Traditional Martial Arts vs. Sport Karate

Originally, and I mean way back, traditional martial arts took their place as the only fighting art. Their usefulness had to do with protecting one’s self, family and community. The martial arts evolved into art forms for people to learn a tradition of life protection while improving their lives. More recently, some martial arts branched off to focus on developing sport skills. You can largely divide martial arts schools into the two categories of traditional or sport-oriented.


All of today’s martial arts at one time came from the traditional martial arts. So, you may find it difficult to figure out if an art, or a school, fits into traditional or sports. You can easily find respect in many sport karate schools. And of course, they would want to preserve the traditional value of perseverance. And some schools may try to fit into both categories. You can learn many valuable lessons from any martial art. But there is a difference between sport and traditional. If you have the luxury of choosing between the two for your training, it will help you to distinguish the difference.


Traditional martial art styles focus on the core of their existence, which is life protection. Remember these arts only exist because people wanted to physically protect themselves, their families and their communities. In our traditional Okinawan karate school, all of our training adds on to our ability to protect our lives and the lives of others. We develop skills that will allow us to do that. If we are in a life protection situation, we will do whatever we must in order to remove the threat. We train for that in as safe a way as possible.

traditional martial arts

traditional karate

As those same skills evolved in the past, teachers cared for their students and their communities. Thus they developed and taught values and codes for the martial artist to live by. They taught students how to fight, and also needed a way to teach them how not to fight. Or a way to measure when fighting is the best choice. As a traditional martial arts school, we uphold respect for those ancient teachers and their teachings. So, learning about the traditions and culture of Okinawa (or the Ryukyu Kingdom) as well as the history that goes along with all of that is an important part of our training. Plus, we value putting all of that knowledge, that hard physical work, and those traditional values to use in our daily life.

Only then can we become proficient in traditional Okinawan karate. When training in traditional Okinawan karate, the main idea is that you get good at techniques that can hurt others through a long-proven system. That system starts with the basics and builds on as the student matures, teaching you to make good life decisions with those physical skills by using traditional values.


The traditional martial arts exist for life protection. On the other hand, sport martial arts exist to train the student to triumph over an opponent in a sporting event. The Olympics first saw Judo in 1964. Before that, this art was developed as a way to teach the self defense skill of subduing or throwing an opponent. As says, “…the techniques of judo were modified so that judo students can practice and apply these techniques safely and without hurting opponents.” To me it’s a form of wrestling that includes Japanese values. The Olympics first saw Taekwondo in 1988. It has generally developed very much into a sport martial art. Take a look at the rules of Taekwondo.

Sport “karate” or sport martial arts have the focus of winning. In order to win, you must stay within rules that are there in order to promote safety and to make the match fair. When training in a sport martial art, the main idea is that you get good at that sport. You compete to beat your opponent who has been training to get good at that sport. And you spend your time building skills that will help you to compete against said opponent.

sport taekwondo

sport karate

Now that we have analyzed the differences in focus for traditional martial arts as opposed to sport martial arts, you will be able to differentiate the two. You may have to visit a school and talk to the instructors to find out the path of their training program. But a discerning mind will be able to figure out which category a school fits into best. And, depending on your reason for training (or having your kids train), you will be better equipped to select the best martial arts school for your wants and needs .

Jenifer Tull-Gauger

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