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Team USA’s Most Decorated Karate Athlete, Tom Scott on What “Cobra Kai” Has Gotten Right About His Sport

By Lisa Costantini | Oct. 31, 2020, 8 a.m. (ET)

Karate athlete Tom Scott poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on November 20, 2019 in West Hollywood, California.


When the 1984 cult movie “The Karate Kid” came out, Team USA’s most decorated karate athlete, Tom Scott, was still six years from being born. “But I learned from my friends who were alive at that time that people started karate because of that movie,” the 30-year-old admitted about the movie.

With the new series “Cobra Kai” — which is based on the ‘80s movie and currently trending on Netflix — attracting a new generation of fans, Scott said the dramedy is peaking people’s interest once again in the sport that will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo. “I teach and manage a karate school here in Plano, [TX] and we’ve had people walk in because they watched ‘Cobra Kai’.”

The story picks up 34 years in the future with Ralph Macchio and William Zabka reprising their roles — and rivalry — as Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence.

We asked the six time Pan American champion and 15 time national champion his opinion on the show that shines a light on his sport, and what he thinks the creators got right.

So, what do you think of the series?
I’m near the end of the first season, and some of the plot is funny. But for people who do karate, it is a struggle to get through some of it. The nostalgia of the old movie helps you want to keep going.

What did you think about the original “Karate Kid” movie?
It’s a great movie, and it did a huge service to the karate world. The mysteriousness of Mr. Miyagi goes a long way, and that’s a really fun part of the movie. You learn all these lessons through him.

Do you think “Cobra Kai” has shone a similar light on karate?
Yes, but while the legendary status of the show has helped the community, there are areas where it’s not helping.

Can you give an example?
Johnny cracking beers in the back of the karate school, and casually teaching classes. That is definitely not the attitude martial artists take in teaching a class. And when he’s teaching, they just get right to it and start punching. He hasn’t really taught any technique at all. He didn’t show his new students how to make a fist first, or how to work the trajectory of your punch with turning your body. Those are some of the things that anybody teaching martial arts will see right away.

What are some examples of things they did right?
There are definitely lifelong friendships that develop in karate school. And I liked seeing people stand up for themselves and the confidence that they got. When someone gets trained in martial arts, they start to feel that confidence, whether it’s due to your ability to defend yourself or the improvements that you see over time.

Does everyone in karate have to clean cars, too as a way to learn wax on, wax off?
[Laughs] That was a very cute way of showing that repetition of a movement can become second nature, so they did touch on something that is true. If you do a motion thousands of times, it can happen easier. Though if you’re waxing a car a thousand times and a punch comes at you, I don’t know if that’s going to translate. But if you block a bunch a thousand times, it does become second nature. That’s what karate is all about — repetition.

How often do karate fans copy the move where Daniel goes up on one leg?
Oh man, it happens. There’s a 50% chance that when you come across someone and you say karate, they’re going to do that. Isn’t that amazing?

Do all karate athletes have a sensei or someone like Mr. Miyagi?
So, sensei means teacher, so yes. I actually just got the title of sensei in December, and I’ve been working towards that for a long time. It has a lot of requirements and it carries a lot of weight and value. It’s an honorable title, so we stress it.

Do you consider your teaching style to be more like Daniel or Johnny?
I definitely have both types of days. Sometimes you plan to be tough, and work them out hard, but then there are other days where you say, hey, we’re going to talk about being courageous today. All of that happens in a karate school, for sure.

Do most people start karate as a way to defend themselves in real life?
Most adults start karate to get in shape and to learn self-defense. Most kids start because they need discipline, and structure. Karate school is an excellent way to provide all that.

Do people fight dirty in karate the way it’s portrayed in “Cobra Kai”?
Every match in karate starts and ends with bowing. Every athlete has a high regard and respect for the other. Smashing noses happens on accident, but it’s not supposed to.

Have you ever been carried off the mat in victory?
The feeling, for sure, has been there. Running off the stage and hugging it out with your coach and jumping up and down, yes. But not carried on shoulders. I mean, my coach could it, but we might have to practice a couple of times. I’ll let him know we’re going to practice that today — before Tokyo.

What would it mean to you to medal in Tokyo?
It would be amazing. I’ve always envisioned being an Olympic athlete, even when I was a little kid and karate was not in the Olympics. So it would be great to fulfill that and be a part of that Team USA experience. I want to make that happen. But I loved my sport before we were in the Olympics, and I will continue to love it after.

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Tom Scott