prejudice or anger. In the west we may also compare this to a state of ‘flow’.

Competition and development based on self-reflection can lead to personal growth and a state of Mushin.

That I believe is the point and I continue to strive to be the coach and Sensei the 8-year-old at the Mountbatten needed all those years ago.

One of the ways I can do that is to explain the ‘point’ to my students.

On the 11th of May 2024 we had our Associations Summer competition. Our results were our best yet in 10 years of these events. A full listing of the results is below.

I was very proud on the day, not just of our students’ performances, but of their team spirit, kindness, and determination on the day.






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