I'm in a ranting kind of mood. I could blame it on the chaos that surrounds my personal life (nothing too dire, just constant chaos), but where's the fun in that? So instead, I'm going to indulge myself in some soapbox time.
One question which keeps arising, in various forms and from various perspectives, is that of testing vs. tournament. Is one more important than the other? Are they the same thing? Do you train the same way? Do the results mean the same thing?
Let me start off by quoting Mr. Okazaki, who has repeatedly said that karate has three aspects: training, testing, and tournament. Each should be equally important. Therefore, putting in your time in the dojo, testing for rank when eligible, and competing in tournaments, are all equally important. Each tests you in different ways, and each offers something the others cannot. For example, regular training shows commitment and assists in fitness and a sound foundation; testing gives you the opportunity to show how you've grown; and tournament gives you a chance to compare your skills to others. So the answer to the first question, in my opinion, is unequivocal: neither testing nor tournament is more important or "better".
So would you train the same way for both? After all, both require you to be in good physical shape, to know your katas, and to be able to do kumite. However, many aspects of their training are quite different. For example, when being tested, your basics and foundation are critically important: stance, how you make technique, etc. are all evaluated carefully. In tournament, sometimes people take shortcuts and get away with it. Why? Because you are being compared to the other people in the ring with you, not against an arbitrary standard or against your own past performance. Tournament sparring is a chess game, full of strategy and scoring a point. Test sparring is about dominating your opponent and controlling the match. Very different things in execution.
Finally consider what the results might mean. If you win in tournament, that is obviously a great achievement and worthy of recognition. It means that on this day, you performed the best of everyone out there, in the opinions of the judges. You can be very proud. However, it does not necessarily mean you're the "best", or even that you were the best out there. It's a triumph on a small scale, to be enjoyed but not over-emphasized. If you pass a dan test, that is obviously a great achievement and worthy of recognition. It means that you have demonstrated to a panel of certified examiners that you have improved your own karate, that you are able to perform well against an objective set of criteria that are used to help define that dan rank, and that you have shown dedication and commitment. It does not necessarily mean you're the best, it doesn't mean you'll win tournament, it doesn't necessarily mean you're stronger or faster than people you outrank. Your shodan is not their shodan, any more than your karate is their karate. It's a personal milestone, not to be measured against the other karateka you train with, but only against yourself.
You can pass your dan test and be eliminated first round in tournament, every single time. It doesn't mean you suck! You can win in tournament and not pass your dan test, more than once. It still doesn't mean you suck! It just means that different judging criteria are applied by different judges.
Me? I prefer to be judged against my own work, my own history, my own achievements. I feel confident that in most cases, I measure up. I detest being compared to someone else who might have more power but weaker stances, who might love to compete and always excel where I always seem to be lackluster, to have people watch who don't understand and wonder why I outrank some other people. So obviously, I prefer testing -- although "prefer" does not by any means indicate enjoyment! It just means I have no need to prove myself "better" than other people (well, not most of the time anyway) but I always want to prove that I'm better than I used to be.
So... testing vs. tournament. I don't care which one you prefer or excel at. I only care that you endeavor to do both, to help yourself grow, that you train for both, and that you realize they are not the same.