This article focuses on an issue that is often written about in martial arts circles and will no doubt continue to be debated for years to come. It is the basic question about whether karate is a martial art or a sport and, if you can definitively categorize it as one or the other, then what in fact is the difference between a martial art and a sport?
The article is going to start by defining what a martial art and a sport actually is and then it will discuss the difference between the two.
So first of all, what is a martial art? A martial art in the original sense of the words is an art that involves military strategy, sometimes weaponry and the idea of some kind of life-or-death situation that must be faced either on a battlefield, in warfare or in a personal dangerous encounter.
The ultimate risk in a traditional martial art is the loss of one’s life at the hands of your opponent and therefore much emphasis is placed on spiritual growth, strength of character and moral fortitude during the course of one’s training. Training in a martial art is often very rigorous and demanding and is certainly not for the weak of heart. The structure of the training is often very regimented and repetitive and requires a high degree of self-discipline and effort.
Consequently the goal of a traditional martial arts practitioner is not necessarily to win each battle but rather to not lose any battle. Although ‘to win’ and ‘to not lose’ are essentially the same thing, the focus is different.
Moving on to the question of “what is a sport?” A sport is an activity usually involving two or more individuals, sides, or teams, each one trying to win a game or competition as quickly and by as greater margin as possible. Despite the strong element of competition and the emphasis on winning we should include the concept of fun as being a central factor in the overall goal of sport. We often see high levels of intensity and passion displayed by the players, especially at the top levels of competition, but usually everybody goes home at the end of the day friends and with a feeling of refreshment looking forward to next week’s game against a different team.
These are basic definitions of a martial art and a sport and it used to be fairly easy to separate the two but over the years of development of both kinds of disciplines the differences are not so great and there is a lot of overlap between the two. So let’s now try to address some of the differences.
First of all a sport in general is fun with a serious side to it called competition. The competition aspect is usually hotly contested by both sides with one of the sides coming out a winner and receiving some kind of prize. There is often a little over-exuberance, sometimes injuries, but most of the time the game or match is an enjoyable spectacle with, as stated before, everybody going home friends at the end of the day.
A martial art on the other hand is very different to this. Although there is now the competition aspect of martial arts, this of course also includes team events, a martial art is predominantly an individual pursuit. The goal of the practitioner is to hone one's skills by constant never-ending practice, week-in week-out, through a very regimented schedule and a very structured syllabus. The martial artist follows a path of growth, which begins the first moment he or she steps into the dojo, and in many cases continues for the rest of that person’s life, or certainly way beyond the competitive career of most sportsmen and women.
Along this journey of self-discovery and growth the martial artist not only tries to improve his or her technical ability and prowess, but also focuses on becoming a better person in every other aspect of his or her life. By a better person, it is meant that the path of a martial artist is one of constant polishing and refining of one’s technique, which through repeated practice develops the good habits needed to improve one’s abilities in coping with everyday life’s challenges and tasks.
The ultimate goal of the martial artist is to have mind and body unify as one, and then function harmoniously with the outside environment and surroundings, always trying to create positive values for others through leading by example and utilizing the principles of respect, hard work and effort, self-control and self-discipline.
Although a sport has many of these benefits and qualities, I think a sport is by nature too specific and focused on one dimension to adequately provide the rounded, balanced dimensions that a martial art offers.
I believe a martial art is intrinsically more rewarding than a sport and ultimately becomes a way of life for those who practice its teachings seriously.
In closing I think that nowadays karate is both a martial art and a sport but the sport aspect is just a small part of the overall martial art rather than the martial art being a small part of the sport. For both to coexist effectively we need to recognize the importance of each with respect to the other.