The prestigious AKA Warrior Cup in Chicago is right around the corner, coming up January 20-21. With top contenders moving into new divisions, dominant champions attempting to defend their thrones, and a smorgasbord of compelling storylines leading into the event, this is certain to be one for the ages. However, not everyone at the event will be gunning for the highest honors at the tournament. Many competitors are still just trying to make a name for themselves on the NASKA circuit, and some may be competing for the very first time at a world tour event. From the cup chasers to the first-timers, this article gives my take on exactly how you should be preparing with just a few short weeks remaining.
Coming for the Cup
It only seems fair to start with this category, as these are the competitors who make the event. These are the athletes who keep us on the edge of our seats as they land the final move of their form or collide in an overtime point fighting clash to determine the winner. Six martial artists (assuming no one pulls a Ross Levine and wins two cups in one weekend) will have an extra large trophy to transport home. If you want to be one of those people, this is my best guidance.
Above all else, don't be afraid to go all in. Being on stage with a chance to win a Warrior Cup is something that every competitive martial artist dreams of, that any of us would give just about anything to have that opportunity once. You would much rather come off that mat knowing you left it all out there than questioning if you could have done more to change the outcome. If you are a creative/musical/extreme (CMX) competitor, I strongly recommend that you have a "clincher" at the end of your form. Judges in a prestigious night show like this are heavily influenced by the moment that you create. If you land an extraordinary move at the end of a clean form and the crowd goes wild, there's a good chance the judges are going to ride that energy wave. Not only could this send you home with a Warrior Cup, it could create a moment that is remembered for generations.
However, I also advise that you be smart on Saturday night. If you are fortunate enough to go last, and your top competitor isn't able to pull off their form, there is probably no reason for you to throw the aforementioned "clincher". Put it in your back pocket and save it for another major event. This is a difficult tightrope to walk, because taking out that big move at the wrong time can be costly as well. You should err on the side of going for it, but make sure you do not become your own worst enemy. At the end of the day, mistakes happen. I dropped twice in my career during the Warrior Cup round. It hurt, I hated that it happened, but at the end of the day you pick up your weapon knowing that you can come back next year and try again.
Lastly, make sure that you are on top of all the music regulations that have come into play over the last few years. Copyrighted music is allowed during the eliminations and you should take advantage of the additional choreography and hype that such music can bring to your performance. On stage, however, you will have to use royalty free music. Make sure you find something that is good enough ahead of time. Having to use music that was thrown together at the eleventh hour is likely to put you at a disadvantage. For more information about the music guidelines for the AKA Warrior Cup, click here.
Climbing the Ranks
This is where I feel most of the black belt competitors coming to the AKA Warrior Cup exist. You have been to NASKA tournaments before, maybe winning a division here or there, but you haven't broken through to become a mainstay in the grand championship rounds yet. The good news is that a major tournament like the Warrior Cup is a phenomenal opportunity to introduce yourself to the sport karate world. I have seen numerous instances of a competitor making it to the Warrior Cup Finals and that moment setting them up for a great season.
As a weapons competitor myself, you'll notice that most of my advice is applicable to forms and weapons competition. The same is true for this guidance. At this stage of your career, consistency is the most important thing. You need to ensure that you can nail your form AT LEAST 9/10 times before you arrive in Chicago. If you are a CMX weapons competitor, you have three different divisions, three opportunities to hit your form. You maximize your chances of advancing to the next round if you are hitting all of those forms. If you suffer mistakes or drops in any of these runs, it is substantially decreasing your chances of moving on in the tournament. When I was an active competitor, my dad and I often talked about "survive and advance". There were multiple Warrior Cup runs that I had in which I only won a single division before making it all the way to the title. You have to give yourself ample opportunity to win those divisions. The more you make it to runoffs, the more the judges will see you and start to appreciate your performances. Sometimes it takes a few tournaments to prove to the judges just how good you are, so there is no better time to start than the first event of the NASKA season.
Another key to success as you try to cement yourself among the ranks of the elite is actively seeking the thing that makes you different. You can't necessarily force yourself to be different from everyone else, but I guarantee you that it will never happen if you don't at least think about it. People don't win Warrior Cups on accident, the vast majority of Warrior Cups have been won by historically great competitors. What sets apart great competitors from good ones? It is the fact that most of them did something that their predecessors either didn't think of doing or were not willing to do. If you want to take that first step towards become a great competitor, find the thing that makes your forms different from everyone else. Maybe it is a new trick that has never been seen before, maybe it is a major change to the layout of a form, or maybe it is something I can't even think of as I type this article. It is the greatest challenge in this sport, but it is also the most valuable to figure out.
Just Getting Started
There are also some people reading this right now and thinking that this sounds overwhelming for them or their child to even think about during the next few weeks. You are going to the AKA Warrior Cup as your first major event because you saw an advertisement on Facebook and thought it would be a cool experience. That's okay! Remember, every competitor that I was writing to in the first two segments started out as the type of martial artist I am writing to now, a first-timer.
Your first and most important tidbit of advice is to focus on having fun. It's cliché, I know, but it really is true. It is so easy for competitors who have done this for years to focus on winning so much that we forget to go out there and enjoy the unique experience that is competing in a tournament at the highest level. If this is your first major tournament, or first tournament at all for that matter, your number one objective is to enjoy being in the ring, make friends, and have fun.
This tip may be a tad controversial, but I will tell you to register for the NASKA divisions and read the NASKA rules. There is no other sport in which you can simply register to compete against the world's best. I can't pay an entry fee and play basketball 1v1 with LeBron James, but I could pay an entry fee and spar against Kameren Dawson or Avery Plowden (not that I would ever want to get hit by them, but you know what I mean). In addition to the experience of competing against the best, this is also the fastest way to learn. Honestly, you don't learn much from competing against one or two other inexperienced competitors in the non-NASKA divisions, even if you get to leave with a fancy first place trophy. It is far more valuable from a developmental perspective to share the ring with NASKA world champions, watch them up close, learn from them by having small talk, even if that means taking last place. I want to reiterate that you should always read the NASKA rules before a tournament. The easiest way to have a bad experience is to get disqualified because you did a cartwheel in a creative division just because you didn't know the rules.
My final tip for the first-timers piggy-backs on the idea of having small talk with the top competitors in your ring and seeing how much you can learn. Never be afraid to ask questions. Whether it is the competitors in your ring, older competitors in the divisions ahead of you, judges, promoters, or even parents of other competitors, you can learn a lot by asking questions to people who have been around the block a few times. Additionally, one of the main reasons sport karate competitors keep coming back to the circuit year after year are the friendships that are made. You could meet your next best friend at the AKA Warrior Cup just by asking a simple question about how the scoring works. This is true for competitors on the mat, but also for the parents in the stands.
No matter what level you consider yourself to be at following this discussion, keep in mind that the Warrior Cup is a bucket list experience for competitive martial artists. Regardless of how well your weekend goes as a competitor, history will be made at the event and some competitors' lives will be changed forever. Watch as much as you can that is going on around you, talk to as many people as you can, learn every chance you get, and enjoy being at one of the best martial arts tournaments in the world.