This five-part article series will be released on five consecutive days, as I share what I feel the five most important steps are to have a successful competitive career in sport karate. I am not merely using a cliché when I tell you that sport karate changed my life. I am absolutely certain that I would not be the man I am today without this activity. Martial arts training gave me values that I carry with me to this day, then sport karate on top of that traditional training taught me so many life skills and presented a variety of opportunities. I learned goal-setting, how to lead by example, confidence, calmness in the face of adversity, and much more. These lessons and the exposure that I received from being a successful competitor resulted in opportunities like being featured on television, mentoring students around the world, traveling broadly to teach seminars, and even getting accepted at Stanford for undergrad and now going to medical school. The purpose of this article series is to share some of the things I have learned that helped me along the way, which I hope will empower the competitors of today to learn such valuable lessons and earn such life-changing opportunities.
So, what is this first article all about? What do I mean when I say, “show up”? I really mean it quite simply. The first step to kickstarting your sport karate career is to show up to events and be actively involved. This seems obvious at first glance, but there are a lot of mistakes that I feel families make when they first dive into the sport karate world. Take note of the fact that I said families, not individuals. Traveling to sport karate tournaments at a high level is time consuming and expensive, no one can do it alone.
Photo Courtesy: NASKA
Regarding the mistakes that I mentioned, I feel one of the most common errors that new competitors make is not competing in the NASKA “AA” divisions. I’ll take this opportunity to disclose that these articles are going to focus on the NASKA world tour, as that is where the highest level of competition can be found in North America. North American WAKO events are fantastic, PRO-MAC is an incredible league, and there are dozens of regional and national leagues that will be part of this discussion. Keeping in mind that we are focusing on NASKA, the “AA” divisions are the events in which competitors are eligible for NASKA points and winning these divisions will move you on to the grand championship rounds of competition. This is the division where all of the most talented competitors test their skills.
My opinion is that it is NEVER too early to enter this division. Many new competitors start their careers in the “A” divisions that typically only have one or two local athletes who essentially just get to receive a trophy and go home. I do feel there is a place for a first-timer’s division in which young competitors can enjoy a low-stress division to learn the ropes of competition, and I applaud tournaments who specifically label that division. However, if you intend to travel the circuit and one day be one of the best, the sooner that you surround yourself with great competitors, the faster you will become one of the them. Give this analogy some thought. If there was an open registration 1v1 basketball tournament and LeBron James was going to be competing. Would you rather enter an “amateur” division that you have a better chance of winning, or take advantage of the opportunity to play basketball with LeBron James? I think most people would agree that you should go play against LeBron, it isn’t all about getting a win and going home.
Earlier, I mentioned the wide variety of regional and national leagues that are available right now. Although much of this discussion is focused on the goal of becoming successful on the NASKA circuit, every new competitor should start by traveling a regional or national circuit. This is a great way to get experience without the extreme expenses of flying all over the country to get to the NASKA world tour events. At some of the national events like those that PRO-MAC or WAKO USA promote, there is often a decent pool of NASKA world champion-caliber talent to test your skills against. There is also typically some overlap with NASKA judges, which presents a good opportunity to show the judges who you are in hopes that they recognize your talents sooner and start rewarding your improvement over time on their score cards. There are also a bunch of high-quality regional leagues that provide exposure to top talent as well as judge overlap, including but not limited to USA Sport Karate (Florida), KRANE (New England), RSKC (southeast), The League (west), WSKL (Wisconsin), and TKO (Texas). If you happen to be part of an organization that has private tournaments like ATA or UFAF, those are a great place to kickstart your competitive career before making the jump to large NASKA events. Once you are consistently winning first place, and certainly if you are winning grand championships, that is a good barometer to know when it is time to start shifting your focus more towards larger events as opposed to regional or national tournaments.
Once you are fully invested in traveling the NASKA tour, that is arguably where “just showing up” is most important. It takes some competitors several years to get their first win on the circuit, and typically several more years to win their first grand championship and earn the opportunity to compete on stage. When you begin this journey, be prepared to be patient. You never know when your breakout tournament is going to happen, and showing up to the big events consistently increases your likelihood of having that big break sooner than later. Another big step along this journey is being offered a spot on a team. The only way the coaches of those teams are going to identify your talent is if you are putting those talents on display at the big tournaments. Teams might notice you when a coach attends a regional event, but many coaches are going to want to see how you perform against world-class competition before giving you a shot.
If your family has the availability and financial stability to start traveling to tournaments, do it. Start with the regional events and learn how to compete in the first place, then gradually make your transition to the national and world-level events. When it is time to go to those large tournaments, don’t be shy about entering the professional divisions with the best athletes. If you want to be a successful sport karate competitor, the first step is putting yourself out there.
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