What's the first thing you see when you walk into almost any martial arts school? Trophies, of course. And usually lots of them. Is your dojo adorned with trophies? Do you feel that this image runs counter to what the martial arts are really about?
If your answer to this is yes, allow me to pose a question to you: Have you ever competed in a martial arts event?
Very few people get involved in the martial arts with tournaments in mind. Self defense, health and well being are the goals of most trainees. But I always encourage students to enter a tournament - even if it's just one - to see what it's like. Whether you place or not isn't really the issue. "You're already a winner just for showing up" an instructor of mine once said. It takes guts to bow into that tournament ring, believe me. Getting ready for this event will mean you'll have to kick your training up a notch or two. Preparing for a tournament is a great excuse to bring your skills and precision up to unprecedented levels.
Even if fighting isn't your game you could enter a kata (forms) division. Some of the most breathtaking and inspiring renditions of kata that I've seen have been on a tournament deck.
Right about now I can see the purists rolling their eyes. "The martial arts are not about sports!" they're yelling. I have to admit, I'm hard pressed to disagree with that statement. Sports are founded on rules. If there's one underlying rule to the martial arts, it's - there are no rules. So not only are martial contests not "real" martial arts, but in a certain respect the opposite of them because of the rules/no-rules dichotomy. To state the obvious, winning a point-match has absolutely nothing to do with how you'll prevail in a real altercation.
In spite of this schism I'm in favor of the sportive side of the martial arts. Every time you go out to compete you improve automatically. Not only through self-examination, but by checking out the other players. You're bound to see some new or different techniques that you may want to try out yourself.
Competing is a little scary because you're doing something the ego hates so much: facing the unknown. This is in contrast to the camp that insists that sportive martial arts is an ego-driven endeavor. For many it is, and winning can take its toll. Win or lose, you'll still be getting experience that really can't be acquired in the comfort of your school. In the end, you have only yourself to compete against.