Is it possible to train in judo without competing? Of course it's possible. A player could just attend lessons, go for grading and never compete a day in their life. But such a player won't go very far.
For one thing, in terms of belts, many clubs don't award higher color belts and certainly not black belts unless the player competes. But more than that, a player who never competes misses out on a lot of things that judo has to offer.
I've trained in clubs where some players are adamantly against competing. "I just do judo for fun," they'd usually say, as if competition and fun are mutually exclusive. But I understand what they are saying. They don't want to train so hard or so seriously.
Fair enough, but those very same players surely wouldn't like staying stagnant while others are improving. Unfortunately, that is what will happen if they don't compete while others do.
When you commit yourself to competing in a tournament, you naturally train harder, and with more focus and purpose. And because of that, your judo will improve. If there's no competition, there is no impetus to improve.
The main reason typically cited for not wanting to compete is fear of injury but that's not a valid one. You could also get injured in training but that doesn't stop you from training. No, the real reason for not wanting to compete is fear about something else. We're talking about the fear of losing. And that's a terrible reason for not wanting to compete because it's all about pride and ego.
Instead of rising to the challenge, the fearful person prefers not to participate. If that person cannot overcome their fear in judo, how are they going to do so in real life? Imagine always running away from life's challenges because of the fear of failure. That's no way to be a judoka and no way to lead a life.
Now, I'd like to quote former American competitor Todd Brehe who wrote this about the importance of competition for recreational players:
In the short time we’ve had our judo club open, we’ve witnessed a deep-seated fear and reluctance by many of our recreational athletes to fight in tournaments.
He goes on to say...
My personal belief is that competition is nothing less than beautiful. It’s important, valuable, and a critical element of our society. Every child, during the course of their lifetime, must compete at home for attention, in school for grades, on the playground for friends, in the work place for advancement, etc. Why then don’t we teach our kids better, more empowering philosophies and beliefs about competing?
Yes, it's true that competition is stressful and there are some things about it that are unpleasant, such as cutting weight and the nerves you feel leading up to the competition.
But there's also a lot of great things about competing. The camaraderie with your teammates on competition trips is invaluable. Even cutting weight together and witnessing each person's progress at the start of each training session can be a fun, bonding experience. Yes, weight-cutting is suffering but at least you're suffering together!
Going for competition, rooting for each other, having meals together, consoling and congratulating each other after each match — these are all things only competitors will experience.
The judo player who only comes for club training without ever giving competition a try will never know what this feels like. And what a waste that would be because these are some of the most memorable aspects of the judo experience. Why miss out on all that just because of fear, pride and ego?