Guide for Busy Karate Parents: What Happens at a Tournament?

Guide for Busy Karate Parents: What Happens at a Tournament?

I’m working on a short guide for our karate parents. It will be a little primer covering what to expect, what to bring and how much all this is going to cost them. As I’m working on it, I’ll be putting portions of it here to test it out in front of a friendly audience. Please, let me know what you think.


Of course there are a lot of variations, depending on the size of the tournament and who is hosting/promoting the event.  A large tournament taking place over two or more days won’t have the exact  same structure as a local tournament that only takes 4 hours from beginning to end. This is based on my experience at what I call “medium” tournaments — those which are rated AA or AAA tournaments by their sanctioning bodies.

1. Registration

When you arrive at the event location, it’s time to register or, if you registered in advance, check in.  Small tournaments, many of which don’t have pre-registration, will have one line. Larger tournaments usually have at least two: one for competitors who registered in advance and one for competitors registering at the door.

It is typically to your advantage to register in advance. There is almost always a discount for preregistering. Often, there is also a competitive advantage. Those who register first, may get to compete last: a clear advantage if your child is in a large division. The preregistration line also moves more quickly. The drawback is that promoters will not return your money if you later learn you can’t attend the tournament. If the tournament is canceled, you should receive a refund. But, if you are the one who can’t attend, you will not get your money back.

When you register, you (and your competitor) will either get a stamp on your hand or a Tyvek wrist  band.  Help your competitor put hers on.

2. Find Your Ring and Practice

One of the best moments of a tournament, is to walk into the still empty event space.To see the enormity of the area, when everything is quiet and calm and full of infinite potential.

If possible, find what ring your child will be competing in. There could be signs scattered around the event space. There could be flyers.  A good time to ask about ring assignments is when you’re in the registration line. When the woman behind the folding table hands you the Tyvek bracelet, ask “where can I find the ring assignments?” If she doesn’t know, someone in line with you may know. (That’s one of the benefits of being among the first to arrive. Usually, it’s the anal retentive (like me) and the people involved with the hosting dojo who get there first.)

Let your child run through her kata a couple times in the ring in which she’ll be competing.  If possible, try to run through it in a ring facing the other direction, as well. If one ring is running through its division more quickly than the others, your child’s division may move to another ring.  Facing the opposite direction shouldn’t but, realistically, could throw her off enough she forgets her kata.

Don’t forget to share the ring. Everyone is trying to get in as much practice as possible before the tournament starts. There will be kids practicing in the rings, between the rings, in theaudience…anywhere there is a few feet of space.  So, (1) be very careful so you or your kid don’t get cracked in the head with a bo and (2) be a mensch and share the ring with others. The etiquette is pretty simple. If you see someone standing at the edge of the ring, finish your kata. You don’t have to rush but, when the kata is over, nod your head at the person standing at the edge of the ring and then get the heck out.  Most young kids will need a hand with this for a while, but they’ll get the hang of it.

3. Black Belts Kata First

Tournaments typically get off to a slow start, while the black belts compete in their kata divisions. Once the black belt trophies have been handed out, they are now freed up to judge the kyu/underbelt divisions.  After the black belts spread out, the tournament moves more quickly.

Sometimes, a judge will disappear from a ring in between divisions. One of his students are sick or injured. Maybe the judge is just hungry or has to go to the bathroom. The ring is temporarily on hold until he gets back or while organizers find a replacement.

Once the kyus get started there are small differences among tournaments. At some tournaments, events are called by, well, events.  All the kyu will perform weapons, then all will perform kata, then all will spar. (These are just the “traditional” events that happen all the time. There are other types of events as well, which we’ll cover at a later date.)

At other tournaments, the rings are called by divisions. The 8-9 year olds will perform weapons and kata.  Then, the 10 and 11 year olds will go. Sparring still goes last.

4. Black Belts Fight  Last

The very last events are always the black belt fighting divisions.  We always joke that they have the blackbelts fight last to make sure there’s enough of us stick around to judge the kyu levels. There’s probably some truth to that.

By the end of the tournament, most of the young competitors have gone home. All that are left are the judges,  black belt competitors, the coaches and true martial art fans. When the men’s fighting divisions start, most of the other events are over.

This is the second best part of the tournament.  When a handful of the faithful remain. Chairs are left forgotten as we stand in a loose circle around the fighters. Point fighting isn’t like the mixed martial arts fighting you see on TV. It’s a tightly controlled demonstration of speed and skill. And, if you can’t see the similarity between point sparring and real fighting, you haven’t seen it in the hands of skilled martial artists.

Fight how tired you are, give the kids a snack and stick around until the end. It’s worth the effort.