Is it possible to train in judo without competing? Of course it's possible. A player could just attend lessons and never compete a day in their life. But such a player won't go very far in judo.
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.
I'd like to quote former American competitor Todd Brehe, who said the following about the importance of competition for recreational players:
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?
We introduced internal shiai in our club because there are not that many competitions in this part of the world and we felt it was important our players get to compete.
An internal shiai is a great way for them to get their feet wet in a friendly, safe and controlled setting. It's a way to prime them up for the real thing: external competition, in the future.
Yes, it's true that there are some things about competition that are unpleasant, especially the nerves you feel leading up to the competition. Many feel that even for the internal shiai. But if you feel nervous, it shows that you care. You care about doing well, and that's a good thing.
Not everyone will venture beyond internal shiai, alhough I suspect many will want to eventually. A person who runs every day will eventually want to take part in fun runs and half-marathons, and so on. A judo player who is serious about their training will eventually want to compete, to test themselves and to see how far they can go.
But beyond that, competition is fun. The camaraderie with your teammates on competition trips is invaluable. Even cutting weight together and witnessing each other's weight-loss 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 pre- and post-competition meals together, consoling and congratulating each other after each match — these are all things only competitors will experience.
Judo is not a demonstration sport. It's a competitive sport. Although judo only became an Olympic sport in 1964, some form of competition has been a part of judo from the very beginning, when Jigoro Kano founded judo in 1882. Back then, his players would fight against ju-jitsu challengers from other dojos (in case you are wondering, yes, judo usually won).
As such, competition is part and parcel of the judo experience. The judo player who only comes for training without ever giving competition a try will not have a complete judo experience and thus would not be a complete judoka. Why miss out on that just because of fear and ego?