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How to Win Tournaments

So you want to stand on one of these? Why?
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All world-class tournament competitors in low-contact combat sports use this method to succeed in tournaments. Whether you want to treat your tournament career like this is a whole other question, but, at the top level, everybody is doing this because it’s the only method that works.

1.  Analyse the Rules

Analyse the rule-sets, equipment, and every other aspect of the tournament environment. Your job is to score more points than your opponent in that environment and that’s it. You are not there to look good, be popular, or gain respect. You are there to win, and win only, according to the rules that are set.

Here’s an example of this in action: in 1999 Tim Ferriss, with a couple of months of preparation, won the Chinese kickboxing US national championship. He did this only because he found a loophole in the rules that allowed him to win by dehydrating himself before weigh-in down to 165lb, rehydrate back up to over 180 between weigh-in and the tournament, and, avoiding kicking and punching altogether, pick up his much lighter opponents and throw them out of the ring. Did he beautifully represent the spirit of the Art? No. (In the article I link to, he writes about “how to win at kickboxing the wrong way”!) Did he win? Yes.

Here’s another example: Johan Harmenberg, who pretty much single-handedly destroyed sport fencing (in my eyes at least), by ignoring conventions and analysing the rules to figure out a new and more effective way to score and not get scored on with the electronic scoring apparatus. He got from nowhere to World champion and Olympic champion in a few years. I highly recommend his book Epee 2.0 which recounts the details of how he did it. Did he beautifully represent the spirit of the Art? No. Did he win? Yes.

2. Create an Area of Excellence.

Pick one, or maximum two actions that lead to you striking, and train the hell out of them. Start with the action itself, and then work back to create the situation in which you can pull it off. Harmenberg’s action was the parry sixte-riposte. Ferriss’ was throwing people out of the wring (he has a background in judo and college wrestling). In every match, your only job is to lead your opponent into your area of excellence, where you can beat them. You need one world-class action in your repertoire. But only one, and it should suit your physical and mental strengths. Don’t waste time getting good at things you are not going to get world-class at. Will you beautifully represent the spirit of the Art? No. Will you win? Maybe.

3. Analyse your likely opponents

Who are the few individuals you are most likely to be beaten by? Go over every second of their tournament footage and analyse exactly what they are doing to win. What is their area of excellence? Your job now is to train ways to keep them out of their area of excellence, and lead them into yours. Your coach’s job is to model their behaviour to give you the opportunity to train against their specific game. For lower ranked opponents, you have to rely on your general skill at leading people into your area of excellence; you can't train specifically against more than a few opponents, there just isn't enough time.

Will you beautifully represent the spirit of the Art? No. Will you win? Probably.

The problem of course is that all world-class competitors are doing the same thing, analysing you (once you become successful enough to become a threat and so warrant attention). This is why every now and then a complete outsider comes out of nowhere and wins: he or she has prepared to fight the best; but the best have never seen his one area of excellence before.

Further reading:

The best books on this subject that I’m aware of are Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning, which details how he went from chess champion to world champion in push-hands (the moment when he realised that the one opponent he had trained to beat was now in a different weight class was priceless. As was the moment when they realised that the ring was now a tad smaller), and the aforementioned Johan Harmenberg’s Epee 2.0.

This process is simple. But it is not easy. And, personally, I am much more interested in the spirit of the Art. Which is why I don’t normally train students for tournaments, but will if I’m asked to. I have the necessary skill-set, but it’s not a terribly interesting field for me.

I would also note here that I do not think that everyone should train like this for tournaments; there are plenty of ways to have fun and learn useful things from tournaments without going all-out to win them. But the topic of this post is not how to use tournaments, nor how to enjoy them. It’s how to win them. And this is the only way to train for that in any truly competitive field.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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