Jackson Rudolph
Photo Courtesy: Century Martial Arts


This is the fourth article of a five-part series in which I will be sharing my opinion on the five most important steps one must take on their journey to become a successful sport karate competitor. If you haven’t read part three about the importance of leadership, you can find it here.

Humility is a tenet of martial arts training across the spectrum of styles, to the extent that most martial arts studios have a poster about humility somewhere along their walls. Not only is it integral to your journey as a martial artist, it is essential for a successful career in sport karate. Although this idea feels as if it doesn’t need to be stated, I selected it as one of the topics of discussion in this article series because a lack of humility will end a sport karate career very quickly. The most common method by which I see this happen is a sense of entitlement.

There is an old saying among veterans of this sport: “sometimes you will lose when you should have won, and sometimes you will win when you should have lost”. The first part of this quote is expected, everyone who has ever competed in sport karate knows that you will get “robbed” sometimes. That is the nature of a subjective sport, sometimes the judges will simply get it wrong. However, competitors commonly forget the second half of this quote. If there are times that you lose when you shouldn’t, then the inverse must be true as well. There will be times that you are not the best, and you still win. This very fact is what sometimes causes a sense of entitlement among athletes.

I feel this is best explained with an anecdote. A competitor, we will call him “Johnny”, has been traveling the circuit for a couple of years and has progressed to the point that he is winning his division consistently. However, in the runoffs (second round of competition to qualify for the finals), he has never gotten better than 9.97 across the board. There are two competitors in the age group above him that are more experienced, consistently outperform Johnny, and they always split the 9.98’s and 9.99’s. At this tournament though, one of those competitors drops their weapon and the other has a significant stumble coming out of a tricking pass. Johnny takes the win and advances to the night show for the first time in his career.

I will interrupt this story here to clarify that this is still a big deal. It is NOT a bad thing to advance to stage for the first time because other competitors made mistakes. Their performance is out of your control and if you still do what is necessary to win, you absolutely deserve to be on stage. Where this story is significant with regard to the humility discussion is what happens next. I have seen various competitors in similar situations handle this in two different ways. They are as follows:

The Wrong Way: Johnny leaves this tournament believing that this win means that he is now just as good as the competitors who normally defeat him. He thinks to himself, “Finally! It’s about time the judges recognize how good I am and start giving me the win! I should have been beating those other guys way before now…” Fast forward to the next two tournaments, when Johnny’s competitors each hit their forms and Johnny loses both grand championships. Johnny gets visibly frustrated as the judges show their scores, and he briskly walks out of the ring without acknowledging his competitors.

The Right Way: Johnny is grateful for the opportunity to compete on stage, but he is honest with himself when he assesses the skillset of his competitors. He thinks to himself, “Man, that sure was cool getting to be on stage. I know that I got a little lucky with those stumbles by my competitors, but now that I’ve made it to the finals I need to train even harder to make sure I can make it there again!” Fast forward to the next two tournaments, when Johnny’s competitors each hit their forms and Johnny loses both grand championships, except this time Johnny is able to steal a 9.99 from one judge. Johnny shakes the hands of his opponents, then tells his dad at ringside, “That judge gave me a 9.99! He thought I should have won! This means we are doing something right, I can’t wait to get home and train some more.”

Yes, these examples are a bit hyperbolic. The main takeaway that I want young competitors to get from this message is how humility set up Johnny for future success. When Johnny was NOT humble and felt that he was entitled to win and make it on stage after getting there one time, he quickly got frustrated by losses. This frustration leads to burnout very quickly, making athletes dissatisfied with their results whether the result was warranted or not. On the other hand, when Johnny was graceful in victory and humble in defeat, the losses he experienced only motivated him further. His mindset following the opportunity to compete in the finals pushed him to work harder, helping him steal a 9.99 in the runoffs at one of the following tournaments. His outlook on his career is more positive overall and this will equip him for longer, more sustainable success.

I’ll conclude this discussion of humility by tying this theme back to the previous article, about leadership. Notice that in the version of the story in which Johnny lacked humility, it led to some negative public displays of him storming out of the ring following a loss. As you can imagine, this is going to leave a very poor impression to everyone watching and is unbecoming of a leader in the sport. As someone who is good enough to win a division on the NASKA world tour, you have a responsibility to carry yourself as a professional. Always stay humble, and it will positively impact your career in innumerable ways.

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